Truly depressing

 

Motion pictures have seen us through several recessions, bringing us measured social commentary or pure escapism. Unlike Depression-era films such as Top Hatand Sullivan’s Travels, however, the spendthrift excesses of Sex and the City 2just rub our recession-hit noses in it, writes ANNA CAREY

IN THESE troubled economic times, when we’re all racked with fear of serious financial hardship, it’s good to know that someone is looking out for us. And that someone is Michael Patrick King, the writer, director and producer of Sex and the City 2.

“I sat down to write in what was the beginning of an economic downturn, and we’re still in it,” said King at a recent press conference in the worker’s paradise that is the shoe section of luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman. “Like in the Great Depression, I thought Hollywood should take people on a big vacation that maybe they couldn’t afford themselves. I wanted to make it a big, extravagant vacation.”

It’s true that back in the 1930s, audiences living through economic disaster could escape their troubles by watching some of the most purely entertaining films ever made. Until the second World War brought the recession to a not-exactly-happy ending, cinemagoers could see everything from frothy Busby Berkeley musicals and screwball comedies to gangster movies and the horror films of James Whale. Despite the embarrassment of cinematic riches on offer, the belief that Depression audiences were willing or indeed able to spend just as much on the movies as they did before the crash is a myth – attendances dropped by 40 per cent between 1929 and 1933.

But people still managed to go to the pictures occasionally, with a whopping 60-80 million Americans watching a movie every week. And in 1934 Will Hays, the man behind Hollywood’s infamous censorship guidelines, the Hays Code, declared: “No medium has contributed more greatly than the film to the maintenance of the national morale during a period featured by revolution, riot and political turmoil in other countries.”

So could Sex and the City 2really serve to bolster our morale? It seems unlikely. Despite what Michael Patrick King may think, there’s a big difference between the frothy comedies of the 1930s and this offering. On the surface, they may seem similar. Take Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s most iconic movie, Top Hat(1935). In it, Astaire and Rogers travel from London to a beautifully stylised art-deco version of Venice, trading quips and dance moves as they go. In Sex and the City 2, the four heroines escape their relationship problems in Manhattan and go on a luxury trip to Abu Dhabi.

Both films are unashamedly unrealistic movies made during a serious recession, populated by characters who jet to exotic locations on a whim while wearing extravagant outfits. But there the similarities end. The world of Fred and Ginger is glamorous, but it’s an effortless, unforced glamour – unlike Sex and the City 2, where glamour is equated with conspicuous consumption. In Top Hat, Rogers plays Dale Tremont, a stylish young woman whose travels are funded by fashion designer Alberto Beddini, who hopes that “smart people” will see Dale in his gowns and make an order.

Beddini is fictional, but Sex and the City 2, with its obsessive label-dropping (the theme song of the last film was called Labels or Love), would never waste a chance to shoehorn in another glorified ad for a real designer. Top Hat’s costume designer was Bernard Newman, but his name is never mentioned in the movie. In Top Hatand its ilk, the gorgeous clothes and the exquisite art-deco rooms exist purely to create the fantasy world in which the witty, urbane characters live. It’s all part of a gorgeous fairytale – and we don’t feel like we’re being sold a label or a lifestyle to which we should aspire.

In Sex and the City 2, however, the clothes and surroundings are status symbols, shilling a lifestyle that we could enjoy if only we used our Visa cards a bit more often. It feels like a (very, very) long and boring ad – the grown-up equivalent of kids’ cartoons that purely exist to sell toys. Unlike the original TV series, which had heart, wit and quirky style, the characters’ acquisitiveness is now the whole point of huge chunks of the film, from the constant costume changes (including at least six garments by Halston, the label for which Sarah Jessica Parker is a chief executive designer) to the full Louboutin shopping bags presented to our heroines in the middle of the desert. This isn’t escapism. This is having our recession-hit noses rubbed in it.

