For most of us, the impressions we have of the United States are gained not by visiting the country, by travelling along Route 66 or sitting in some bar which has been immortalised by Edward Hopper, but by watching one or more films put out by Hollywood. It’s fair to say that these films appear in cinemas more often than local ones: to see a German film you have to travel, or take pot luck, and many are shown for one or two nights and then consigned to the wait queue for early evening television, while the American films tend to run for one or two weeks and, of course, bring in a far higher financial return. This means we tend to take a certain picture of life in the United States home with us which, since most people tend to watch fewer documentaries but always catch the bad news, are not always good.
Take, as an example, life in your average American High School. Watch any film – aside from the caramel Hallmark ones, and those determined to give a moral based on Christian principles which must always end happily – and you will see a set scenario: a new person comes to the school; the school has a group of beautiful cheerleaders led by a bitter and egotistical teenager from a very rich family who is the girlfriend of the football team captain; there is a football team filled with bulky but ignorant bullies with a handsome but very short-sighted and jealous captain; there is one single teacher in the whole school who is interested in the welfare of his or her students, and he or she is misunderstood and reviled by the other staff and the school principal; the newcomer to the school is an outsider who must find their way in and, eventually, either takes the captain of the football team as her boyfriend, or the leader of the cheerleaders as his girlfriend, or defeats all the odds and becomes the football team captain, the top cheerleader. I think you can fit this scenario to about ninety percent of the High School films which come out of the United States, and that going back to the end of the Fifties, start of the Sixties, with few changes.
Each film has its small group of Geeks and Nerds, Jocks and Outsiders alongside the two main groups and the hero or heroine of the peace who, it is fair to say, will always come from a family with problems, just moved to town, usually a one-parent family where Mom or Dad has to work all the time, often two jobs, to keep everything from collapsing, has no time for the children and always tries to put a brave face on anything that happens. A classic example would be Grease, or Teenwolf, both of which had follow-up films – really inspirationally titled Grease 2 and Teenwolf 2 – where the story line of the second film was exactly the same as that of the first, just with different actors. Oh, and not forgetting: vampires are always very old, but fit as teenagers into the High School every single time. If there are ghosts or spirits from the after world involved, they will always go for the outsider who, luckily, will be able to understand them, and free the trapped spirit from its prison after a few chances, scares, being locked in at least one room, and visions of the poor child have appeared in mirrors seen by us, the viewer, but not always by the hero or heroine. Correct me if I am wrong, but that sums up almost all of the High School films produced by Hollywood in the last five decades. And this, of course, is the impression we poor Europeans, who know no better, have of all High Schools in the United States.
So, now we come on to films about prisons which, as you can guess, are all stereotypes as well. We have the brand new warden who fights the corrupt prison system against all the odds, and wins. We have the outsider coming into a prison and being confronted by gangs who warn him off themselves and everyone else, as well as guards who push him down, assault him and generally make life hard for him, or her. The new prisoner is either innocent of all the crimes he or she has been jailed for, or a brilliant mind who can turn anything to his or her own advantage. There will be a few scuffles and an escape plan, and the innocent man will be caught up in the whole event, unwillingly let loose on the world, but shackled to his worst enemy. Or, in the case of the brilliant mind, he will simply change his clothes, shave off his beard, and walk out through the front door, or crawl out through the sewage system which is never, ever, secured and always runs right behind his cell. There will have been a massive fight and a short lockdown, one or two people sent to solitary, perhaps even a shot fired in the air, and there you have your film. Based, of course, on a true story, because that always brings in the crowds.
So, these are the pictures, along with gangs, racial hatred, corruption and injustice Hollywood lets us see of the American Way Of Life. A small town sheriff who is corrupt and working for a small town Big Boss. Cops and lawyers who deal or are alcoholics and on their last legs, but still win the case. Students who come from being the outsider to win as the most popular in the school, raised up on everyone’s shoulders, while the former football captain, the former cheerleader, stands on the sidelines smouldering, but admitting their loss and moving on as a loser or has-been.
