Lessons from Hollywood - facing up to realities

Lee Marvin won the Academy Award for best actor for his 1965 portrayal of the mean-spirited, whiskey swilling, twisted, brutal, emotionally damaged gun slinger seen in John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (He played Liberty, who got shot)  …Wait, what? In 1962? Marvin actually won that award 3 years after portraying Liberty Valance when he played Kid Shelleen in the somewhat less serious 1965 western spoof Cat Ballou, also starring Jane Fonda. To be fair, Marvin gave a lot of credit for his Oscar to the horse that he rode, which seemed to be as drunk as he was. A fair and honest assessment. See 1966 Oscars (Don’t you wish we still had Bob Hope to host the Oscars?)

Now you probably have to be sort of close to my generation to have heard about either of these films, much less actually watched them. And Liberty Valance “suffers” in today’s modern world from being shot in Black and White, a deliberate choice for John Ford. Though his own career spanned the B&W/color eras, indeed he started in silent films, Ford chose B&W for this close to the end of career film because it suited what he was trying to accomplish. Anyway, my kids won’t know either film most likely. A pity, on many levels.

But what I want to explore is a limited aspect of these films. Basically, Lee Marvin played pretty much the same guy in both, but in the first one (Liberty) it was a portrayal of bullying, nastiness, corruption and being an all around bad, hateful guy. Someone finally standing up to him becomes the core event of the film. The second time, Marvin’s performance was played for laughs.

By and large, if you are close to my generation so that you might know of either film, and aren’t a student of classic movies such that you already will know and respect John Ford, I suspect that there is a much better chance that you have seen or remembered better Kid Shalleen. And it is notable that the Oscar was given for Kid Shelleen, not Liberty.

And that is, finally, the point I want to explore, our willingness, even eagerness to deflect that which we don’t like to admit exists or wish to deal with.

We do this a lot; specifically we turn evil into comedy. We normalize the uncomfortable. It helps us digest it I guess, keeps it at bay.

John Cleese of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame, once talked about the character he played on the latter show, Basil Fawlty. He said “[h]e’s an absolutely awful human being. The strange thing about comedy is that if an awful character makes people laugh, people feel affectionate about him… they would loathe him. but because he makes them laugh, they think, deep down, he’s alright.” Comedy smooths over the bad around us.

Fabin in Oliver Twist, the book, is evil incarnate. He abuses young boys, forces them into slavery where they have to steal for him. Dickens did not think he was drawing for us a lovable, somewhat scandalous yet fun character. But that is what became of him once he became embedded in Oliver!, the London, then Broadway musical, and then Hollywood movie based on the show.

And he stole the show because of it. I still recall the curtain calls for Oliver! at the Haymarket Theatre in London. It was 1967, I was there at a matinee performance with my mother and older brother as I recall it. The actor playing Fabin came out for his audience ovation last of all, the position set aside for the staring roll. He was still fully in character and hamming it up to the response of roaring applause. He was a rapscallion, a scamp, and we loved it.

The same has happened in Les Misérables. If you take the time to read Victor Hugo’s very very long unabridged version of the book (365 chapters, one for each day of the year) you will come to two very firm conclusions. One, this is a story that never, ever should be made into a Broadway musical. And two, Monsieur and Madame Thénardier are mean, evil people, never to be trusted or even enjoyed in any sense of the word.

They are the couple who take in Cosette as a child, charged with her care and well-being. But they treat her as a slave and heap on her much abuse. Later they keep re-emerging in scene after scene to wreck havoc on good peoples’ lives. Inspector Javert is not really the villain of the story in the sense of having an evil soul; he represents the soulless state, not an evil one. But Thénardier is evil. He is meant to be Jean Valjean’s polar opposite.

However, when the story unaccountably became the vehicle for a blockbuster musical, this couple were reborn as comical characters; roguish still, but definitely people at which we are supposed to laugh. They provide the comic relief for the show since there isn’t any other reason to laugh watching a musical named Les Misérables after all. When the musical, not book, was made into a musical movie the role of Monsieur Thénardier was played by none other than Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Ali G).

We just don’t seem to be comfortable with nastiness and evil, it is far easier to morph those into something funny and light-hearted.

And we do that sometimes when we experience uncomfortable aspects of travel too. We modify the way we relate to uncomfortable situations, change the mental landscape so that we don’t have to deal with them directly. As Mary Poppins famously sang  back in in 1964, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”

I think that the one thing that Westerners, and Americans in particular, are ill suited to really handle as we travel outside our own countries is the frightening level of poverty that exists in the world at large. We obviously have poverty in the First World, and my comments here are not meant to indicate that poverty in Western nations is somehow less crippling to its victims or less important to address. But as we travel we sometimes come face to face with poverty to a greater degree than in our routines at home. (Please note that while I am making a point that poverty is an “evil” I am most assuredly not saying that the poor are.)

And we often are shocked that it is as bad, deep and widespread as we discover it to be. We are appalled by it, it makes us uncomfortable. We don’t really know what to do when faced with its most brutal aspects. It is probably no surprise that my examples of turning evil into comedy involve poverty-bound literary characters.

Unfortunately we sometimes don’t act very well in its presence. We probably wish someone would come in and simply turn poverty into a joke, to render it Fabin-esque. Put the face of an amusing Thénardier on it. Or maybe we even see nobility in it, we respect and even admire the integrity that a simpler life forces upon its victims. [See Hollywood ‘s version of this in My Man Geoffrey, 1936, with William freakin’ Powell as a destitute man turned Butler!?!? Or even Jed Clampett.] Or maybe we just outright blame those who are caught in its vice-like grip.

