On the fourth day of Israel’s latest attack on Gaza, I was discussing the ongoing atrocity and its future ramifications with an acquaintance. The conversation took a detour to the subject of art and its role in times of war.
“Art is a luxury, my acquaintance said. “What’s the use of art in such times? Art has never changed anything and it never will. It’s totally insignificant right now, irrelevant even. When dozens of people are being murdered every day, what can a painting, a movie or piece of music do? How can you even care about the next great film or the loftiest of paintings when everything you encounter is a reminder of what’s happening in Gaza?
For a moment there, I was speechless; perhaps because deep down, I believed his opinion was far from the truth. Utterly defeated and glum, I went home to follow the latest developments of the attacks on TV. By the second or third hour, I felt numb.
“Who indeed would want to read about a new film or an art exhibit? I told myself. “How can we continue doing what we do when the national mood is so elegiac?
As usual, I sought refuge from the overwhelming sense of futility in a film. After going haphazardly through some 300 titles, I finally settled on one I hadn’t watched for some time: Preston Sturges’ 1941 classic comedy “Sullivan’s Travels.
In the following 90 minutes, I was reminded of something that’s often forgotten in the hurricane of work and life: The grave impact of art and entertainment on the world.
Set during the Great Depression, Joel McCrea plays John “Sully Sullivan, a highly successful young Hollywood director of comedies and musicals. Sullivan isn’t content with his career, feeling that his pictures, despite their wide popularity, can’t be of any importance at a time when thousands of homeless men, women and children are scrambling for food and shelter.
Much to the studio executives’ dismay, Sullivan decides to direct an “important social drama entitled “O Brother, Where Art Though? A picture “to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man, he says.
“I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity. A true canvas of the suffering of humanity.
“But with a little sex in it, the studio bosses respond.
Attempting to sway him from taking on directing the film, the studio bosses tell him that he can’t direct a picture about the downtrodden when he’s never experienced poverty.
Adamant on making his movie, Sullivan dresses as a hobo, carrying only a dime in his pocket, and hits the road to experience poverty first-hand.
Like all slapstick comedies, things don’t go as planned, allowing Sturges to create a series of hilarious gags.
On the road, Sully meets a failed wannabe young actress (a stunningly sexy Veronica Lake) simply referred to as “the Girl. Oblivious to his real identity, the Girl buys him some food, a gesture that wins Sully’s heart and one of the few moments of unadulterated humanity in the film.
After revealing his true identity, the Girl takes it upon herself to accompany Sully on his journey.
In one of Sturges’ most audacious film sequences, a dialogue-free seven-minute montage tracing down a gritty squalor is presented. Cold, starving and dirty, Sully succumbs to his weakness and returns home.
Before he makes a full-comeback to Hollywood, Sully makes one final act of kindness, anonymously giving away money to the poor. One despairing hobo notices him, tracks him down and mugs him. One event leads to another and Sully, suffering from momentary amnesia, finds himself locked up in prison.
In the last 30 minutes of the film, Sturges changes direction and the comedy takes a backseat for a vivid prison drama. After suffering torture, humiliation and hunger, Sully finally finds his call.
In the most famous scene of the film, the prisoners are taken to an African-American church for movie night – one of the few privileges the prisoners are granted – showing a boisterous Mickey Mouse cartoon. The hall erupts in laughter as Sully finally grasps the healing effect of cinema.
I hate to admit this, but it’s somehow difficult to hold back the tears watching this scene. Beneath the rapid one-liners, smart dialogue, upbeat atmosphere and original, side-splitting stories, Sturges’ movies are imbued with staunch cynicism critics have often overlooked. His short creative spell that spawned six masterpieces starting with 1940’s “The Great McGinty to 1944’s “Hail the Conquering Hero was, to a great extent, an extensive demonstration of the pitfalls of the American dream and so-called democracy.
Sturges himself became a causality of this dream, falling from grace soon after and losing control over his films. Alone and poor, he died in a Manhattan hotel room in 1959 suffering from a heart attack.
That’s why this scene remains all-so significant in Sturges’ oeuvre, encapsulating his entire raison d’être. Amid the overreaching mendacity, cruelty, injustice and misery, art, entertainment, whichever name you choose to call it, stands tall as one of the few sources of consolation; a genuine, life-affirming outlet capable of inspiring and healing regardless of how temporary it is.
Art has not, and will not, change the world, but it has also never been a luxury.
A friend of the family was telling me about his experience with the Rwandan genocide a few years ago. As he continued to helplessly witness the carnage, the one thing that helped him stay sane was classical French composer Erik Satie’s comforting music.
I’ve came to realize now that art stands as a substantiation that man is still capable of creating something good in contrast to all the inescapable destruction. That beauty and creativity can survive hundreds of years of bloodshed and suffering.
Call me naive, idealistic or romantic, but I still believe in the power of art and the one thing that keeps me going everyday is the anticipation of reading a good book, listening to a captivating piece of music or watching a truly great film like “Sullivan Travels.