Wednesday Afternoon at the Movies
This month the media has celebrated the novel and movie, To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel, written by Harper Lee, was published in 1960 and became an immediate success, winning a Pulitzer Prize. The movie, released in 1962 was also a great success, winning many awards, with Gregory Peck winning an Academy Award for best actor. This movie is one of my all time favorites. The accolades and acclaim being awarded this novel and film on the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book indicates that I may not be the only one with that opinion.
This public attention brought to mind an past experience I had at a small social gathering I was attending, somewhere. I recalled a question that was circulating, along with the drinks, “If you could be any character in the movies, who would you be?” I gave the question no thought and when it was my turn I tossed out the first name that came to mind, “Atticus Finch.” I have found, through experience, that life can be much more interesting if I make statements before thinking about them.”
The party slowed its pace as the group said in unison, “Who?”
I quickly explained, “Atticus Finch was the attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird, you know the movie starring Gregory Peck.” Satisfied with this answer, the noisy party resumed; they knew who Gregory Peck was.
A few days later, in more solitary surroundings I wondered to myself why I had answered so quickly and emphatically. After considerable thought I came to the conclusion that Atticus Finch represented an ideal, a role model for responsible and heroic behavior, uncommon actions and deeds by a common man; a man who was normally satisfied with living a quiet, respectable, and honorable life. But, I ruminated, for some reason I had strong feelings about Atticus Finch, as do many others.
This film production of the book is one of many movies which have reflected and reinforced an interaction between middle class American values and the motion picture industry. From it’s very beginning the American film industry has been dependent on middle class patronage. The financial elite were dedicated to the Grand Arts, and working classes existed at a subsistence level and could just barely support themselves. But, millions of middle class Americans had a few coins available for the Nickelodeon; and an industry was born. As the numbers of middle class citizens surged upward in the early 20th century, so did the profits of the motion picture production companies.
Being capitalists to the marrow of their bones, the movie executives kept faith with their patrons and gave them what they wanted, entertainment. The audience was so large and had so much disposable income that there was a wide range of types of movies, and the movie executives were happy to take anyone’s money. In amongst the comedies, the action films, the historic spectacles, re-written operas and classic plays, there were films which dealt with morality, ethics and altruistic behavior. Though not necessarily the of best money makers, but if well done, there was always a lucrative income from these films. One might call them ‘morality plays’ because they presented characters with traits we wished to find in ourselves.
To Kill a Mockingbird was one of these; there are many others. A lot of pictures came to my mind that had produced a similar effect in me as ‘Mockingbird’ did. Grapes of Wrath, Twelve Angry Men, Rocky, Field of Dreams, High Noon, even Casablanca. I wondered it if there was a common element in these films, and if so, what was it?
I came to the conclusion that there was a common theme. In each of these movies the central character is a common man, an American. Each chose to rise to some responsibility beyond their current lives; and each discovers something within themselves, some core belief that carries them through this responsibility. Well, here is another question, what is that core belief and where did it come from?
Once upon the time, long ago, when I was sitting in a classroom, I was accidentally listening to someone who was trying to teach me something. He was explaining to us how unique the formation of the United States government was in history. The statement he made, which caused me to stop accidentally listening, a to begin accidentally thinking, was, “Another way to describe the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, was, that for the first time, ever, a government was created that protected its minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Throughout all prior history whoever took over the government got to screw over the losers. “Minorities being protected from the tyranny of the majority;” now that is a uniquely American ideal.
The more I thought about it the more I could see this uniquely American characteristic in the protagonists of these films. But, how did it become such a uniquely American characteristic and why is it so strong in us?
It is widely recognized that if there is anything that defines what it is to be an American, unique amongst other peoples of this planet, if there is one belief that is constant whenever times are troubled in America, and it is the strong anchor to which all Americans are moored, it is stated in two short, sentences: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by there creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted amongst men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The United States was born when Americans fought a long and costly war to secure the right to create a nation based on these beliefs. No government had ever existed that believed in or practiced these concepts; they are uniquely American ideas; and they are the foundation of our unique heritage.
These ideas are infused in us in infancy and reinforced through the rest of our lives. The 4th of July is the supreme American holiday, the birth of this nation; the religious holidays were brought to us from elsewhere. We, the people, created Independence Day.
These movies remind us of this unique national heritage, and we want to be reminded. We will respond at the box office. A powerful inner need brings us there.
Ever since nine-eleven I have had three short strands of brightly colored yarn tied to the antenna of my pick up truck. They are red, white and blue. These strands get tattered in the rush of air at freeway speeds, and they fade as they are subjected to the sun and rain. So, I replace them once a year, usually around the fourth of July.
They help me find my truck when I forget where I parked it at the mall. Sometimes, they help me find myself, when I forget what I am.
I’m sure Atticus would understand.