The four salopines of SATC’s Dolce Vita: Charlotte, Carrie, Miranda, and Samantha. Well-packaged role models of compulsive bourgeois consumerism (cum sexual voyeurism) diabolically concocted to titillate the masses. Selfishness, pettiness, banality and promiscuity (disguised as women’s liberation) never looked so enticing.
BY JOHN STEPPLING / VOXPOP’S PLACEBO ART MONITOR
I wanted to try to link together a few things that have been rattling around in my brain of late. First, I have this growing fear that Western culture, and certainly US culture, has almost completly lost an audience that once knew of art. When I recently went to a screening of Sex and the City, I was aware of just how far most cultural product has distanced itself from its role as art. Now S&TC is, admittedly, a particularly vile piece of American flotsam, but what is also clear is that it was never intended to be anything like art, not even pop art or folk art — it is only advertising, and in its role as advert it is meant to create superficial associations and a comfort zone for those who followed the TV series. Let me add that by the end I wished deeply that every single character would be killed. Plague, Ebola, hit and run trucks, stabbing, anything, so long as these horrid, terminally decadent, faux hip, and self-involved people would cease existing. But I digress.
There are certainly examples of good popular film out there, and even of TV and music, but it’s the audience that concerns me. I wonder at what the reaction of many people to a film like There Will be Blood , let alone a genuine masterpiece like Flanders. What is expected of cultural product in an age when that product is almost totally created by corporations? I know that when I showed On Golden Pond to a first year film class they were shocked to know this film had been critically well received. But then, such stuff was never really meant to last. I showed them clips from productions of Beckett plays. Mostly I saw blank confused stares.
Sarah Jessica Parker, as the columnist Carrie Bradshaw, was the linchpin of the Sex & the City TV series, wherein the four female protagonists, as model Lauren Hutton suggested, for the most part may have played out the torrid fantasies of decadent gay writers and producers. In that dimension alone, the show was not just fiction, but inherently dishonest.
I watched a good deal of old fifties TV clips on YouTube the other day, and to now watch parts of I Love Lucy or the Burns and Allen show was to feel just how unformulaic such stuff actually was.
Lucille Ball’s exuberant talent and beauty were rarely properly cataloged or utilized by the old studio star system.
What was once the definition of formula now seems its antithesis. I watched a clip from the old Jack Benny Show, and was amazed at the loose unstructured strangeness of it all. George Burns was almost dada, Benny too, and Lucille Ball harkened back to Buster Keaton more than anything else. To just meditate on these performers sense of timing would be a year’s class in itself. I recall James Agee describing Keaton and that what lurked under the surface of his comedy genius was a sense of melancholy. This existed in minor ways even in a Jack Benny, where it was more sadness or existential resignation than it was melancholy, perhaps. Or what of Groucho Marx? If one ever gets the chance to see old half hour TV anthology drama from the mid fifties, Firestone Theatre and the like, make sure you do. Our age is now reduced to an embrace of The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, and it’s worth a compare and contrast session with some old Playhouse 90 or other early dramas to note what is going on in today’s best TV drama. What is going on is a certain corporate seemless consensus — the reality presented in Six Feet Under (for example) is one that, in the end, accepts the world as it is presented by other media, by the NYTimes or by CNN or the State Department. It hasnt to do with objective *values* so much as it has to do with the technically anesthesizing slickness of the presentation. The framing, the form. In comedy the arc is from Keaton and Chaplin, to Burns and Milton Berle, on to Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld. Sandler by the way has a new film coming out by a misunderstood Mossad agent who wants to be a hairdresser. But its not just the political disengenuous aspect to Sandler, its the dishonesty of his humanity.
Keaton, one of the eternal greats of comedy, comparable to Chaplin himself in the melancholy nobility of his opus.
