RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Tough times can be a springboard for creativity. When no one's job is safe, no one's house secure, and no one knows exactly what to do about it, artists get to work. They give us new understandings of what it means to live without a safety net, and they provide an outlet for our anxieties. NPR's Lynn Neary has this report.

LYNN NEARY: The Depression was a time of great stress, says Temple University professor Miles Orvell, but it was also a period of great creativity.

Mr. MILES ORVELL (English and American Studies Professor, Temple University): That kind of stress often results in the need to scream in some way, and art is a way of screaming. So I think difficult times like the ones we are experiencing today can really bring out a kind of expressive culture in an interesting way, and certainly that's what happened during the 1930s during the Great Depression.

NEARY: Artists, actors, writers and filmmakers — some funded by the government — combined curiosity with creativity to find and tell the stories of people affected by the Depression. Books "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and "Grapes Of Wrath" depicted life in the Depression in stark terms. And, says Orvell, directors like Frank Capra used the popular medium of film to educate the public. In 1936, Capra made "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," the story of a man who unexpectedly inherits millions and decides to give it away after he is confronted by a desperate farmer.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town")

Mr. JOHN WRAY (Actor): (As Farmer) I just wanted to see what kind of a man you were. I just wanted to see what a man looked like that could spend thousands of dollars on a party while people around him are hungry. The Cinderella man, huh? Did you ever stop to think how many families could have been fed on the money you pay out to get on the front pages?

NEARY: Films like these, says Orvell, helped the middle class understand what was happening to those who had lost everything in the Depression. These days, even as we are just beginning to adjust to a new reality, there are already some films that provide insight into how this economic free fall is changing lives, says New York Times film critic A. O. Scott.

Mr. A.O. Scott (New York Times Film Critic): I think that very good filmmakers, like, you know, novelists or other artists, have an ability to see a little bit ahead, or to notice things that are happening in the world before they kind of come to the surface.

NEARY: The themes of poverty, unemployment and economic distress play a strong role in movies like "Frozen River," says Scott. And he says, you can't help but think about the collapse of the U.S. auto industry as you watch Clint Eastwood's "Grand Torino." But the film that gets closest to the raw fear of what can happen when a person's life begins to unravel economically is "Wendy And Lucy," the story of a young woman who has set out for Alaska to find work and gets stuck along the way with no money, no car, no home and no job.

(Sound bite of "Wendy And Lucy")

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS (Actress): (As Wendy) Not a lot of jobs around here, huh?

Mr. WALLY DALTON (Actor): (As Security Guard) Huh, I'll say. There used to be a mill, but it's been closed a long time now.

Ms. WILLIAMS (Actress): (As Wendy) I can't get a job without an address anyway.

Mr. DALTON: (As Security Guard) Huh, you can't get an address without an address, you can't get a job without a job.

NEARY: This film, says Scott, doesn't set out to make a grand statement about the state of the economy.

Mr. SCOTT: It sort of just traces this one young woman's experience. And I think, in a way, just by doing that, by following that story, intuited some of the other stuff that was going on. And in fact, even though, you know, we were in an orgy of consumer spending and seemed to be just awash in money, for a lot of people that hasn't been so. And it may be that those people were kind of the, you know, the canaries in the coal mine.

(Soundbite of "Feel No Pain" performed by Sade Adu)

Mr. SADE ADU (Singer): (Singing) Mama been laid off, Papa been laid off, my brother's been laid off for more than two years now…

NEARY: Being laid off seems to be an almost universal fear these days. And perhaps no one has tapped in to the psychology of layoffs better than author Joshua Ferris in his novel "Then We Came To The End." It's a funny and often poignant look at what happens to a group of workers in an advertising agency who live in constant fear of losing their jobs. Written after the dot com bust it could as easily be set in an office today. But Ferris says he really had no idea what was coming.

Mr. JOSHUA FERRIS (Author, "Then We Came To The End"): It's materialized in a way that is far more pervasive and far more frightening than anything that I experienced personally working in the professional world and anything that I really could have imagined as I was writing "Then We Came To The End."

NEARY: Fear, anger, sorrow — a whole welter of emotions take hold of these workers as they watch their colleagues leave the work place for the last time.

Mr. FERRIS: (Reading) On the drive home, we puzzled over who was next. Scott McMichaels was next. His wife had just had a baby. Sharon Turner was next. She and her husband had just purchased a house. Names, just names to anyone else, but to us, they were the individuals who generated our greatest sympathy. The ones who put their things in a box, shook a few hands, and left without complaint.

NEARY: As fearful as these characters are of losing the economic security their jobs ensure, Ferris says there is something else that is lost when their jobs are gone.

Mr. FERRIS: The characters lose something that they never knew they had, which was a community. They took it for granted, and when layoffs came, and the agency collapsed, they lost that community. And I think that's the most human aspect of what's lost.

NEARY: Of course, says A.O. Scott, books and films that dwell on the downside of the economy may not be exactly what the public wants right now. These days, Scott says, we want our realism leavened by a touch of magic, which he says, explains the seemingly unstoppable popularity of "Slumdog Millionaire."

Mr. SCOTT: It says, you know, the world is terrible, there's poverty and want and cruelty, but it can also be OK — some kind of happy ending is possible. I don't think any of us can deny that it works that when you are sitting in the theater, you feel the relief that this movie offers.

NEARY: And remember, Scott says, back in the dark days of the Depression, people flocked to the movies to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance the night away.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of "Swing Time")

Mr. FRED ASTAIRE (Actor): (As John "Lucky" Garnett) (Singing) Someday when I'm awfully low, when the world…

MONTAGNE: You can see scenes from a couple of modern movies about hard times and there's an excerpt from Joshua Ferris's novel "Then We Came To The End" at npr.org.

Mr. ASTAIRE: (As John "Lucky" Garnett) (Singing) …the way you look tonight.

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