Entry from August 4, 2010

This summer I have been presenting, on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington, a series of six films on the general theme of “The Pursuit of Happiness.” The sixth and final film in the series, itself titled The Pursuit of Happyness [sic], by Gabriele Muccino and starring Will Smith, Thandie Newton and Jaden Smith, was shown on Tuesday, August 3rd. Before showing this movie, I spoke for a few minutes about it and the series as a whole as follows.

Once again, before we move on to a discussion of tonight’s film, the based-on-a-true-story Pursuit of Happyness by Gabriele Muccino and starring Will Smith, I want to look back for just a moment to the view, expressed by some during the discussion last week, that About Schmidt was a depressing movie. If you thought so, this week’s movie will be the antidote, since it is uplifting, even inspirational, unless you are a certain kind of person that I will mention in a moment. But I would like to downplay both extremes just a little. Just as I thought that About Schmidt was more than its apparently depressing ending, so I think The Pursuit of Happyness is more than its inspirational ending. Just as Schmidt doesn’t quite end with the hero’s expression of the firm and unshakable opinion that his life has been a failure, so Pursuit doesn’t quite end with the hero’s hard work and sacrifice being rewarded at last. Both movies offer a coda to the emotional arc of their narrative which, I think, alters their meaning significantly.

Those of you who were here to watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre with us a few weeks ago may remember that on that occasion, I quoted in my talk some lines from Kipling’s If. . . to illustrate a point about luck and risk and the character it takes to deal with both. This evening, I’d like to quote a couple of additional lines from the same poem,

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
. . .

I hope it is not necessary to point out that neither Mr Muccino nor Alexander Payne, the director of About Schmidt, nor Rudyard Kipling would ever say that Triumph and Disaster are the same. That would be very foolish. The lines are about how you treat them, which also has to do with the reason why they are both “impostors” — namely, that neither is ever quite unalloyed with its opposite, however wonderful or horrible it may seem at the time — which is what I think both Messrs Payne and Muccino are saying in their respective codas. John Huston was of course saying the same thing in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Of the two more recent movies, this is easier to see in About Schmidt. Although Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt proclaims himself a failure, anyone who has lived as long as I have can hardly be unfamiliar with that feeling of terminal failure or to be aware that the feeling is not the same thing as the reality of failure, about which we are also likely to know something. Indeed, Schmidt’s lament in his voiceover to Ndugu as he returns to Omaha would be nothing more than a bit of self-pity without that final rebuke of the letter from Sister Nadine Gautier and Ndugu’s drawing. That is what elicits the uncharacteristic tear from him, which must therefore be a token more of joy than of sorrow. Moreover, I think it is a self-validation that retrospectively encompasses his heroic reticence at the wedding reception, of which I made so much last week, probably because of my hereditary WASP prejudices in favor of emotional continence.

The alloy to the happiness we are so glad to be able to share with Mr Smith’s Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness is harder to spot, and you may find that you don’t agree with me about that anymore than some of you did about the ending of About Schmidt. Indeed, I think the director himself might not agree with me. Immediately after the immensely moving scene in which Chris Gardner is told he has the job he has been striving so long and hard for and made so many sacrifices to get, we see him in a crowd of people on the street going to or coming home from work, all of them presumably productive citizens with some place to go, some place where they are needed and wanted, and we also see how he stands out in this crowd — because the emotion of the moment makes it impossible for him to take these things for granted as those around him do. If you listen to the director’s commentary on the DVD of the movie, Mr Muccino tells us that, his idea in this scene was to show Chris re-joining the mainstream of society after his period of homelessness and isolation. But what struck me about it was the sense of his continued isolation from those around him.

In spite, that is, of the extreme emotion of the moment, his sense of triumph and, doubtless, a kind of let-down that comes with it all at once, he has no one to share these things with. He is alone in that crowd, and his inability to share his joy is a reminder of the extent to which he has also been unable to share his misery during the weeks and months of poverty and homelessness. Never by so much as a hint could he allow his fellow interns or his bosses at Dean Witter, who are also his judges, to know what he was enduring out of office hours. At the very moment of his great triumph, James Karen’s Martin Frohm asks him if it was as easy as it looked, and he has to content himself with saying, when he is able to choke down his emotion enough to get it out, that No, no it wasn’t that easy. Then the wealthy and successful Mr Frohm pays him back the five dollars he borrowed from him when it was almost the only money he had in the world and might well have meant the difference between his (and his son’s) being able and not being able to eat that day.

