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Poor & Hungry At The Movies

Here’s a short bit from the diaries of the writer Mavis Gallant, excerpts of which are published in the current issue of The New Yorker (and not available online). Gallant wrote this in 1952, when she was a young, poor, and very hungry writer living in Madrid:

Chose cinema over potatoes. I found myself watching the women’s clothes, drinking in their texture, appreciating every bit the actors put in their mouths. When one of the characters (because of some imbecility of plot) wore old clothes and pretended to be poor, I was furious and felt cheated, having chosen this over a meal. Now I really understand why the Italian poor detest De Sica and neorealist films, and why shopgirls like heiresses and read every line in gossip columns. I mean, I understand it, and not just intellectually.

This is more or less the lesson of the film “Sullivan’s Travels,” and something intellectuals and middle class people keep having to learn. It also brings to mind something that happened to me in the autumn of 1988, when I was living in Washington, DC, on a college internship. Somehow I met a pair of college students from West Germany, one of whom had recently defected to the West from Czechoslovakia. I went with the two young women to the National Museum of American History for a couple of hours.

At one point, we found ourselves in an exhibition showcasing film loops of American film musicals. The Czech girl was transfixed in front of some Technicolor spectacle. I thought she was rolling her eyes at the garishness and the showboating quality of the thing, as I, who was 21 and who knew everything, certainly was. I had seen that fall Wim Wenders “Wings of Desire,” and was full of dark, broody, existential Germanitude. But no, the girl loved what she saw, and loved it unironically. Puzzled, I asked her why.

“If you have lived without color or happiness, this is great,” she said. And I felt like an idiot, which was appropriate, because I was.

A much funnier version of the spirit of that exchange occurred on SNL, after the Wall fell:

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9 Comments To "Poor & Hungry At The Movies"

#1 Comment By Sam M On July 6, 2012 @ 8:35 am

Isn’t this something that conservatives in particular need to continually learn? All the tsk-tsking about silly pop culture and cultural “junk food” and “the kids and their jazz records.”

Some of us are all too prone to thinking that people in other places admire our liberty and Constitution and protestant work ethic and all the rest, which is fine as far as it goes. But really, it’s the blue jeans and the Elvis and–truth be told–the Jersey Shore and the cheap Budweiser swilled from a helmet that actually captivates the imagination.

#2 Comment By e On July 6, 2012 @ 9:33 am

And much the same as in modern and present American kitsch, even Kinkade paintings and their popularity among some classes.

#3 Comment By Naturalmom On July 6, 2012 @ 11:17 am

Reminds me of when I worked for a food bank organization and a man who worked for a similar organization explained he sometimes bought steaks when he was on food stamps. He said something to the effect of there’s only so much deprivation you can take. Eventually you just say “F it; I’ll eat these steaks on Friday and go hungry on Saturday. It’ll be worth it.”

#4 Comment By stef On July 6, 2012 @ 11:40 am

Wings of Desire is, to me, one of the most beautiful films ever made.

#5 Comment By Rebecca Trotter On July 6, 2012 @ 11:44 am

My best friend in college was an immigrant from Croatia and her family was the same way. During the gap between the downfall of communism and the start of the Bosnian war, they would sometimes go back to visit people they hadn’t seen for over 20 years. When asked, “how will we recognize you?” they would always respond, “we’ll be the ones wearing bright colors.” They were a lot of fun.

#6 Comment By Moralistic Therapeutic Deist On July 6, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

This is one of my favorite posts in quite a while, Mr. Dreher. Many liberals buy into the “What’s the Matter With Kansas” argument that “the poor” have been fed so much misinformation that they don’t know which end is up. Your general thesis in this blog seems to be that social values are more important than money, which I think is a step in the right direction, although it’s not quite the whole truth.

