A month or two back in Ottawa, ministers from a couple of dozen countries got together for a big forum on “culture”—and, more specifically, on how to protect each “distinctive national culture” from being swamped by the global dominance of America. It might have been interesting to hear the American perspective on this but America wasn’t invited—because, said Canada’s Heritage Minister sniffily, there was no U.S. cabinet minister responsible for culture. Which is to say that even Bill Clinton’s Washington doesn’t think it worth appointing a cabinet secretary whose job it is to attend first nights.
It’s an object lesson in the pitfalls of trying to protect “culture.”
Anyway, with America absent, Canada and co. were free to devise new ways to ward off the sulfurous odors of Hollywood, as manifested by, say, the blockbuster Titanic. Who directed Titanic? A Canadian, James Cameron. Who sings its ubiquitous theme song? Another Canadian, Céline Dion. Indeed, Mlle. Dion, who spends most of her time south of the border these days, is one of the principal beneficiaries of the dirigiste Dominion’s present regime of cultural protectionism. Under Ottawa’s onerous “Canadian Content” regulations, 30 percent of the music played on every radio station must be homegrown—which means that, whether your format is rock, easy listening, country, or Gregorian chant, you wind up through necessity expending a lot of your airtime plugging Céline’s themes for American movies. It’s an object lesson in the pitfalls of trying to protect “culture.” Let us not begrudge Mlle. Dion her success: a monolingual Francophone from Québec, she has become the supreme practitioner of an extremely lucrative jeux sans frontières— the big, bombastic pop ballad—but let’s not pretend, simply because of the passport she travels on, that there’s anything distinctively Canadian about that. Céline has succeeded because the distinctive things—the Québecois things—have gradually been ironed out by her canny minders. And, in a way, she’s not such a bizarre beneficiary of this cultural affirmative action: for Ottawa’s regulations are so ludicrous that inevitably a handful of shrewd operators will figure out a way to clean up. Aside from being an affront in a supposedly free society, “CanCon” is mediocrity by Government diktat: it’s patently absurd to pretend that one out of every three great country and western songs is Canadian; that one out of every three great jazz trumpeters is Canadian; that one out of every three great symphony orchestras is Canadian… .
And yet, and yet. . . . When Sheila Copps, the Heritage Minister, told her fellow cultural commissars that those countries in the path of the Hollywood juggernaut had to find ways to ensure that “we can tell our own stories,” it struck a chord. At the time, we were in the middle of the interminable build-up to the release of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and I found myself suddenly weary of the 101st Airborne and the 2nd Rangers and pining wistfully for a tale of derring-do—just one would do—in the Royal Canadian Air Force or Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. In America these days, the present is so overwhelmingly present that the past rarely gets a look in until someone—usually Spielberg— makes a movie about it. To judge from supposedly serious outlets such as National Public Radio, Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times, D-Day would appear to be some obscure event lost in the mists of time until Spielberg’s years of diligent research uncovered it. It’s part of the formalization of entertainment in American society: just as John Travolta’s and Barbra Streisand’s pronouncements on current events are listened to respectfully at the White House, so too Hollywood’s line on past events must be accorded respect. Spielberg, we were told, had brought World War II to the attention of a younger generation, though it seems more likely he would have merely confused them: World War II? Wassat, Dude? The sequel to a film we missed first time round?
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Nonetheless, almost all commentators agreed that Spielberg had done a splendid job bringing home the “realities” of the war. Really? From a non-American perspective, the reality of the war is that almost every other country lost, relative to the general population, more troops than the U.S.: the British, for example, lost proportionally three times as many as the Americans; even the Canadians, having been in since 1939, lost some 35 percent more. The reality is that the comparative painlessness of the now despised traditional American war movie is not, in the broader sense, inaccurate: the American soldiers who landed in Normandy were among the most comfortably supported in the history of warfare. In the Soviet forces, for every fighting man at the front there was one man at the rear maintaining supplies and so forth; in the British and Commonwealth armies, the ratio was one to three; in the U.S. forces, one to nine. This is not to belittle the contribution of those on the beaches, but only to observe that, if you want to make a film about the carnage and chaos of warfare, D-Day is far from the most obvious case. And, if you turn D-Day into a nightmare, what does that leave for true military debacles?
