Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Speculative Theory-Making about Cultural History

In the current issue of the New Yorker, there is a rather unscientific survey of 20th century American culture that leads author Adam Gopnik to make the rather specious claim that mass culture gravitates towards the production and consumption of literature, art, music, and film expressing nostalgia for (or celebration of) the culture of forty years prior. To marshal evidence in support of this idea, Gopnik gives a handful of examples where high-profile artists have looked to the quadri-decennial past for inspiration.

Somewhat persuasive are his observations that the 1970's brought forth several gangster flicks hearkening back to the depression era (though I'd note that it was during the depression that the original romanticizing of 1920's, prohibition-era gangsters took place), and that the 1980's were a ripe time for WWII films (to which I'd add that WWII has been a consistently popular subject for film through the 1990's and into the 21st century).

Particularly questionable are his claims that The Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Your Mother Should Know" are examples of "1920's pastiche," and that the 1990's were in any way nostalgic for the 1950's (his hilarious evidence: the Will Smith-starrer "Men in Black"). Gopnik also requires some creative math to explain why the current interest in Mad Men—which originally prompted this revelation—refers to the early-to-mid sixties, closer to fifty years ago.

As much as I think that Gopnik's theory is total bunk, it is a fun undertaking to speculate how this sudden surge of mass interest in certain subjects comes about. Gopnik's essay is a slightly more sophisticated version of Cynthia's "theory" in the film Dazed and Confused, which is itself a film made in the year 1993 about the year 1976 (a seventeen-year-cultural-retrospective theory anyone?): "It's like the every-other-decade theory, you know? The '50s were boring, the '60s rocked, and the '70s-- Oh, my god, they obviously suck. Come on. Maybe the '80s will be radical. You know?" These attempts to impose order on the process of cultural evolution is understandable: the pace of change within American culture is frightening, and if we had some predictive system, like a cultural forecast, then we'd feel at least slightly sheltered from the changing weather of tastes and trends.

It is tempting to suggest, for example, that the 1990's disaster movie (“Twister,” “Armaggedon,” “Deep Impact,” “Volcano,” “Dante’s Peak,” etc.) arose out of a sense of anxiety about the eschatological implications of the new millennium. I suspect, though, that the timing had more to do with the more prosaic fact of evolving film technology, and how CG suddenly made possible all of these large-canvas films that otherwise would have had to rely on <gasp> actors playing out the subjective emotional reality of characters facing the end-of-days. It suddenly became much easier for studios to green-light more effects-heavy projects, knowing that the result would be in the surer hands of computers rather than the flawed human creator.

Yet, despite my relative certainty that technology is more responsible for these trends than any inherent “pattern” to culture, I too would like to make an equally unsupported assertion using an equally unverifiable theory about the progress of culture in the last 100 or so years:

Recently, while at a committee meeting, I alleviated my boredom by developing a bogus theory concerning the way that the outcasts and undesirables of one generation invariably become the heroes of the following one. So, in my unsubstantiated formulation, the 19th century comes to a close with an all-out assault on the tramp or vagabond figure, who is depicted as a parasite on society (who, in the immensely popular Horatio Alger stories, act in sharp contrast to the industrious and work-minded hero), and the 20th century begins with the celebration of the tramp character, with books like The Road by Jack London for the first time casting a nostalgic glow on the hobo trail. Perhaps the most recognizable figure from this period in film history is Charlie Chaplin's "tramp" character, who loomed large in the popular imagination of the aughts and teens of the 20th century, making the idle rich into the consummate villain.

Then,n the 1920's, the idle rich take the stage as larger-than-life figures, absorbed in their own fashions and music and modernity (see “Don Juan,” and “The Jazz Singer,” and really the whole Al Jolson ouevre). In the prohibition era, it is the violent gangster who is seen as the outcast, portrayed as disruptive to the “innocent” breaches of law, such as a rich socialite taking a drink at a dance. Yet in the 1920's, for every Jay Gatsby, there is a Wolfsheim whose unsavory extra-legal dealings threaten to spoil the party.

As I mentioned above, the 1930's saw an influx of movies depicting the brief, violent lives of gangsters, who—in what one imagines to be a catharsis for the poor and the downtrodden—defy the system and the law-makers who represent it. In gangster movies such as “City Streets” (1931) and “Bad Company” (1931), even when the law wins, it is the outlaw who emerges as the representative of the people. Both of those films featured actors portraying characters based upon Al Capone, even as his real-life reign as the crime boss of Chicago had yet to come to an end. By the time Capone was finally indicted and jailed for tax fraud, it is the law-makers who are portrayed as latterday Sheriffs-of-Nottingham to Al Capone’s Robin Hood. 

It is those same law-makers and law-defenders—the men in uniform—who would eventually become the heroes of the 1940's. In the WWII era, it is the civilian—the man who indifferently goes to work and ignores a higher calling, such as service—who comes to represent society's weak link. His failure to serve is represented as either evidence of his cowardice, or as unjustifiable selfishness. While "the boys" are out risking their lives, the working stiff is punching a time card, oblivious to the hardships being suffered abroad.

But the working stiff had his heyday in the 1950's, when the ordinary everyman character features in nearly every drama, comedy, and even tragedy (read: Willy Loman from “Death of a Salesman” and Arthur Miller's explicit proclamation that the everyman shall have his hour in "Tragedy and the Common Man"). Even the drone has his pride of work, and the nobility of fulfilling his everyday duties, unlike the hated misfits who live at the fringes of society.

There can't be much argument against the claim that the 1960's was the decade of misfits. Though an undercurrent throughout the 1950’s in films featuring James Dean and books penned by Jack Keruoac, William S. Burroughs, et al, it is the 1960’s that saw an entire generation identifying with the misfit type in its manifold forms. So what type of character was demonized in the 1960’s and 70’s? The materialist, ambitious only for personal wealth and personal gain at the expense of society, community, and planet—the very embodiment of the money-chasing hero in Michael J. Fox’s America of the 1980’s.

In the 1980’s, the bespectacled dweeb is the mocked and tortured outcast. In virtually any film of the decade targeted to adolescents, it is the privilege of every high school athlete to trip, dunk, tease, or pummel the Waldoes and Poindexters. To list them here would be redundant. If you watched TV or movies in the 1980's, you know what I'm talking about. Even the films that pretended to celebrate this type of outcast (“Revenge of the Nerds”) gleefully participated in the mockery.

In the 1990’s, the hipster—bespectacled, unshaven, ironically out-of-fashion, socially awkward and indifferent to team sports, for whom everything is an “alternative” to something else—was born. 

So if you want to figure out what is around the bend for American culture, you have only to answer the question, “Who do the hipsters hate?”

Perhaps, frighteningly, depressingly, we are now entering the era of the follower. After all, Fox News and the tea party are holding the microphone (or megaphone) and show no sign of letting go, and the loud neo-conservatives who populate talk-radio and cable TV are nothing if not marching in lock-step. And why should Americans in the 21st century care about tramps, flappers, gangsters, soldiers, workers, misfits, and dweebs, when we have our beloved gadgets—a culture-filter that allows us just enough familiarity to judge every human type we encounter as ridiculously, pitifully unlike ourselves?

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