Thursday, October 09, 2008

Comments on "Sullivan's Travels"

Comments on "Sullivan's Travels"

(these are simply notes)

Sturges asks many philosophic Questions, but Answers none. In fact, as Sturges said: he set out only to show conditions and let the audience draw conclusions. The Almost-Answers he gives us touch upon the basic Platonic Form of Goodness as a means to an End. But never does he set a description of the Goal, the Utopia, he yearns for, and in the life of Sullivan, he accepts defeat and returns to the Question. Therefore, the film becomes a cry for help. By using comedy to couch the message, Sturges is trying to portray the Messenger as innocent, self-deprecating and non-threatening. John L. Sullivan as The Messenger is a combination of the tragic hero and the virtuous fool. Note also, that the name "John L. Sullivan" is the name of a contemporary legendary Hero in the mold of Hercules. The boxer by the same name was the last of the bare-knuckle heavyweight champions, and first of the gloved champions, a Champion of Champions as inscribed on one of his championship belts. One could also compare "Sullivan's Travels" to the Labors of Hercules in a comic way.

The Tragic Hero is, according to Aristotle, "an intermediate kind of personage, not pre-eminently virtuous and just," though not lacking those qualities either, but laboring under an error in judgment that ultimately leads to misfortune. The Virtuous Fool is a person who means well, and for the best and most unselfish motives, but is ignorant of the machinations of Reality and is prey to misfortune and the whims of luck. Sullivan is both. Sullivan sees the social problems in the country and is brave enough to willingly endanger his life in order to help alleviate social problems. But he doesn't understand the complexity or enormity of the situation, and is therefore ignorant of Reality -- seeing only an Illusion.

The film progresses from one Illusion of Reality to another as Sullivan labors out of his own self-indulgent ignorance to the greater realization that everyone, even he, is held captive in an unfair Society. Each scene creates a different understanding of Reality which is inevitably proven false, and replaced with another Reality that endures for a bit until itself is proven false and replaced. Each successive Reality is more intense and accurate, yet still unrelentingly false. No Ultimate Reality is ever found, instead all the Illusions are deemed Real. Life is conducted on a stage of overlapping Illusions, each a Reality to the people within it. Sullivan must travel through a number of these Illusions before he realizes he can no more pull the people out of their illusory Reality than he can leave his own behind.

The train sequence in the beginning sets the rules by presenting a situation and then refuting it as illusory. Then, Sullivan is set up as the righteous elite, a man with money and status who wants to champion the Good Cause. Then we see not only that he is fooled into realizing his ignorance, but his marriage is not a bond of love but only of Law and Privilege. This initial situation defines Sullivan as both the Tragic Hero and the Virtuous Fool, and Law as powerful but misguided by Privilege. Law & Privilege are the real antagonists Sullivan must overcome, and he eventually does so in the specific example of marriage, though only through an unforseen, unplanned twist of fate. However, Law is overcome here and in the chain-gang Illusion, but not in the sufferings of the poor. Privilege is never defeated. Indeed, in the end, Sullivan returns to his life of privilege, and brings "The Girl" with him. In a decadent sense, Privilege is something for which to strive.

The next Illusion presented as Reality, and then refuted, is Sullivan's first foray as a hobo. Though dressed in raggedy clothes and walking alone, he is watched over by an entourage charged with keeping him safe. This entourage travels in the lap of luxury even as far as having their own cook aboard the land yacht. As well, the streets Sullivan walks are those of Hollywood, an Illusion in itself. Nothing is real in this segment, not even the teenager's Whippet tank. The backwards speedometer registering over 120 mph hammers home the farce.

Then we have Sullivan trying to earn money as a handyman. Here we are still in the frivolous Illusions of comedy. We are alerted that this Reality is only Illusion by the spinster/widow characters, Ursula and Miz Zeffie, who are obviously extreme and opposite stereotypes. Also, the picture of the dead husband which changes expression as events unfold lets the audience know this scene is farcical. The sarcasm of this situation ridicules the ignorance of Sullivan, while lulling us into a false sense of what this movie will be. The comedy here relaxes us, and opens us up to accept the sober messages presented from here on out. For though the characters here are comedic stereotypes, and the action is slapstick, we also know instinctively that there are people like this, living this precise Illusion. Sturges writes his ironic critique of Society even in silly situations such as this one.

