this cultured hell

Ah, the picture palaces of Times Square! Where once hordes of sailors could be found in attendance at pornogrphic epics, we now have corporate movie mansions showing overpriced advertisements on countless screens.

I was at the 10:15 pm showing of Million Dollar Baby last night (which I liked more than I thought I would; sentimental, for sure, but it consistently pitches itself just below bathos). Who goes to see a movie like that at that hour on a Tuesday night? Quite a few people, apparently! Including a middle-aged black woman with her ten-year-old daughter in tow. I'm not quite sure why the woman thought her daughter would enjoy a turgid, somewhat violent melodrama of broken dreams, but here they were.

Going to movies in New York City has made me appreciative of the audience participation dynamic. People in Boston definitely do not talk at the screen as much (at least white suburban people in Boston do not). It can be surreal, for example, to be watching Zhang Yimou's Hero and to have your neighbor exclaiming "Oh, no he didn't!" when the Ming dynasty warrior does somehting particularly surprising. Audience reaction at The Passion of the Christ was interesting: sniggers during it's more outrageous, extra-Bibclical gambits -- such as when the raven poked out the thief's eye on Golgotha. And at The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, audience laughter provided a virtual running commentary on the film's (considerable) homoerotic subtext [Remember that scene with all the Hobbits frolicking in bed while Ian and Orlando looked on paternally?]. New Yorkers will talk back to anyone, so why not the twelve foot high flickering shadow of an illuminated piece of plastic?

But it was weird to consider what kind of mother took her daughter out (on a school night) to see this movie. When we were introduced to Hilary Swank's trailer trash family, my neighbor said loudly "Those are some country-ass people!" Other times she would explain jokes or plot points to her remarkably well-behaved (and un-sleepy) daughter. I wanted to dislike this woman and think she was an "unfit mother" (like Hilary Swank's mother in the movie) -- and she probably was -- but it was too colorful an experience to arouse that kind of self-righteousness. Something about New York -- the crowdedness, I think -- promotes, or rather coerces, you into a grudging toleration of other people. There are just so many opportunites to become disgruntled with the people you're pressed up against that you couldn't possibly maintain that level of rage without snapping. You learn to live with it.

I just discovered this passage from "America," a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay (Hey, my first link! I'm really sophisicated now!), who was an immigrant from Jamaica to New York:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!


Anonymous wannabe disgruntled Voice cultural critic said...

I can't imagine enjoying Million Dollar Baby all that much as a ten-year-old. You raise a good point, though, that among the movies' many trite depictions, Clint Eastwood manages to perpetuate pop cultures' portrayal of poor whites as the last remaining PC stereotype in existence.

As a ten-year-old, I think I would have found those characters to be the best part of the movie.

Also, in defense of bad parenting, I must raise a technical point: as evidenced by the middle-aged women with whom I work (and they are numerous) whose children get to spend their vacation in the company of mentally ill adults, I believe that kids are on vacation this week.

7:36 PM  

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