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Content Warning: Rape, suicide
This piece spoils the films Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Henry Fool (1997).
In the film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Hollywood director John L. Sullivan decides he’s unhappy with the silly comedies with which he’s made a name for himself, and wants to do a serious movie about the plight of the poor. For research, he dresses up like a hobo and sleeps in shelters, but he returns to his wealthy life whenever things get too dire, and never really understands what it means to be poor. Finally, through a mishap, he’s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and put in jail under a different identity. There, sentenced to hard labor, he sees that the prisoners receive great relief from watching silly comedies and escaping from their difficult lives. After finally securing his release, he decides to make comedies again, realizing their value.
Sullivan’s Travels is in the Criterion Collection, consistently listed among the best movies ever made, and holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I hate Sullivan’s Travels. And I hate it because of its intensely superficial estimation of the value art, and the way it pats itself and the entire Hollywood film industry on the back not despite of its tendencies towards status-quo reinforcing mindless pablum, but because of it. And I hate the way it implies that we must accept being poor and downtrodden as an inevitable condition, and the best we can do for them is to entertain them for a while.
The central conceit of the film is that some narratives are escapist and some are non-escapist, and that escapist art is still important and valuable.
[While this is a good antidote to the snobbish thinking that divides art into “art” and “trash”], I tend to dislike this entire way of thinking about narrative. To me, narrative is about creating meaning in the world around us. Even something as ostensibly escapist as Star Wars helps people understand the world they live in, to see themselves in the Jedi or the rebels or what-have-you, which is why people love to paint their enemies as the Dark Side and themselves as the Light. The question then isn’t whether the narrative helps you escape or not, but what meanings the narrative is creating and for whom and how. What do we think a work is trying to tell us about the world we live in, and how might people interpret that work differently? (And granting that what the creator intended may have no relation to what people see in a work, cf. Lucas creating the rise of Palpatine in the Prequels as an intentional critique of the Bush administration while the Republicans simultaneously refered to Nancy Pelosi as “Darth Pelosi” and compared themselves to the rebels.)
Which brings me to my favorite film of all time: Henry Fool (1997) written and directed by Hal Hartley.
Recently released from prison, the title character Henry (played by Thomas Jay Ryan) lets a room in a townhouse in Queens where middle aged Mary (Maria Porter) lives with her grown children, Fay (Parker Posey) and Simon (James Urbaniuk). Henry is a writer and, despite no publishing credits to his name, he fronts like Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Norman Mailer rolled into one, a walking embodiment of a certain 20th century ideal of literary masculinity. Here is how he describes the memoir he’s working on:
I’ve been bad. Repeatedly. But why brag? The details of my exploits are only a pretext for a far more expansive consideration of general truths. What is this? It’s a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic-book proportions. It is, in the end, whatever the hell I want it to be. And when I’m through with it, it’s gunna blow a hole this wide straight through the world’s own idea of itself!
Despite the title, Henry is not the hero of this movie. That’s actually the son Simon, a garbageman who is so quiet and unprepossessing that growing up people thought he was mentally disabled. Henry notices that Simon has an interest in poetry and begins mentoring him, gradually coaxing him out of his shell.
This story might easily have followed the format of other stories about an eccentric master mentoring a young talent, like Finding Forrester or Good Will Hunting. But it’s not that kind of story. Henry, you see, is an awful, awful person. When he says he’s been “bad, repeatedly”, he isn’t kidding and, like one of Raskolnikov’s Great Men, he seems to think his artistic powers gives him license to do whatever he wants. At one point he actually rapes Mary, having sex with her while she’s so drugged up she can’t really consent, an act he seems incapable of understanding as wrong. (She straight-up calls him a rapist; the film knows what he is even if he doesn’t.)
And so part of Henry’s method of training Simon is to take him to strip clubs, to encourage him towards violence, to invite him to “impose himself” on women he’s attracted to.
But while Henry believes in Simon, nobody else does; his sister and mother laugh at his literary ambitions, and the publications to which he sends his work reply with shattering rejections (for example: “this tract you’ve sent us demands a response as violent as the effect your words have had upon us. Drop dead.”).
And yet, it gradually becomes clear that what Simon is doing isn’t just good, it’s miraculous. Hartley intentionally never actually lets us see or hear Simon’s poetry for ourselves. We only see its effect on people. And that effect is dramatic: A woman who has been mute since childhood reads it and bursts into song; it makes his sister’s period come early; some teenagers read some of it and put it in their yearbook, causing a media furor over its perceived pornographic elements.
Finally, Henry convinces Fay to put the poetry up on the nascent internet and with all the magic of computers on film in the 90s it takes off like a rocket and catapults Simon almost instantly to the kind of fame no American poet has attained since Allen Ginsberg or maybe Robert Frost.
