Sunday, December 26, 2010

Middle Class Dreams & Hollywood

Today's New York Times has two key pieces on the "Middle Class": "Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?" by Frank Rich; and "Hollywood's Class Warfare" by A.O. Scott, shown below.  In the course of writing a screenplay, I've been studying It's a Wonderful Life, which epitomizes the quest for the middle class dream... it's becoming more and more illusive, which Hollywood is reflecting and reinforcing... Where is Frank Capra when you need him?

December 25, 2010

Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?

OF the many notable Americans we lost in 2010, three leap out as paragons of a certain optimistic American spirit that we also seemed to lose this year. Two you know: Theodore Sorensen, the speechwriter present at the creation of J.F.K.’s clarion call to “ask what you can do for your country,” and Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who brought peace to the killing fields of Bosnia in the 1990s. Holbrooke, who was my friend, came of age in the Kennedy years and exemplified its can-do idealism. He gave his life to the proposition that there was nothing an American couldn’t accomplish if he marshaled his energy and talents. His premature death — while heroically bearing the crushing burdens of Afghanistan and Pakistan — is tragic in more ways than many Americans yet realize.

But a third representative American optimist who died this year, at age 91, is a Connecticut man who was not a player in great events and whom I’d never heard of until I read his Times obituary: Robbins Barstow, an amateur filmmaker who for decades recorded his family’s doings in home movies of such novelty and quality that one of them, the 30-minute “Disneyland Dream,” was admitted to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress two years ago. That rare honor elevates Barstow’s filmmaking to a pantheon otherwise restricted mostly to Hollywood classics, from “Citizen Kane” to “Star Wars.”

“Disneyland Dream” was made in the summer of 1956, shortly before the dawn of the Kennedy era. You can watch it on line at or on YouTube. Its narrative is simple. The young Barstow family of Wethersfield, Conn. — Robbins; his wife, Meg; and their three children aged 4 to 11 — enter a nationwide contest to win a free trip to Disneyland, then just a year old. The contest was sponsored by 3M, which asked contestants to submit imaginative encomiums to the wonders of its signature product. Danny, the 4-year-old, comes up with the winning testimonial, emblazoned on poster board: “I like ‘Scotch’ brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it.”

Soon enough, the entire neighborhood is cheering the Barstows as they embark on their first visit to the golden land of Anaheim, Calif. As narrated by Robbins Barstow (he added his voiceover soundtrack to the silent Kodachrome film in 1995), every aspect of this pilgrimage is a joy, from the “giant TWA Super Constellation” propeller plane (seating 64) that crosses the country in a single day (with a refueling stop in St. Louis) to the home-made Davy Crockett jackets the family wears en route.

To watch “Disneyland Dream” now as a boomer inevitably sets off pangs of longing for a vanished childhood fantasyland: not just Walt Disney’s then-novel theme park but all the sunny idylls of 1950s pop culture. As it happens, Disney’s Davy Crockett, the actor Fess Parker, also died this year. So did Barbara Billingsley, matriarch of the sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” whose fictional family, the Cleavers, first appeared in 1957 and could have lived next door to the Barstows. But the real power of this film is more subtle and pertinent than nostalgia.

When the Barstows finally arrive at the gates of Disneyland itself and enter its replica of Main Street, U.S.A. — “reconstructed as it might have been half a century earlier,” as the narration says — we realize that the America of “Disneyland Dream” is as many years distant from us as that picture-postcard Main Street was from this Connecticut family. The almost laughably low-tech primitivism of the original Disneyland, the futuristic Tomorrowland included, looks as antique in 2010 as Main Street’s horse-drawn buggies and penny-candy emporium looked to the Barstows.

Many of America’s more sweeping changes since 1956 are for the better. You can’t spot a nonwhite face among the family’s neighbors back home or at Disneyland. Indeed, according to Neal Gabler’s epic biography of Disney, civil rights activists were still pressuring the park to hire black employees as late as 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington and Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” started upending the Wonder Bread homogeneity that suffuses the America of “Disneyland Dream.”

But, for all those inequities, economic equality seemed within reach in 1956, at least for the vast middle class. (Michael Harrington’s exposé of American poverty, “The Other America,” would not rock this complacency until 1962.) The sense that the American promise of social and economic mobility was attainable to anyone who sought it permeates “Disneyland Dream” from start to finish.

