Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

"Scarecrow" examines friendship under dire economic circumstances.

Where have all the poor people gone? As our government is on the verge of shutdown, nearly 10% unemployed and tons more under-employed, one would think that the cinematic landscape would be filled with throngs of characters struggling to pay their bills.

You might point to Treme, The Wire, and the recent Larry Crowne as examples of movies (and you’ll see that I’m including TV in here) that have characters who are down and out. But perhaps I should amend this a bit: where are the movies about people who struggle where that isn’t such a big, freakin’ deal?

Being a child of the 70s, I’ve been on a kick lately watching the great movies of that loony decade–obscure movies and popular TV shows like Scarecrow, with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, and TV’s The Rockford Files and Sanford and Son. The more I watch these shows, the more I noticed that the people in them were more like the people I know, and the people they know. Not necessarily poor, but having to budget, having to think about that vacation, wondering where the hell they’re going to get the money to fix that leaky roof. None of us are rich.

Or, to put it another way: none of us are like the people of Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

What bothers me isn’t just that kids’ movies often feature the youngsters in giant McMansions, new cars, etc., but the movies that supposedly examine people who are not so well off beat you over the head with their supposed poverty, thus making it a novelty. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Larry Crowne, but I have little interest in a story where a guy loses his job at Wal-Mart, buys a scooter, takes essentially worthless (or outrageously successful) classes at a community college and then meets a gal like Julia Roberts.

Or Super 8. This is a movie of cobbled together pieces, an excessive homage to the early 80s, where the kids in the film are as spoiled as today’s children are often lavished with gifts. Consider the main kid in that picture: no one whose mother worked in a factory in the 80s had a room filled with that much shit. Christ almighty, the money that must’ve been spent on models and posters and figurines… every square inch of that boy’s room is stuffed with toys that were damn expensive–I can tell you that from experience. Those toys cost money, and if you didn’t have much, well, maybe you had one poster, one Star Wars figurine, and tons of books… from the public library.

Should you take a cinematic trip through the 70s as I have, you’ll notice people living their lives in near-trouble, but that life is rich, though it’s tough. Sometimes very tough, sometimes not so tough, but in all cases the difficulty is leavened by friends and family. And it’s just there, the way cars of today are “just there” in today’s movies.

Consider the television shows Sanford and Son and The Rockford Files. You might be surprised to see me include Rockford in this essay, but the truth is that Jim Rockford has no money. In both shows, the lack of money is more a joke than anything else, and humorous situations abound regarding these characters inability to pay bills, etc.

Jim Rockford’s a P.I. living, for God’s sake, in a beat-up trailer home. The famous opening credits always include a shot of Rockford’s desk (where we see an unfinished game of solitaire, to indicate his lack of business), and then a funny recording on his answering machine–almost always someone explaining why they can’t pay Jim or bitching that he hasn’t paid them.

Same thing for Sanford and Son. Christ, there was an episode where the jokes came from the situation that our heroes can’t pay their electricity or gas and might get evicted. Oh, how that’s funny. But it was, and is, in the right hands.

Scarecrow is a buddy movie from 1973 involving two men, Max (Gene Hackman) and Lion (Al Pacino), who are hitchhiking from San Francisco to open up a deluxe car wash in Pittsburgh. Max is fresh from prison, Lion has just finished a stint in the Navy. Max has money in the bank for his car wash, Lion’s broke, both are on budgets so tight they sleep in flophouses or on the side of the road.

That’s the base plot, but the poverty is, again, just a thing. But think of movies from around that time: Midnight Cowboy, the Art Carney trio–Late Show, Harry and Tonto, Going in Style–the crazy Car Wash, The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, Taxi Driver… even Woody Allen was less fixated on money back then.

Allen’s 70s movies featured a guy (usually Allen) shlepping around Manhattan from his tiny little, beat-up apartment. His people wore vintage clothing (or in Allen’s case, often just a white t-shirt so thin it appeared as if it had been washed 100 times), had enough money to catch a show at the Film Forum, fall in love, and that’s it. Now, in his European movies, most of his people are deadly rich–how Midnight in Paris might have been different in the 70s. Would his main character be in the midst of building a home in Malibu?

What is it about the money? Certainly there were films about the wealthy, but even in the case of, say, The Godfather, you see the extreme poverty of the progenitors of this evil family. Today, however (and really, this phenomenon has been growing since the 80s), we don’t bat an eye at the loathsome excess of Home Alone–that giant house was ridiculous.

Are the poor so marginalized now that we don’t care? Are they a novelty? I often wonder if, in the 70s, the older generation, the ones who had survived a depression where people actually died en masse, had found that it didn’t make sense to ignore hard living, but it also didn’t make sense not to laugh at it. Now, when someone wants to write about the downtrodden, there’s either a sense of extreme tragedy, without a lick of humor, or, as in the case of Crowne, why, it’s a case of “look at the bright side of life”, put your nose back to that grindstone and things will be fine, just fine.

That’s not the lesson of Sanford and Son, two men who hate, hate, hate their situation, but find tons of humor in it (and much of that humor is lost to them, as it makes us roar with delight.)

The films and TV of the 70s continue to work for me because of their rich characters and intriguing plots, but I’m realizing that it’s also because they’re peopled with down-to-earth men and women who do their jobs and fight against the world’s betrayals. Today, too many characters are shallowly pursuing money or possessions, or are to be pitied because a wild dream of theirs has failed–think of the bakery in Bridesmaids, and know, too, that everyone in that movie, including Kristin Wiig, was actually in pretty good shape, especially compared to their 70s counterparts.

I know guys who work two jobs to pay for their kids’ college, people who landscape in the summers to make ends meet, people always struggling to get their bills paid and their credit cards in control, and they all enjoy their lives and laugh and carry on. Where are the movies about them? About the immigrant who installs roofs every day of the summer? About the families on food stamps? Not searing documentaries, but comedies, or dramas with some humor.

We need this in America. A reminder that we don’t all drive big cars and live in big houses. That it’s our friendships–not our possessions–that make us great.

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