Cultural Caviar

Exhortation and Megalomania

January 28, 2015

Multiple Pages
Exhortation and Megalomania

It’s widely assumed, both by liberals and conservatives, that the fields of arts and entertainment innately induce egalitarian political leanings. Much of the prestige of the left, in fact, derives from the notion that it’s only natural for creative people to favor equality above all else.

Granted, there are a handful of obvious public exceptions, typically ornery senior tough guys, such as Republican Clint Eastwood. His American Sniper, with its monumental star turn by Bradley Cooper, is now on track to being the biggest movie released in 2014. This would make American Sniper the first movie for grown-ups to lead a year’s box office tally since 1998, when Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was tops.

Out-of-the-closet anomalies like American Sniper drive the liberal press crazy with fear that they are losing control of the media.

One possibility is that artists and entertainers are less monolithically on the left than you might think, but are kept in line in public by stifling peer pressure.

For example, by now Spielberg ought to have earned himself a fair amount of deference from his fellow liberal Democrats for being a credit to his political persuasion. But even he doesn’t seem able to admit that his upbringing in the red state of Arizona saddled him with a lifelong love for guns.

Here’s the only known photograph on the web of Spielberg shooting a gun.

You’ll notice it’s an extraoardinarily expensive one. Like a British duke in 1913, Spielberg has assembled one of the world’s finest shotgun collections. He commemorates each movie he makes by buying himself a six-figure shotgun, then having an Italian master craftsman spend a year suitably engraving it. It’s an elegant hobby, but one that Spielberg can’t talk about. Perhaps it would raise doubts about his work: Are his best movies really as homogeneously liberal as they are supposed to be?

“A more subversive theory is that art is inherently anti-egalitarian, that the entertainment industry thrives by elevating individuals to levels of mass adoration that Belshazzar of Babylon would have found excessive.”

A more subversive theory is that art is inherently anti-egalitarian, that the entertainment industry thrives by elevating individuals to levels of mass adoration that Belshazzar of Babylon would have found excessive. In turn, the entertainment industry adopts a bogus ideology of promoting equality to cover up its essential tendency toward Caesarism.

For example, this combination of exhortation and megalomania has been apparent for 99 of the 100 years that Hollywood has been making epic films.

Early March will mark the 100th anniversary of the original box office smash, D.W. Griffith’s denunciation of the rape culture of the Reconstruction Era, The Birth of a Nation. Stung by criticism from the NAACP, Griffith released in 1916 a more politically correct and even more ambitious blockbuster, Intolerance. It retold four stories of bigotry and oppression, from ancient Babylon down to the present day.

I’m sure that everybody has taken Griffith’s sermon against intolerance deeply to heart, but, honestly, the only thing anybody remembers from the movie is the Babylonian set that Griffith spent his Birth of a Nation profits constructing.

To give tourists snacking at the food court at the Hollywood & Highland Center shopping mall (which hosts the Academy Awards annually at its Dolby Theatre) a fittingly cinematic experience, the developer rebuilt some of Intolerance’s elephant god monuments. These things are almost as big as that Chinese statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.—which itself looks like the kind of cross between Ozymandias, Chairman Mao, and Mike Tyson that we’re not supposed to notice is an aesthetic blot on the National Mall in Washington.

But certainly, we rapidly outgrew such excess, right?

I’m not so sure.

During the Great Depression, Frank Capra directed movies about plucky little guys standing up to the big shots. But when casting his plucky little guys, Capra tended to pick James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, or Cary Grant. And when Capra wrote his autobiography, he called it The Name above the Title.

Consider the most academically acclaimed movie of all time, Citizen Kane. I’ve read countless explanations of how it’s an important warning about the menace posed to democracy by William Randolph Hearst. But, come on, everybody really loves Orson Welles’ big man act. Welles, as he liked to explain, was a “king actor.” He had to be the highest-ranking figure in a scene or audiences would wonder why he wasn’t in charge.

Intellectuals have done much to egg on genius worship. For example, Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s tended to be made by large organizations using careful division of labor. But the young French critics at Cahiers du cinéma, rebelling against the dominance of Communist intellectuals in Paris, explained that if you looked at American films just right, you’d know that the director was the true auteur and thus Hollywood studio movies are monuments to individualism.

Their auteur theory was de Gaullism avant la lettre: enlightened autocracy validated by occasional popular approval. When Charles de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, he had his culture minister, André Malraux, find him some young artists who weren’t Communists to subsidize to make France look good. The French New Wave critics-turned-directors were de Gaulle’s chief beneficiaries.

A few Hollywood figures have fully embraced the political logic of their craft—most notoriously John Milius, an outspoken right-wing gun enthusiast. And yet, much as Milius’s politics outraged movie industry mediocrities, he was a close friend of many of the top talents, including Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Zemeckis, and the Coen Brothers (John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski is based on Milius).

And modern American spectator sports, such as the Super Bowl, are unabashed exercises in gigantism and hero worship, of the sort seldom seen since the chariot races of Justinian the Great.

But so was that essence of 1960s culture, rock music.

Before the development of electric amplification—which progressively improved in quantity and quality from the Hawaiian music craze of the 1930s to its near perfection in the 1970s—the task of making music thunderously loud enough to overpower listeners viscerally required many musicians playing in a disciplined fashion.

For example, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique debuted in 1830 with an orchestra of 90 in the Paris Conservatoire, which could seat 1055: a ratio of only a dozen audience members per musician.

Brass instruments are louder than strings. Benny Goodman’s famous 1938 rendition of “Sing Sing Sing” at Carnegie Hall employed 14 musicians for a crowd of close to 2,800: a ratio of roughly 200 listeners per musician.

In the postwar era, however, a tiny number of musicians playing electric guitars could be louder than an entire orchestra or big band, letting the spotlight concentrate more fiercely. At Woodstock in 1969, the ratio would be 100,000 fans for each of the four musicians in the Who.

The logic of amplification is most apparent in the career of Bob Dylan, who grew up wanting to be a leather-jacketed rock ’n’ roll star. But by the time he got to Greenwich Village, rock was floundering. So he hopped on the folk music fad of the early 1960s, with its acoustic guitars and everybody singing about union solidarity. Dylan immediately took over folk music, and then set about draining the communal, socialist politics out of folk songs, using them instead as stages to display his own idiosyncratic verbal genius.

After the Beatles proved the kids wanted to hear electric guitars, Dylan turned his back on music that could be played around a campfire. By the second half of 1965, he’d turned himself into the rock star of his youthful dreams.

Everybody knows that the Woodstock rock festival was all about peace and love and equality. Yet, 46 years on, with the immediate controversies of 1969 receding into the long perspective of history, when I watch movies of the 70-foot towers of speakers blasting out power chords by helicoptered-in American and British rockers, I notice there aren’t too many Germans, Japanese, Italians, or Frenchmen up on stage making a colossal racket.

Instead, the stars are the sons of the guys who won World War II. As we head toward the middle of the 21st century, Woodstock is beginning to look like a belated victory celebration by the English-speaking nations that ruled the world.

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