His exasperated remark after finding himself back in Hollywood after the Miz Zeffie escapade, that "everything keeps shoving me back to Hollywood as if some force were saying: "Get back to where you belong!"," is the Question running all through this film. That Sullivan is out of his element is the tragedy in the background, as all of us are consigned to our respective Fates if Sullivan cannot break free from the shackles of his Fate to be a musical comedy writer. If Sullivan can learn enough to write a successful socially conscious film then we know we can break free from our private Fates as well.

Enter "The Girl." Sullivan is befriended by an out-of-luck (and money) aspiring actress in the next Illusion. "The Girl" displays her street-smarts through her quick assessments, sharp comments and cynical outlook. She thereby highlights the depths of Sullivan's ignorance -- he's basically clueless. But through it all something else emerges from their meeting: the beginnings of a Human Bond.

Some criticize "The Girl" character as being simply the obligatory "girl" every movie needs -- a love interest and a bit of sex. Some of these critics go so far as to denounce the character as being totally unnecessary to the plot. That view is intrinsically sexist, and it is obvious that "The Girl" is one of the most important philosophical characters. From the moment she buys Sullivan breakfast with a portion of the last of her money, too little money to get home, and no reason to think it will be repaid in any way, she displays the concrete Good Samaritan traits the film offers as the only thing close to an Answer to the Questions it poses. It also displays the social Reality of those who are least able, giving and caring more than those who are most able. As well, by convincing Sullivan to take her with him, she embodies the notion that none of us are truly alone in this world, and none of us can make it alone no matter how hard we try. We all need a little help from our friends. The friendship "The Girl" provides is a pure relationship, yet hearty, uninhibited and natural -- and therefore Real. They travel together because they care what happens to each other, not for sex or for what one can take from the other. Their opposite outlooks complement each other in a comedic and happy way. They enjoy each other's company even though they come from opposite ends of Society. Just how far apart they are is illustrated through how far away "home" is for "The Girl" -- Chicago being a little more than halfway there. There is an entire continent of difference between them. It is New York versus Hollywood. Yet each laugh they share is a bulwark against the miseries they endure. Here is a testament to the magick and power of Laughter in everyday life.

Their first adventure together, hopping the freight train, ends miserably. Not only are they both obviously outsiders to this Hobo World, and therefore shunned, they very quickly demonstrate an inability to survive outside their element by falling prey to hunger, exhaustion and illness. Sullivan is portrayed the weakest of the two by falling ill, but the Illusion of self-sufficiency "The Girl" had displayed previously is shattered. However, their perseverance is reason for Hope when they try again. This time they learn to adapt to the Hobo Illusion, and we are treated to a lyrically orchestrated extravaganza of composition and movement as they adventure in the Hobo camps. Here we see the poverty in the terms described at the outset by the valet: "a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms." Here Sullivan, and "The Girl," realize they have learned more than they bargained for, that both long desperately to be safe and comfortable in their own private Illusions.

But Sturges does not end here. We are just beginning to get into the meat of the film. Just as it looks like it will be a "boy gets girl, lives happily ever after" movie, an unexpected twist strikes Sullivan down. He is cold-cocked by the tramp as he passes out $5 bills (a futile gesture showing his lack of an Answer), and afterward, his frail constitution evidenced throughout the film leaves him believably befuddled. The altercation with the Yard Bull finally elicits a deeply personal emotion in Sullivan: Rage. The anger directed at the yard Bull is as much directed against all the injustices Sullivan had found to this point. The Yard Bull took the blows intended for Society. In a state of confusion he gets railroaded to a chain-gang for his assault. The Justice System is then lampooned as Unjust, and the prison revealed as being without any redeeming value. Here, on the chain-gang, Sullivan descends into the Oblivion of the Masses. He loses his place in Society, becomes Nameless, and is labeled a troublesome criminal. This Illusion becomes harsh Reality for Sullivan. Here he finally learns how inescapable suffering feels like.

