We had another minor earthquake in the Bay Area last week. When the little ones hit, I have a quick poke around online, just to make sure it was an actual quake and not the rumbling of some drunken neighbor falling down our stairs. Earthquakes, drunken neighbors: same recording studio. My first stop tends to be at Earthquake.usgs.gov, but I guess I’ll never know the true story of what rocked my world in October of 2013:
“Due to a lapse in Federal funding, the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program has suspended most of its operations. While the USGS will continue to monitor and report on earthquake activity, the accuracy or timeliness of some earthquake information products, as well as the availability or functionality of some web pages, could be affected by our reduced level of operation.”
The U.S. federal government has been shut down for two weeks. Rachel Maddow told me a few nights ago that we have never had a government shutdown during a time of war (aren’t we always in a time of war?). That was when I realized yes, it’s possible to be shocked and at the same time not one bit surprised that it’s come to this. For years now, hearing politicians deliver those lines that come wrapped in a pink bow provides me with little comfort or hope for the future; I think “Mission Accomplished” broke every backbone in that camel. I used to have a neutral, non-reaction to those let’s-all-hold-hands political pep talks, but now “There’s more that unites us than divides us” and the rest of those carefully worded slogans make me want to go toilet paper the Capitol. I have idolized Margo Channing for years, and it turns out I too detest cheap sentiment.
How I wish I could shut down the office when I don’t like a decision someone else has made, but doing so would get me fired immediately, and I like having money to buy old movies. If I don’t answer an email within five minutes, people are poking their heads in at my desk asking if I received it, read it, and what I’m going to do about it. If the email was marked as urgent or sent on “high importance,” chances are I already moved it to the bottom of my to-do list . . . so, yes, naturally I have a disagreement with someone almost every day. And why? Because I have a number of people – direct superiors and those who believe they are my superiors – making decisions about my job, and therefore my livelihood, without understanding 90 percent of it. Demolished is my doe-eyed, 20-something vision of a Utopian workplace where my coworkers and I find charming ways to work together and accomplish our goals (while wearing pink bows). Now in my 30-somethings, I see that work is a battlefield of manipulation where the new question is “what can I get him to do for me?” It’s all a part of growing up, I’m told, but I weep a bit for the team-building camp counselor in me who is becoming more and more cynical towards my leaders . . . my leaders in the workplace and my leaders in D.C. If only more people like Mr. Smith would go to Washington and hire me to help him save the world.
An adult boy scout in the form of James Stewart is selected to fill a junior senator’s seat, only to discover that corruption exists in the system that his bright eyes have long viewed with such respect. Used, abused, and smeared when he attempts to battle the powerful power of Senate corruption, Smith launches a filibuster with the help of his witty secretary (an enjoyable Jean Arthur, who received top-billing over the young Stewart). I’m shocked, shocked to find Claude Rains playing such an unethical senator! Shocked and delighted, for no matter how evil, corrupt, or malicious his character, Mr. Rains never betrays his audience. So we have a good man naively challenging the bad machine. Is there any group that didn’t protest, boycott, or object to something about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, some before they even watched the film?
From politicians, D.C. insiders, and the press corps to the Boy Scouts of America, and my personal favorite, the Production Code Administration, everyone’s good name was on the Hollywood chopping block. The PCA chief Joseph Breen urged “most earnestly that you take serious counsel before embarking on the production of any motion picture based on this story. It looks to us like one that might well be loaded with dynamite, both for the motion picture industry, and for the country at large.” Perhaps it was an unflattering portrayal of government, but eventually Breen changed his mind, and – get ready for it – the American public seemed to enjoy the film!
There are a few brutally wonderful films that hold up a mirror to Americans and magnify the most horrid of flaws on our faces. I’d argue that Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976) remains one of the most frightening films ever made, followed closely by Inherit the Wind (1960), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington could very well appear on the same brutal list. Nominated for 11 Oscars and taking home one for Best Writing (Original Story), Mr. Smith faced some fierce competition from Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ninotchka, Dorothy Gale and her pals, and the ailing Bette Davis in Dark Victory. The silver screen and its onlookers were much blessed in 1939. It’s hard to believe those devoted to the Code let the witchcraft of Oz slip through its cutting room, but the suspension of disbelief is a moviegoer’s best friend.
Living in a country where the acceptance of disbelief has become our default, it can become increasingly difficult to suspend it for entertainment purposes. They wouldn’t really shut down the government, would they? They wouldn’t hurt their constituents on purpose, would they? They wouldn’t waste millions and billions on throwing a national temper tantrum, would they? They wouldn’t send the earthquake people home, would they? I just can’t believe . . . sigh, yes I can.
“Frank Capra’s movies have happy endings, but you have to pay for them to get them.” — Frank Capra Jr.
Academy Award for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1940): Best Writing, Original Story