The Barstows exemplified that postwar middle class. Robbins Barstow’s day job was as a director of professional development for a state teachers’ union. His family wanted for nothing, but finances were tight. Once in California they cheerfully stretch their limited expense money ($300 for the week) by favoring picnics over restaurants. As they dive into the pool at the old Huntington Sheraton, the grand Pasadena hotel where they’re bivouacked, they marvel at its reminders of “bygone days of more leisurely and gentle upper-class style and elegance.”

The key word in that sentence is “bygone.” The Barstows accept as a birthright an egalitarian American capitalism where everyone has a crack at “upper class” luxury if they strive for it (or are clever enough to win it). It’s an America where great corporations like 3M can be counted upon to make innovative products, sustain an American work force, and reward their customers with a Cracker Jack prize now and then. The Barstows are delighted to discover that the restrooms in Fantasyland are marked “Prince” and “Princess.” In America, anyone can be royalty, even in the john.

“Disneyland Dream” is an irony-free zone. “For our particular family at that particular time, we agreed with Walt Disney that this was the happiest place on earth,” Barstow concludes at the film’s end, from his vantage point of 1995. He sees himself as part of “one of the most fortunate families in the world to have this marvelous dream actually come true” and is “forever grateful to Scotch brand cellophane tape for making all this possible for us.”

Only 15 months after the Barstows returned home, America’s faith in its own unbounded future, so palpable in “Disneyland Dream,” would be shaken by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. Could it be that America, for all its might, entrepreneurship and brainpower, was falling behind its cold war antagonist in the race to the future? It was in that shadow that John F. Kennedy promised a New Frontier that would reclaim America’s heroic destiny, and do so with shared sacrifice and a renewed commitment to the lower-case democratic values central to both the American and Disneyland dreams of families like the Barstows.

This month our own neo-Kennedy president — handed the torch by J.F.K.’s last brother and soon to face the first Congress without a Kennedy since 1947 — identified a new “Sputnik moment” for America. This time the jolt was provided by the mediocre performance of American high school students, who underperformed not just the Chinese but dozens of other countries in standardized tests of science, math and reading. In his speech on the subject, President Obama called for more spending on research and infrastructure, more educational reform and more clean energy technology. (All while reducing the deficit, mind you.) Worthy goals, but if you watch “Disneyland Dream,” you realize something more fundamental is missing from America now: the bedrock faith in the American way that J.F.K. could tap into during his era’s Sputnik moment.

How many middle-class Americans now believe that the sky is the limit if they work hard enough? How many trust capitalism to give them a fair shake? Middle-class income started to flatten in the 1970s and has stagnated ever since. While 3M has continued to prosper, many other companies that actually make things (and at times innovative things) have been devalued, looted or destroyed by a financial industry whose biggest innovation in 20 years, in the verdict of the former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, has been the cash machine.

It’s a measure of how rapidly our economic order has shifted that nearly a quarter of the 400 wealthiest people in America on this year’s Forbes list make their fortunes from financial services, more than three times as many as in the first Forbes 400 in 1982. Many of America’s best young minds now invent derivatives, not Disneylands, because that’s where the action has been, and still is, two years after the crash. In 2010, our system incentivizes high-stakes gambling — “this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place,” as Calvin Trillin memorably wrote last year — rather than the rebooting and rebuilding of America.

In last week’s exultant preholiday press conference, Obama called for a “thriving, booming middle class, where everybody’s got a shot at the American dream.” But it will take much more than rhetorical Scotch tape to bring that back. The Barstows of 1956 could not have fathomed the outrageous gap between this country’s upper class and the rest of us. America can’t move forward until we once again believe, as they did, that everyone can enter Frontierland if they try hard enough, and that no one will be denied a dream because a private party has rented out Tomorrowland.

December 22, 2010

Hollywood’s Class Warfare

THE idea of the universal middle class is a pervasive expression of American egalitarianism — and perhaps the only one left. In politics the middle has all but swallowed up the ends. Tax cuts aimed at the wealthy and social programs that largely benefit the poor must always be presented as, above all, good for the middle class, a group that thus seems to include nearly everyone. It is also a group that is, at least judging from the political rhetoric of the last 20 years, perennially in trouble: shrinking, forgotten, frustrated, afraid of falling down and scrambling to keep up.