Of course, the central irony becomes that while Simon’s poetry is spectacular, Henry’s memoir is unreadable dreck. Henry insists that Simon use his newfound fame to get the work published anyway. Simon refuses:
Look, Henry, I did it! I wrote. I wrote poetry because you told me to! I worked! I worked while you sat back and comfortably dismissed the outside world as too shallow, stupid and mean to appreciate your ideas.
In other words, while Henry was prancing around being someone’s idea of a hard-drinking, misbehaving writer, Simon was actually doing the work. Simon evolves into a self-possessed and sensitive young man, someone who doesn’t need Henry-style antics to prove anything to himself or the world. Simon outgrows Henry.
There’s more to the film, so much more, including a Pat Buchanon-esque politician who decries the loss of family values and the fanatics who follow him and denounce Simon’s work as pornography. There’s Henry’s romance with Fay which crashes predictably but not before they have a child. There’s the unspeakable reason Henry was sent to prison which when revealed drives us straight towards the ending. A more conventional film might have Henry turn into a more straightforward villain by the end, so that Simon and Henry could have a proper climactic showdown of some kind, probably with a tragic ending. Instead, Henry is given something of a redemption in a last terrible, heroic action which sends him once again on the run from the law. (And this is not to at all bring up the film’s two sequels which shockingly recontextualize the narrative as well as the character of Henry.)
Henry as a character is a bit harder to stomach now in the age of #metoo when the consequences of men who feel like they’re entitled to women’s bodies has been given a much more appropriate spotlight. Stories about awful men given last shots at redemption ring more hollow these days and Henry is perhaps all too sympathetically portrayed in the film for a guy who does the kinds of things he does. I don’t blame anyone who shuts the movie off mid-way because they can’t put up with it. And it’s not helped that the two primary female characters, Fay and Mary, mostly exist in the story to react off of what Simon and Henry are doing. (This is rectified to a great extent in the sequel, in which Fay is the lead character.) I will note though that the film isn’t about giving Henry a pass because of his great artistic ability, because he doesn’t have any, and the crushing of that delusion is the focus of his whole arc.
As a counter-point to Henry, let’s talk more about poor Mary, who seems to have unspecified psychiatric disorders for which she’s heavily medicated. At one point Simon finds her playing the piano to herself, something she apparently never does, resulting in this exchange:
That was nice what you were playing.
Yes, it was nice. But it was unremarkable.
Simon waits. Eventually…
Does that matter?
(looking right at him)
Yes. It does.
Soon after, Mary finds Simon’s poetry and reads it for the first time. When Simon arrives home, Mary is lying cold in the bath tub with her wrists slit.
So here in the film we have three ways people can view artistic talent: Henry assumes he has it and is inherently special because of it; Mary assumes she doesn’t have it and is inherently not special at all; and Simon who starts writing just because it gives him a voice in the world that he wouldn’t have otherwise. Simon who just does the work.
And it’s not that he doesn’t get discouraged—unlike Henry, he takes other people’s opinions seriously. It’s that whether or not he’s discouraged he’s going to keep working anyway.
And ironically, this is exactly what Henry tells him to do in one of my favorite scenes in the film. Simon has been assaulted by neighborhood bullies and propped himself up on the floor of the bathroom with fractured ribs. Henry has found Simon’s notebook and read his work for the first time. Henry vaults into the bathroom:
Are you willing to commit yourself to this? To really work on it? To give it its due? In the face of adversity and discouragement? To rise to the challenge you yourself have set?
Simon just blinks, looks away and wonders.
And don’t gimme that wonderstruck ‘I’m-only-a-humble-garbage-man’ bullshit, either.
It hurts to breathe.
Of course it does.
It’s not that Simon is a genius and Henry and Mary are not. That reading is shallow and not justified by the text, despite the quasi-magical powers Simon’s work ultimately has. The point is that neither Mary nor Henry can face the disconnect between who they are and who they want to be. Henry meets this disconnect with denial—he is who he wants to be and it’s the rest of the world that’s wrong. Mary, meanwhile, simply takes herself out of the world entirely. Simon doesn’t have pretensions. He doesn’t presume that his art is going to ‘blow a hole in the world’s own idea of itself’. He just wants to make it because it fulfills something inside him. And that’s why he succeeds.
This all isn’t to say there aren’t commercial considerations to artistic production, or that there’s some problem with meeting a market when and where you find it. There’s nothing wrong with treating art as a job, and one that should pay. In reality, becoming commercially successful isn’t as simple as just throwing your work on the internet and hoping for the best, as any self-publisher will tell you. You can follow your passion and give it your all and still fail, utterly.
There are so many easier ways to make a living.
But when art is good, it’s good because it resonates with someone, even if that someone is only yourself.
In reality, people don’t ‘make it’ simply because they deserve to, even though that’s an effective narrative device. Perhaps this fact has something to do with why Simon’s success is so meteoric and magical (he wins the Nobel before the tale is out). It signals that this is a fantasy, that Simon’s work takes off not because it’s real but because it’s true, which are two different things. Simon’s success gives meaning to our story.
And that is, after all, what stories are for.
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