Q&A: Film Studies Director Michael Tratner on Cinema During Times of Economic Crisis

Posted March 10th, 2009 at 1:46 pm.

Film Studies Director and Professor of English Michael Tratner’s book Deficits and Desires: Economics and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Literature includes the chapter “Credit as Faith: Normalizing Debt in the Movies of Frank Capra.” We recently asked Tratner to talk to us about movies made during economic downturns.

tratner-michaelTell us about your book and why this research is relevant to the current economic crisis.
The book is about literature and movies in the early 20th century and their relationship to the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes. The book examines the cultural shifts when being in debt became normal, for both individuals and governments, during the decades from the 1920s to the 1960s. Keynesian policies and theories of spending combined with an explosion of consumer credit in the 1920s and 30s to radically alter personal and public economic morality. People at all levels of income were encouraged to spend money, to indulge their desires.

What sort of themes were prominent in Depression-era movies?
During the Depression, movies that focused on the economy tended to be about people who lost their jobs or were having trouble making a living. Think of The Grapes of Wrath. There were also movies about people magically escaping poverty, such The Gold Diggers of 1933, but even though the poor central characters in that movie marry rich, the film ends with a long musical number about the “forgotten men,” the returning soldiers from World War I who ended up on bread lines. And there were some movies about honest bankers dealing with runs on their banks, such as American Madness, a Frank Capra movie from 1932 which was in effect remade in 1946 to become probably the best-known movie about the Depression, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Are there current films that remind you at all of the Depression-era films?
Slumdog Millionaire mirrors some of the ways the economy is being described in newspapers today and is in many ways reminiscent of the films I mentioned. For one thing, the overall movie is about a rather magical “bailout:” millions are given to a poor person, Jamal Malik. Also, the story of what Jamal is being saved from seems oddly similar to the stories about those who are losing their houses today—he had been manipulated into fraudulent schemes set up by corrupt rich men. Finally, the movie reflects the way that the economic crisis is being presented as a global problem, not merely a national one. There is another movie currently in circulation which seems more directly created in response to economic news and which also presents the problem in global terms: The International, a movie about corrupt multinational banks.

These films were in production before the economic crisis was in full swing. How is it that these filmmakers seemed to be ahead of the curve on what was happening?
What we see in these movies are not clairvoyant filmmakers, but rather evidence that there was a sense of corruption in the economic boom that preceded the crash, a fear that all the money floating around was tainted and threatened disaster. There were similar works in the 1920s that seemed to foreshadow the crash, such as The Great Gatsby, a novel published in 1925 and first made into a movie in 1926, with a plot similar to Slumdog Millionaire‘s: both are about poor boys who get involved with gangsters and rather magically become rich, but want to use their wealth only to free the women they have loved all their lives from the control of corrupt wealthy men.

Slumdog Millionaire also fits into another category you’ve researched — romance films set to a backdrop of social upheaval. Tell us a little about that.

All the most popular love stories created by Hollywood are set against mass upheavals: think of Gone With the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, or Casablanca. Even Titanic, which does not allude to any overt political movement, parallels its central love story to class conflict represented by lower-class passengers trying to escape the lower decks of the ship. We would tend to think that love stories would present private life as an escape from the public chaos of mass movements, but oddly enough, these movies all suggest parallels between what is going on in the chaotic public scenes and what is going on in private life.In Gone With the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, and Casablanca, military groups rampaging across the land actually bring the lovers together and make their love affairs possible by separating them from their previous marriages. The violence of war is compared to the explosive passion of love, as when Ilsa in Casablanca asks Rick as they kiss while Nazis invade Paris, “Is that cannon fire or my heart pounding?” In Titanic, the passionate love affair breaks through class divisions and reaches its climax one minute before the iceberg breaks apart the ship whose structure enforced those class divisions.

Slumdog Millionaire plays on this same interconnecting of mass passions and love affairs. The hope that Jamal will escape his poverty and find his love is buoyed by the desires of the mass audience watching him on TV. The final scene of the movie suggests that the success of the lovers transforms the rather scary crowds in the subways, previously the locus of criminal activities and violence, into a happy dancing multitude, all moving together and so ending the divisions between rich and poor. Escaping poverty, ending corrupt economic manipulation, and achieving love are identical goals in the movie.

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