Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Great War and the Iraq War

As has oft been noted, pop charts the national mood much the same way an analysand's chatter inevitably betrays his or her buried fears and desires.

So I wonder - what should we make of our new love affair with World War I?

Right now on TV the big news is Downton Abbey, the best soap opera on the tube in years (I admit I'm a fan), and meanwhile, in the multiplexes, Steven Spielberg's War Horse is cantering across the big screen - even as its far-superior stage incarnation is still packing them in on Broadway.

Just a coincidence?  I'm not so sure, because I'm one of those who believe in the pop subconscious.  For the past few years, for instance, pop has been all but screaming at the top of its lungs, "WE'RE TORTURERS! AND WE LOVE IT!" even as in our political debates we either denied or elided this fact (or slowly, but defiantly, admitted it).   Indeed, perhaps partly due to all those official denials, pop torture spiraled into a whole labyrinth of fetishes and sub-specialties.  There was the psycho who literally tore people apart for their own good (Saw).  There was the serial killer who only tortured other serial killers (Dexter).   There was the torturer who re-wrote history!  (Inglorious Basterds.)  The torturers who did it for sport (Hostel).  And the torturer who saved the world in 24 hours!  Etc., etc., etc.

There was just never the American who tortured the innocent man.

(And so deserved to be tortured himself?)

But be that as it may, you can almost feel the cultural ground shifting beneath our feet a bit at the present moment.  Corpse and torture porn, and the vengefulness they fed, feel tired; you can almost hear the zeitgeist rattling its chains - and of course we've just left Iraq, which immediately began to totter.  So perhaps it's no surprise that the great waste of the Great War is suddenly on the Broadway stage, as well as screens both large and small.

But are we really admitting to ourselves, in a back-handed way, that our Middle East adventures have been just as tragic a mistake as World War I?  Well - it's possible, I suppose.  Certainly that's what Downton Abbey is hinting at right now - the start of its second season revolved around the ironies and injustices of the draft in Britain in 1916.  Indeed, sometimes screenwriter Julian Fellowes seemed to be pushing parallels to the present day a little too explicitly - just as wealthy Americans balanced the Iraq War on the backs of the lower classes, who had few other options than to enlist, so in the Great War the aristocrats ensconced in the safety of country houses schemed and pressured the local officials for military exemptions for their servants and favorites.  Actual war always throws class war into high relief, if you have your eyes open.  And as for the rest of it (overextended empires, corrupt diplomacy, collapsing economies) - doesn't it all sound too familiar?

This kind of piquant comment is refreshing to see, of course - even if it's far too little, and far too late.  And of course it's British comment, not American. Which reminded me of something else that's sad about American pop - we never allow ourselves any serious contemplation of class differences on TV (and thus perhaps we crave them in representations of the past!). A series like Downton Abbey would be unthinkable in America, even on cable - and even though a very close parallel would be possible in, say, a Manhattan co-op.  There's a doorman there, after all, and of course a janitor, and many maids and nannies and au pairs tending the privileged few who reside within its walls.  You could do an American Upstairs, Downstairs in the Hamptons, or on Beacon Hill, or in Kennebunkport or any number of other American enclaves.

And yet it never occurs to us to produce such a show.  We don't even really allow ourselves to ponder it.  Part of the reason, of course, is that in America, the class structure is complicated by race.  Another part of that reason is our insistent self-delusion that we're not a class-bound society at all (when recent social studies have shown that actually, we're more class-bound than the rest of the developed world).  It also goes without saying, of course, that anyone who is a conscious social climber in America is violating our most sacred pop trope - that one about "authenticity" - and so cannot serve as a hero or heroine. And then there's our weird modern neurosis about money in general.  In most of the great Victorian novels, money is the motor of the plot; read a little Trollope, in fact, and you get a great sense of the practical economics of his age.  But in America - and really in modern culture in general, high and low -  money is generally either demonized or ignored.  And you could certainly never figure out how an American household runs economically from reading a modern novel!  Can you think of a successful popular novel or movie in the last generation that has been driven by economic concerns, as half of Dickens and all of Trollope and much of Eliot is?  If you can, email me!

But in the meantime, I'll be watching Downton Abbey.  Yes, I know it's sentimentalized, and it's certainly a soap opera - and yet in other ways, compared to the rest of what's on TV, it's so oddly realistic.


  1. Hey, what an interesting question.

    I've taken a look at the last 30 years of popular film and come up with only a handful of films that really deal with money and our relationship to it (societal or otherwise.)

    These are all films that are in the very top of the Box Office.

  2. Hmmm. Thanks, Art, for posting these. I'm unconvinced by most of your list - but what your examples make me think about is how well I described what I think the Victorians did, and what we don't do, and how I could make that difference clearer. For instance, while class definitely is the basis of a lot of American comedy, like the clever, funny "Caddyshack" - I still feel that in most of these satires, money is shown as in some sort of battle with authenticity. (This goes double for movies like "The Perfect Storm" and "Wall Street".) And that's not how the Victorians saw things- and I don't think it's how WE really see things, either, that's kind of what I'm getting at. And I don't think from any of these movies that someone living a hundred years from now could really perceive how practical economics works in present-day America, as a modern reader can in Trollope's vision of Victorian England (or Balzac's vision of France after the Bourbon restoration). But let me think about it some more!

  3. The interesting thing about gathering the list was how FEW movies, at least at the popular level, deal with money at all.

    I'm actually interested now in the comedy angle. Eddie Murphy, in particular, figured as a great comic of class in his early days. Even his action comedy roles: (48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop) were loaded with racial/class satire.

    I know these aren't original thoughts I'm having, but it was pretty striking going through the years.

    I also noticed that what has replaced the comedies of class - Caddyshack, Trading Places are parodies of popular culture - Austin Powers, Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Walk Hard or bildungsromans of man children: Wedding Crashers, I Love You Man, etc.

    Also, a strange sort of class satire has arisen. One in which the upper middle class character is cast as the servant. Think Swimming with Sharks, The Devil Wears Prada, etc.

  4. You're right about how a generation ago ("Caddyshack" is from longer ago than that, actually, it is 32 years old), there were still comedies of class on the American screen - but weren't they comedies of class denial, rather than class acceptance? Over and over again in those movies, we see the "authentic" character getting rich, but hanging onto his earlier class mentality, because that keeps him "grounded" and "real." This may make the Parabasis girls yowl, but Eddie Murphy's race also figured in this cultural modeling - rich white assholes are always blues aficionados, you know. That kind of thing is lacking in British and Continental literature - particularly the illusion that deep inside your millionaire shell, you're "really" another class - and even another race!! That's a very American fantasy; somehow white American dudes imagine that they're "really" cowboys and bluesmen and James Bond and Captain Kirk.

  5. Been away so just catching up & a little late to the ball commenting, but there actually was a failed, UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS-inspired network series called-- ta-da! - BEACON HILL. It was about a te lives of a Brahmin family living on Louisburg Sq. & their Irish servants. It ran for one season in '74 or '75. Nancy Marchand was the show's equivalent of DOWNTON's Dowager Duchess & Edward Herrman appeared in an early version of his by now familiar Thurston Howell III/w.a.s.p. turn.