Escapism for the New Great Depression
I slid the “Mamma Mia” disk into the blu-ray player. I asked Ed whether it we should activate the sing-along function this time? Ed hesitated, then demurred. But I knew he wanted it. So I asked again as the option presented itself on screen. This time he bellowed “Yes!”
So two grey haired men with facial hair sang along with Meryl and Pierce and Colin as they warbled all those fabulous ABBA songs.
And I cried.
Over forty years ago, I was a child watching one of those 1930s Busby Berkeley musical extravaganzas on TV and my father made a comment about movie escapism during the Great Depression. I asked him what he meant, and he explained that the Great Depression of the 1930s was such a terrible time, people’s lives were hard and miserable with economic hardship. But the movies gave them musical extravaganzas and happy endings. I remember thinking it was wrong to go to the movies to watch shiny lies when the world is full of wrongs. This was the 1970s after all, where so many movies eschewed happy endings for gritty downbeat realism. My father explained when the whole world is going to hell, people need escapism to comfort them. It still felt like a poor option to me, even morally dubious, and something that we had fortunately culturally outgrown. A few years later I would see Preston Sturgess’ “Sullivan’s Travels”, which combines gritty depression era honesty with the balm of escapist comedy brilliantly. But even then I didn’t quite buy the message.
I do now.
Because boy is the world going to shit.
We don’t have the economic disaster of the Great Depression (yet). We do have the rise of dangerous populism and fascism. Not like the 1930’s, yet, but rising, world wide. Yet in the United States, which in the 1930’s elected one of its greatest presidents to show a better way, we now are saddled with the worst of the worst our nation has ever seen, dragging us down with a litany of pussygrabbing horrors: dishonesty, greed, corruption, injustice, narcissism, chauvinism, xenophobia, racism, child kidnapping, environmental destruction, the flirtation with fascism now graduated to a shake and shimmy with fascism; oh the list of the crimes is endless as is the constant trampling of any and every sort of decency.
I go on and on. But Seth Meyers last night put it most pithily: “irredeemably awful”.
And the dispiriting fact that much too large a section of the country’s population, not a majority but not nearly a small enough minority, supports this monstrosity continuously through thick glop and thicker gruel with Dear Leader cult-like far-right-signalling blinkers… Deplorable doesn’t really cover it anymore.
And then today, the obvious betrayal of the country. The unmistakable beholdenness, obsequiousness, to a murderous dictator, a smiling villain, the puppet master.
The aiding and abetting of a hostile foreign power.
The Kafkaesque nightmare that just won’t end but only reaches ever greater lows of sickening awfulness.
The Great Depression this time around isn’t economic. It is psychological. And it is bringing down whole populations in existential despair. In deep moral exhaustion.
So every now and then, I feel I need the escape. I need the silly musical extravaganza. With the shiny baubly happy smiley world. And happy endings. “Mama Mia” gave me that sweet escape at the end of a day of sickening news, after weeks of overlapping gut punches, following wearying years of bad faith, with its enablers and discontents.
Singing along was undeniably goofy, but also sweetly soothing. A real balm. I remembered my long ago discussion with my father about movie escapism during the Great Depression. And I felt the parallel.
And cried a little.
“Mama Mia”, the stage version, arrived on Broadway October 2001, a mere month after 9/11. And this self-aware goofy musical, that winkingly ungainingly stuffs all those undeniable ABBA tunes into a silly charming story, was just the balm the wounded city needed. Surely not the only art to engage with in those trying times. But one welcome escape. I saw it three times that fall, while writing my own far from escapist response to 9/11. I valued the escapism then. But didn’t make the connection to the Great Depression. I do now.
Maybe the comparisons don’t hold up. Surely the disasters of 9/11, of the 1930s, are far more horrible than anything the Orange Menace has inflicted; so far? But this Depression on the Nation wasn’t brought on by outside forces beyond our control, though they helped. This meanness, this vileness, this ugly id representing us now was and still is chosen by us, by too many of us. Our better angels have given way to this… this…
I hate contemplating it. But it is unavoidable. It is with us all the time. And to ignore it, or minimize it, is allowing it to be, is normalizing it, as too many still do, and so the craven cancer persists unabated …
But every now and then a little escapism, just for a few minutes with a happy song, or a few hours with a happy film, or a brisk hike in the woods or cool jump in a lake, or a romp in the proverbial hay with a loved one, whatever escapism works for you, is required to take a break from the awful and regenerate to withstand the next wave of mind melting grossness.
This weekend I am hoping “Mama Mia – Here We Go Again” will provide that happy escape. Ed and I watched its predecessor in anticipation, and I am looking forward to more shiny happy baubly songs and silly charming stories with comforting happy endings.
I’ve been going to the movies a lot. And not just full on escapism gives solace, although the Incredible AntMan Oceans Impossibles do their budget busting brilliant best. The subtle wisdom and heart of “Leave No Trace”, the howlingly funny/angry satire of “Sorry to Bother You”, the horrific fatalism of “Hereditary”, the documented decency of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, none of these are easy escapism, all speak to today in their own excellent ways, but their sheer artistic brilliance is a wonderful escape in its own right. Good art will always do that.
And sometimes good art is goofy escapism too. These days devolving as they are, I will need that again this weekend, surely.