Friday, November 2, 2018

The American Esthetic

     First, allow me to indulge myself just a little...

     Anheuser-Busch always did know how to make a commercial that the audience would watch. So what if the product flopped? Anyway, now for today’s main feature...


     The cultures of the world differ in many ways. There’s no need to detail the variations in languages and customs; we have travel guides and Berlitz for that. My thoughts this morning are on the world of entertainment, and how American tastes in such things diverge from those of the older cultures from which ours emerged.

     Ours is a distinctive set of tastes and criteria in entertainment. One who was born into this culture and raised in it wouldn’t be conscious of it until he’d been exposed to the entertainment made by and vended to Europeans. The best of it, let it be said, isn’t bad...but whether or not we enjoy it, there’s no concealing its foreign-ness.

     Whether it’s fiction, music, or cinema, Americans can always tell when the product comes from offshore. Bergman films? Yes, some of them are very good...but there’s no concealing the grim, chilly, Swedish esthetic that powers it. Truffaut’s fatalism is equally blatant. (Fellini? Bertolucci? Please! I’m trying to digest!) European fiction, into which I’ve been delving recently, tends toward pessimism and darkness even when it manages to reach a happy ending. I submit Stieg Larsson’s three wildly popular novels about Lisbeth Salander as Exhibits One through Three. (And let’s not even mention Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov...oops!)

     A nation’s tastes in entertainment arise from that nation’s history: what made it and its people what they are. America’s history differs radically from that of Europe, Asia, and Africa. In consequence, our entertainment tends to feature large conflicts, protagonists’ personal commitment to ideals, and quite a lot of action, for these are the major markers in the American national experience.

     At least, that’s what the American esthetic is today.


     Recent decades have brought incursions into American entertainment from Europe, Asia, and Africa. However, those remain minor influences upon the tenor of our entertainment. America’s esthetic incursions into European entertainment have been more dramatic. But where do we find an esthetic broadly similar to ours?

     The first place to look is Australia, the other First World nation with a recent history of rebellion, struggle, and achievement. The esthetic embodied in the Australian fiction I’ve read stands somewhere between those of America and Europe. I’m less familiar with Australian cinema, except for George Miller’s “Mad Max” movies and Peter Weir’s strangely mystical tales, but here too we can see a blending of American individualist ideals with European fatalism. There’s a certain logic to that, as Australia has retained a high degree of intercourse, in people, trade, and esthetic involvement, with Britain, its mother country.

     The next place to look is Hong Kong, for many years an almost perfectly free city-state first nurtured by Great Britain, through which flow the people and trade of all the nations of the world. There isn’t a lot of written fiction identifiable with Hong Kong. However, its movie industry is large and colorful. The karate and Kung Fu movies are strangely American in several ways. They certainly provide enough action, and the conflicts are dramatic enough. The surprisingly American esthetic sensibility of veteran Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo, nicely displayed in his hit movies Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Mission: Impossible II, brought him to the first echelon of directors.

     Apart from those two outposts, there aren’t any others whose esthetic bears much comparison to that of the United States.


     I can’t justly leave this subject without mentioning the great affection of French audiences for the movies of Jerry Lewis...and now that I’ve mentioned it, allow me to pass on without further analysis.


     A few years back, Colorado fantasy and science fiction writer Sarah Hoyt kicked off a series of discussions about what she wanted to see returned to science fiction. She styled it a Human Wave, in open distinction to the “New Wave” trend that had done so much to dampen the enthusiasm of SF readers. Sarah’s Human Wave manifesto – hey, she called it that, not me! – expresses a baldly American esthetic, especially in these provisos:

     2 – Your writing shouldn’t leave anyone feeling like they should scrub with pumice or commit suicide by swallowing stoats for the crime of being human, or like humans are a blight upon the Earth, or that the future is dark, dreary, evil and fraught with nastiness, because that’s all humans can do, and woe is us....

     5 – You shall not commit grey goo. Grey goo, in which characters of indeterminate moral status move in a landscape of indeterminate importance towards goals that will leave no one better or worse off is not entertaining....

     6 – Unless absolutely necessary you will have a positive feeling to your story. By this we don’t mean it will have a happy ending or that we expect pollyanish sentiments out of you. Your novel and setting can be as dystopic as you want it. In fact, your character can die at the end. Just make sure he goes down fighting and dies for something, so the reader doesn’t feel cheated....