The British have an expression by which someone who is extremely servile is described as a toad-eater. It seems to date from the 17th century and to derive from the medicine shows of that era during which a mountebank selling some patent medicine would make his assistant eat a live toad, a creature thought to be poisonous at the time, and then (apparently) revive him with the medicine as a proof of its efficacy. The old-time medicine show is a useful comparison for Chris Gardner in one way, at least, because it could have had nothing on him for the amount of toad-eating involved. This, I think we are meant to understand, is what is involved not just in his life but in that of all successful salesmen — not salesmen at a distance, like the slogan-writers we saw in Christmas in July and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, but face-to-face, which is what Chris Gardner is doing with the not-very-salable bone-density scanners long before he ever thinks of becoming an intern with Dean Witter.

The idea of the scanners, by the way, belongs to Steve Conrad, the screenwriter, and is an inspired one. The real life Chris Gardner who wrote the memoir on which Mr Conrad based his screenplay was a medical technician, trained in the Navy, and not a salesman. His ambition was at first to become a doctor and it was only belatedly that he decided to try stockbroking. Nor was he unpaid during his internship at Dean Witter, nor did the company only pick one from its crop of interns to offer a job to. All these are Mr Conrad’s innovations in order to stress that what we are watching here might be called the Life of a Salesman, which is ever so much more heroic and therefore, in my opinion, interesting than Arthur Miller’s lugubrious Death of a Salesman. The practice that movie-Chris gets in enduring without complaint or emotional display the everyday humiliations of the itinerant salesman is what gives him that vital edge when he finds himself competing with much better educated but more tenderly-nurtured colleagues in the peculiarly humiliating exercise known as cold calling.

Likewise, he has to say “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” and “Of course I’ll get your coffee or re-park your car for you or lend you five dollars, Sir,” without betraying the slightest emotion to the petty tyrants who exercise such complete control over his life. Even to his fellow intern who helpfully points out to him, “Hey, you’re missing a shoe,” after he has been hit by a car, he doesn’t allow himself so much as a note of sarcasm in replying, “Oh, hey, thanks!” I don’t know about you, but I find the self-control he is forced by his circumstances to adopt and to master so completely wholly admirable, just as I do the grace that Warren Schmidt is able to force himself to show at his daughter’s wedding in spite of its forcing him to suppress his own deepest and most genuine feelings. But there is an important difference between Chris Gardner and Warren Schmidt, of which we can’t help but be reminded by that near-final scene I mentioned of Chris alone in the crowd and the echo it sets up with the earlier scene of his first appearance in the Dean Witter offices in the clothes he has been painting in.

The point is of course to underline what would be apparent in any case, namely that Chris’s is the only black face in the room. Servility, even the heroic servility of the salesman, is bound to mean something different for a black man than it does for a white, and is one reason why, I think, the movie got the lukewarm critical reception it did — about which I’ll have something more to say in a moment. What I find interesting about this is that the racial implications of the film are almost entirely outside itself and connected to the reaction to it of white critics and audiences. Within the film the fact that the main character is black is almost an irrelevance. Once again, this is a departure from the book. The real-life Chris Gardner tells us that he used to tell his clients that he could take care of their business over the phone because if they met him in person and found out he was black they would often ask for a “more experienced” broker.

Yet it is also true to say that the movie would have been unlikely to have been made in the first place were it not for the fact that its hero is black. I find it wonderfully refreshing that the film allows us to take for granted the stockbroker’s Ferrari as its synecdoche for the happiness Chris Gardner is in pursuit of. That kind of uncomplicated, unproblematic success makes this a kind of throwback to those films of the 1930s and 1940s we saw a few weeks ago. But just as a film about economic striving that involves white people must be about criminals and fraudsters, la Gordon Gecko of Wall Street — which is finally going to get its long-awaited sequel in about six weeks’ time — so a film about economic striving that involves black people is often taken as encoded right-wing propaganda, implicitly blaming blacks who have not risen into the economic mainstream for their own plight by showing one who does and, especially, one who is as successful as Chris Gardner. That’s why Manohla Dargis’s review of the movie in The New York Times sniffs at it thus:

How you respond to this man’s moving story may depend on whether you find Mr. Smith’s and his son’s performances so overwhelmingly winning that you buy the idea that poverty is a function of bad luck and bad choices, and success the result of heroic toil and dreams.

