The Grapes of Wrath

by Andrew

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Don’t ask me how I ended up inside on the 4th of July watching The Grapes of Wrath. Doing so did seem like a proper summation of the way I live in a lot of ways, but that’s probably a post for some other time.

I found the movie far more powerful tonight than when I’d first seen it, outdoors in Bryant Park in New York, maybe 8 or 9 years ago. Back then I was seeing the Monday night outdoor screenings most weeks, making my way to the park at around 6 and holding down a blanket with friends until nightfall for the classic movie series that plays there in summer. I remember finding the movie fairly hokey, and a sad document of the traps mainstream cinema so often falls prey to when reconciling complex pieces of writing with the demands of the two-hour feature format.

Watching it tonight, I was reminded of how jarring it had been to watch grown men cry in American Dream, a documentary by Barbara Kopple about an ill-fated strike at a Hormel plant in Minnesota. I remember being pulled in by the natural drama of the strike, but feeling not so much a lack of compassion as a lack of understanding when the men broke down as they realized they were no longer able to provide for their families. I simply did not have the life experience to understand the extent to which providing for one’s family can be a core element of a person’s being.

Since then, I have gone through a number of big life changes – getting married, moving to support my spouse, finishing grad school, moving again, this time more permanently – and the number of elements in my life that feel preparatory has dropped. With most everything in my life, I now feel like I am doing what I have set out to do rather than getting ready for something else, and I feel like I better understand the burden that comes with having others depend on you, not to mention the stronger connection to home as a place of safety and development.

The complete and utter desperation embodied by the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath is truly extraordinary. Though the film ultimately cops out on its depiction of the Joad family specifically (and the poor working class in general), the stark, visceral power of Ford’s imagery can’t be overstated. Seeing a family home razed in seconds by a tractor that never stops and never slows is uncanny. The trust that the entire family puts in one flawed man is universal. The willingness to work for food but not to beg like an animal is simple and powerful.

I think it should also be noted that the sense of tragedy that hangs over the entire film does not seem to put the viewer in a superior position. It is not a farcical or even historically-distanced position that Ford creates for the viewer. Though he clearly gives the family certain showy charms, he meets their plight at their level (not ours) and roots it in their desires for home and dignity. Henry Fonda’s multifaceted criminal is sympathetic not just because he is trying to save his family from starvation, but because he demands that they be able to earn what they are given.

As a filmmaker, I simply do not have the opportunity to make as many films as my imagination warrants. The nature of the beast is that you have to pick and choose, and spend your time wisely. As a result, I spend as much time thinking about subjects as anything else. What are the things that are worth years of my time? The answers to that question are invariably things that are true, and things that have the power to captivate me, personally, forever. That ‘forever’ is surprisingly subjective and ever-shifting, but the subjects need to have the power to captivate again and again in whatever forms they take on over time.

As I mentioned in one of the first posts on this blog, the motivation for writing Nor’easter was not only the subjects of faith, naiveté, and control, but also the desire to address something from the real world that I did not fully understand. For me, the irrational bridge that exists between the existence of nothing and the existence of something is forever interesting.

Tonight I felt like The Grapes of Wrath was a film that was about a subject that could be endlessly interesting to me, but that hadn’t been when I first came to it. I think it speaks to the power and the truth in its subject that its meaning can shift so dramatically for me over the course of a few years. Still have no idea what moved my wife to play it on Independence Day but hey.