Thanks in part to the caution of Allied planners, across America there are thousands of towns relatively untouched by the bedlam of the Second World War. You can’t say the same about, for example, the English Midlands. Yet this year the only film those Midlanders will get to see about “their finest hour” is Saving Private Ryan. History is supposedly written by the winners, but pop history streamlines the process even further. According to those ministers in Ottawa, the rest of the world’s culture is under continuous siege. A few years ago, I asked a young cousin of mine in Ontario what she was reading at school. It was something called Project Z—or as she called it, Project Zee. “Don’t you mean Project Zed?” I asked. “I guess so,” she said, “but we all watch Sesame Street,” against which even Canada’s alphabet is at a disadvantage. Another small point: in British TV comedy sketches set in courtrooms, the judge invariably bangs a gavel. British judges do not have gavels to bang. But, for every drama set in a local courtroom, British audiences have seen thousands of “Perry Masons” and “Murder Ones,” and the gavel has stuck.
If you want to make a film about the carnage and chaos of warfare, D-Day is far from the most obvious case.
Perhaps because non-Americans are used to being the first thing written out of the script, they’re more attuned to the other winnowing that goes on. As much as anyone who wasn’t there can understand it, I’m told by D-Day veterans that, as you scramble ashore, you’re dimly aware, on the periphery of your vision, of comrades falling around you, but you’ve got your own life to look out for, you’re trying to stay focused, you’re not clocking every gushing artery, every splintered skull; there’ll be time enough later, if you’re lucky, to take a human inventory. But Hollywood is in the simplification business: in Spielberg’s so-called “realistic” D-Day sequence in Private Ryan, we see nothing but one individual death after another, in detail. Every action is ignoble: when our boys eventually reach the enemy bunker and set it afire, the Germans come scrambling out, screaming in agony, and the American shouts to his men, “Don’t fire! Let them burn!” This isn’t reality, it’s fashion.
But big deal: that’s the nature of the beast. My own reality check only kicked in when the plot got going. As everyone on the planet knows if only from the publicity campaign, in Saving Private Ryan, General George C. Marshall, apprised that a mother in Iowa has within a week lost three of her four sons in action, decides to send a mission to rescue the fourth, dropped somewhere behind enemy lines. Spielberg may have given us the first “realistic” war movie, in which the severed arteries gush like real arteries do, but so what? That’s just ketchup—set decoration. In every important respect—the concept, the motivations, the emotional impulses—the film is ludicrous, no more than the projection of our own Oprahfied values onto the past.
As it happens, my father-in-law and his two siblings were in not a dissimilar situation: they didn’t die, but, after two of the three were blown up, the youngest finished off the war for them and eventually returned home still with two legs, which is more than his brothers could muster between them. On D-Day, he was in a glider that delivered him, like the much-sought-after Private Ryan, deep behind enemy lines. I cannot conceive that, in a million years, Field Marshal Montgomery or any other British commander would have sent an expedition to retrieve him and return him to the bosom of his family. And, even supposing that someone in the Imperial General Staff had undergone some sudden I-feel-your-pain Clintonian conversion, if my wife’s uncle had returned to her grandparents in such circumstances, they’d have told him to pull himself together and sent him back to the front. In other words, I don’t believe you can make a “realistic” Second World War movie if every character in it thinks in a 1990s way.
Unlike Spielberg or Oliver Stone, Shakespeare had a sense of proportion: he knew he was show biz.
