When Subcultures Surface

by |
04/25/2012 4:00 AM |

Last week, in assembling a contractually mandated listicle for the L’s website upon the death of Dick Clark, I lit upon a list of “incongruousAmerican Bandstand appearances, reveling in the supreme awkwardness of the moments when it seemed plausible that this or that cult might be swept up into the American mainstream. X appeared twice, for instance, in the early 80s, during the music industry’s scramble to open channels of communication with punk subculture. (The rolls of Saturday Night Live’s hosts and musical guests are a mother lode in this respect. Halloween, 1981: Donald Pleasance and Fear.)

Studio movies, ever contorting themselves, Twister-like, to keep in contact with all four audience quadrants, are excellent places to see this zeitgeist piecework in action. The Bond movies, for instance, are perhaps best considered as concentrations of exotic locales and hot-button fears, gimmicks and gadgets, and varieties of beauty and music-video styles with fascinatingly varied cultural half-lives.

These monuments to modishness, or brief surfacings of spotlight-disfigured undergrounds, are fascinating, and not just in retrospect. It isn’t a matter of these incongruous bits of the popcultural past being “dated”—datedness is just the observable gap between our current attitudes and aesthetic norms and a since-vacated settlement of same. (Irony, of course, is when a speaker positions himself in such a way as to amplify this distance, whether in opposition to a recreated past, as in Paul Verhoeven and Starship Troopers, or in alignment with a hoped-for future, as in Douglas Sirk and Imitation of Life.) (Time, or anyway the implication of time, is what differentiates irony from mere sarcasm. But I digress.) These incongruous moments are when the seams with which the contemporary is sewn together become especially visible.

Comedy, grounded in tribal specificity and shifting conceptions of hip, is a vital commodity to be parachuted into a movie, a lifesblood whiff of Now for the aspiring Event Movie. Rom-coms have always retold jokes from the current viral medium, whether it’s the immortally precise bits from the stage-trained names below the title in screwball comedies; TV’s first deconstructionist, Ernie Kovacs, mumbling past the fourth wall and into your living room in Bell, Book and Candle; or the sketch-clip players whose pop-cultural references fill out the his-and-hers spaces today’s leads occupy between FWB coupling. (Straight comedies are only slightly more cohesive: in the now-dominant Apatow school, movies are put together like the performances of a high-school jazz band, with each member of the ever-expanding combo getting a solo in turn.)

Also last week, I had a brief Twitter discussion with the L critic Jesse Hassenger, after he published on his own blog a comprehensively incredulous response to James Wolcott’s recent, deeply silly Vanity Fair thumbsucker, “Television Has Officially Surpassed the Movies.” Wolcott’s standard, for most of the piece, is an impossible-to-quantify buzzy ubiquity; as a baseball fan at a time when the national pastime seems pretty evidently to be football, I certainly understand this sort of cultural penis envy, but it’s not to be seriously credited. The cocktail-party fallacy, of extrapolating overarching conclusions about the national conversation from one’s own circle, is even more fallacious when reliant upon personally curated social-media feeds—which also make that conversation as Wolcott imagines it, with its alphanumeric hierarchical outline of watercooler topics, presumably distributed to everyone weekly by authoritatively titled magazines, strictly a nostalgic reverie. Or, maybe, it was ever thus: this is almost always the sane, sensible rejoinder, and it’s certainly the logical conclusion to draw after looking back on Dick Clark or a conference table of Hollywood executives trying to Frankenstein together a convincing synecdoche of American culture from the limbs of Special Guests and And Featurings.