Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Remembrance of Things Past

Warning: Old Fart Alert ahead.

Do people have any kind of cultural memories anymore? I mean, anything that’s more than fifteen minutes old?

I know that the average Joe doesn’t. I’ve long since given up on that since the day – some ten years ago – when, in directing an actor (of my own age, mind you; not some kid who was wet behind the ears), I asked him to play it more like Ralph Kramden. He looked at me with the blankest of stares. Whenever I’m in New York, and walk down Eighth Avenue past Port Authority, I see the statue of Mr. Kramden that was erected as a publicity stunt for Nick at Nite in 2000. I pass it and I wonder how many of the thousands who pass by it every day have even the slightest clue who he (or even Jackie Gleason) is – or if they even notice it.

I’ll grant you that the last episode of “The Honeymooners” aired nearly 60 years ago, but does that mean that such a cultural landmark has to be wiped from our collective memory?

Or take the case just a couple of years ago when I directed another actor (again, roughly my age) to play something more like the character of Hank Kimball, the bumbling county agent on “Green Acres.” Hank was constantly contradicting himself, rephrasing things, and making a muddle of the simplest thoughts – exactly what the character was going through in the play we were doing. Again, I was met with a blank stare. In this case, it was a little more understandable. “Green Acres” had been off the air for quite a while then, and wasn’t being commonly rerun (unlike now). But, still, it was something the actor and I had grown up with.

What sparks this rant is two reviews. The first is of last night’s finale of “True Detective.” The first, on Slate (which, I’ll admit, features some of the dimmest critics of television and movies on the Internet) talked about one character suddenly adopting an English accent for no apparent reason – to the critics, at least. To anyone who’s seen any reasonable number of classic movies realized immediately, this character had Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” playing in the background, and the audience was treated not only to the scene where Cary Grant is abducted but where James Mason’s character berates Grant’s character for not owning up to what he thinks is his true identity. (This isn’t the clip in question, but will give you a taste of the suavity that the “True Detective” character is emulating.)

Now, again, I don’t necessarily expect everyone – and certainly not, well, kids – to be intimately familiar with one of the finest movies directed by one of the greatest film directors. That would be too much to hope for. But what I would expect is that someone who is being paid – and, one assumes, paid handsomely – to analyze, critique, and rate television shows and movies be at least a little literate with the basic “great films.”

I would be wrong, apparently.

And then, last night, reading a review of the latest episode of “How I Met Your Mother” (a show that has long since jumped the shark, but which I’m still watching only because it’s so close to the end – and, after reading some of the recent speculation, I want to see if they indeed bump off the eponymous mother in the final episode). One of the characters (“The Captain,” played by the why-is-he-slumming-in-this? Kyle MacLachlan) starts his day by greeting his staff with a musical number. Reviewer Donna Bowman of TV Club identifies it thusly: “How delightful is the Captain’s morning song to his housekeeping staff, which I presume is modeled on The Sound of Music a reader informs me is from H.M.S. Pinafore?”

Now, for the third time (at least), I’m not expecting young people who aren’t ardent fans of either Gilbert and Sullivan (or Aaron Sorkin) to know “Pinafore,” but I would hope that anyone in Ms. Butler’s position of interpreting and explaining television shows ranging from HIMYM to “Breaking Bad” (a show that was, of course, free of any references to anything else) would have a basic knowledge of pop culture that didn’t stop with the videos she watched as a child.

I’m reminded of an online argument I got into a few years ago. I’d just watched a short on TCM that featured a musical act of three guys parodying popular culture. Their references included mentioning plays by Eugene O’Neill, George Bernard Shaw, and Henrik Ibsen. I mentioned that you’d be hard-pressed to do such an act today and unwittingly caused a storm of heated comment.

I didn’t think it was just that the theatre has completely dropped out of cultural awareness – as much as I love it and breathe it, I know it’s a niche – but that who, other than theatre majors or all but a fringe knows O’Neill, Shaw, or Ibsen at all – or even any modern playwright? People might know David Mamet or Tracy Letts (and him only because of the film of “August: Osage County”), but mention anyone other than Shakespeare – and I have my doubts about even him – and I’m afraid you’re going to get the blank look I got when I mentioned Ralph Kramden and Hank Kimball.

Now, let me hasten to add, TV Club can do a pretty good job of bringing cultural history to the awareness of their readers. (I mean, right now, they have a front-page feature on “He and She,” a wonderful sitcom that ran one season in 1967. And their appreciation of “Green Acres” is well-done.) But I’d hope that any critic, for any major site or publication, would be aware of popular culture that pre-dates their own birth.

Even today, I was listening to a podcast of Marc Maron interviewing Dick Van Dyke. Obviously, to hear his introduction to the interview -- and in the talk itself -- Maron has great respect for Van Dyke, but it was obvious that not only did he not really get any of the references Van Dyke was making, but he hadn't done even any basic research, like looking up his home town or credits; that he was working off having seen "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" forty years ago and "Mary Poppins" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" at some indeterminate times in the past. He was so unprepared, he made Larry King look like Robert Caro. I can defend not knowing every aspect of the man's career or all of his references, but would it have killed him to take two minutes to look at his IMDb page and get the basics?

So, yes. I’m old.

And I’m cranky.                                                                                                               

But I know who both Gus Visser and Pharrell Williams are.

So there.

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