But who am I to argue against America’s greatest historian? Consider, for example, Spielberg’s last picture, Amistad. This is “an extraordinarily important film,” at least according to Spielberg—and as he’s the director, presumably he knows. So to coincide with the film’s opening, the DreamWorks studio supplied America’s schools with a “learning kit” for use in history classes. Amistad was “based on a true story”: in 1841, the mutinous Africans of the slaving ship Amistad came before the Supreme Court where they were successfully defended by John Quincy Adams. Adams was in the Spielberg movie, played by Anthony Hopkins. So was Theodore Joadson, the heroic Negro abolitionist played by Morgan Freeman. The DreamWorks “learning kit” asks pupils to analyze the “complex relationship” between Adams and Joadson. It is certainly complex—at least from an educational point of view: although Adams existed, Joadson didn’t; he’s an entirely fictional creation. Doubtless the DreamWorks people regard this as less of a problem than conventional historians would: after all, the Amistad “study guide” is peppered with inspiring quotations by Adams, not one of which ever passed his lips, mainly because they were cooked up by Spielberg’s screenwriters a century and a half after the guy died. Yet, who can doubt that, insofar as America’s children emerge from high school knowing anything about this episode of history, it’ll be from the DreamWorks “learning kit”? In America, dreams work— all too well. Filmmakers defend this approach by saying it’s like Shakespeare “shaping” his kings. Fair enough—except that the Bard wasn’t burying Stratford- upon-Avon Grammar School under a ton of Richard III “learning kits.” Unlike Spielberg or Oliver Stone, Shakespeare had a sense of proportion: he knew he was show biz.
That genial comic figure, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., recently observed that the phenomenon known in America as “globalization” is called by the rest of the world “Americanization.” The rest of the world may be wrong on this one; from even the briefest consideration, Americanization doesn’t seem terribly American, at least not as we would once have understood the term. For all we’re told that film is a visual shorthand, what most of us like to cite from old movies are the great lines—the “Frankly, my dears” and “You know how to whistles.” A picture like Casablanca is one sustained rally of muscular vernacular—“Of all the gin joints in all the towns… .” “Round up the usual suspects.” “You played it for her, you can play it for me.” But there’s no point making that kind of film anymore. America is the purveyor of entertainment to the entire planet, and most of the planet isn’t up to “Round up the usual suspects.” So the industry’s geared up to moron events like Godzilla: despite a yearlong promotion and its opening on more screens than any other film ever, only four people in America and a couple of testosterone-pumped iguanas wanted to go see it. But who cares? It’s not made for America, it’s made for the world. America is a salutary reminder that, for all the fretting of those loser countries up in Ottawa, sometimes you can be too good at pop culture.
In that sense, the United States is the principal victim of Hollywood. The rest of the world watches American entertainment at one remove. In America, that’s not possible: it devours everything, including your own history. Indeed, it becomes your history. Whatever the merits of their arguments, such films as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion were at least antiwar films. Insofar as Saving Private Ryan has anything to say at all, it’s an antiwar-film film: it exists only in relation to other war films, to such now discredited trifles as The Longest Day. Spielberg has said in interviews that the film is antiwar, but, on being pressed as to whether he was seriously anti-this war, he murmured that some wars are necessary, and certainly, without this one, there would have been no baby boomers or Generation X. As a coherent “message,” this was reminiscent of Dave Clark’s rock musical Time, in which the planet is up before the intergalactic court for having committed crimes of war and hatred, and British pop singer Cliff Richard, counsel for the defense, pleads in mitigation that Earth has produced one force for good—rock ’n’ roll— and that because of this we shouldn’t be consigned to oblivion. The rock generation’s sense of its own worth and its own historic mission is indestructible: look at Dave Clark or Spielberg . . . or the president.
