Saturday, July 7, 2007

Eating the Old

By Lars Trodson

It is axiomatic that when someone famous dies, particularly an actor, someone will invariably pay tribute to the recently deceased by declaring their “work will live on forever.”

I’m not so sure this is true any more; I’m not sure we have the discipline of mind or enough forbearance of history to hold on to those whom John Cheever so accurately called figures “from the enduring past.”

Take two giant cultural figures from the 20th century: Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn. While Hepburn still weighs in with her angular features and Bryn Mawr accent on occasion, Hope has disappeared. They lived 196 years between the two of them, made countless movies, plays, television shows, radio shows, vaudeville acts, records, live acts, USO shows, you name it -- Hope was as American as John Wayne -- and you’d be hardpressed to find him anywhere on today’s cultural landscape, save for a movie shown once in a while on Turner Classic Movies. Even his partner Bing Crosby was once one of the most famous Americans on the planet, and you only hear him these days at Christmas. He’s vanished.

I remember when Charlie Chaplin died. It was on or about Christmas Day, 1977 -- and if memory serves Groucho Marx died nearly at the same time. Chaplin was the first global movie star, the first mass marketed commodity, and he made some of the most memorable and famous films ever crafted. Aside from a nod in an Apple computer campaign, where is Chaplin today? Has he been relegated to the chatter among esoteric film societies and academics? Are silent, black-and-white films so difficult to access they can no longer be seen on TV? I doubt it. I find young people today so curious about everything that Chaplin, and Keaton and the work of D.W. Griffith could easily find a comfortable home within a huge segment of today’s youth. It doesn’t have to be shown in the dark, hushed reverent halls of the film class.

I understand the impulse of trashing the old to make room for the new. When the Sex Pistols came on the scene in the late 1970s, part of their act was to talk about how fat and bloated the ex-Beatles and Rolling Stones and all that had become. It wasn’t just that we had to sweep away the past, it had to be subsumed, eradicated, obliterated.

That radical cultural shift has now become mainstream thought, but what it has managed to do is ratchet down the length of what we used to call a “career.” Careers now seem to get derailed even before they get started. Look what happened to the show “The O.C.” That’s because the new kid is all too willing to replace the old codger, whose career spans all of three years and two CDs. People have been ready to write an bit for “Desperate Housewives” since the day it first aired.

This would be fine, except that it is a cycle that is destined to be repeated, and those who benefit from it will also be devoured by it. It will affect both those things we like and don’t like. If we are frustrated because of something we admire has vanished that’s because there are probably more people out there who don’t like it and want it wiped off the face of the map. And the majority undoubtedly succeeds.

So the carousel continues, at a feverish pace. TV shows, movies, actors, singers, and comedians all spin around us and we’re basically trying to pluck one of these blurs out of the air, hoping that we’ll like it once we’ve had a moment to see what it looks like. And some of us, remember, are on the lookout now for what might be the next big thing tomorrow, never mind what’s going on today, if only to be able to say that we had heard of it long before anyone else.

One of the ways in which we can better understand the times in which we live is if there are fixed points within that universe. We used to be able to pinpoint moments in time because of the TV shows we watched, or the album covers we stared at, or the movies we waited in line to see (movies that lasted more than a month in the theaters). We could say, oh, yeah, that was 1972, or 1987, or 1991. But now everything is revolving. You can watch your TV show at any time, whether it’s old or new, there are no album covers, and you dictate which songs you want to listen to. You’re not necessarily part of a national cultural wave. So I wonder if we’ll look back from now on and have trouble remembering just when specific things happened? With everything floating, tumbling around us -- will we really be able to look back and say, oh, yes, I remember the summer of 2007 like it was yesterday?

I don’t know. But if Chaplin and Hope and so many other titans of 20th century culture are having trouble staying afloat, one wonders if anything made today will make it into next year.

It could be we’ve started a terrible, vicious cycle: If nothing is going to last, why bother to make anything that will endure?