Umberto D and Shoeshine and Solidarity

Umberto DI’ve been really down this last week. A lot is going on. Work just gets more and more intense — it’s wonderful in its way, but also terrifying. Also, taxes are due on Friday, and things are, let’s just say, complicated because of my marital situation. My natural response to stress is debilitating anxiety followed by depression. So yesterday, I sat down and watched Umberto D. And since that actually has a vaguely happy ending, I watched another of Vittorio De Sica’s classics, Shoeshine. Although in its way, it is an even more positive film, except for the tragic ending.

What is best about great films is that they affect you differently each time that you seem them. And this time I was most taken by the total lack of solidarity in the stories. In both films, there are two people who are alone in the world and care for each other. But they don’t have the power to help each other. Everyone else is just too caught up in their own problems to care about anyone else. This makes sense because both these films were made shortly after World War II. In fact, Shoeshine takes place during the Allied occupation. Umberto D takes place later, but still people are struggling.

All of this is understandable. Wars do this. And one thing that Vittorio De Sica is great about is not vilifying people. Even in The Bicycles Thieves, he provides motivation for the original thief. It is an act of someone trying to get by. And we sympathize and understand the main character’s theft more only because we understand the context of his life more. It is the system itself that alienates us and allows us to see that our needs and desires trump those of other people.

ShoeshineI’ve long maintained that the corporate hatred of unions is really not about keeping wages down and maximizing profits. Indeed, when unions were strong, many companies just matched what union workers were getting to avoid unionization. Similarly, Milton Hershey was very good to his employees, but he fought aggressively against unions. It’s all about control. And the best way for a business to maintain control is by having the employees fighting among themselves. Worker solidarity is extremely dangerous. It could even — Gasp! — lead the workers to think that they could be running the company.

So now we live in a society that lacks solidarity — but only because those in power wish it so. And you see this even in the difference between Shoeshine and Umberto D. Shoeshine was made in 1946 when the issue was that just about everyone was poor. Umberto D was made in 1952, when things are better. And so we get more of a sense of class where the antagonistic landlord sees the old man not with apathy, but with hostility as an impediment to her getting even richer.

It makes me think of what a pernicious idea meritocracy is. It allows society’s winners to see themselves as totally justified in their privilege. And it justifies the destruction of solidarity, because we are not a group but rather just a collection of individuals, each getting what is right and fitting. As such, meritocracy is just a return to aristocracy, but with a different philosophy to justify it.

In general, we don’t see films like Shoeshine and Umberto D. But I think the times are changing, and we will start to see independent filmmakers start to make films that deal with these important issues.

Morning Music: House of Memories

I'm a Lonesome FugitiveWe move into Merle Haggard’s third album, I’m a Lonesome Fugitive. It’s interesting to listen to this early music, because you really hear the influence of Hank Williams. And he really is the best that country music has to offer. It’s too bad that he died so young. There’s something very precise about the music that Haggard was doing at this point. And it is something that we don’t much get in the later music — great though some of it was.

Today’s song is “House of Memories.” It’s a beautiful song — not at all what people normally think of when they think of Haggard. It’s about that point after a break-up when you can only remember the good things that are gone. I think that is how we get over relationships. At first, we can only think of the good times. But eventually we see the relationship for the mixed bag that it was. But “House of Memories” is a good way of rendering that first period.

I don’t much think about “love,” but I am indeed haunted by memories. These are memories of every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done. A lot of them have to do with love. Sadly, most do not. It would be great to be able to pass off everything to hormones. Instead, I have to depend upon what I think is a very true excuse: I’m a slow learner. But ultimately, it is all about brain chemistry. I know people who fret about their past and others who don’t care at all. I’d like to be in the latter category, but I’d be such a terrible person if I were that it is best that I’m not.

Anniversary Post: Donner Party Begins

Donner Party - Page 28 of Patrick Breen's Diary: 'On this day in 1846, the Donner Party set out from Springfield, Illinois. They went on to famously eat each other. As a result, I’ve never been that much interested in it because when I’m hungry I’ll eat anything. So it doesn’t much matter to me. But I bring it up today for a totally different reason.

I had been out of touch with my friend Will for a number of years. I think we managed to independently marry different women on the same day. But when I got back in touch with him, I found that he had become obsessed with the Donner Party. I remember one evening coming over to his place and his idea of the proper way to spend the night was to listen to a lecture on the Donner Party.

Now, on the one hand, I greatly admire that. And I can always use it when Will tells me that whatever I’m currently obsessing about is boring. But it is a little creepy. You haven’t seen a guy for years and all he wants to talk about is cannibalism. I’m not saying Will is a cannibal, but he is very picky about exactly what taco trucks we eat at. Just saying.

The one thing I learned about the Donner Party is this wasn’t the case of people getting stuck and then starving. The whole thing went on for a year. People went off looking for help, leaving others behind. The whole thing seemed very much preventable. If only other people had cared more. But hopefully, Will will notice this post and fill us all in with a comment.

But as I indicated: it just doesn’t seem strange to me that starving people would eat the flesh of dead people. I don’t see the big deal. In fact, I don’t see any issue at all. It is a totally rational decision. Any other decision is just standing on ceremony.