In the movies, which exist partly to smooth over the rough patches in our collective life, the same basic picture takes on a more benign coloration. Middle-classness is a norm, an ideal and a default setting. For a long time most commercial entertainments not set in the distant past or in some science-fiction superhero fantasyland have taken place in a realm of generic ease and relative affluence. Everyone seems to have a cool job, a fabulous kitchen, great clothes and a nice car. Nothing too fancy or showy, of course, and also nothing too clearly marked with real-world signs of status or its absence.

The characters in, let’s say, a typical romantic comedy or family drama are blander, better-looking reflections of what the members of the audience are imagined to imagine themselves to be: hard workers and eager shoppers, neither greedy nor needy. Those airbrushed mirror images draw from a common well of (reasonable) aspirations and (mild) anxieties. The people on screen are ambitious but not obsessively so, educated but not snobbish about it. Mostly they want to be happy, and we want them to be happy because we want to be happy too.

Right at the moment, though, we may be feeling a little grumpy, and otherwise inoffensive movies (“How do You Know,” for instance, or “Love and Other Drugs”) can look more clueless than playful in their genial assumptions of material comfort and financial security. More than that, the cheery, harmonious universalism that Hollywood has promoted and relied upon for so long seems out of tune with the surrounding cacophony. And lo and behold, the screen suddenly bristles with something that looks like class consciousness.

Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” takes on the ultra-privileged Winklevoss twins. The real-life Micky Ward in “The Fighter” takes on the world and his own family, just like the fictitious protagonists of “Winter’s Bone” and “The Town.” Denzel Washington, a heroic working stiff in “Unstoppable,” takes on a mighty train (and the corporate fat cats more concerned with the bottom line than with public safety). A howl of anti-Wall Street rage sounds through Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job” and, more bombastically if less coherently, through Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” To the barricades!

But — if I may sloganize further — which side are you on? There is no doubt that in the past year, through seasons of economic malaise and political anger, there has seemed to be a lot more division than consensus in American life. And this friction is often articulated and analyzed in what sounds like the language of class. Not in the old European (or, God forbid, socialist) sense of the word. The history of the world might be, as Karl Marx said, the history of class struggle but the history of American exceptionalism insists otherwise. So we have instead, at this moment in history, a culture war, a battle between populism and elitism, a sectional conflict between the coasts and the heartland and ideological dispute between liberals and conservatives.

This confused Hobbesian state of belligerence, a prominent feature of the media and political landscape for at least the past decade (though rarely reflected in mass-marketed movies), is persuasively sketched in Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” surely the year’s most talked- and written-about novel. Its main characters are the members of a proudly, perhaps smugly, right-thinking — which is to say left-leaning — Minnesota family whose veneer of social responsibility and liberal niceness is shattered by external fissures and internal pressures. Walter and Patty Berglund are do-gooders and gentrifiers, nutritionally and environmentally conscious NPR listeners (and readers of The New York Times) who have a knack for inspiring rage and resentment in their neighbors and at least one of their children. If Walter and Patty are unable to refute the accusation that they think they’re better than everyone else, it’s partly because they do.

The sense of class conflict that ripples through Mr. Franzen’s novel is all the more invidious and unsettling because nearly all of it takes place among neighbors, friends and family members. Class warfare, in other words, is carried out as a civil war between segments of the same class, who are only slightly caricatured in the novel’s sympathetic satire. Rush Limbaugh on the radio in one house — the one with the big vinyl-sided addition and the S.U.V. in the driveway — versus Garrison Keillor in the other, a rehabbed old Victorian where the boxy old Volvo has recently been replaced by a Prius.

Maybe in much of America these warring clans don’t live in such immediate proximity, but neither are they as conveniently divided as we might sometimes suppose, or as a movie like “The Kids Are All Right” might make it seem. Nic and Jules, the lesbian parents played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, are cut from the same cloth as the Berglunds, but they exist mainly in a world of the like-minded, spared the kind of hostility that Walter and Patty habitually inspire.