And we get to see how Sullivan's "death" affects his colleagues and The Girl. We see by their actions that they did indeed love Sullivan as a person, and not for what he could do. The sadness of The Girl is Real.

When we think Sturges cannot show us anything worse, we are introduced to the members of a poor African-American parish. It is implicit that the African-Americans at this time had even less rights than prisoners of the State, and that their bondage was everlasting. Sullivan had only to endure six years and he could then reclaim his former life. The people of the church could never end the oppression they faced every day of their lives. And it is here among these truly unfortunate people we find the only group example of the Goodness some call Humanity, the willingness to share unconditionally -- that same Virtue displayed by The Girl when first meeting Sullivan. Here also we are introduced to the character of The Preacher.

The Preacher provides the call for Good to overcome Evil through his speech to the congregation and his song phrase, "Let My People Go." "The people" are directly referenced as the poor and oppressed African-Americans of the church, 24 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Also referenced directly by the chain-gang-march down the isle of the church, are the prisoners of the state. But the call radiates outward to all the characters in the film who came before: the poor and the hoboes, certainly, but also the diner owners, the country spinsters, the urban homeless, the film studio's entourage that followed Sullivan around, the studio bosses themselves, and of course: Sullivan and "The Girl." It is a call to all the downtrodden to realize their submission to Society, and to the powers-that-be a call to unchain the masses. But the only Answer the preacher, or Sturges, has is for basic Goodness (love, compassion, service) to prevail. This is less an Answer than it is Hope. Hope being what's left when there is no Answer. In the end, in lieu of an Answer, Sullivan endures a tragicomic resurrection as an Aristophanic protagonist, but his sober return to making musical comedies is a pronouncement that the status quo will survive. The People will not be "let go," and the suffering will continue. The best Sullivan can do, even with all his money and status, is return to doing what he does best, make musical comedies, and leave the job of reform to Others. This tells us that we all have something we are good at, and that bit of talent strengthens the Good and lessens the overall Evil. So, for the Good of every person we should pursue our unique talent above all else, much as in Plato's "Republic": the Talent that distinguishes us is our role in Society. In its debased form: the Job defines the Individual, and that notion is sarcastically debunked throughout the film in such characters as the valet, the chauffeur, the preacher, the trustee, etc -- all of whom are far more than their job titles, and in Sullivan, his wife, the studio bosses, the scenarist, the prison guard, etc, who are so much less than the status their jobs give them. Sturges raises the bar on this Platonic philosophy by declaring our talent is our unique gift to Society, but Society oftimes doesn't recognize our Talent. Sturges tells us that one person's Talent is a blessing for all, but one person cannot change the course of Society. A more serious, and threatening, message in this is that it is futile and dangerous to walk outside our specific role allocated by Society, whether that role be misapplied or not.

In this, Sturges follows in the tradition of Aristophanes as a writer of personal opinion who paints his own moral attitude across the canvas of Society. Sturges parodies Plato's "Republic" in the same manner as Aristophanes does in "Ecclesiazusae." Sturges betters Aristophanes' Illusion as Reality (the women impersonating men in order to take over the council) by constructing Reality out of many different Illusions. Where Aristophanes pits women against men in a struggle for hierarchy, Sturges elevates Woman to the equal of Man in the character of "The Girl." Where Aristophanes improves on Plato's philosophy of the role of the sexes, Sturges improves on Aristophanes' struggle between the sexes. Sturges shows how Woman and Man can complement each other instead of struggling against each other by presenting the opposing characters of the Aristophanic "wife" and the Sturgic "Girl."

