I couldn’t believe my ears. He didn’t really say that, did he? Unfortunately, at this particular moment in history, there’s any number of men and the statements issued by them to which I could be referring. But the one that I have in mind came from a certain senator in the Midwest who, in order to defend and even champion the recently passed tax cut bill horror, felt the need to praise people who save their money by denigrating those who don’t. That’s bad enough, but he took it one step further by castigating spenders for spending their money on the following three items: liquor, women and movies. Which of these things is not like the other?! I could take issue with this statement for any number of reasons, including what in the hell the word “women” is doing in that sentence, but today I want to focus on what underlies the aspersion cast towards movies. I know this is a blog about theater and about the plays that occur in the theater and not about movies, but I also know in my heart that the same spirit that animates the hatred of movies also animates the hatred of plays.
We shouldn’t spend our money on movies?! Movies and plays are both close to my heart and I spend whatever extra money I have on both of them. SO THAT MAKES ME WHAT EXACTLY??? I could let it go and turn it into a joke and say something like, “You’re right and there’s a really simple way to address this issue and that’s by making movies FREE,” but, and it also has something to do with the particular historical moment that I’m living through, I’m tired of smiling sweetly and letting things go.
So, in fact, I’m going to set this particular rant free.
You have ABSOLUTELY GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! When did it become the rule that saving money rather than spending it made you a better person? Let’s leave aside for the moment that there are any number of parables suggesting the exact opposite. And let’s also leave aside for the moment that it is all but impossible for anyone outside the wealthiest one percent to do anything but either tread water or incur debt just to maintain food, shelter and basic health care. And, though it is extremely hard, let’s also leave aside for the moment the insulting and injurious condescension to human beings. This is my solo rant so I get to focus on why I think such a statement is completely unacceptable: Because movies and plays MATTER. Because in my world, movies and plays enlarge my life, fill me with hope for humanity (even when I’m crying my eyes out as I was while watching Annette Bening’s devastating portrayal of Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool), and exercise my CRITICAL THINKING (especially if I hate the movie or play as does sometimes happen) and EMPATHY muscles so that it’s less likely that I will make profoundly unenlightened statements.
I shouldn’t have spent money to see a powerful movie like Wind River which uses the crime/mystery genre to tell a little-known story of violence against Native American women? I shouldn’t have spent money to see the play I saw this past Monday night, entitled de novo, created by the Houses on the Moon Theater Company, in which four actors, using the techniques of documentary theater, told me the little known story of a young man, Edgar Chocoy-Guzman, who back in the early part of this century was killed just two weeks after the US deported him back to Guatemala? I shouldn’t have spent the money on a movie like Okja (Tilda Swinton’s satirical take on her character is a bravura performance) or a solo performance like John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons or like Jos Houben’s magisterial and hysterical Art of Laughter all of which made me laugh hard and made me feel better about the world even while also pointing out its moronic elements?
And another thing. Since I seem to be on a Shakespeare tear lately, I’ll go ahead and make yet one more Shakespeare allusion. The Midwest senator’s remark is more than a little reminiscent of the kind of thing Malvolio in Twelfth Night would say. Well, truth be told, a good part of the reason I’m thinking of Malvolio also has to do with the fact that I had to memorize and perform one of his monologues for a Shakespeare acting workshop last night, so he’s sort of taken me over for a bit. For those of you who remember that play, it’s all about the tension between festivity and control, with Malvolio coming down on the control side since he is likened to a Puritan, is decidedly lacking in humor and is vehemently anti-singing, anti-drinking, and anti-woman (well at least Maria thinks he is which is part of why she seeks vengeance on him). Even more to the point, given the context of the Iowa Senator’s comment, Malvolio is decidedly anti-working class, castigating the merrymakers for carousing late into the night like “tinkers” (working men) and for singing working-class songs (“coziers catches”). Malvolio’s sentiments, thankfully, are not championed by the play and he is roundly tormented for his feelings of superiority. Twelfth Night not only dramatizes the considerable antitheatrical prejudice of its time (I know because my Ph.D work focused on the phenomenon as it manifested itself in the literature and social documents of the English Renaissance), it EXPOSES how that prejudice was used to castigate and even denigrate working classes (especially when they attended the theaters). My point here is that this sentiment and prejudice is clearly not a thing of the past and has stayed with English and American culture through the present day (indeed several theater scholars have charted it, including Jonas Barish in The Antitheatrical Prejudice and David Roman in Performance in America).
If I’ve said this once, I’ve said it a thousand times. Almost anything meaningful that I’ve learned about life, I’ve learned from movies and plays. In my experience, movies and plays tell me the stories that otherwise would go untold. So, until the US smartens up, and funds movies and plays so that EVERYONE can access them for FREE, you’re damn right I’m going to continue spending money on them.
And, since serendipitously I just last night received a tote bag with the following line from George Bernard Shaw, one of the key playwrights of our time (Pygmalion, Heartbreak House, Mrs. Warren’s Profession), I’ll end this rant with his words (no doubt sparked by a politician of his own time): “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”