October 18, 2008

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In this post I am recommending a movie about homelessness to y'all. The movie I am recommending is NOT the movie that is titled the same as this post. That movie, made in 2000, which starred George Clooney, is a fine film, too, but the movie I am interested in having y'all see is the film that first came up with the title "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- as a part of the hijinks in Preston Sturges's 1941 romp Sullivan's Travels.

Why am I recommending this film to you? Because it is great and because of a post over at Rev. Danny Fisher's blog called "I'm Late to Blog Action Day." In his post, the reverend tells us he is late to acknowledge Blog Action Day, which was on October 15 and had as this year's issue of the year: Poverty. In his post, Danny links to 88 things you can do about poverty right now. The list is good and mostly about homelessness, but I am particularly taken by the second item on the list of things, which is this: Be homeless for a day/night - which blogger Lex offered as an idea over in her blog Ester of Elgin.

Also, a week ago, in an email to James of The Buddhist Blog [qv.] I had written, "... James, you should seek out the nearest men's homeless shelter where you live, dress down a bit, and stay there for a night. As I think of it, asking my homeful Buddhist readers to experience a wee bit of homelessness is something I must post about." THIS HERE is that promised post. [Hi, James. I hope you're reading this.]

Here, the Amazon.com "essential video" review of Sullivan's Travels:
Writer-director Preston Sturges's third feature, 1941's Sullivan's Travels, remains the antic auteur's most ambitious screen effort. Having added the producer's stripe to his duties, Sturges combines breezy romantic comedy, arch Hollywood satire, and social essay into a single, screwball story line.

The titular pilgrim is John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), an Ivy League grad who's enjoyed a meteoric rise as the director behind escapist movies like Ants in Your Pants of 1938, but is now determined to raise his sights toward more exalted, serious-minded cinematic art. His proposed breakthrough, portentously titled O Brother, Where Art Thou?, elicits a studio response closer to "Oh, brother," given the director's utter lack of first-hand experience on the wrong side of the tracks.

Instead of capitulating, Sullivan sets off disguised as a tramp, ready to meet life's crueler lessons face-to-face--albeit followed at a discreet distance by a motor home filled with studio handlers and reporters. His ludicrous odyssey may give the boy director no real insight, but it gives Sturges the chance to inject some reliably fine gags and a romantic subplot featuring the luminous Veronica Lake. It's at this juncture that Sturges the writer's darker objective throws a jolting shift in tone. Suffice it to say that just when a comic, upbeat denouement seems imminent, Sullivan travels instead from the sunlit California of the comedy's early reels toward a darker, relentlessly downbeat world influenced more by the social realism of the movies the hero desperately wants to make. By the final reel, Sturges has flirted with real tragedy, turning his conclusion into a meditation on his own seemingly carefree, dizzily comic art.
--Sam Sutherland
Thus, as you see, Sullivan goes off to experience homelessness for a spell. I recommend that readers of this blog who have never been homeless do the same: Stay in a shelter for a couple days; eat at a place that serves free food to the poor; try to see what Buddha and Jesus experienced. Gain a touristic acquaintance of homelessness which is far better than no direct acquaintance.

As the movie shows, being homeless on a lark is NOT THE SAME as actually, really being subjected to the deprivations of homelessness and the wonders, splendors and cruelties in that world -- but it is a start toward learning a little bit about life "on the other side of things."

And of course a comedy movie, or even a serious documentary, won't prepare you for what it's like to be homeless. What is particularly nice about Sullivan's Travels is that "jolting shift in tone" that aids in revealing the "darker, relentless downbeat world" where one is shy of hope in a time-devouring place that is always uncomfortable. Being there is a jolt, but we owe it to humanity to be tasared by that reality that so very many proximate to us experience continually.

Update: Sullivan's Travels is New York Times writer A. O. Scott's Critics' Pick for October 20. Click here to view the three-minute viddy review.

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