And probably worst of all, we may even pridefully take delight in our relative economic positions, or be smug and self satisfied about it. This includes a Westerner tourist visiting a third world country who will haggle down into the last pennies with a local merchant for something pretty inconsequential. They seem to never realize or care that while those pennies for the tourist mean just that, pennies, for the local merchant those pennies might mean a whole meal, or having heat that night for his family. Winning such a bargaining contest is not anything of which we can be proud. From the merchant’s point of view we have all the power and we are using it; we are being Liberty Valance, a bully. But unfortunately one hears all too often the boasts of how “I wasn’t taken advantage of by the locals,”  or “I got the best of him.” Besting the poor or those with substantially less at their own pursuit of making a meager living is about the same as laughing at them simply because you have more power.

In many cases when traveling, the signs of poverty will be readily evident. But sometimes the contrasts between the tourist curated experiences and the real local conditions have to be sought out.

La Sagesse Beach, Grenada

Twelve years ago some good friends and I went to Grenada in the southern Caribbean. We had a great time watching Cricket (a very big deal in the West Indies) and experiencing an island nation that deservedly is known to have amongst the friendliest and most generous people on Earth. And it is beautiful of course.

But after a week in the tourist focused southwest corner of the Island, my friend Mark and I decided to go explore the unfashionable east coast.   


St Andrews Beach, Grenada

As one drives away from the tourist area, the beautiful pristine beaches and clean tropical landscapes on Grenada’s southern coast give way to the realities of how most people actually live and work there.

Beach community pulling on drag nets for fish to be sold to tourist restaurants; everyone gets a share of the revenues. It can take a couple of hours of back breaking work to pull in just one net which had been set hundreds of yards out by a boat. Each pull moved the net only by a couple of inches.

I expect that inserting oneself into this scene, actually getting into the water as we did and pulling on the nets to bring in the few fish the effort yielded, would not be an excursion option available to the cruise ship passengers. And if it were, it would be insulting. These people are not here for our enjoyment or to give us atmosphere and local color. And we are not there to be “white saviors.” This is simply how they make their living.

I will confess, therefore that our participation caused me unease, that I was somehow exploiting the scene, if nothing else but by the fact that I took these photographs. To the extent any of these people felt like their hard work was being translated into a tourist’s tableau, I regret that deeply. Even though I am happy to have these photographs, at the time I was not well versed in the customs of photography which suggest that permission is requested before shooting. In short, I was being a tourist.

In preparing these shots for this post I noticed one young man in particular who looked as though he was wondering why I was taking these pictures. Perhaps that I was taking advantage, or even looking down on them. His stare right at me broke the fourth wall, which is always discomfiting. In literary terms, his stare was accusing me of the equivalent of making Fagin into a comic, lovable guy, and he knew better how untrue that was. For whatever it’s worth, I send him my karmic apologies.

Because being honest with myself, there necessarily had to have been some aspect of translation, romanticizing or not confronting harsh realities for this experience. I was always on the outside looking into this scene. We came from our rented condo, with pool, in a rented car and we would be able to return to those, and then fly home. I doubt our being there was anything but a fleeting tale of amusement to them, to be shared with those that weren’t there how the white guys came down and pulled on the nets for awhile. They probably joked later that we could bloody well come back and repair the roof and make them dinner too.

It made more impact I think on us. After all, I am still thinking about it 12 years later. When you order fish in one of the many restaurants serving the tourists, most likely it came from a small local operation like this. Consider that fact as your waiter is telling you in gastronomic detail how the Chef will specially prepare your dish. It isn’t really about the Chef.

I may not have been able to really understand how their lives were everyday, the things they have to go through. I don’t know if their friendliness towards us was a wall put up for survival or genuine, whether the laughter they were sharing amongst themselves really ruled their lives or bitterness. But I don’t think I was turning this into something that it wasn’t. It looked like a lot of hard communal work for very little payoff. I may have had only a glimpse but I saw that in many ways the tourist experience is subsidized by the poverty that is kept hidden from sight. We didn’t change the world, but we did learn something. 

Mark bought a fish at a price far higher than they could get from the restaurants or middle-men, it was still very cheap. The informal foreman of the group, the guy with the backpack on, cleaned the fish for us and then slit it open. We then shared with him some sushi. 

All of that effort resulted in a few marketable fish in that orange basket, not a lot for half a day’s work. The rest from the net would be going into cook pots at their homes.

So, Liberty Valance/Kid Shelleen? We should sometimes accept that bad things, unpleasant things, things we would wish to go away or be transformed into laughter, these things maybe are just part of what we need to learn about and face down as we travel to new places. Not turn them into jokes or romanticize over them or otherwise sweep them into a corner where they don’t get dealt with. As you travel you will come across situations that make you uncomfortable, that may make you cringe. Those aren’t jokes, and they are not invisible. They are people. They may be dealing with things you can hardly imagine. And they are your opportunities to learn, grow and do some good maybe.

In John Ford’s classic film, a stumbling Jimmy Stewart, with help from the indomitable John Wayne, eventually stood up to Liberty Valance. They didn’t make Liberty into just a joke to be laughed off. And they no longer could ignore him. Thereafter, nothing in either of their characters’ lives was ever the same.  




 ©️2019 D Abbott