Saturday, March 04, 2006

and the Oscar for best response goes to...


James Walcott:
Anyway, the 'Hollywood doesn't reflect mainstream America' argument is one of the oldest and phoniest in the playbook, with Michael Medved making the same case that Catholic organizers did in the 30's to push for a decency code. The truth is that Hollywood has almost never reflected heartland values, from its birth it's reflected urban energy, cosmopolitan taste, social conscience, and pagan fascination, and when it's conformed to conventional pieties, as during the dreariest stretches of the postwar period, when disillusionment and subversion had to sneak in through the shadows of film noir as the topline product stayed shiny, bright, and chipmunk cheerful. Do you really think the racy, wisecracking, night-owl-edition, socially conscious crime dramas and comedies of Warner Brothers in the thirties reflected heartland values? Or those Lubitsch comedies with their flirty innuendos and musky intrigues so redolent of Paris and Budapest? Or the Astaire-Rogers "white telephone" musicals, with their French farce plots and Manhattan-skyline sparkle? MGM manufactured an enduring neo-Victorian mimicry of smalltown America in the Andy Hardy movies and others, but that didn't so much reflect heartland values as reflect the immigrant vision of what the white-picket-fence country they imagined lay east of the Hollywood hills.

Think of the movies now considered classic (or semi-classic) from the great grunge stretch of the late Sixties and Seventies, movies such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces, Blazing Saddles, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, on and on--do these movies speak to the pieties and platitudes that William Bennett holds dear? Even back then during all the noise and excitement I remember sweet old ladies wondering why they didn't make nice movies like The Sound of Music anymore, and they're still asking that same question today. It may be the same old ladies, having gone through two generations of floral muu-muus. Get over it, grandma! They're not going to make movies like Sound of Music anymore, they barely made them back then.

The heartland issue is such a crock, especially when it's taken up by pseudo-populist pundits who cling to both coasts and wouldn't move to the middle of the country unless the name of that middle was Chicago. Fuck the heartland. It doesn't exist. It's a metaphor for all the simple good things Americans would believe in if they flattered themselves by believing in simple good things. (Go reread Sherwood Anderson or Sinclair Lewis if you want to savor the loneliness and cultureless vacuity of so much of the bedrock America we insist on coloring with Norman Rockwell nostalgia.) It's true that more Americans than usual are unaquainted and uninterested in the Oscar pics this year, but how many Americans saw McCabe and Mrs. Miller when it came out? Or Mean Streets? Not that long ago, the Oscars noms were panned because for being an index of popularity, not quality; now quality prevails in the judging, tastes have improved even at the Golden Globes, and the kvetching chorus is complaining that the finalists chosen aren't commercial enough, and don't reflect the interests and values of average Americans. There's no such thing as an average American anymore (if there ever was), unless by "average American" you mean (as news producers and pundits seem to do) white, middle-aged, heterosexual Christian small-towners and suburbanites who won't even be watching the Academy Awards because it'll be past their bedtime and they have elk to milk the next morning.

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