Writing & The Pursuit of Happyness

I have a bit of a propensity to avoid writing. It’s not that I dislike writing, I don’t; it’s more like I can’t be bothered to write out something once I’ve figured it out in my head. This explains how I approach essays and papers — once it’s in my head, that is to say, once I’ve assembled and arranged my research and my arguments, writing the actual essay is akin to moving a mountain. It also explains why I don’t blog much. If I really need to get something out, I might spill it out to an unsuspecting (and nonplussed) acquaintance — who perhaps writes off my momentary lapse of restraint to my eccentricity (or, weirdness), and as this occurrence replicates itself he may simply consider it to be the cost of engaging in otherwise mundane conversations with me (few, and happily, far between). When I can’t do that, I may end up typing whatever it is out, in a blog post. Other times — and this is perhaps most of the times I do write — I’m motivated by anger, frustration, or a pensive (or nostalgic) mood. Sometimes I may rant to a person and then refine that into a blog post.

I also don’t seem to find the time to indulge in fiction — that is to say, reading novels or watching many films (I do follow certain television shows regularly, though). The last novel I read was To Kill a Mockingbird out of some sense of obligation to my general schooling — though it was never on the curriculum. Until yesterday, the last film I can remember having actually sat down to watch was Spider-Man 3 — in the cinema — that is, not including documentaries. I’m no film critic or theorist — and to the extent that I’m interested in film criticism and theory, it’s for general aesthetic principles and not because of my love of the medium — there is no list of films sitting on my desktop waiting to be consummated. I read and watch far more non-fiction than I do fiction. Indeed, when recently asked if I read fiction, I responded, “Yes, I read the news.” This dearth of fiction doesn’t include comics, of course. I have almost an obsession with the medium, which means I read just about everything I can get my hands on, when I get the time to do so.

In the past few days I’ve been reading plays written by Bertolt Brecht (his plays are much easier to find than his poetry or his works on aesthetic theory) and have started on his novelization of his play, Threepenny Opera — the novel, aptly enough, is titled Threepenny Novel. Additionally, in the past two days I downloaded and watched several films, some of which I’ve been meaning to watch for a long time: Hitch, Hero, Thank You For Smoking, Art School Confidential, Stranger Than Fiction, and The Pursuit of Happyness.

Although all of these films, in their own ways, have something to say about love, life, politics and happiness, the last in particular — The Pursuit of Happyness — raised my ire most.

As ought to be obvious from the title, the film is all about the fulfillment of the American dream. Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a low-income Black man who invested all his savings into buying portable bone density scanning machines. He later finds out that they don’t sell well, and his partner, Linda, ends up pulling double shifts at her sweatshop job to support the family — they have a five-year old son, named Christopher. Frustrated by what she feels is Chris’s inability to carry his share, Linda leaves him to go to New York — and she leaves Christopher with him, too. The rest of the film documents Chris’s attempts to acquire a position as a stockbroker with Dean Witter and to take care of his son, as they are shuffled around the streets of San Francisco without money and shelter. After undergoing a strenuous (and unpaid) internship at Dean Witter, Chris finally becomes a stockbroker. Captions that interrupt the film near the end inform us that Chris went on to found his own investment group, becoming a multi-millionaire. Through hard work and determination one can achieve the American dream. What’s better is that the story is inspired (not based) upon the true story of the real life Chris Gardner.

When I first read the review of this film in the Toronto Star, by Geoff Pevere, I thought perhaps he was being too harsh. But he wasn’t being harsh enough. The film, ostensibly about poverty (but not really), has little other than “loathing and contempt” for the poor (to use Pevere’s words) — and just about every thing in the film designed to poke at one’s emotional sensibilities is, well, a lie.

Moreover, these lies are used to reinforce a conception of the poor (the Black, the Chinese, the Arab, the hippie) as being untrustworthy, bitter and/or self-serving, whereas the (white) rich people are all so kind, benevolent, open-minded and fair. Consider, for instance, a scene where Gardner asks a hippie girl playing the guitar to watch his bone density scanner for a few minutes. He notices that she runs off with it — his only means of contributing to his household — and he is unable to catch up with her. However, he does several days later, when he takes it back from her on a bus. In real life, this never happened (chiefly because the real life Chris Gardner never sold bone density scanners to begin with). On the other hand, though Gardner runs into an interview unkempt and splattered with paint, the (rich, white) interviewers graciously give him a chance to prove himself based on his tenacity and candour. This probably never happened in real life either.

Others: his poor black neighbour is shown to be stingy on $14 he owes to Gardner despite the latter being at his wit’s end, his poor Chinese daycare operator is shown to be careless, his poor Latina partner is shown to be an uncaring gold digger (oh, Linda never existed in real life, either). But the rich white men, lord, they take him to football games to sit in the box, and they pay back their $5-owing (showing how, even though it’s such a trivial sum, they do pay back!), they don’t judge based on appearances, etc. The dichotomy set up is remarkably false, and, considering the film is set in 1981 San Francisco, it amazes me that there is not even a whiff — no, not even a whiff — of racism directed at Chris Gardner. This, after all, is truly American.

Most of the film is just designed to hit you over the head with image after image of his descent into utter poverty: sleeping in a bathroom, sleeping in shelters, carrying all of his belongings all over town (because he has nowhere else to stash them), repairing a bone density scanner so that he can sell it and make money to feed his insanely cute kid and stay in a hotel instead of the poor people shelter. Your eyes should perpetually be full of tears. And of course, the Americana: a great big American flag hanging over the entrance to the offices of Dean Witter; and a scene where Christopher drops his Captain America doll action figure, signifying, I suppose, the death of the American dream — but no! not really because it all works out soon enough (I should note that this scene — where the kid drops his action figure — was the most emotionally jarring scene for me).

There’s no discussion of the structural and material conditions that cause and perpetuate poverty. If the poor are poor, it’s because they’re poor, that is to say, they’re petty and live day-to-day instead of planning ahead and working hard like Chris Gardner. Happiness is all about big houses, private boxes at football games and shiny cars. And really, anyone can achieve that, if they work hard enough. Too bad the film makers had to falsify the entire narrative to prove this “true story.” Smith, and his real life son, Jaden Smith, both put in amazing performances.

If you want to look at a serious analysis of the “American dream” and Black poverty, watch HBO’s The Wire. It, too, is inspired by true stories, but it takes the time to develop them — dare I say, realistically.

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