Wednesday, July 21, 2010

SUMMER READING AND VIEWING

I’ve had an odd run of coming across old movies that suggested things to me – and why not share that?

A late-night stumble across 1964’s “Bikini Beach” (Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello) took me back.

The first thing – as so often with American International Pictures productions, shot around the LA County coastline from up near Kern County line down though Santa Monica and beyond in order to save money – was the sight of the Pacific Coast Highway back in those less-built-up times (you may recall that 1963’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” offered the same sort of views in the taxi chase).

But the plot is the interesting thing for Us nowadays: a bunch of ‘teens’ are looking to simply do the beach and surf thing (dope hadn’t come in yet and booze – though lingering in the background was never ‘foregrounded’) and chasing each other (boys girls and girls boys).

Keenan Wynne’s wealthy character – an ‘old’ guy in his late 40s or 50s – drives up, dressed up in expensive suitcoat and tie, and hat (JFK had already gone hatless at the Inauguration a couple-three years before). He’s stuffed into an early 1930s formal town car – the type where the chauffeur sat exposed to the elements up front and the luxurious closed-box behind him held the wealthy patron; it was a 30-year old car in ’64 but every kid would recognize it from the movies (often shown on TV) from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

As this type of film goes, he is doubly unlikable: he is rich (not yet a really palpable life-goal for middle-class kids) and he is ‘old’: which is to say that he thinks the kids should be doing something constructive with their time, instead of running around the beach looking for fun, surf, and ‘girls’ (a nice way of saying … all THAT stuff). The kids (actually actors well into their 20s and beyond) aren’t fazed by his lectures and enjoy the pratfalls to which the script – in the spirit of the times – subjects him.

In one scene he is confronted in his office by a ‘teacher’ – a late 30s or early 40-ish female – who chides him: he is being too hard on the kids, they should have a little fun, he is against everything ‘new’, and these are the kids “who will put a man on the moon” (the moon landing would take place in July, 1969, but JFK had already announced the goal back in 1961).

THERE, I think, is the nub of the thing. Wynne’s character was speaking for a certain maturity and settling into the hard project of adulthood; the kids (and the teacher character) saw that as being a) ‘old’, b) being conformist, and c) being ‘against what is ‘new’ just because it is ‘new’.
Wynne’s character was therefore not ‘with it’.

Oh, and that you can simultaneously prepare yourself for a life of rocket-science while spending your available time on the beach surfing, playing sex-games, and being 'with-it' and 'cool'. You can see here not a generation that would master rocket-science (see below) but that would consider it quite possible to kill the Goose while still harvesting a steady supply of Golden Eggs, invade foreign countries and still be greeted as liberators, and quickly and without ill consequence overturn the entire civilizational wisdom of the human species on the basis of a scientific Hypothesis that its revolutionary supporters did not really want to debate scientifically.
As it turned out, it was not the Boomers who would put a man on the moon, but rather the adult generation whose own childhood was spent in the Depression and World War 2. The Boomers would go on to the Summer of Love or assorted excitements along the lines of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. They opposed the Vietnam War, but then developed their own type of ‘whiz kid’ elites who embarked the country on even more lethally frakkulent misadventures, domestically (until Boomer Bush the Egregious and Cheney – Mr. I-had-other-agendas-during-Vietnam – took the show international bigtime in Iraq).

‘New’ was good just because it was ‘different’ and a ‘change’ – which HAD to be good because … it was fun for the Boomers in their bloom of youth. ‘Old’ was baaad because it wasn’t fun – and there would always be time for ‘growing up’ – as if genuine maturity just came along with the first gray hairs and the inevitable thickening around the middle.

The ‘teacher’ was ‘good’ because she was willing to postpone being ‘judgmental’ and let the ‘kids’ reveal their ‘wisdom’. Which, as aforenoted, had mostly to do with surf, sun, booze, and ‘girls’ (so quaint, no?).

Oh, and the gas for their old jalopy bus was somewhere around 25 cents a gallon (for high-test).

The kids would ‘put a man on the moon’ because they were Americans and that’s – well, that’s just what Americans do when they get around to it: they make the world better and they don’t even have to work at it … it just sorta comes.

In a recent ‘Nation’ article Robert Reich calls the postwar period (up to 1970 or so) “the Great Prosperity” – it’s funny to see a name put on it: an Era that is not only gone now but that had been (youthfully) mistaken as a Permanent Way Things Are. Those were the days, my friend.

But unlike ‘the Great Depression’ or ‘the Greatest War’ (World War 2, if you prefer), ‘the Great Prosperity’ can’t be hazed over in nostalgia because it’s safely out of the way. It’s gone, but its passing (its Deconstruction, really) has left a yawning abyss over which the good ship USA is now trapped, like some fishing boat in the Bermuda Triangle. Those things never end well.

So Keenan Wynne – fuddy-duddy, a little fussy, but an adult with some Shape and Order to his life and his world – turned out to be right after all. And his car is now a collector’s item worth a small fortune (as dollars go these days).

I also came across ‘The Wind and the Lion’ from 1975. A tongue-in-cheek little romp where Sean Connery’s Berber tribal-chieftain, noble in his setting, kidnaps an American wife and her kids just to make a point (he and she develop a romantic relationship and a meeting of mind and heart); which gets Brian Keith’s Teddy Roosevelt all worked up (he has an election campaign in process) and the Marines are going to land from their steam-and-steel battleships, execute a set-piece storming of the castle, and solve problems with flags and a band and fixed-bayonets and a couple-three gunshots.

It came out just as Vietnam was finishing (such as it did) and against that national reality could be seen as a tongue-in-cheek and sorta winsome indictment of the whole early 1900s American easy-ebullience that had come a cropper there in the paddies of Southeast Asia. It was in the time of its release a sort of farewell to all that.

