by Terence Roberts
The relationship of movies to real life begins as a mental, or imaginative reaction to what we see on screen. Because what one sees can influence our physical real life, film culture, probably more than any of the other arts, has the most rapid effect on society. The effect can be positive or negative depending on film content, and the positive or negative interpretations of viewers.
But things become complicated when decisions have to be made about what is positive or negative, since these are relative terms.
For example, between the 1930s and 60s at least 40% of American films were socially concerned with corruption, greed, racial and class bigotry, the criminal mind, and conflicts arising from all these categories.
Some important Americans in positions of power thought such topics made America look like a bad place, and some senators accused Hollywood studios of being infiltrated by communist artists. By contrast today, numerous American films seem neither of positive or negative effect, because the issue has been avoided, leaving films which have become simple demonstrations of opponents involved in never ending crimes, spectacular explosions, impossible feats, erroneous or senseless violence and appocalyptic treats to the entire human race, which any thoughtful viewer would consider mostly empty “entertainment” without actual everyday benevolence or social relevance.
Who and what appears in movies, and how they appear, can also have an effect or influence on real life via circulation in the mass media. This is why Afro-Americans objected to stereotypes of themselves portrayed as only menials in many early American films.
Not only can such portrayals be untrue about their real individual lives, but such films can subtly establish that they SHOULD be only menials, or undesirables, to others desiring such an image and definition of them.
Secondly, raising the Afro role above the level of the stereotype would mean also doing so in real life, by establishing the hired actor as INCLUSIVE to a professional level, often offered or withheld, precisely because it could be seen as giving a “high” status in the public’s or society’s eyes. This process of “allowing” artists status extends to other genres, such as publication by certain magazines and publishing houses, certain art galleries, museums and theatres, where the criteria for one’s acceptance or rejection, may extend beyond one’s race, and include one’s national origin, one’s sexual orientation, or social class, depending on who makes such decisions or judgements.
Sidney Poitier’s roles led the way in rising above menial Afro characterization. In No Way Out (1950), he is a doctor; in A Raisin In the Sun (1961), he is a white collar worker; in The Long Ships (1963), a Moorish king; in To Sir With Love (1965), a Guyanese immigrant teacher; and in In The Heat Of the Night (1967), an ace homicide detective, etc.
Poitier’s individual screen effect was clearly geared more to raising the social and employment status of the average Afro American in real life, rather than creating protégés in cinematic work. For this reason he is a good example who proves the social relevance of Hollywood films between the 1930s and 80s for Guyanese society. It is worth noting here that the interest of Hollywood actors in real societies between the 1930s and 60s, is reflected in the visits to British Guiana’s capital, Georgetown, of outstanding film-stars like Charlie Chaplin, John Garfield, Spencer Tracy, Tyrone Power and his wife Annabelle, Cary Grant, Danny Kaye, Lillian Gish, Myrna Loy, Rita Hayworth, Mel Ferrer, Anthony Perkins, among others.
One lesson that emerges from these films of the past (if such a lesson were projected unto films made by Guyanese in the future) is to avoid biased, one-sided depictions of Guyanese society. For example, no one race or ethnicity would appear, nor no one neighborhood, type of house, dwelling, architecture, geographic landscape, interior design, clothes or fashion, reflecting one-sided topics of poverty, destitution, crime, etc.
The artist’s viewpoint, which remains an individual voice and not a mouthpiece for grudges or backlashes, is concerned with creating a balanced truth for film viewers, and would not deny that Guyanese society has intellectuals, painters, beautiful fashionable females of all races and mixtures, film buffs, readers of the world’s classic literature, beautiful streets, gardens, cafes, etc.
And by showing this, establish local social relevance, even if others (especially foreigners) consider this a false depiction because no negative stereotypes were wallowed in by Guyanese artists. One reason why classic Hollywood films were appreciated in previous Guyanese society was because even its sets of beautiful houses, rooms, yards, bedrooms etc., made those without such environments aspire to create it for themselves. From screen to reality became a benign ideal offered by numerous pertinent films with such content.
