Retro-grade culture

Culture | When the culture goes stagnant, the only option is to recycle the past

Issue: "Betting on the future," Aug. 1, 1998

For all of its pretensions to be new, popular culture has actually gone retro, recycling the creativity of the past. While this may be a good sign, a herald of some pop classicism, the questions remain: When the culture's art forms are technologically mass-produced for commercial ends, is genuine creativity possible? And, more fundamentally, do we even have a living culture anymore? The top five concert performers of 1998, by total ticket sales, are, in order, Yanni, the New Age composer (grossing $37 million); George Strait, the country music traditionalist ($32.9 million); rock 'n' roll fossils the Rolling Stones ($28.1 million), Eric Clapton ($26.5 million), and Elton John ($19.4 million). All of these performers bring to mind the words of Ecclesiastes: "There is nothing new under the sun." As rock music keeps plowing the same musical ground and as rap, in the name of pure rhythm, dispenses with music altogether, a new sound is emerging: Neo-Swing. Former rockers, such as Phil Collins, are putting together big bands, complete with horn sections and contemporized arrangements of Glen Miller. Gap ads on TV show khaki-clad twentysomethings jitterbugging with the happy abandonment of their grandparents. For all of their progress in technology and special effects, movie studios are still having to look to the past for their story ideas. A good number of this summer's movies have been remakes of earlier movies (Godzilla, Dr. Dolittle) or old TV shows (Lost in Space, The Avengers). Prior to these, filmmakers-besides remaking ironic versions of such TV favorites as The Brady Bunch and Leave It to Beaver-were rummaging through collections of comic books looking for inspiration (giving us Batman and other caped crusaders). Not to mention the endless variations of the same stock genres-from science fiction to cop shows-and costume dramas with time-tested plots (such as Titanic with its love triangle, one of the oldest stories in the book). Currently, Hollywood studios are busy remaking a number of the works of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Alfred Hitchcock. We will soon be able to see a new version of To Catch a Thief, but without Cary Grant. In one of the most pointless projects ever conceived, producers are remaking Psycho, using Hitchcock's own shooting script. It will thus be exactly the same, except new. Why anyone would watch inferior directors and actors doing Hitchcock, when the master's own work is available on video, is itself a mystery of Hitchcockian proportions. The American Film Institute recently polled some 1,500 experts and Hollywood insiders to determine the top 100 movies of America's first century of filmmaking. The list-with Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, and Lawrence of Arabia rounding up the top five-will be hyped in video stores and, despite some controversy, should provide a good education in cinematic art for those who resolve to see all 100. Only three movies made since 1980 made the top 50; only 14 entries in all came from the 1980s and 1990s. In contrast, the single year 1939 produced three movies in the top 50 and five in the top 100. Moreover, many of the top 100 can be distinguished not only by brilliant plots, characterization, and cinematography, but by moral clarity. So what can account for the pop culture's retro mood-which is also evident in clothing styles, restaurant and nightclub decor, and other fashion statements? Some of the craze for old rock stars and '50s drive-in theme restaurants can be accounted for as sheer nostalgia on the part of aging baby boomers. Outnumbering their children and representing a huge population bulge demographically, many still go to concerts as they did when Woodstock was in the air and listen to the same music they did when they were young and rebellious. Adulthood usually brings a more sophisticated taste and more developed creative abilities. But baby boomers, as a whole, have not produced or embraced very much that is new since they have grown up. A major reason, though, for the acclaim for old movies-and for the continued success of a George Strait and even the old rock 'n' roll, as opposed to the new-is that they really are better. The most difficult and trustworthy test is the test of time. A "classic" has been defined as any work of literature that has survived more than 50 years and can still be read with enjoyment and profit. Work that is shallow, pointless, and merely fashionable at the moment cannot survive the test of time. Work that is true, good, and beautiful is universal, transcending its time, and is thus classic. For this reason, the neo-Swing craze is a healthy development-the Big Bands of the 1940s were playing music that is objectively excellent, and it is healthy that Generation X-ers are discovering it for themselves. Citizen Kane puts the typical multiplex offering to shame. But that today's culture should produce so little of its own is a sign of cultural stagnation. The 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were times, for better or worse, of cultural vitality. These were times when Americans, for all of their diversity, had a sense of community, common values, and a sense of transcendence (if only to rebel against). Today, we have taken great strides in technological media, but what is its content? As Thoreau said of the telegraph, Maine and Texas can now communicate instantly, "but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." No wonder. Today, many thinkers are denying that there is any kind of truth; many artists are rejecting the concept of beauty; and ideals are often judged solely by their commercial appeal. This spells a cultural dead-end. And it's hard to be creative, given the collapse of education and the passive consumer mentality cultivated by our entertainment industry. To have even a viable pop culture, one must first have a culture. Christians-who presumably do have a community, common values, and a sense of transcendence-should thus have a huge advantage in the culture wars. Instead of trying to emulate the culturally deprived, Christians could exert an influence once again if they were to launch out in the arena of culture-making. There is not a lot of competition.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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