Do difficult times make for better art? You could argue that the Italian cinema has never been as masterful as it was in the ruins of the post-World War II years when Vittoria De Sica in “The Bicycle Thief” and Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” made indelible film art from tragedy. And for decades Russian, Chinese and Iranian film directors have made their own masterworks in the face of state censorship.
Three current exhibitions at the Georgia Museum of Art focus on artworks created during America’s definitive national downturn, the Great Depression, and make their own case for how hardship can yield memorable art. In “Celebrating Heroes: American Mural Studies of the 1930s and 1940s,” “Women of the WPA” and “Larger Than Life: Mural Studies” artworks created under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA) show the endurance, flint and creativity of Americans in the worst of times. In conjunction with those exhibitions, the museum is presenting “1930s America,” a trio of films focused on one of the nation’s most challenging and difficult periods.
“Enough to Live On: the Arts of the WPA,” 7 p.m. Aug. 29
For all of its despair, the Great Depression also heralded a remarkable boon for the creative arts with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration which gave artists, designers, musicians and other creatives the opportunity to create artwork to celebrate American identity and progress. Director Michael Maglaras — who wrote, directed and narrated this documentary on the artwork that came to define 1930s and 1940s America — has created a fairly conventional doc, though fans of this definitive period in art making will find much to chew on in its comprehensive survey of the era’s artistic contributions.
“The Grapes of Wrath,” 7 p.m. Sept. 5
One of the rare instances of a film adaptation with a comparable power to its literary source, quintessential American director John Ford (“Stagecoach,” “The Searchers”) in 1940 adapted John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Depression-era masterwork, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Steinbeck’s story of the travails of the Joad family as they traveled from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl to the promised land of the West cast Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, a recently released convict who wears the wary expression and stooped shoulders of someone who is used to enduring life’s blows. Muddling through even the worst indignities, the Joad family sticks together, led by the steely but sad-eyed Ma (Jane Darwell). Few films have captured the grit and decency of the American character, but also its fragility, as the Joads are dashed upon the rocks of misfortune, exploited and abused by a power structure that cares more for money and control than it does for people. An enduring, often emotionally wrenching classic, Ford’s film knows no historical boundaries, but feels as immediate and applicable today as it did when it was made. The film won Ford a best director Oscar and Jane Darwell a best actress award and its cinematography by the legendary Gregg Toland (the man behind “Citizen Kane”) is as beautiful and harrowing as the WPA work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.
“Paper Moon,” 7 p.m. Sept. 12
Though Peter Bogdanovich made this salty and sweet tale of a Depression-era con-artist in 1973, in many ways he captured the sense of desperation, the grubbiness and creativity of the hard scrabble life in his deeply quirky depiction of the 1930s. In a career-defining performance Ryan O’Neal plays a ne’er do well grifter in ’30s Kansas, Moses Pray, who travels the country masquerading as a Bible salesman and bilking widows out of their cash. But he meets his match when he shows up at an ex-girlfriend’s funeral and chances upon her young orphaned child Addie Loggins (played by O’Neal’s real-life daughter Tatum O’Neal in her screen debut), who we suspect is also his progeny. Promising to transport the tow-headed waif to distant kin in Missouri, the pair set off on a journey during which Moses schools Addie on the art of the con and the seemingly innocent young thing realizes she has a special gift — and love — for grift. An unconventional love story in every sense, the sandpaper affection these two uncommonly jaded characters develop for each other conveys the spirit of another, more difficult age, when emotions were tamped down and survival was key. But there are moments of incredible warmth, too, and a growing sense you can see in the shrewd 8-year-old Addie’s eyes, that she loves her father not despite his flaws, but because of them. Hard-boiled, but with a gooey center, “Paper Moon” delves into rum-running, prostitution, racism and the grittier byways of Depression-era America but retains an effervescent, winsome attitude as its resourceful characters, like any family, make it through life the best they can. Bogdanovich’s buddy and fellow director Orson Welles suggested that Bogdanovich shoot “Paper Moon” in black and white and that inspired choice only adds to the grubby-meets-enchanted ambiance.
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