So, when you write about a lockdown which last ten or twelve days instead of the usual seven or eight, it comes as something of a surprise and, at the same time, is hard to quantify. Lockdown, for me, is everyone in their cells and those who fought off to the pen for a while. I’ve never really considered how long a lockdown could last, because such an event is alien to my own way of life, and to the life I assume exists in the prison system in the USA. I take it that there is good control, that matters can be cleared up quickly, and that those who are responsible are removed from the arena so everyone else can get on with their lives as if (almost) nothing had happened. The idea of someone being confined to their cell – although I have always known that it happens – day and night for a longer period of time, or only being allowed a very limited time out to eat or exercise, is something which has never really come across. Perhaps because I have only seen these stereotyped films from Hollywood, perhaps because there is, of necessity, a certain degree of secrecy surrounding the prison service, the methods and means of incarceration.
I often hear people complain that their day has been boring, or that they are doing the same tasks day-in and day-out and it’s getting too much for them. I wonder why people have chosen the life they have, since it is often a choice initially and there are always ways to make it better, if they knew that this is what the result would be. It is clear that anyone serving in a shop is going to be working with customers who, sometimes, are not going to be friendly or who simply do not understand something. It is clear that anyone working in a call centre, as a salesperson especially, is going to get verbal abuse. It is also clear that a job as a bookkeeper, balancing the accounts, is going to be very one-sided, the same things every single day no matter how you twist and turn it. We, of course, have the advantage of leisure time when, depending on our interests and capabilities, we can set the workday to one side, literally forget it, and do something we enjoy. For some this may well be watching television, shouting at a football game referee or a talk-show host, guessing all the answers before a contestant, cooking and baking according to how the professionals have shown us. For others, such as myself, it is travel, reading, writing and learning. We are lucky enough to have this level of freedom, and I have never been able to understand anyone who does not take advantage of what they have and use their time to the best of the abilities. So many who put things off until they enter their pension, and then find that they’re too weak to do all those things they planned as a twenty-something, or simply buckle up and die before their time.
And then I see people stuck in wheelchairs and with diseases from which they know there is no chance of recovery, and they’re right there, in the middle of life, doing their best and getting the most out of what they can do. So many complainers, so few who are prepared to do something about it. Perhaps they all watch the same Hollywood films and believe that this is what life is all about, there is no need to do anything else, and it will all repeat itself anyway. And I write to people who are incarcerated, who have little opportunity to do anything but follow a routine, and they are still making the best of what they have, still learning, still corresponding and keeping up with life elsewhere, even if they can’t physically take part in it themselves. But this is what life is all about: making use of what you have, regardless of the circumstances, and not wasting your time. Not looking forward to your final breath as a living being on this small rock hurtling through space, and the prospect of knowing that you didn’t take advantage of your time, and passing over with nothing but regrets.
Of course, we all have regrets, we all wish we had or had not done something in our lives, that we’d taken a different route, listen to someone else’s advice, turned away from things which were too inviting, but dangerous. You cannot go through life without making mistakes, and you most certainly cannot learn without making any mistakes; but not taking opportunities, that is something else entirely. It is what we do with our daily lives, with the time that we have now, which makes the difference and which, even when we don’t necessarily appreciate it at the time, disposes of these future regrets.
I think it is one of the great pleasures of life to watch future generations as they take their first steps in life. My own granddaughter is now fourteen months old and running around her house, keeping my daughter fit and active, exploring, making a mess, learning, and doing all the things a small child does, all the things we did as small children. The fact that I don’t get to see her every day, since we live quite a distance apart, is mitigated by the contact I have with this one, last, small part of my family and the knowledge that all the chances I would wish, all the chances I can help to provide are there even when I am not. There are so many things we, as parents and grandparents, do which are only appreciated later, sometimes many years later, but which we know will help everything come out fine and dandy. Perhaps, alongside the things we do for ourselves, seeing how we have helped influence our children and grandchildren through our acts, words and everything else, regardless of where we are, is one of the most pleasurable feelings known to man. And at least we know that our families, the real people we know personally, are not part of a stereotyped Hollywood movie designed just to amuse and reap in profits, but part of real life, the real world and, above all, part of our real world.