There are different kinds of “poverty” (hell, there might be as many different types of poverty as there are poor people). Marxist analyses that treat them only as raw material for a revolution, liberal analyses that treat them as sob stories to loosen taxpayers’ purse strings, and Republican analyses that treat them as sinners to be saved all ignore this fact.

Writers and artists are frequently poor because they make the conscious decision that their art is more important to them than physical comfort. This is a calling, and while it can be self-indulgent and naive, it has dignity and purpose. I would expect that most poor artists would be offended by the idea that they are anything less than free, conscious agents.

As someone else at your magazine recently pointed out, college can be a very “monklike” time. College students aren’t really taken seriously by the people who talk about differences of income in America, and while the student loan and debt crisis IS something that should be taken seriously, on the whole this is how things should be. Students deserve a few years of being ignored by society so they can figure things out and learn what they’re capable of.

Some people are poor because they quite literally want to be, some people are poor because of unfair circumstances, some people are poor because they make terrible decisions, and some people are simply so nasty and malicious that they can’t interact meaningfully with society. What I’ve found is that nobody can tell the difference between these groups better than a poor person can. A friend of mine didn’t have many of the things that I did growing up, so when I wax nostalgic about my time as a poor, free artist she gets a little exasperated. But nobody gets as mad at super-liberal college professors as she does. She wants all the things Democrats talk about (health care, loan forgiveness, high taxes on the rich) but she only wants the practical things, not the political mindset that comes with it. You can believe in a strong social safety net without denying that some people are more complicated than politics can grasp.

Years ago, one of my closest friends made the decision to withdraw totally from society. This decision was motivated by misanthropy, fear and a very strange and unique life philosophy. I’m not sure if it was the wrong decision. It’s so unique to him as a person that I can’t even fathom what, if anything, anybody should do about it. It’s a tragedy, but it’s HIS tragedy.

People who actually are just poor because of unfair life circumstances are usually interested in escaping poverty as quickly as possible. With a good social safety net, a strong economy and fair opportunities in place (which probably requires strong laws and government, by the way), most of these people WILL escape poverty. And in the meantime the last thing most of them want is to be treated like ideological or political pawns. It’s dehumanizing.

#7 Comment By J the second On July 6, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

People originally came to America, and still do, to Not Be Poor. Or at least, Not Feel Poor.

“Wings of Desire” is quite intentionally ironic ‘Germanitude’- obviously Slavic, Nordic, French, and particularly the Jewish elements blended in are what make it poignant, make the story work and give it its truth. If you’ve been to Berlin this is also true of the city. It’s also true of the source material from Rilke, who was from Prague (a fairly similar city of Central European blending) and of half Jewish, half German Catholic parentage. WoD contains a surprisingly high quality understanding of Rilke’s work, substantially exceeding the scholarly texts I’ve read, though it does muddle somewhat toward the end.

Brad Silberling corrects some of the muddling in “City of Angels” (the American remake) but rescinds all gains by the way the lead female character is rewritten. It’s not Meg Ryan’s fault, really, but Solveig Dommartin’s role is written so much better and she fit it so well- it was the role of her career.

#8 Comment By Elli On July 6, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

My mother-in-law grew up in a slum in England, in a poor, broken, education-hating family, when she didn’t find herself in an orphanages (in one, no adult said her name for a year) or foster homes that might be abusive.

Her mother would give her a sixpence for doing the family wash, diapers included, in the neighborhood laundry – which was a row of stone sinks and some washboards.

My mother-in-law would spend the sixpence at the movies – movies from America, showing wealth and orderly lives and abundance. Those movies were her North Star, the only vision she had of a life outside of the slums.

#9 Comment By TWylite On July 6, 2012 @ 11:53 pm

Somewhere, a midget is laughing at a kneeling camel. Celebrating squalor, misery and nonsense is luxury only a privileged few can afford. P.S. I love me some “Sprockets” and Kraftwerk. I always thought the “Trololo” guy was an ersatz Soviet attempt at this level of precision German engineering: [1]