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Works and Days

Confessions of a Cultural Drop-out

October 17th, 2009 - 9:40 pm

I have some confessions to make, not because any of you readers are particularly interested in my views; but rather because I think some of you are in the same boat: Have you stopped reading, listening, watching, and paying attention to most of what now passes for establishment public or popular culture? I am not particularly proud of this quietism (many Athenians did it in the early 4th century BC and Romans by the late 3rd AD), but not really ashamed of it either.

Shut up and see a movie?

Take Hollywood protocol—make a big movie, hype it, show it at the mall multiplex. But I went to one movie the last year. Maybe three in the last four years. There is not much choice here—car crashes, evil white men killing the innocent, some gay or feminist heroes fending off club-bearing white homophobic Mississippians in pick-ups. Or you can endure the American war-machine kidnapping, torturing, or murdering even more of the helpless abroad—with Robert Redford, glassed down, tweed in display, or snarly George Clooney sermonizing, like the choruses of Euripides’ tragedies.

The usual themes—some evil corporation is destroying something (fill in the blanks: the environment, the neighborhood, the small town, etc.), some CIA conspiracy is out to ruin a crusading heroic journalist, or some brave professor or writer is exposing a massive cover-up—are, well, boring, even with the sex, the blow-em-up explosions, and some nice scenery. (And all this from a corporate Hollywood—reliant on the security of the American military, crass in its high tastes and destructive in its behavior, and all the while profit and status obsessed! [The world of Halliburton makes the world safe for Botox?])

If it is not all that, we get instead some neurotic suburban psychodrama about a senseless midlife crisis of some aging yuppies, wondering whether their empty lives really have meaning. Then there are always the “action” movies about tomb-robbing, treasure-hunting, or Zombie killing, but even they try to mask emptiness with a politically-correct throw-away line now and then. Can’t they make one movie of the Lewis and Clark expedition or Lepanto, and one less with Tom Hanks as the anguished and caring postmodern man?

Why not DVDs?

If I watch DVDs, they surely are not of recent vintage. I couldn’t tell you a single release in the current most rented 100. I rewatch instead Westerns—Peckinpaugh, John Ford, the classics like Shane and High Noon, the greats like Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, George C. Scott, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, John Wayne, etc., and, as I wrote a few months ago, almost anything with a brilliant, but now forgotten character actor such as a Jack Palance, Richard Boone (cf. Cicero Grimes in Hombre), Ben Johnson, or Warren Oates—if only for their accents, ad-libbed lines, and carriage. Only the greats like DeNiro or Pacino, or a Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and a few others (a Hackman, Eastwood, or Hopkins) approximate the old breed. (A Mickey Rourke, Gary Oldman, or John Malkovich are at least originals and, like real people, look the worse for it). So I find myself replaying something like a Das Boot or Breaker Morant, or supposedly corny 1930s and 1940s classics like How Green Was My Valley or The Best Years of Our Lives.  If I want to watch a film that failed at the box-office, I’ll take One-Eyed Jacks or Major Dundee or Pat Garret and Billy the Kid; their failures are better than today’s “successes”.

Today’s under thirty American male actors sound like they either have sinus congestion, or are trying to convince someone they are not as effeminate as their contrived appearance otherwise suggests. If my life depended on it, I could not identify any of the current leading actresses. The country needs a screen presence of a Burt Lancaster or Frederic March and it gets instead a Ben Affleck or Leo DiCaprio.

Musical Time Warp

Ditto music. I don’t know the name of a single rapper. Don’t follow rock anymore. Don’t want to. I like a Mark Knopfler or Coldplay, but mostly missed music’s 21st century. I’m so lost that I think a Bob Seeger and Bruce Hornsby are contemporary mega-stars, though I couldn’t identify a recent hit of either. I haven’t seen any of the kids write as well as Springsteen or Van Morrison. One Otis Redding had more talent than the entire hip-hop industry.

Who is Katie Couric?

Add in television. I haven’t watched a network newscast in 10 years. If I want to see a 60-Minutes hit piece, I’ll watch a You Tube video where the amateurs are far more interesting and honest about their ambush journalism. Do the CBS hit-men still try to jump in and cross-up some poor official, as he stammers while they hammer on? Is Andy Rooney still around?

I don’t know which anchor is where. I bump into them in their re-aired interviews like the Couric/Palin disaster or Gibson with his eyeglasses on his nose as if were a professor of Romance Languages grilling Sarah the Idaho co-ed, but other than that could care less.

I’d take an old paleo-liberal like Eric Sevareid, John Chancellor, or David Brinkley any day over the most conservative on NBC or CNN. The old guys had style, even class; today’s crowd spends more on teeth-whiteners than on books.

Obama is perfect for the age. Like Bush, he had the Ivy-League degrees; unlike Bush he had the pretension that they meant something, even though in his mind the Berlin Airlift, the German language, Auschwitz, World War II, Cordoba, the geography of the U.S., almost anything dealing with history, geography, literature, or well, knowledge in general—well all that is stuff that others less relevant than he learned in college.

Commercial-free TV?

I like C-Span and have always admired Brian Lamb. I used to be a big fan of PBS and PR, but no more. The laudable shows are far outweighed by the race/class/gender agendas, usually someone in a soft drone, talking scarcely above a whisper, about some new heretofore unnoticed pathology of the US military, corporation, or government (pre-Obama) that a particularly angry but heroic professor or investigative reporter is going to enlighten us about.

