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January 24, 2003

What Kind of Total Disregard for Humanity Do You Have?

In reality it may not often happen that a scullery maid marries the owner of a Rolls Royce. But doesn't every Rolls Royce owner dream that scullery maids dream of rising to his stature?

Siegfried Kracauer, "The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies"

Class mobility is back in the news, kids, and it's up to me, as Hyde Park's foremost chronicler of the Apr├Ęs-New-Sincerity Movement to bring it down into bite-sized pieces everyone can understand, like a Spielberg movie. In fact, that's where I'll begin. Young Spielberg presented us with a trifle of a movie over the Christmas holiday, Catch Me If You Can, and most reviews commended it for being a nice, simple, movie about a young boy who does not want to grow up. In other words, it fit into the standard Spielberg-not-gunning-for-Oscar entertainment genre. Yet the reviews, maybe so happy to see Spielberg step away from moralizing, or happy to see Leonardo DiCaprio playing a "light" role failed to note the most important aspect of Catch Me If You Can: it does not have a happy ending.

Frank Abagnale Jr., having been caught by the FBI, gets offered a job in their check fraud department instead of rotting in jail. It seems like a good gig, especially compared to jail, but in the first short we see of Abagnale at his first day of work, we see him walk through a field sown by office desks in full bloom. In other words, at the end of the movie, Abagnale walks through one of the first shots of Wilder's The Apartment, a shot that helps establish what a schmoe Buddy Boy is. All the glamour of being a doctor, a lawyer, a pilot is gone. He's now no different than an insurance bean counter.

But that glamour is what makes Catch Me so interesting in terms of class. Several reviews I read pinned Abagnale's eagerness to form fake identities on an eagerness to escape divorce or to please his slightly corrupt father. Yet those reviews lazily overlook the fact that Abagnale's first self-motivated scam is pretending to be a substitute teacher in high school--before he catches his mother trampin', before his parents split up. Abagnale relishes being in a position of power. He likes making the jerk guy embarrass himself in class. He likes having women look up to him. And that response he gets as a substitute teacher informs his later moving up the social ladder. He becomes a pilot because in the '60s, being a pilot was still glamorous--and it's also easy to recognize a pilot, as he is always in uniform. These days, we have people like Patrick Smith to tell us that airline pilots are basically bus drivers with wings, but back then, peeps was impressionable.

Once the pilot mystique has run its course, Abagnale moves higher, into the real seats of American professional power (at least as indicated by Tocqueville): law and medicine. It's not quite as easy to tell who is a lawyer and who is a doctor, but Abagnale feasts upon the prejudices people have about lawyers and doctors. The Strong family welcomes him in as some sort of gift from above--just the right person to meet the otherworldly standards they have placed upon their poor daughter. And even though his eagerness to settle down with Nancy suggests that he simply wants a regular family life, he still turns his back on her to move on, with madness short on his tails. Why Frank loses it is a bit unclear to me, but I would suppose it's because he has seen the sham of American society. He's seen class structures, and he's wanted to transcend them. And like above, he's bought the Rolls Royce to try and fit the role, but he's ultimately unsuccessful. Class mobility can't buy him love--yet at the same time, without his attempt, he would not have felt what it was like to love. Abagnale both knowledgably uses Kracauer's "secret mechanisms of society," and, at the same time, can't make them work perfectly for him.

One evening an elegant gentleman, doubtless a person of some standing in the clothes trade, enters the lobby of a big-city night club in the company of his girlfriend. It is obvious at first glance that the girlfriend's side-line is to stand behind a counter for eight hours. The cloakroom lady addresses the girlfriend: "Perhaps Madam would like to leave her coat?"

Kracauer, The Salaried Masses

At the same time, however, one can't help but think that Abagnale got as far as he did in the movie precisely because he had DiCaprio's stunning good looks. The character uses sex appeal and his attractiveness to win women over left and right. He always chooses the woman to pass his bad cheque to, and in one telling scene, we see his game fall apart when he has to deal with a male bank teller. This suggests that women are simply suckers for good-looking men (which may be true--who can begin to list the number of instances where comedy jokes or tragedy ensued from flipping the positions of the genders). If that's the case, then, the producers over at Fox have done us all a disservice by casting Evan Marriott in the title role of Joe Millionaire. The premise of the show is rather simple: women want money and will do crazy things to try and win the heart of a bachelor. But, Fox shows, in order to prove that women want money, we'll give them a fake millionaire. As a result, in the last episode, we'll see tears as fairy tale dreams come tearing apart.

But Evan, while not the hottest of men to ever grace my television screen, is still rather good-looking. And, furthermore, he seems intensely earnest. He wants to meet a girl who's nice and likes him for him, not some gold-digger. If Fox wanted to show us that women are all gold-diggers (which is obviously false), then they should have cast a startlingly ugly jerk. Then we could see the women try to come to terms as they balanced jerkitude with money. In other words, it would have been a regular night out in Lincoln Park.

Speaking, then, of Lincoln Park, and to involve the little line of Kracauer above, ultimately I feel sorry for the contestants involved, who seem to all be people I met the last time I was queued up in front of Barleycorn's. I'm certain that Fox was eager to present them as a team of shrill harpies, but I see them, instead, as slightly shrill pigeons. They are, to a woman, being mocked for wanting precisely what every person never helped by a Bush tax cut wants: upward mobility. They all have jobs that are not particularly exciting--and the euphemisms run pretty deep in the descriptions, also. They were all taught, because we're, you know, in fucking America, to wish for a Mr. Right who, among other things, can lift them out of mediocrity and into money.

In other words, we mock them for following to the letter what we've taught them from day one. And they eat it up. They love being driven around in the fancy old-timey car. (Is it Melissa who says it was either a Bentley or a Rolls, but whatever it was, it was expensive?) They love abandoning the whateverness they left behind and being called "Madam" at the coat check. If that's proof that "women are insane," as Bill Simmons, in a disappointingly common spasm of misogyny, says, then, well, j'accuse. As long as he helps keep the status quo in place, we should not be surprised that people behave as they are expected to.