Quite obviously neither she nor The New York Times are willing to “buy” anything so much at odds with their own assumptions about the world. Similarly, Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian writes that “this is an aspirational movie. But, unlike Billy Elliot, Gardner wants not to dance but make some serious bucks. That may cause a little squeamishness and nose-wrinkling in some quarters.” Those quarters, I strongly suspect, are not unadjacent to The Guardian’s offices in fashionable North London.

This kind of snobbery might mean nothing more than that audiences like the picture better than critics do, which is both true and unremarkable. But it is also true that the taste of movie audiences over the last 50 years has been molded by critics and the larger culture so that they, too, or at least considerable numbers of them, are likely to find Chris Gardner’s success, though “moving,” also obscurely troubling. Though they have become inured to Hollywood’s steady diet of movie fantasy of all kinds, they don’t quite know if they can allow themselves to believe in the plausibility of anything so fantastical as Chris Gardner’s success — never mind that it is basically a true story. To do so, as Ms Dargis’s review reminds us, is to go against the grain of intellectual fashion. As fiction, Chris Gardner’s story would have to be something that only stupid or naive people could believe in. The movie also would not have been made, at least not anything like it was made, by an American director. In the extras on the DVD, we also hear that Mr Muccino told Will Smith: “As an American, you don’t understand the American Dream. To understand the American dream you have to be a foreigner” — though obviously not the sort of foreigner who writes for The Guardian.

This may not be entirely true, but there is, I think, some truth in it. Another thing that Mr Muccino tells us, which we could have worked out for ourselves without too much trouble, is the extent to which he was influenced by Bicycle Thieves (1947) the great post-war “neo-realist” film by his fellow countryman, Vittorio De Sica. There are moments of homage to De Sica in Pursuit of Happyness, but the whole film is also a kind of commentary on Bicycle Thieves, whose political subtext, very much of its period, was that economic necessity trumps all other moral and, indeed, human considerations. The Pursuit of Happyness makes a half-hearted attempt to make a similar, though much less coherent point by including a cameo by Ronald Reagan early on in the film, and Mr Muccino’s commentary talks vaguely and irrelevantly about that journalistic favorite, “the gap between rich and poor” in the 1980s. But the whole tendency of the film is to put its hero’s responsibility for his fate, and his luck, back into his own hands, which is, practically speaking, a re-affirmation of an old-fashioned American can-do spirit that it is hard to imagine an American, these days, having the audacity to perpetrate.

Bicycle Thieves ends not like The Pursuit of Happiness but like About Schmidt — that is, in defeat and misery for the hero but defeat softened and turned into something quite different by the love of a child. I haven’t had a chance yet to say anything about the marvelous performance in Pursuit of Happyness by Will Smith’s real-life son, Jaden, but one thing we have to notice about it is that, unlike About Schmidt’s Ndugu, he couldn’t fulfil his function in the film from off-stage. It’s another one of those face-to-face deals, like selling the scanners. Once again, Steve Conrad has made a change here, though a smaller one, by slightly downplaying Chris Gardner’s emphasis on breaking the cycle of fatherlessness that has been such a blight on black family life in America and so universalizing the theme a bit. I think the one serious weak spot in the film is the insufficiently-motivated disappearance of the boy’s mother, played by Thandie Newton, but the tenderness of the relationship between father and son goes a long way towards placing the film within that other American tradition, that we saw in Christmas in July and Mr Blandings in positive ways and in My Man Godfrey and About Schmidt in a negative ones, of showing the importance of family in motivating people to succeed.

And so we come to the end of our series on The Pursuit of Happiness with a film that takes Jefferson’s ever-memorable phrase as its title. I felt that I could hardly have done otherwise and was only grateful that it was as good a movie as it is. But it is worth remembering, on summing up, how it works the title in. In one of Will Smith’s voiceovers, he says:

It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking: how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?

This might seem a puzzling thing to put in a movie with an ostensibly happy ending, though I’ve already told you my doubts about that. The more important point is that happiness as we use the term today is a utopian concept, a hypothetical end point at which either individuals or societies ought to be able to arrive but somehow, maddeningly, never do. Movies, like other works of art, have to have an end point whose logic tends to dictate that it be either happy or unhappy. In this, if in no other ways, they must be untrue to life which tends, as they say, to go on, happy and unhappy by turns. By stressing the pursuit, Jefferson was doing what this movie and, I think, the others in the series have been doing, which is striking a blow against old-world, un-American fatalism by saying that the pursuit itself is happiness enough.

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