The United States is the first society in human history whose principal industry is leisure—entertainment, amusement, diversion. And, since it is an industry, we should consider it in industrial terms. Increasingly, America is like a nineteenth-century industrial town: the dark Satanic mills bring us the jobs and money we need, even as they choke our skies and poison our lungs. The flotsam and jetsam of American pop culture—the entertainment superhighway, the entertainment-industrial complex—hang in the air all around us; we’re breathing it in every minute. I don’t mean the more obviously noxious fumes—the gangsta rappers and pornographers about whom conservatives usually complain. It’s sad that rap’s main consumers should be white middle-class boys living on tree-lined suburban cul-de-sacs, and faintly shaming that the richest society on earth can endow their childhoods with nothing better than a lavish wallow in ugliness. But the mortality rate among rap artistes seems to be taking care of the problem for itself: happy the gangsta rapper who lives to celebrate fifty years in show business. Besides, few cultural critics give the American people credit for their extraordinary resilience. Despite the mainstream media assuring them that these works are masterpieces, whenever films like The People vs. Larry Flynt or Boogie Nights expand their releases beyond a handful of metropolitan fleshpots, the American public stays away: Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch don’t want to know. If Hollywood’s foolish enough to believe the reviews and keep making films glorifying pornographers, it’ll be out of business soon enough. They are no threat. But it’s harder to resist the slipperier products of mainstream pop culture —the Spielbergs and Disneys—whose effects are far more pervasive. Neither Larry Flynt nor Snoop Doggy Dogg could get elected town clerk or school board chairman in 99 percent of the American municipalities, but the blandishments of Bill Clinton proved harder to resist.
The United States is the first society in human history whose principal industry is leisure—entertainment, amusement, diversion.
President Clinton is the final confirmation that we live in an entertainment state: not only because he has reduced the presidency to mere entertainment, or because he sits far more comfortably on the late-night monologues than on the early-evening news, but also because his fellow entertainers are latterly the only folks who can get to see him (apart from interns and Chinamen). He won’t speak to journalists or ordinary citizens, but he’ll happily spend a weekend in the Hamptons as a guest of Steven Spielberg and Alec Baldwin. The media never ceased to jeer at Ronald Reagan for inviting Hollywood pals round to the White House, but at least they were real pals, chums from the acting days. Bill Clinton’s reason for hanging with celebs would seem to be that they’re the source of the shrewdest insight into foreign and social policy and, in modern America’s remorseless convergence of politics and show biz, the only persons of appropriate stature for the president to meet.
His predecessors felt obliged to put up with scientists, sculptors, architects, and worthy earnest left-wing artistic directors of regional theater companies. But when this president throws a state banquet for the British prime minister, all he needs are Spielberg, Streisand, Tom Hanks, and, for the cabaret, Elton John and Stevie Wonder duetting on (of all things) “Money—That’s What I Want.” When dear old Tina Brown, like a knicker-wetting bobbysoxer, goes wobbly-kneed and gushes of the president, “He is vividly in the present tense and dares you to join him there,” she may be on to something. He, we, the country are vividly in the present tense, and, like Casey Kasem counting down the Top 40, nothing else matters except what’s here and now. During the last presidential election, a perplexed Bob Dole, losing primaries to a talk-show host, muttered that he’d been “in the real crossfire”—not on CNN but over in Italy. But he missed the point. In an entertainment state, metaphor counts more than reality: a TV “Crossfire” outpunches a historical one. A man who professes to “feel your pain” is more caring than a man who has quite enough pain of his own to feel. A war hero means less than a war filmmaker.
If you want a word for it, call it sappiness—the sappiness of Hollywood applied to every other area of American life. The scientific data decline to provide proof that secondhand smoke is harmful, but what’s science got to do with it? Morality—in the woozy, supple Hollywood sense—is on your side, so go ahead anyway and declare the case “proved,” in the interests of saving “all our children,” in whose name every bill is promulgated, sometimes literally (Megan’s Law). The values of Spielberg movies—the avoidance of harsh truths— now infect every significant area of American life, not least the feminized military. If you think Spielberg’s D-Day is messy, try scrambling ashore with pregnant combat troops and HIV-positive combat troops because your political overseers think it “sends the right signals.”