Sturges also follows Aristophanes in the philosophy of tragic comedy whereby the hero is portrayed as someone who dies and is resurrected. Sullivan does not literally die, but he is thought dead while being trapped in the severest tragedy -- imprisoned, abused and stripped of all rights. Sullivan finds himself in chain-gang Hell. He finally escapes by shouting out that he committed a murder, of himself -- a tragic piece of comedy that shows this Reality of Society as nothing but Illusion also. He ritually kills his old sense of Self by this act, and is thereby truly resurrected a new Hero with a new sense of Self within the all-inclusive Illusion that is the Reality of Society. The struggle of finding Reality by shattering one Illusion after another ends here as Sullivan finally accepts Society's Illusion as the Reality that cannot be escaped. There is no more journey to find enlightenment, only an absurd fatalism to follow one's own personal path through Life, as dictated by circumstance.

Despite Sturges intent not to provide an Answer, there is a constructive Answer that emerges through Sullivan's defeat at trying to be something other than what he is meant to be. The Answer we are left with is not that everyone has a specific role in society, for there can be no justifying the role of being cheated, poor, homeless, denied rights or abused, but that comedy has a therapeutic value for the desperate who suffer under an unjust system. The Answer defines comedy as not only about laughing at someone else's misfortune, but laughing at and despite our own misfortunes, inadequacies and defeats. Laughing in the face of overwhelming adversity is therapeutic for the Spirit. For to laugh at one's own powerlessness is to empower one's Self with renewed Spirit -- with the Will to keep trying, even to keep Living. Without that, the only relief is Death. What a horrible world it would be without Good Laughter.

The paradox here is that such a weighty Answer seems so trivial and useless, or perhaps it is that comedy writers like Sturges and Aristophanes only come around once every 2500 years, and the comedies written inbetween times are trivial.

(some thought I should have applied Kant to this film) According to Kant, Generosity and Pity are vices. I would argue him wrong on both accounts. Without Generosity the world would be dominated by selfishness. Generosity teaches us not to value possessions over Persons, and not to value one Person over Another. Would that there be more Generosity in the world, not less. Pity is a necessity for a Virtuous World (i.e. Utopia). Pity teaches us how grateful we should be for what we have. Pity teaches us that our sufferings are minor compared to what we could have to endure but for the fickleness of Fate. Pity teaches us to be Generous. Perhaps that last is why Pity has such a bad name nowadays: the Kantian powers that be would much rather us not learn about Generosity, instead we should learn to covet our riches or accept our poverty, and never learn that it is a Virtue to unconditionally give to Others more than we can afford and still maintain our lifestyle. After all, if many People can live in poverty all around me, then by what Virtue can I deny them what I have and still find Sanctuary.

I consider "The Girl" unconditionally buying Sullivan a meal though she had not enough money to live on, and, conversing with him as a Person (not as a "tramp") are two forms of Generosity engendered by Pity. "The Girl" was moved to do these two things because Sullivan appeared needy. She would not have done either if he sent his servant into the diner to fetch him food. Pity first, then Generosity -- this formula is Virtue.

Pity not leading to Generosity is a Vice. Generosity not born of Pity is a Vice. Pity directs Generosity to where it is needed.

Sullivan wanting to jeopardize his career to not only make a socially relevent film, but to actually change Society, is also an example of Pity birthing Generosity. However, Sullivan's Generosity goes through a long, difficult labor and then is born dead. Sullivan retains his Pity but no longer is moved towards Generosity. Sullivan will keep his Privilege (i.e. status and riches) and continue to do the least he can do for those less fortunate. Therefore I consider his attempt a failure as it ends in Vice.

As well, I consider Kantian Philosophy an inappropriate viewpoint from which to assess the philosophical content of this film. Kant would consider that Sullivan's initial intent was Vicious, and he eventually was led to Virtue through Reason activated by Experience. Instead, using the viewpoint of Aristophanes, who brings his Virtuous People through tragedy and then resurrects them improved but still flawed, is the correct lens for this film. Kant always has an Answer, but Aristophanes and Sturges have left us with Questions that Kant cannot Answer rightly.