Well, There’s Always Sports

Next confession: I have not watched a single NFL game–including the Super bowl–for more than 10 minutes during the last decade. In the 1980s I was a big fan. I could not be pried loose from the 49ers and Bill Walsh or Jim Plunkett’s numerous Raider come-backs. Out here Deacon Jones, Dick Bass, and John Brodie were sorta football greats. Not now such heroes. Somewhere around 1990-5 everything went wrong with the big money, big hype, and big egos.

Maybe it is the airs of the sportscasters, and the pseudo-intellectual exegesis of the “analysts.” (I’ll take a Russ Hodges or Dizzy Dean any day, or, god help me, a young Howard Cosell before his decline in the Clay/Ali days). The constant criminality of the players and the egocentric outbursts didn’t help. Then there’s the pretensions of the buccaneer owners, and the extravaganza of the spectacle of the Roman arena, all that turned me off it—despite the courage and drama involved in football, and the science and tension of baseball. But one can find that watching high school or college sports.

Ditto the NBA. I have not watched a complete game in 15 years. Here too I could not name 5 current NBA players. I quit with the old Lakers/Celtics rivalries of the late 1970s and 1980s. (But then I have never played a video game either, and the two now seem to the distant ignorant bystander as about the same thing).

I watched 2 baseball games on television the last 3 years. Again, the melodrama of the sportscasters and writers (a slick Bob Costas as would-be Aristotle in his analyses and Sophocles in the supposed serious tragedy of his modulating voice) assumes the players are Olympians when of course they more or less resemble ego-centric multimillionaires.

Just a dozen selfless players, who keep quiet when they score, give credit to others when they pitch a shut-out, or pass rather than shoot could help things. I don’t mind the constant therapy of the coverage—the personal interest story of the athlete who lost his mother during training, who conquered polio as a child, or who saved a little boy from a surging stream—but it does not make up for the absence of manners and sportsmanship.

Print

Like most of America I do not read the New York Times–maybe once at an airport this year, but not more. (The only Times headlines I see are in history books, and pre-1970 they were quite good). It’s not that just I get most of my news on the Internet, but rather there is no there at the Times. A void. The front-page stories are thinly disguised op-eds and poorly written and sourced, and the op-eds are not disguised first-person rants by Dowd, Krugman, Herbert, Rich, etc. largely embarrassing confessions from a group of well-off, well-connected, status-obsessed elites lecturing the nation outside New York and Los Angeles on its various sorts of illiberality. Life is too short for ground-hog day reads, the same angst over and over.

International Awards

Nobel Prizes I stopped noticing a while back. Literature and Peace Prizes are awarded mostly on either race/class/gender considerations or utopian pacifism; that a Toni Morison won and a John Updike or Philip Roth (neither of whom I was all that fond of) never did, says all you need to know.

Petraeus is a true peace-maker and saved thousands of lives; Carter was not, and his timidity gave the green light to the Soviets who killed over a million in Afghanistan. If Al Gore had found a way to allow the world’s poor to survive malaria epidemics through DDT spraying, or invented a miracle strain of rice, or a new long-life battery, then one could justify the peace prize for world ecological achievement, but not for screaming about global warming climate change while making $100 million in medieval offset penances as the climate cools down the last decade.

So what’s left of the life of American culture? I try to read novels, the older the better—Knut Hamsun, Conrad, James Jones. Historians like a Gibbon, Prescott, or Churchill, they could write. I read everything John Keegan writes. Martin Gilbert is excellent. Andrew Roberts is as well. I’ve reread Weinberg’s A World at Arms twice this year. The memoirists like E.B. Sledge are riveting. I review a lot of books on classics—the best are not written by academic classists.  One does what one can.

The Thin Veneer

A final, odd observation. As I have dropped out of contemporary American culture and retreated inside some sort of 1950s time-warp, in a strange fashion of compensation for non-participation , I have tried to remain more engaged than ever in the country’s political and military crises, which are acute and growing. One’s distancing from the popular culture of movies, TV, newspapers, and establishment culture makes one perhaps wish to overcompensate in other directions, from the trivial to the important.

Lately more than ever I try to obey the speed limit, overpay my taxes, pay more estimates and withholding than I need, pay all the property taxes at once, pick up trash I see on the sidewalk, try to be overly polite to strangers in line, always stop on the freeway when I see an elderly person or single woman with a flat, leave 20% tips, let cars cut me off in the parking lot (not in my youth, not for a second), and patronize as many of Selma’s small businesses as I can (from the hardware store to insurance to cars). I don’t necessarily do that out of any sense of personal ethics, but rather because in these increasingly crass and lawless times, we all have to try something, even symbolically, to restore some common thread to the frayed veneer of American civilization, to balance the rips from a Letterman attack on Palin’s 14-year-old daughter or a Serena Williams’s threat to a line judge, or the President’s communication director’s praise of Mao, civilization’s most lethal mass murderer, or all of what I described above.

I don’t fathom the attraction of a Kanye West (I know that name after his outburst), a David Letterman, Van Jones, Michael Moore (all parasitic on the very culture they mock), or the New York Review of Books or People Magazine (they seem about the same in their world view). So goodbye to all that.

Horace called this reactionary nostalgia the delusion of a laudator temporis acti, the grouchy praiser of times past for the sake of being past. Perhaps. But I see the trend of many ignoring the old touchstones of popular entertainment and life as a rejection of establishment culture—a disbelief in, or utter unconcern with, what  elites now offer as valuable on criteria that have nothing to do with merit or value. I was supposed to listen to Dan Rather because Murrow once worked for CBS? I am to go to the Cinema 16 because Hollywood once made Gone With the Wind or On the Waterfront?

I don’t particularly like the idea that I want little to do with contemporary culture. But I feel it nonetheless—and sense many of you do as well.

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