Friday, January 13, 2006

Culture, Part Two – Paging Culture

Once upon a time the U.S. of A. was tops in making films. I really believe this. The Golden Age, parts one (black and white shit you probably heard of but might have missed) and Part Two (the 70’s) shine as glorious times when we knew what a good story was and how to develop characters. And we knew what a movie ought to look like. We might be the worst at this right now.

Actually, there are many examples of talented artists in this country working in every medium, but their voices seem to be lower than others. Rather than overly speculate as to how or why, I will simply say state the sad truth: Joe Sixpack don’t like him some artsy crap that don’t make no sense and got no explosions.

Be this as it may, there’s hope. Brokeback Mountain, a movie I thought was terrific, is pretty popular right now and seems to be doing well against the blander looking Memoirs of a Geisha and the lousy looking Fun With Dick and Jane. More than anything, this is an anomaly and it is not just in the world of cinema. There are always a handful of marginal art films and books every year that attempt to justify our place in world culture. Lost in Translation, for example, did its best and was hailed as a movie that would survive the ages and carry the torch of great American filmmaking. But let’s face it, it’s a lightweight art film.

Not long ago, Jonathan Franzen’s book The Corrections was a big literary hit and everyone seemed to think he was something special. He snubbed Oprah and that seemed to get him some credibility in the eyes of those who think Oprah (while certainly annoying) is for some reason evil. I suppose art is in the eye of the beholder, but my thumb through of Franzen’s novel led to the conclusion that The Corrections is in need of many. Like the story of Bill and Scarlet, like the Chinese actresses playing Japanese people entwined in a frustrating love story, it’s soft. And don’t even get me started on Dave Eggers.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I hold my country’s art up to some impossible standard. If asked, I would say the best literary representatives of the U.S. of A. are Faulkner, Whitman, Melville, Vonnegut and Twain. There are other notables of course (Jeffers, Fante, Ralph Ellison, Eliot, H.D., Bukowski) but the one thing that unties these names is that they are all departed, or, in the case of Vonnegut, almost there. The new breed of novelists certainly tries and often succeeds. A better Jonathan than Franzen, Jonathan Lethem has produced some great books, most notably As She Climbed Across the Table (I haven’t read his latest, Fortress of Solitude which is supposed to be quite good) but even he falls prey to the McSweeney’s brand of cute-n-clever subculture. And the book that allowed him to break through, Motherless Brooklyn, is a starts-with-a-bang-ends-with-a-whimper, slightly better than mediocre book. Michael Chabon was once my great white hope with his second novel, Wonder Boys, but I can’t for the life of me get interested in the big book that garnered him a Pulitzer. Really, only Richard Russo has consistently dazzled me and made me believe that there is hope for the great American novel.

Maybe it is difficult for one to judge her or his own era. After all, we venerate the greats of American art and culture such as Faulkner, Welles, Billy Wilder, Emily Dickinson, Jackson Pollack or even Charlie Parker because they were good and because they have endured. It is easier to think that bygone eras were somehow better because all that survives is the cream of the crop and not the filth. Immersed in so much crap, the odd gem will not shine so bright. Still, I can’t help but see a lack of culture these days, or at least a war on it. Who’s to blame? We are the same people we have always been, right? We all love Citizen Kane and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so why do we settle for The Simple Life and Nicholas Sparks?

Maybe we have been dumbed down, culturally speaking. Maybe hours of Jerry Springer have ruined our sensibilities. Far be it from me to say as much; I have always loved great trash as much as great art. I saw Hostel and think it is one of the best movies I have seen in some time, right along with Brokeback Mountain. There’s a place for both, certainly, but is it true that between prime rib and White Castles most people will go exclusively for sliders?

No, no, you say, most Americans are informed and well educated devotees of culture. We’re not all scared of something that challenges us or might make us think. We crave more than just flashy, loud entertainment. The O.C. is just a diversion from the many hours we spend pouring over quality programming and publications. Well then, why did the first in the oh so popular series of Harry Potter books get published in America under a different title then the rest of the world? What was the original, English title (it’s not even an issue of translation)? Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. American publishers were afraid kids would be turned off by the word “philosopher” so they changed it. Yes, our nation’s children cannot handle the slightest intellectual challenge whatsoever. This example just deals with our children, you say? True, but the Harry Potter books appeal to adults as well, just as much and maybe more so, and I can’t help but wonder how many grownups would pick up a book with the “philosopher” on the cover.

The dumbing down starts early and can last through one’s entire life. It makes sense. It’s easy. Them books is hard to read and who wants to bother when Dominos delivers and another Law and Order spin-off is on to show us what smart people are supposed to be like.

Maybe the culture war is not just beginning. Maybe its roots are tied to all the junk that we swallow as children that’s supposed to be jettisoned, or at least moved a bit out of the way to make room for things more intellectually stimulating. I don’t pretend to be the final authority on art and culture by I can certainly tell the difference between a piece of crap and a gem. And lately it seems like the gems are fewer and further between.

Oh fuck it, I’m going to succumb… there’s a big screen and 100 channels waiting for me. It feels good, so why not?

Grumpy old bastard out.