So, even though Kant's idea that Reality is purely mental is appropriate, the danger of bringing him into the discussion is that the rest of his ideas might overshadow the Aristophanic message of the film -- that Society is corrupt and needs to be changed but we don't have an Answer yet so Somebody out there has to help us find an Answer, or the best we can do is trudge drearily through Life waiting for our Sisyphusian moments of shelter from the storm. Of course, our Society is much more Kantian than Aristophanic, and therein lies our Tragedy.

I forgot to expand on Privilege above -- the two arrest scenes in the film highlight the foundations of Privilege. In the first arrest, in Hollywood, Sullivan is let go once it is established who he is, even though he treats the police sergeant as an inconsequential and bothersome nuisance. In the second arrest he is believed to be a tramp and is not allowed to prove his identity even though contrite in his actions. However, once he finagles his real identity to be known, Privilege reasserts itself and he is released from the chain-gang. Therefore, if this film was about Kantian Answers then it would be that Privilege is a Virtue. If it is about Aristophanic Questions then Privilege is one of the Vices of Society that must be overcome.


Things to consider and questions to answer while watching "Sullivan's Travels":

He cameos in "Sullivan's Travels" as the studio director.

Sturges was the first writer-director since the silent movie era.

Sturges is credited with introducing irony into film.

Sturges trademark was rapid-fire, spiraling exchanges between two or more characters filled with double entendres and humor.

Sturges made signature use of the pratfall to elicit laughs and move his films through the storyline.

Sturges employed long, uncut, single-take scenes to establish his elaborate scripts.

Sturges is noted for having the ability to tease a full human character out of the smallest role in a film.

Sturges used montage editing when he wanted to speed up the plot, as he dispensed with dialogue and let the crisp movement and montage of silent farce fill the screen with hurtling bodies. The music becomes the voice for the characters, telling the audience what to think and feel of the situation.

Preston Sturges would concentrate more on the actors and their emotions than what was going on around them. A deep focus shot for Preston Sturges was rare, as most shots provided were done in soft focus with close-ups, making the actor the only object in the frame.

Sturges wrote his own epitaph:
Now I've laid me down to die
I pray my neighbours not to pry
Too deeply into sins that I
Not only cannot here deny
But much enjoyed as life flew by.

"The only thing Preston Sturges ever did for writers is make them all jealous." ~~ Hal Kantor

The film transitions from slapstick to stark drama to high comedy to severe tragedy, with romantic spells, social realism, amusing escapism, social commentary and philosophy sprinkled liberally throughout. How well does the film accomplish these feats of mental, emotional and spiritual calisthenics?

The film has been described as freewheeling, frenzied, schizophrenic and a rollercoaster ride. What would you call it, and what does this style bring to the interpretation of its message?

The film gives a glimpse into the studio system in its glory days, when working on a picture was like going to work with your extended family. How does this film's studio family compare to the roles of a genetic family. As well, the film attacks the sanctimonious ideals of privileged directors and the spurious attempts of the studios to make 'serious' movies. How well does the film combine the two seemingly antagonistic extremes of close family bonds, and, elites ignorant to the plight of the poor?

The preacher in this movie, like the chaplin in "Clockwork," is a pivotal philosophical character. What are the roles of religion and religious people in film, and where have the philosophers gone?

What does the range of violence in the film represent, and how many types of violence are portrayed?

The lead female role has no name, known only as "The Girl." What does this mean philosophically? How does her various attributes as portrayed in the film reflect on the role of women in society? Is she a unique individual or are her qualities universal? What is the philosophic message in that character?

The film attempts to show the brutality of poverty, of the prison system, of race relations, of the bondage of marriage, and of the fate of young women in a sexually voracious society -- all by juxtaposing these against the virtuous beauty of friendship, love and compassion while being a commentary on both the inequities of our society and the constructive, and, the fulfilling role of the individual in creating a better society. All of that in a light-hearted comedy. Is comedy a good vehicle for such a message? Why, why not, and how could the film better portray these themes?

The dialogue is full of intellectual phrases and sentences like "..the bitter dregs of vicissitude..", "Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms." These lines seem to be incapable of harmonizing with comedy. The message behind the words is clear, but how and why is humour wrapped around these lines, and does it weaken or strengthen the message of the words?

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