Artists must somehow suffer, and Sandler doesn’t. Benny suffered all the time, and certainly Keaton did. The genius of Keaton’s physical comedy could not exist without an existential dimension. Beckett certainly saw this, and it’s why he loved Keaton. I bring this back to audience. There seems less and less critical awareness of what an artist like Keaton was doing. Or even a Groucho Marx. I remember as a boy watching Lucille Ball and liking her, and finding it funny, but not being able to *see* the weight of her art, at least as it existed in flashes. Watch some of those clips from the early I Love Lucy and you’ll see the humanity, flawed and arrogant at times, and even sentimental often, but always engaged in a dialectic with laughter. The laughs were never without the tragedy that kept one from the nervous almost hysterical anxiety that attends an Adam Sandler joke. With a Jack Benny, you begin with an awareness of the tragic.
So, we have today in the US a populace more and more addicted to a political process that encourages disunity and the “owning” of *opinions*. It’s what was first created by the Nazis; polltaking and its political reaction. The difference is that today the political culture isn’t looking for mass agreement, or rather it is, but in the form of individual differences. Differences that are really not differences at all. Polls create categories (married, single, white, black, gay, straight, fat, skinny, seniors, under twenty-five, married, divorced, etc., etc., etc) and people feel quite uncomfortable without such categories. Once they are in a category, they can find an opinion (“McCain is more experienced, and I’m voting for him,” etc.). This is the audience that finds Buster Keaton boring and cannot see Jack Benny except as a piece of camp nostalgia. I’ve had students watch Fassbinder and only see his actors had bad 70s haircuts. It’s all about a fetishized assortment of fragments, and it’s always superficial. In fact the superficial really serves as the aesthetic judgement of the age.
Go to YouTube and find an old Brenda Lee clip; from an old black and white regional TV broadcast, singing One Step at a Time. She must be about 14 in it. Watch it.
Watch some Patsy Cline or even Muddy Waters or my beloved Magic Sam (an artist who died far too early and who I knew personally). I don’t hear people sing like this anymore. A voice like the teenage Brenda Lee seems not to happen anymore and I’m not sure why. But I suspect it’s the non-consumer aspect of things, which is not to say these weren’t professionals looking to make a living, but that professionalism has since mutated like a cancer cell, and it’s eating itself spiritually. People think Obama is this or that, and McCain is that or this, and they *like* Metallica and they *don’t like* Yo Yo Ma, and they *like* the NBA but * dont really like* baseball so much. They think Tibet should be **free** and they like, wish, the Muslim world didn’t look so dirty, and they wish those muslims weren’t so *jealous* of *us*. Opinions, and no taste, and less education. A managed reality of sound bites and endless advertising. Deep and concentrated listening, the kind needed to *hear* what Bach was doing, or Hank Williams, has all but disappeared. The deep *looking* needed to see into a Rembrandt or a Goya or a Pollack, or the almost buddhist patience to watch a Bresson, that is all but gone too. These thoughts beg questions about form and content, and about the nature of how our lives are mediated. Popular culture is not even that anymore. Perhaps definitions of high and low art have always been meaningless, but the role of popular and folk art still meant an engagement with one’s inner life. Everything today is meant to kill those inner lives.
For now the electoral theatre is in full swing, the contradictions of empire are more and more aggresively denied, and the tensions below the surface for those living in the midst of this madness grow each hour. Media follow instructions, either direct or indirect, from the US government and elite financial institutions, and they spew out a nonstop propaganda stream that is so empty of real critical thought or historical content as to be just white noise. It is only barely real propaganda at this point, because it is so amazingly banal. Spliced between this is bad pop music and pre packaged corporate product —reality TV shows based on the Schadenfreudeof humiliation, and reactionary news spots, and then Sex and the City. For the more educated, you could watch The Sopranos. It’s all administered like well lubricated psychic suppositories. The public clench their glutes and wait for the numbing, and soon it comes. And then it’s time for today’s opinion. —JS
Playwright John Steppling, a senior editor at Cyrano’s Journal in charge of cultural, theater, & cinema matters, is a founding editor of our Voxpop blog. Steppling lives in Lodz with Norwegian director Gunnhild Skrodal. He currently teaches at the Polish National Film School. He’s hoping some of the students will see the value of real culture over blatant philistinism, but he’s not holding his breath.