John Steinbeck comes across as, like many writers, somewhat ambivalent about the value of cinema. The short sequence from Chapter 23 of The Grapes of Wrath quoted in the last post is, however, far from a blanket condemnation of cinema. It closes with the suggestion that the light entertainment offered by mainstream Hollywood cinema has a value in helping those that ‘git enough sorrow’ to ‘git away from it’. If you haven’t seen this yet I suggest checking this out here.
Nevertheless cinema surely loses the battle when pitted against oral storytelling, which is seen as connected to the people and to their Nation’s intricate, complex history. The difference is between two forms of ‘popular’ storytelling, the latter seen as following this word’s originary meaning, ‘of the people’, the former perhaps not so much..
The tale from the man who was a ‘recruit against Geronimo’ proposes a version of American history that we would not ordinarily hear – that of the sympathy that some soldiers apparently had for their Native American foe. The figure of the Native American man here seems intended as a point of identification for those suffering through the Depression. They likewise might have felt tall and strong like this ‘brave’ and yet had now been cut down ‘All tore to pieces an’ little.’ This identification is clear as the storyteller describes him as appearing to the soldiers ‘like a cross’, linking him to the Christian image of unjust sacrifice.
Steinbeck’s claim to a breaking-down of racial barriers through oral storytelling seems to serve in part as a means of differentiation of this form from cinema. Indeed this sympathy for the Native American, significantly, was absent from movie Westerns at this time. This notion of the importance and value of empathetic identification across barriers in a time of crisis, seen here, is central to this novel as a whole, where the principal barrier is not, however, race but that of class.. Steinbeck’s novel as a whole wants to show his characters as more than their poverty.. as human beings in a fuller sense than capitalism would dictate.
And it’s implied that movies on the Depression don’t offer this kind of empathy. While in the movie the rich couple are pretending to be poor, the poor guy who’s just seen the movie can’t remember the moral of the story – suggesting this was probably pretty banal. The Depression is seen to be exploited as a subject matter only in order to sell cinema-tickets.. It seems all the glamour of Hollywood remains intact in spite of the trouble that the rest of the US was facing.
Still, the paralleling of the ‘Injun’ and cinema as being both in someway bigger than us is intriguing. Perhaps it suggests that cinema has something innate within it that might still have some potential.. The potential to tell the kind of a big story that Steinbeck is trying to get at in his book..
By the by, I gather Steinbeck very much liked John Ford’s movie of the book. I recommend checking this out if you haven’t seen it yet..