Balanced content exists in examples of films like The Asphalt Jungle (1950), where the grimy rundown big city of hustling and poverty-influenced crime, vanishes near the end, to become a serene clean countryside of farmhouses, barns, grazing horses, which the mortally wounded country boy (Sterling Hayden) turned city criminal, drives back to in cold sweat from a bleeding gunshot wound when he realises it was a better life he had there.
The contrast between positive and negative is clear. In Body And Soul (1947), John Garfield, one of the most accomplished, exciting, and beloved American actors ever to hit the screen, is a boxer who, resenting his childhood and family’s poverty, agrees to fix his fights for the profit and glamorous life it brings him; but he decides to secretly live up to his integrity after feeling used in the abuse of his morally upright black friend and trainer, and in defiance of corrupt fixing wins the fight he was supposed to lose for an enormous betting payoff.
In typical Garfield style, the film ends on a brilliant upbeat note when Garfield is asked how he feels about the danger of betraying those who fixed the fight, and Garfield answers: “I never felt better!” In Limelight (1952), one of the greatest unforgettable films of the 1950s, Charlie Chaplin brilliantly shows us the positive power and value art can be, by taking care of a young actress in despair and bringing her recognition.
Contented characterizations and enticing neighborhood scenes flowed into the consciousness of Guyanese citizens between the 1930s and 70s from films like In The Good Old Summertime (1949), with its closely knit loveable neighborhood of poor yet industrious and ambitious characters.
In Young At Heart (1954), an outstanding and precious all-time Hollywood film classic, it is all its characters, the family house, and the neighborhood, which are socially exemplary. Doris Day, her two sisters, their mother and father comprise a model family. Day’s brilliant caring unconventionality leads to the transformation of the struggling, pessimistic Jazz pianist, Frank Sinatra, into a positive and eventual successful song-writer and Jazz pianist.
In Mildred Pierce (1945), Joan Crawford’s housewife character is transformed after her broken marriage into a novice working class waitress, then to a successful restaurant owner, by her cultivation of personal and social charm.
In Party Girl (1955), Robert Taylor, a selfish and corrupt crippled lawyer, stops defending syndicate mobsters with the help of a beautiful nightclub dancer (Cyd Charisse), also controlled by the crime syndicate.
In the Big Country (1958), Gregory Peck returns to the lawless Western American frontier from the developed East, bringing a rational, civilised attitude which counteracts and opposes a prolonged class feud between two self-destructive patriarchs and their followers.
By the 1960s, a new exciting progression occurred in Guyanese film society with the startling prevalence of continental European movies from two leading film-making countries, Italy and France, showing in Georgetown cinemas like Plaza, Globe, Metropole, Astor, Strand De lux, and the sea-side Starlite drive-in cinema near Ogle on the East Coast.
No one had seen films like these before, with English sub-titles of highly intelligent and perceptive dialogue, cool modern fashions, and unconventional modern interests covering the arts, technology, sexual freedom, social problems and the pursuit of professions.
Such films were identified by the presence of actors and actresses like Marcello Mastroianni, Vitorio Gassman, Michel Picolli, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Christie, Romy Schneider, Elke Sommer, Bridget Bardot, Anouk Aimee, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigeda, Monica Vitti, whose films were hotly pursued by Guyanese professionals and intellectuals, and young industrious teenagers from Georgetown High Schools and Colleges.
Though the contemporary American cinema would lose much relevance for Guyanese society by the 1990s, the use of collective auditoriums for showing the thousands of classic films like those mentioned here, continues to possess the potential to assist Guyanese society today towards a more responsible, educated, and even tranquil and contented direction.
Obviously there are still a minority of new American films with much relevance for today’s Guyanese society, a perfect example is the recent: Brooklyn (2015).
by Terence Roberts