     9 – You will not be boring. Or at least you’ll do your best not to be boring.

     It is noteworthy that Sarah is an immigrant to these shores, having been born and raised in Portugal. I daresay her sentiments would get a far less appreciative audience in Europe.


     There’s a lot more that could be said on this subject, if I had the patience (and the stomach) for discussing specific thematic contrasts between comparable items of American and non-American entertainment. But my idea here was to provide my Gentle Readers with a little stimulus to observation and thought rather than a doctoral dissertation on worldwide esthetic currents and trends. Examples are all around us; one need only look to see.

     In closing, isn’t it an appropriate theme of discussion for the Trump Era, when the nation has rebuffed a dour, static, dictatorially-minded political establishment in favor of a brash, openly and exuberantly American real-estate developer from Queens?

6 comments:

daniel_day said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margaret Ball said...

Didn't Nevil Shute emigrate to Australia after the war? (I forgive him On the Beach for the sake of the rest of his oeuvre.)

Francis W. Porretto said...

I believe so, Margaret.

Unknown said...

Two epics from Turkey, translated and dubbed into many foreign languages, but unfortunately not yet dubbed into English, deal with the history of "Suleiman the Magnificent," and one of his heirs, Ahmed Khan titled "La Sultana" in Spanish. Excellent for many reasons, they are long running T.V.novels, but fascinating.

Linda Fox said...

Even our appreciation of aged stuff is tinged with our Americanness:
- Antique Road Show - not dedicated to extolling the glories of our ancient families/country/culture, but to the raucous excitement of having, through random chance of NOT having thrown that old thing out, hit the financial jackpot.
- PBS - Downton Abbey, Victoria, Life of the Neanderthals - we want to know about their social interactions, their difficulties making ends meet, the opposition they faced from another tribe/party/social enemy - and how they triumphed.
- HGTV Channel - to my knowledge, absolutely nothing like it. Even This Old House focuses, not on the magnificence of the aging structure, but the craftsmanship of its restorers, the skills/knowledge of the humble plumber, framer, floor installer, etc. Gives Americans the crazy desire to run out and buy a falling-down house.

I do wish Americans would travel more outside of their own country, not to marvel at the rest of the world, as the Leftist Elites do, but to come home proclaiming "Thank GOD I am an American!"

Col. B. Bunny said...

I remember a very old edition of Mad Magazine that had a hilarious panel showing drawings of frames from a "French" movie. A guy with a beret was chatting up a beautiful woman, ordering wine, sitting her on his lap, and doing his best to seduce her. The bowdlerized "American" subtitles were as bland and innocuous as could be, far from conveying any of the actual action. It was great.

I read all of Stieg Larsson's books and his heroine was certainly as dark as her awful experience with mankind could make anyone. Stieg was a greasy little leftist who supported a Swedish organization that has done its best to facilitate that nation's destruction. It's plain delicious that his "partner" ended up with nothing of his fortune because of his and her attempts to game the tax laws. Something like that, anyway.

I have to say I love the various Scandi TV series which, surprise, surprise, only barely touch on the immigration disaster. "The Bridge" had a couple of Muslim characters but they were essentially Lutherans with a sun tan.

A couple of British police procedurals are classics. "A Touch of Frost" and "Scott and Bailey." Great character development and dialogue. In the latter, the female detectives approach a woman standing in her doorway. "Are you Brian Farnsworth's mother?", they ask. "No. Oim his fahver", she replies.

Some French cop flicks were witty like that.

Australian flicks seem closest to our take on life, which I think is an appreciation for irreverence.

Lots of Japanese movies that are just too droll for words. "Tampopo" (industrial espionage to determine the perfect noodle recipe) and a couple of movies about a Japanese revenue agent. "A Taxing Woman" and one other.

A very witty friend of mine liked to imitate the English-language dubbing of early Hong Kong kung fu movies. Apparently, the directors would hire Australian merchant seamen to supply the dialogue and they got something like badass shaolin kung fu fighters saying lines along the lines of "Keep that up, mate, and I'll give you what for."

I have wondered about the paucity of movies from the Arab world. A desert there not unlike the Saudi disaster itself.