Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan's Travels
from my DVD collection

A successful filmmaker, known for directing popular films light on substance, goes out into the world beyond Hollywood in search of experience that will inform his next movie, which will educate as well as entertain. Am I talking about John L. Sullivan... or James Cameron?

I think one could make an argument for the latter. As I watched Sullivan's Travels last night, I couldn't help but think of Cameron and Avatar. True, Cameron
didn't really start pounding the pro-environment drum until after the movie was released, but he is making two more films in the series, and he's sort of become Mr. Save The Earth lately. Consider: he joined with a bunch of indigenous Brazilian tribes to help save the rain forest, he met with the EPA on ways to stop the BP oil spill, he spoke before the United Nations, he has promoted NASA, and he wants to plant a million trees. And while I suspect (hope) Cameron really does feel he's doing some good in the world, at the same time it's not hard to imagine that all of these acts will help him gain a deeper perspective on his fictional world of Pandora when it comes time to write the screenplay for the Avatar sequel.

Joel McCrea's character Sullivan, like Cameron, sees the injustice and suffering in the world and believes he can use his movies to make a difference. Sullivan feels he needs to climb down from his ivory tower and interact with the "common man" to do it. Ultimately, though, he concludes that he had it all wrong: that using his movies to make people smile and laugh, especially during a time of economic hardship, can be a noble end in itself.

Well, here we are, once again in a time of economic hardship, but what have the most popular movies of the past couple of years been? Fantasies. Transformers, The Dark Knight, Harry Potter, Twilight, Star Trek, Inception, the Pixar movies, and yes, Avatar, all dealing in make-believe worlds far removed from our own. So maybe Cameron gets to have his cake and eat it too in a way Sullivan doesn't - after all, Sullivan abandons his dream project by movie's end. (Although it still got made, kind of.)

I realize Sullivan's Travels is meant to be a comedy, but I find I'm a bit disappointed that Sullivan wasn't able to find a way to combine both his sense of social justice with his flair for entertainment. While I can see the value of escapist entertainment during hard times - be it comedy or fantasy - I've always treasured those works of art that have something to say about the world we live in as well, if not more so. In the case of films, I think they tend to go down easier when they're dressed up in fiction - hence Avatar's success. Personally, I would hope for more movies that have such aspirations. Am I wrong?

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