Someone once said that there are no red states or blue states, just united states, which may be true except for the united part. That, at least, is Mr. Franzen’s insight: that disunion is a much more diffuse and intimate condition than our political expressions of it might lead us to suppose. (And this leads him back, eventually, to a quiet rediscovery of the basic truth that we’re all in this together.)

Or, to put it another way: Class is everywhere and nowhere. The feeling of class antagonism is what allows the Mark Zuckerberg of “The Social Network,” a child of suburban prosperity, a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and a student at Harvard, to feel that he is excluded from the highest reaches of social distinction, an underdog with something to prove. That same feeling percolates in Micky Ward’s Lowell, a few years and an hour’s drive from Zuckerberg’s Cambridge but a different world altogether. There Micky’s girlfriend, Charlene, is regarded by his sisters as superior and stuck-up — a virtual Berglund, even though what they call her is an “MTV skank” — because she briefly went to college and believes that Micky can rise above his hardscrabble circumstances.

Micky — like Ree Dolly, the Missouri teenager in “Winter’s Bone” — wants out, just as surely as Zuckerberg wants in. What they want into and out of are the closed systems defined by custom and kinship that demarcate the ends of the social spectrum. The special status of the Winklevoss twins, or of the shadowy bankers in “Wall Street” (or indeed of the couple in Jonathan Dee’s novel “The Privileges,” speaking of works of fiction by authors named Jonathan) is defined not only by wealth, but also by a vestigial mystique of aristocracy.

A countervailing mystique clings to the streets of Lowell — and Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood in “The Town” — and to the hollows of Appalachia and the Ozarks. The defining common trait of these places is not so much poverty or criminality, though these certainly flourish, as tribalism.

Family ties and longstanding traditions, which in the modern world of “Winter’s Bone” and “The Town” have come to include methamphetamine production and bank robbing, are what complicate and sometimes doom any effort to escape. Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly wants to join the Army. Ben Affleck’s Doug MacRay in “The Town” wants to run away with the pretty bank employee who was once his hostage. Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward wants a shot at the title.

What they all really want is entrée into the middle class, which is why these movies can set them up as objects of audience sympathy and identification. The people around them are variously scary, comical, noble and grotesque, to be pitied, feared and wondered at. But they are consistently exotic, always other.

This is not to say that they are unrecognizable or unrealistic, or that the long-overdue discovery of the white underclass on the part of filmmakers is not a welcome and interesting development. (It is also interesting that, in novels, in political coverage and in movies not starring Mr. Washington, race and class tend to be treated as mutually exclusive concepts, rather than as strands in the same contradictory knot.) But the implicit assumption that the viewer, whatever his or her actual social circumstances, belongs in the middle — where the most sympathetic characters also long to be — is stronger than the will of any particular writer or director.

And this same assumption is at work in movies — and, especially, television series — that explore the fear of dropping out of the middle class rather than the impulse to climb into it. In John Wells’s “Company Men,” a brutal chronicle of corporate downsizing, the characters face the loss of jobs, income and, much more frighteningly, the collapse of their identities. It may be possible to claw your way from the middle to the top, but it is not as if the comforts of family and locale that hold Ree Dolly and Micky Ward in place are waiting for anyone on the way down. The battered petty-bourgeois breadwinners in “Hung” and “Breaking Bad,” for instance, find their way into stereotypical professions of the underclass (sex work and drug dealing), but only as a desperate means of staying in place. They do not become part of a culture of poverty, but rather parodic, degraded specimens of suburban individualism.

Should we laugh, cry, or envy them? It’s hard to say. Back in the last Depression the class divide was also, characteristically, a genre divide: films about the poor were crime stories or melodramas, while comedy was the favored (though not exclusive) province of the rich. Think of James Cagney and his fellow scrappy slum kids on one hand, and the gowned and tuxedoed inhabitants of an Ernst Lubitsch society comedy (like “Design for Living”) on the other.

Dramas of poverty are more marginal than they used to be; they tend to occupy the art houses rather than the multiplexes. Comedies about the very rich are rarer, and are often camouflaged as stories about folks like us: “Sex and The City 2” is a notable recent example, since its luxury-swamped characters were not made to seem exotic at all, just blessed with taste, luck and money.

Which is not, at least in the movies, the same as class, since taste and money are things all of us can — and should, and surely want to — acquire. For the price of a movie ticket, perhaps.