One of my favorite films ever is “Sullivan’s Travels,” a black and white movie from 1941. It starts with a successful movie director who is tired of making funny, popular films. His name is Sullivan, and he’s arguing with his studio about making a “serious” movie.
“I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions,” Sullivan insists. “Stark realism … the problems that confront the average man.”
“But with a little sex in it,” the studio head says.
“A little,” Sullivan says. “But … I want to hold a mirror up to life. … A true canvas of the suffering of humanity.”
“But with a little sex in it,” the studio head repeats.
I think about that scene when I consider the current state of movies, and the Academy Awards tonight, which will give a Best Picture statue to one of eight contenders who range in style from serious to depressing to downright bleak.
One, “The Father,” is the story of a man battling Alzheimer’s. Another, “Sound of Metal,” is about a musician going deaf. A third, “Minari,” follows South Korean immigrants as they battle poverty trying to start a farm in Arkansas.
Those are the more uplifting ones.
At the furthest end of the downbeat spectrum is “Nomadland,” which chronicles the lives of the working poor who live in their vans, so realistically you’d think you were watching a documentary. The main character, played by Frances McDormand, refuses help, chooses to wallow in temporary work and minimalist conditions, and at one point grabs a bucket, pulls down her pants, and poops into it. While we watch.
All of these movies are wonderfully filmed, realistically portrayed and searingly acted.
But are they entertainment?
Why so serious?
The trend toward taking ourselves oh, so seriously has infected many walks of American life — but few as deeply as the movies. I’m old enough to remember Oscar contenders like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Cabaret,” “M*A*S*H” and “American Graffiti.” These films, and many more like them over the previous and ensuing decades, told interesting stories, even made a few social points, but didn’t exist solely to bang you into submission with the ills of society.
They also didn’t mind making you laugh.
You‘d be hard pressed to find a chuckle in any of the best picture nominees this year — or in a large number of the films released during the pandemic. Just when you think some lighthearted inspiration would be most welcome, we get nominated films about a 30-something avenging a friend’s rape (“Promising Young Woman”) and a police informant who infiltrates the Black Panther movement (”Judas and the Black Messiah.”)
Amongst the other “top” films of 2020, according to critics, is “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,“ about a teenage girl seeking and getting an abortion, and “Pieces of a Woman,” about a newborn that dies during a home delivery and the depression and blame that follows. These may be brilliantly directed, but “feel good” is not a phrase that comes to mind.
Now, part of this, I believe, is due to critics and awards, which seem to dismiss anything optimistic as unworthy and “sentimental,” a word people love and critics hate. So if you’re a budding filmmaker and want to get critically noticed, you have a much better chance making “Moonlight” than “Moon Over Miami.”
But shouldn’t there be room for both? The film world today seems to divide into two categories — either blockbusters about superheroes, franchise characters, shootouts and natural disasters, or social commentary.
There’s a lot that’s lost in the middle.
The need for escapism
Now, film is a subjective medium, and my opinion is no more right than anyone else’s. Certainly, these heavily “serious” films can be lauded for the creative work and intimate detail that goes into them.
But there’s a reason why movies are shown on a screen and not collected on library shelves. They are made to be seen — preferably by large audiences. The box office of this year’s Oscar-nominated films is beyond dismal. According to NPR, if you combine all eight of the best picture nominees worldwide earnings, the total is barely $35 million.
That’s a Thursday night gross for an “Avengers” movie.
Of course, the pandemic has changed all the numbers. Many films were only released on streaming services, where box office is not applicable. And the big, tent-pole movies keep getting pushed back until theaters can be fully opened to the public.
But the diminished box office of many Oscar-nominated movies has been a trend for a while now. Filmmakers and critics may want to see glacier-paced, angst-ridden musings on class, gender or ethnicity, but most audiences want to be entertained.
And when those filmmakers and actors, who wax on about portraying societal problems, accept swag bags at the Oscars worth $60,000 — as they will be given tonight — with jewelry, clothes and trips to Fiji all free of charge, well, hypocrisy tends to blur their “message.”
Which is where “Sullivan’s Travels” was so prophetic. In that movie, Sullivan, rich and spoiled, sets out to live amongst the poor and homeless so he can make a film about them. He gets beaten up, develops amnesia, and is a long way from home when he finally remembers who he is — at which point nobody believes him.
In the pinnacle scene, he has become a convict, and he and the other prisoners are led into a local church to watch a movie with the poor congregation. And what movie do they show? One of Sullivan’s simple-minded comedies.
At first, he’s mortified. But then he sees all the downtrodden people loving it, laughing, escaping their problems for a few minutes.
And he realizes that laughter as the greatest gift his films can provide.
The movie business could take a page from that film. Mirrors to society are fine, but we already have them. They’re called newscasts. Movies have the power to whisk you away. The thing is, most people don’t want to be whisked right back to the problems that nudged them to the movies in the first place. Alzheimer’s. Depression. Poverty. Pooping in a bucket. As my grandmother used to say, “I can stay home and see that.”
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.