Sunday, October 31, 2021

Is Our Culture Debased?

Today's movies are based on comic book characters.  Today's books are comic books. Is our culture going down the toilet?  Maybe not. (image from the Onion)

Whenever people talk about literature or culture - at least Western culture - they talk about music by Beethoven or Mozart, Operas by Vivaldi or Wagner, Plays by Shakespeare, or novels by Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Of course, I threw in a ringer right there - Hemingway or Fitzgerald would be considered "modern" literature compared to those classical composers and playwrights of yore.

But to some extent, this is a misrepresentation of classic culture.  We sit in quiet reverence during the Opera - not understanding a word of what is being sung, even if it was in English.  We sit in quiet awe of a symphony, waiting to the very end to applause. And Shakespeare? Scholars write PhD dissertations on what his plays mean - or who actually wrote them.

By some accounts, this is a modern affectation - holding classical works in awe.  At the time they were written, audiences treated them far more informally.  Symphonies were social events, and people would chat and talk while the orchestra was playing.   The plots of many operas are no better or worse than some of the soap operas on television today.  Soap Opera - interesting term!  In fact, the plots of many operas are kind of thin, if you think about it.

In Shakespeare's day, at the Globe theater, the cheap seats weren't seats at all - people stood on the floor in the center of the round enclosure.  And from some accounts, people got pretty rowdy during performances, which is why Shakespeare always had some gratuitous violence in most of his plays.  Gotta play to the cheap seats - or the folks standing, anyway.

So much of today's culture seems kind of infantile in comparison - well, at least at first.  Hollywood movies are a worldwide export, and often the bulk of profits are made in overseas sales.  As I noted before, this means a lot of "Explosion Movies" are made, where there is little real dialog and a lot of cliches and sound effects - and of course, explosions.  You don't need to translate "blammo!" for the overseas audience - but it helps to have a rainbow cast of actors from all over the world, so the foreign audiences can identify with the plot.  Almost every Hollywood movie these days has an Asian character for that reason.  China sales often exceed US box office.

And yes, that is pretty crass, but no more crass than Shakespeare putting a few extra stabbings in his plays, just to spice things up.  A writer has to write to his audience.

Then again, I am not very fond of either these new explosion movies, or movies based on comic book characters.  I mean, I grew up with comic books - I read them in the barber shop, but I rarely bought any.  We knew they were sort of base culture and didn't give them much thought.  Today, we have to have "backstories" for each character and explore their motivations.  Even the villains have motivations for their evil - sometimes they become sympathetic characters, while the "good guys" are dark and brooding.

Back in the day, the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad - and we never gave a thought as to their motivations or "origin stories."  We probably would be bored to death by it all.  I know I am.  Plus, it seems a little infantile to put such great reverence into something as facile as a comic book.  I am sure today, someone is doing a PhD dissertation on a comic book character's motivation or some such nonsense.

In a way, though, this is perhaps no better or worse than how we have attached great reverence to "classical" music, opera, theater, and literature - perhaps with more seriousness than the original authors intended.  Indeed, much of what is written over the ages is designed for entertainment.  Light Opera like Gilbert and Sullivan was never meant to be taken seriously - or dissected for greater meaning.  Plays by Oscar Wilde were wildly popular, but were light comedies for the most part.  People attach great meaning to The Great Gatsby, but it was just a piece of entertainment.  If you find hidden meaning in it, I think it is only because you are looking for it - that's just my opinion, anyway.  A lot of people thought it was over-rated, including Hemingway, who was probably overly sanctified as well.

The scary thing about all of this, is that today's light entertainment becomes tomorrow's serious culture. Already there are scores of scholars who are trying to find great meaning in rock-and-roll music of the 1960's.  Don't get me wrong, there are some great songs there, but for the most part, it was popular entertainment.  Yet some folks attach an almost religious-like reverence to bands like the Velvet Underground or other artists like David Bowie or Prince or Eric Clapton, and yet, those same artists did some pretty silly things in their day.

So think about this.  What will happen 20 or 50 years from now?  Will scholars be dissecting rap music in serious tomes, trying to find hidden meaning in these great artists of the early 2000's?   Will NPR's "Performance Today" include music by Snoop Dogg or Tupac Shakur?  Maybe, in fact, I would be willing to bet on it.  After all, what do we refer to, today, as rock-and-roll of the 1960's?  Classic Rock.  Yea, it has been fossilized.

So maybe comic book movies and explosion films are not quite the end of the world - although I don't believe they will become a classic genre in years to come.  It is like the spate of "disaster" movies from the late 1970's. Yea, people still watch them, but often only for comedic value. Watching Shelly Winters swim underwater in The Poseidon Adventure is a hoot.

And yes, science fiction films - once limited to teen exploitation and drive-in markets in the 1950's, are now taken deadly seriously, with backstories and "franchises" and legions of fan-boys engaging in "Cosplay" and dissecting plot lines and character development and writing "fan fiction".  I dunno about you, but Star Trek was a fun ride for three seasons on television, and the first Star Wars movie was a fun homage to the SciFi movies of the 1950's (and the Saturday morning serials).  But then people had to get all serious about it.  It is like trying to find "meaning" in a roller-coaster ride.  "Did you think that second turn after the initial drop was put in there for character development, or was it just ironic?"


People are still making "serious" films and "serious" music and writing interesting books that are often not featured on Oprah's book club (where everyone buys them and pretends to read them).  But these are finding a smaller and smaller audience, it would seem.

Speaking of Halloween, that is another aspect of our culture that is fascinating to observe.  When I was a kid, as I noted before, you had these crappy Halloween costumes and you went trick-or-treating and got candy and that was it.  It wasn't some month-long deal with "pumpkin spice" and grown men and women wearing  costumes.  And no, we didn't have costume day at work, either!  Again, we have taken something that was never meant to be taken seriously and turned it into this "thing" - mostly for commercial purposes.

All I can say is this:  Hope you bought your Halloween costume back in July, because the stores are already tooled up for Christmas!