And expensively shot on high-quality, almost gauzy and shiny, film. A glossy little bit, but not fluff.

Alas, along comes the Reagan era and by 1985 the film was being viewed gleefully – especially in military circles – as a brassy, gleaming high-spirited how-to about where and how America was going to go now that (in 1985 or thereabouts) Gorby was in and the USSR – the last Great Enemy – was melting like the Wicked Witch before Our eyes, and the Witch shaking-hands with a beaming Reagan even as the melt speeded up.

And to watch it now, in 2010 – well, that prompts a whole bunch of different thoughts altogether, as the poppy fields of Southwest Asia swallow up toil, treasure, blood, sweat, and tears … and Time.

And ‘Ben Hur’, that 1959 extravaganza – running to around 3 hours – that is a sort of Jewish studio’s stern gift to an America that in 1959 was gleaming and glossy and on top of the world.
The Romans – impressive in their self-assured world-mastery – yet retain a certain philosophical detachment that once defined a certain Hebrew wisdom: Pontius Pilate (before that bad-hair Friday of a Passover in Jerusalem) advises young Ben Hur to go along with the game of power: “ … and for the moment that power is Rome”.

“For the moment” – We can listen to that little phrase from the standpoint of 2010 and realize how much wisdom was crammed into it. And a stern and monitory wisdom it was, and delivered in that spirit.

Nor in this bereft era when 40 frakkulous years of ‘liberal’ (or ‘progressive’) Deconstruction has Flattened Our personal and communal sense of Life and World and Self, can We view merely as entertainment Ben Hur’s verbal sparring with Quintus Arrius (a fine Jack Hawkins), the Consul commanding the fleet of Imperial galleys in which Hur has been sentenced as a chained-rower: “I still believe in my God – what drove you away from yours?” (I’m working from memory here).

You could do worse than take a good stiff drink down to the beach-chair and ask yourself how We have wound up where We are, a quick but frak-stuffed half-century later, with a Beltway that would like very much if We could all just keep rowing and not make so much noise.

And lastly, the first two of the ‘Godfather’ movies. Brando’s marvelous portrayal of the aged but robust Don Vito Corleone, noble and self-possessed, seemed to tell Us in 1972 that you could run an ongoing criminal enterprise and still be more noble than the politicians and top-cops you bribe, and could enlist fruitfully the services of bright young attorneys like Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen and even excite his professional and personal devotion. Real mobsters – whether in crime or in politics (the rise of Hitler’s Nazis after January 1933 prompted the candid observation that in Germany “the gutter has triumphed”) – are flat, thin, wraith-like wanna-be humans, and even if they wanted to, could not escape their existential prison. “THIS”, says Lee Strasberg’s Hyman Roth (in the second film) “is the business we have chosen”. And Life and Self will follow that choice, wherever it goes.

The “business” you choose will do for you, if you don’t choose well. Profit and wealth and power tend to exert monstrous deformative forces, and no human soul can easily withstand them.

Nor is it much of a mature intellectual enterprise to run courses soberly glorifying them: remember the professor in 1990’s “The Freshman” where young Matthew Broderick meets Brando’s aged reprise, Jimmy the Toucan? Although in America of that era – a queasy, glitzy 20 years ago – you could still figure to get the ‘bacce di tutti bacci’ – the kiss of all kisses – from Power and still come out with the girl, the gold-watch, the Mercedes, and everything. Wheeeee!

And then there’s that scene towards the end of the second ‘Godfather’ where Don Michael trudges through the winter snow – in his 3-piece dark suit and expensive shoes – to his mother’s home in the family compound, to ask her what ‘dad’ thought when he was alive. “But you can never lose your family” the aged but willfully uninformed matriarch expostulates – as if her kid had asked her how to breathe without air. “Times are changing, Ma” he responds gently but flatly.

You can take the Family to some bad places, if you choose. But you can’t ever escape it; humans, in their loooooong immaturity imposed by the scope of their brain’s possibilities, need Ma and Pa to provide the launching-gantry, the dry-dock, that will help them Shape themselves, until they’re ready to launch.

The radical-feminists didn’t need to hear the lunatic French ‘philosopher’, Louis Althusser, opine that the Family was one of the most sinister and lethal examples of an “Ideological State Apparatus”, designed only for the purpose of beating ‘the kids’ down into conformity and State-approved Correctness.*

They had already made up their minds that ‘women’ were to Family as slaves were to plantations, as Jewish camp-prisoners were to “Dachau” (Betty Friedan) or “Auschwitz” (Alice Miller). And that, as Voltaire said of the Church, the infamous thing had to be obliterated (Ecrasez l’infame!). And the vanguard elites of the radical-feminist cadres would be just the folks to try it.

Five years ago, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s study of the Black Family and the forces profoundly threatening it, Kay Hymowitz acutely and candidly traced how the ‘elites’ of both the Black and radical-feminist Advocacies managed not only to ignore but to denigrate Moynihan’s insight – which then turned out to be pretty much accurate, which lead to those same ‘elites’ now not wanting to talk about it. But the damage is done, and it won’t be going away.**

Well, a few books and a few fliks recommended for summer at the beach – or wherever your travails happen to take you in this brave new Era.

NOTES

*Tony Judt does a sharp but nicely readable job examining Althusser in his 2008 book of reflections “Reappraisals”, in the Chapter entitled “Elucubrations: The ‘Marxism’ of Louis Althusser”.

**You can read a more recent indictment by Glenn C. Loury, reviewing James J. Patterson’s new book “Freedom Is Not Enough”, in the August-September 2010 issue of the magazine “First Things”, on pages 57-60. (Subscription or purchase required for online access.)

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