Across four and a half decades

July 9, 2012

I just watched the Blu-ray of Across the Universe, the musical featuring the troubles of the Vietnam-war era youth to the music of the Beatles. It struck me as a well-made movie and yet far removed from the era it depicted. Lucidity and clear thinking were alien to American youth of the time, and nothing shows it more than the cant that filled their speech. “Hey man, that’s a heavy trip man, blah, blah, blah.” Watch Woodstock and pay attention to the interviews. Plus there was a generational resentment at the time, where the previous generation was accused of hypocrisy and phony values that had landed the sixties generation in a mess that demanded a total break with the past. In its justification we can admit the the period of the movie was before the wave of fuzzy-headedness peaked around 1970, but still the success of The Graduate with its detestation of the Mrs. Robinson generation shows that the the generational resentment was already cresting in the movie’s period. So with its directness and simplicity Across the Universe  felt wrong. It was made with the sensibilities of another time.  The leaders of the campus radicalism (and this is something the movie seems to get right whether by design or accident) were pre-Beatles, pre-hippie people from a time when articulated theory still mattered, and by the period of the movie in graduate school. I remember when I started graduate study that the manager of the campus bookstore told me that book sales crashed with my generation. I was about a year ahead of my cohort, and the phenomenon had been around for about a year, so it was the generation graduating from college in 1972 and high school in 1968 who were the last to show an interest in ideas.

As it happens, I had just finished Richard Wolin’s The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s. Once again I am impressed by the great divide between the American scene in 1968 and the intellectual ridden French events of May and following on. People in America were reading Marcuse, which seems the closest analogue, but the French nonsense did not take effect here until much later, and by then nobody who was interested in anything with relevancy paid it any heed. By then it was just a game for useless professors and their graduate students (who were mainly trying to figure how with get though life with enough income to buy fancy wines, but without have to work a real job).  While the French students obscessed with how to achieve solidarity with the workers and thus become authentic, their American contemporaries, to the extent that they had adopted the sixties ethos, wanted to distance themselves as far from Joe Sixpack as possible. (See, e.g. Joe.)

Across the Universe reflects that divide as its awareness reaches no further than Liverpool, and it only crosses the Atlantic because it is a musical based on Beatles music. Vietnam is an unpopulated cartoonish montage of previous Vietnam war movie clichés. The real universe of the movie is that of media imagery and movie quotations. It is a celebration of pop-media memories of the sixties.

Icons of Nature

June 5, 2012

I took another vacation through the National Parks. Arches was not intended to be on the itinerary, but I got to Utah early and fit it in. I was there in the late afternoon and decided to go all the way to Delicate Arch instead of using the distant viewpoint.

When I reached it I found the photographers already starting to gather. Apparently, if you call yourself a photographer there are now some scenes that are mandatory, one of which is a sunset photograph of Delicate Arch. As soon as some motorcycle clowns got out of the way, I took some pictures and cleared out, but on my way back down I got to observe something more interesting. A steady succession of people was coming up the steep path, speaking French, German, Italian, Spanish, various Slavic languages, Japanese and Chinese. They were all on their way to experience Delicate Arch at sunset. Many were hauling photographic equipment such as tripods. The Japanese instead of tripods had big telephoto lenses. Not they it would do them any good. On the typical digital camera 50mm is about the limit of what you want on a lens. If you go much beyond that you can’t get the whole arch in the frame.

But besides the photographers there were many others on what appeared to be a nature pilgrimage. Old people were heaving they way up the slick rock with their canes, giving each other boosts. They were determined not to miss this experience.

So evidently there are now internationally recognized nature icons that people will cross the world to experience. In spite of the masses of Germans at the Grand Canyon, you don’t get the same sense there, as the Canyon is so big, and people can experience it from many locations.

Delicate Arch, on the other hand, is a very locally restricted experience. First one must go up the steep trail, then on a narrow ledge around a rock formation that blocks the view of the arch from below. Then there is a small area from which to view the Arch, and where everyone was trying to stake out a position for the sunset experience.

The existence of global nature icons presupposes a global cultural media that publicizes and canonizes, as it were, these locations. This suggests that an interesting project would be to catalogue these locations and come up with the criteria that account for their selection. These then are a category in a larger group of objects: painting that the whole world recognizes, movie scenes that everyone has seen at least stills of, and so on. Notice that we don’t list novels everyone has read. This is not just because many people don’t read much, but because the novel is extended in time as the Grand Canyon is extended in space and does not reduce to a single scene or image. The closest we get is poetry where a single line or couplet can contain a concentrated impact or can stand for the whole poem.

But notice the cinema is different. It is extended in time like a novel, but still what everyone recognizes are certain specific shots. In this way we see that movies consist of moments in a way that verbal narrative does not.