That’s the curious thing about the new national entertainment state. In theory, a pop regime ought at least to be populist. Yet, in practice, it seems even more distant from its subjects than traditional aristocracies. So, on the weekend when the FBI labs were testing the president’s former intern’s dress for (as the coyer papers put it) DNA, the chief of state flew off to the Hamptons to stay with the Spielbergs and to party with film stars Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger: the late, and at times equally embattled, Emperor Caligula couldn’t have turned in a more seemly display of executive decorum. Clinton’s America is the merest variation of that famous New Yorker poster: in the foreground, the A-list Hollywood big shots; behind them, a few fashionable gay, feminist, and minority pressure groups; and, beyond that, on the distant horizon, the mass of the American people.
In an entertainment state, everything has to be validated by celebrities—even something as basic as citizenship. The 1997 Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future would, according to Bill Clinton, “redefine citizenship” and, according to Oprah Winfrey, shrugging off the president’s stunted vision, “change the world.” Its subject was volunteerism: how to maintain and strengthen what has been one of the Republic’s most distinctive characteristics, to a degree unmatched in Western Europe or anywhere else—the willingness of the ordinary ungarlanded citizen to serve his community in a variety of ways. So who did the Summit produce to urge us on? Not the Ladies’ Aid Society or the Boy Scouts or the Utility Club or the 4-H-ers, but instead pop singer Michael Bolton and former child star turned “education advocate” Brooke Shields. John Travolta was there, too, lunching with President Clinton and Colin Powell to persuade them that America’s schoolchildren would be more civic-minded if they were taught the works of L. Ron Hubbard. It is, of course, rather easier to “volunteer” between twenty-million-dollar-per-gig film roles than between, say, thirty-two-dollar waitressing shifts. Yet the centrality of show business in American public life is so universally assumed that no one organizing this wretched non-event seemed aware of its exquisite condescension.
The rest of the world enjoys a great advantage by contracting out the dissemination of junk culture to the United States.
One would hope that Bill Clinton himself now understands the limits of the show biz state. Those who attack his recent difficulties as a “trivial distraction” are missing the symmetry: the grim protracted decline through his second term, over the most investigated fellatio in the history of the world, is the inevitable corollary of the airy rise of his first term, through sax-blowing on “Arsenio,” Blues Brothers impressions with Al Gore, underwear discussions on MTV, cameo roles on disease-of-the-week TV movies… . The first pop culture president has belatedly learned what his pal Michael Jackson, for one, could have told him: those who live by pop culture generally perish by it, too. His trivial fall is only a trivial distraction from his trivial rise. And, if the rest of the world seems bemused by this investigation, we shouldn’t misunderstand the reason: in a parliamentary system, he’d have been gone months ago. Alas for the Constitution, there are no checks and balances against the black arts of pop culture—of spin and perception and image.
So, contrary to Shelia Copps and co., the rest of the world enjoys a great advantage by contracting out the dissemination of junk culture to the United States. Lapped up at one remove, as a foreign import, it’s relatively harmless: its values don’t contaminate everything else you do. It’s like contracting out your landfill to the neighboring town: why get involved in this game if you don’t have to? That conference in Ottawa got things precisely the wrong way round: the entertainment machine is not America’s strength, but its weakness. I emerged from Saving Private Ryan grateful that Hollywood has no interest in “telling our stories”—that it’s too busy trampling America’s past to get around to trampling Canada’s, or Britain’s or France’s or Gabon’s. There’s a lot to be said for countries whose histories haven’t yet been appropriated by Hollywood and its “learning kits,” countries which perforce can never exist so vividly in the present tense as Bill Clinton’s America. Canadians should be heartened that global pop culture couldn’t care less about the RCAF or the Princess Pats. It means that, with a bit of luck, maybe one kid in a thousand will discover them the old-fashioned way—fired by an enthusiastic history teacher, or stumbling upon a dusty volume at a yard sale. Yes, it’s a long shot. But better to let your stories go untold than mis-told.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 1, on page 24
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