When the four women arrive in Abu Dhabi, they’re transported to their luxury hotel in four individual cars. At the hotel, they’re waited on by devoted manservants. The servant characters of the 1930s may be comic, but they often have a subversive edge – they don’t quite treat their masters with the respect those masters assume is their due. The servants in Sex and the City 2, however, are utterly devoted to serving our heroines. In one scene, Carrie strolls on the beach as her Indian manservant, Guarau, silently holds a parasol over her head. The notes I took during my viewing of this scene are unprintable in a family newspaper.

The film does acknowledge the real world, in its own way. When planning the Abu Dhabi adventure, Samantha says: “We’ve had two years of bad business in a bullshit economy – I want to go somewhere rich!” Yes, Mr King, that’s how to cheer up your audiences. Remind them of what a terrible state the economy’s in and then obnoxiously celebrate your affluent characters’ love of spending loads of money on hideous crap.

Back in the 1930s, many of the most ostensibly frothy movies were firmly set against the backdrop of the real Depression. The Busby Berkeley extravaganza Gold Diggersof 1933 begins with showgirls singing We’re in the Money, featuring the lines: “The long-lost dollar has come back from the fold ... Old man Depression, you are through, you’ve done us wrong!” Despite this misguided optimism, the show in which the girls are performing is forced to close because of the producer’s debts (in true Hollywood style, everything works out in the end).

Of course, there was more to the movies of the 1930s than musicals and comedies. Before the Hays Code of 1934 demanded that bad guys should never be shown in a sympathetic light, the early 1930s saw the release of iconic gangster films such as Little Caesarand The Public Enemy, and one of the most successful films of that era was the notably unfrivolous I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which tells the story of an escaped convict’s harsh life. And some films highlighted the gaps between rich and (very) poor: Frank Capra’s heartwarming Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) sees the eponymous millionaire hero using his fortune to give land to dispossessed farmers.

But probably the best comment on movies and their relationship to economic recession is Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels. Made in 1941, it’s the story of idealistic film director John Sullivan, famed for such classics as Ants in Your Pants 1939. Sullivan wants to start making movies reflecting the fact that “there isn’t any work, there isn’t any money – these are troubled times!” And so he goes undercover as a hobo (initially followed by studio staff in a giant luxury bus).

But when his attempts to spread largesse among the poor backfire, he’s wrongfully arrested and forced into a brutal chain gang.

At the end of the film, having returned to his old life, Sullivan declares “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh! Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan!”

But although Sullivan decides against making socially conscious movies in favour of comedy, Sturges brilliantly shows that it’s perfectly possible to combine both genres. The film presents an unflinchingly harsh depiction of the underbelly of US society, from hobos to harshly treated convicts. But it’s also utterly hilarious – witty, subversive, and just plain silly.

Sullivan was right: laughter can release us from our worries when times are tough. Coupled with a frivolous setting and some showbiz sparkle, it can make for the perfect escapist treat. Alas, despite Michael Patrick King’s efforts, Sex and the City 2is simply too obnoxious and, crucially, unfunny to provide proper escapism. But in this may lie its true transformative power. In the 1930s, some left-wing commentators worried that uplifting movies were, as Hays suggested, distracting the public from the possibility of radical political change. The clueless consumerism celebrated in Sex and the City 2, however, will leave you yearning for revolution.

  • Sex and the City 2opens today.

Poverty in pictures: Depression movies

THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (1969)

Even if times are tough now, we can comfort ourselves with the fact that we probably won’t end up having to enter horrendous dance marathons to earn some cash.

ANNIE (1982)

If this film taught me anything as a small child, it’s that to survive the Depression you’d better get adopted by a billionaire.

CRADLE WILL ROCK (1999)

A fascinating drama looking at Roosevelt’s Federal Theatre Project, which funded theatrical productions during the Depression.

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000)

The title comes from the serious film Sullivan plans to make in Sullivan’s Travels, but this Coen Brothers romp about escaped convicts in the 1930s is anything but serious.