Monday, November 1, 2010

Take This Culture and Shove It

Peter Cresswell at Not PC tripped one of my AMAWG (Angry Middle-Aged White Guy) switches today, so buckle your seat belt and prepare for a rant on one of my favorite sore spots: modern culture vs the '50s.

Peter posted a series of ads from days gone by.

Here's a sample, a Chesterfield ad featuring none other than Ronald Reagan enjoying a smoke.

Peter then asked "[B]ut would you really want to live there again?"

My [expanded] answer:

Absolutely. For all its imperfections, by comparison to the moral and aesthetic sewer of today, it was nirvana.

Want a useful mental image to concretize the comparison? See the trailer for the original (1950) "Cheaper By the Dozen," a very mediocre film with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy, then see the trailer for the 2003 version with Steve Martin.

There's no better example of my point.

The original is treacly and dull. But it's filled with kids who are smart, made so by their father's insistence on developing their minds. (He uses every opportunity to teach them science, history, etc., even going so far as to put a map of the solar system on the dining room wall).

The house is always spotless, kept that way by parents who required their children to behave like civilized human beings. The wife is as smart as the husband, but not depicted as morally superior with a lunkhead husband, as in every sitcom today. She is a professional industrial psychologist like Frank. (The movie is based on a true story about Frank Gilbreth, a time-and-motion studies expert of the early 20th century, and his wife and 12 kids, as written by two of the kids as adults.)

The 21st century version is po-mo vicious, featuring kids who are future drug addicts and muggers-in-training. The Steve Martin trailer opens with a shot of his house in absolute disarray, complete with food and paint splattered everywhere. Steve, as he always does, behaves in a completely irrational manner and is clearly overwhelmed (yet loving it!). His wife is as dull as it's possible for a woman to get. How cute.

Here's another piece of evidence. [Spoilers ahead, which I think are ok here, since the film is two years old.]

I saw the 2008 Iron Man film recently, starring the cow-eyed and perpetually whiny Robert Downey Jr., whom — oddly — many conservatives on Big Hollywood chose to defend. (An actor who projects a more consistently clinically depressed air would be hard to find. To make him the hero tells you something already about the mind of a modern director.)

The movie itself, from the perspectives of plot, production values, and even performance was actually quite good by contemporary standards. Still, it was utterly amoral despite the main character's alleged seeing of the light after a horrific experience in Afghanistan.

It opens with Tony Stark joking it up with a bunch of soldiers in Afghanistan riding in a Humvee, which is shortly blown to smithereens. The film goes downhill from there, with ultra-hedonist Stark ultimately escaping his warlord captors (note they are not jihadists but our 'allies') then manically working in his lab, partying in Dubai, and mostly experimenting with his suit.

A few minutes of plot emerge in the final sequence when we discover, surprise!, that Jeff Bridges' Daddy Warbucks lookalike character ordered him killed in order to take over the company, pissed even before Stark announced he was getting out of the weapons business. (Shades of liberal guilt-ridden foreign policy!)

By contrast, a very stark contrast if you'll pardon the pun, the Iron Man comics, which I read avidly as a teen, portrayed a real hero, one dedicated to fighting injustice, like most superheroes. He was a rich playboy, but that had a somewhat different meaning two generations ago. He didn't whine neurotically about his inner moral conflict. He didn't joke around in every frame. He didn't treat life as if it were a perpetual frat party that happened to include inventing astonishing technology from time to time.

My point is this: even the stuff that was bad (i.e. dull, mediocre, poorly executed) 50 years ago was lightyears ahead morally and artistically of all but the absolute best work of today.

Rose colored glasses? Selection bias? Watch and study enough of the period — apart from living consciously through the past 50 years, I've seen approximately 3,000 American films (90% of them pre-1965) — and any decent, honest person will come to the same inductive conclusion.

There are those who claim, with some justification, that life wasn't really like the movies of 80-40 years ago. Perhaps that's true in many ways. They were movies, after all. But the fact that filmmakers chose to portray those characters in that way, doing those things, signifies a very different ethic and esthetic all by itself.

False alternative? Certainly. There's nothing in reality, including our own nature, that prevents us choosing a future better than anything in the past 2,000 years.

But the '40s and '50s, not to mention the 19th century, actually happened, so we know a relatively clean culture is possible. Rising above that level is a matter of inventing that which has never been seen, a daunting task at minimum. I'd bet it'll be a hundred years before the culture catches up to it again.

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