We’ll always have the movies – giving a narrative to chaos, sound familiar?

A wonderful surprise on the last day: a wonderful talk on the American cinema during WWII. I arrived 5 minutes before the start and was lucky to get a seat. Let me just say that by this point I was’t quite sure how I was still vertical so this talk was going to have to be something a bit special to prevent me from entering a longed-for slumber. Well, it was better than that.
Quick fact: 90million Americans went to the cinema every week during WWII. So why and what were they watching? The speakers, husband and wife Robert McLaughlin and Sally Parry, chose their subject carefully, Hollywood films made between 1937 and 1946. Anything after is a different kettle of fish because by then, we all knew how the war ended, but before and during were very uncertain times when information was fragmentary and confusing. What the movies did was provide a coherent narrative that enabled people to find meaning in all the mayhem.
An engaging two-handed presentation style of talking interspersed with video clips (yes, video – remember that?) illustrated and illuminated what is actually social commentary. Casablanca was the opener, the scene where the Marseillaise is invoked to counter the strident Nazi officers’ fatherland song. The point was made that this provided answers for why the US needed to get involved in the war that was so far away – that bickering and local differences needed to be shelved as freedom was at stake. I had never seen this film on a big screen before and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled, I can tell you.
Hollywood found ways to make connections with far-flung places in the Pacific that no one had ever heard of before but where now husbands and sons were fighting. The device of showing a map and arrows marking progress may be a cliche now but it showed the folks back home where their boys were; in effect this extended the West Coast of the USA all the way across the Pacific.
These films showed that everyone had their chance to be a hero, not just the pilots and the officers, but mechanics could save the day too. Finally, there is the issue of the boys that went away to war but came home men, and what they came home to. You may well be surprised how relevant these films are still and how risque many were too in terms of social comment and content.
The speakers answered a ton of questions too. They were funny and they were entertaining and their material was far more thought-provoking than I expected. In the end we were all but forcefully ejected from the room because we ran over time!
I’m ordering a copy of their book!Books_121907_movies
I urge the powers that be to book this couple for next year – and get a bigger room ‘cos you’ll fill it. Word is out on this.
What’s it got to do with our profession? Well it’s interesting and we like interesting, don’t we. But it just made me realise that we spend our working lives trying to construct a narrative for chaotic times and lives, finding points off which people can hang meaning – giving fine detail and wider context.
And just having fun.
And of course, Seth Godin rocked, what else did you expect 😉

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