the past in pop culture

Category: Books

Into the Ordinary

English: Portrait of Charlie Chaplin

English: Portrait of Charlie Chaplin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty is a man who goes to work and pays the bills—until he gets fired when Life Magazine goes digital. Life, it turns out, was so twentieth century. As Mitty and his colleagues act out the downsizing drama, he is finally pushed to make real the adventure dramas of his daydreams. Why? To get the girl, to get a life, and to get the job done. Mitty completes his final assignment at the magazine even if his new bosses belittle him and can him anyways.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an everyman story with a populist flair. It harks back to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, to Jimmy Stuart and Henry Fonda who revealed common decency and everyday principles to be heroic attributes. Except, of course, that in the 2013 version Mitty actually becomes precisely the kind of movie hero “the rest of us can only dream of becoming.”

Going to work day after day rarely looks like heroism. Running off to climb Mount Everest is something Americans totally understand. Office drones never find their true selves; the oxygen deprived on the other hand always have a good story to tell at the dinner party. Never mind those cautionary tales Jon Krakauer is so good at writing. You know, the one about how climbing Everest is mostly a matter of paying a guide and some sherpas to risk their lives for you. Or that other one about the over confident young man who had read one too many books about the wilderness and ended up starving to death in the Alaskan woods.

Funny that it’s been a century now since Charlie Chaplin made his movie debut in December, 1913. Once the biggest star in the world, Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp persona was the ultimate little guy. In hard times he often couldn’t hold down a job but made comic magic out of being reduced to eating shoe leather. His repetitive stress injury—a mental breakdown—from working on an ever faster moving assembly line led to the best critique of modern times the screen has ever seen.

Stiller seems to throw a nod to Chaplin with a short scene in which his Mitty performs a series of neat tricks on a skateboard that his love interest just misses seeing every time. It’s the kind of small gesture that the Tramp won you over with—the bittersweet display of how an ordinary man might be special, but is rarely recognized. We like our underdogs successful, our Davids always taking down Goliaths. So here’s a New Year’s toast to the shepherds who do nothing more than mind their sheep, even if they daydream of heroism while doing it.

The Facebook Mystique

Betty Friedan, American feminist and writer.

Betty Friedan, American feminist and writer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s funny that the origins of Facebook now seem historical. The fun of The Social Network was the wink-and-a-nod of knowing how it all turns out since audiences were already living in a world that had been transformed by friend requests and status updates. By the time the movie came out in 2010, “to facebook” had already entered the English language as a verb and in 2009 “unfriend” had won the vocab equivalent of an Oscar by being named Word of the Year. By now, the pre-Facebook period is practically the Pleistecene.

Time flies faster in the digital era. Facebook is now one of the world’s largest companies and its executives some of the world’s wealthiest people. This has ensured that the press rollout for the soon to be published book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (who was responsible for making the company profitable) has gotten some attention. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead wants women to learn to lead by joining “lean in circles” for self-empowerment.

Sandberg’s book just happens to be coming on the heels of another publishing milestone in women’s history: the fiftieth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. 1963 sure was another era. Noreen Malone points out in Slate that when Friedan wrote about the long, boring days of the housebound hausfrau in Mystique, she definitely didn’t have Wi-Fi. If she’d had, she might have re-connected with her Smith classmates not at a reunion but via Facebook and the book might have been a blog. Instead, it became a social movement. She had to leave the house to get that going.

Although Friedan became an active part of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s, Feminine Mystique got a lot of criticism for saying it was about women but actually being about white, middle to upper-class women. Sandberg’s got it even tougher of course since she’s in the yet tinier demographic of self-made billionaire women. And so Friedan’s fiftieth and Sandberg’s first coming within a few weeks of each other has generated a lot of discussion of what feminism was, is, and should be. Friedan’s flaws might now be forgiven since hers was a historic moment but Sandberg is getting a lot of push back as an out of touch self-promoter. It may well be that her advice is more pragmatic than idealist and might only work for women who are also CEOs, but it’s worth noticing that she’s using her position to point out that there’s still some glass at the ceiling. Some of the criticisms of Sandberg echo those that the HBO show Girls has gotten for being about affluent, well-educated white young women. In a New Yorker review of the show, Emily Nussbaum questions this fretting over privilege and concludes that, “when there’s a tiny aperture for women’s stories. . . when almost no women are Hollywood directors, when few women write TV shows, of course it’s the privileged ones who get traction.” And even being Hollywood insiders doesn’t spare them the industry’s mockery–just ask Seth MacFarlane.

Which brings us back to The Social Network. Although more fiction than fact, it offered a nice little origin myth about the company’s founder as a smarty pants jerk who couldn’t figure out how to get people, especially girls, to like him. So he creates Facebook as a means of revenge against all the slights and snubs of the Harvard hotties and their frat boy hookups by offering an anonymous means of rating them hot, or not. It succeeds wildly and soon the character-based-on-Zuckerberg and his good friend Eduardo (before he’s viciously unfriended) are getting it on with two Asian American fangirls in a bar bathroom. The kindlier Eduardo manages to convert one of these women into a girlfriend. She later turns out to be a psycho Tiger Mom who hasn’t had kids yet, but that’s another story. (Note from Hollywood to model minorities: no matter how model, we’ll find a way to put you in your place.) Facebook’s founder remains sadly alone through the end of the movie when he gets some tough love advice from an über-competent female lawyer. This character seems like a proto-Sandberg. And so the movie begins with the practical, but common, woman who dumps him and ends with the practical and super-successful woman in a man’s world who just deals with it. In between, it’s pretty much girls, girls, girls even if they are all students at the nation’s most elite universities. These two scenes don’t quite save the movie from perpetuating stereotypes of women as bimbos just as Sandberg’s book fails to speak to the problems that women from outside the Ivy League are likely to face. But if the book puts another crack in the glass, well, that would be something.

It’s a Downton, Downton, Downton World


Highclere (Photo credit: neilalderney123)

What’s a Downton fan to do in the absence of the Abbey? Season three has ended and with it Sybil and Matthew, never to return. Oh yes, season four is in production but the only truly kind sister and the heir to the earl have signed off for good—unless of course Downton takes a turn towards the undead. If previously we suggested that Downton: Empire Edition might be a good idea, Downton: Vampire Edition sounds even better. Then the show could run for eternity and all that English pallor would be put to good use. At Donegal, most of the downstairs cast wouldn’t even need any new makeup or costuming.

But while awaiting these developments, we’ll need some interim entertainment. The obvious place to start is with an English aristocracy movie and TV marathon. Sure you’ve seen it all before, but it will fill up some of those empty hours. Go to Gosford Park, return to The Remains of the Day, slink on back to Brideshead Revisited. If your conscience doesn’t trouble you too much, take a tour of Upstairs, Downstairs. Some say Downton ripped it off and then resented its revival, but what’s another fox hunt or two between friends? After that, you’ll have to go a little farther afield. Bleak House beckons, and every Jane Austen movie ever.

You could try getting creative. Follow those plot leads and read Jane Eyre for another inconvenient married-man-with-a-mad-wife romantic complication. It must be Lady Edith’s bad luck to only get recycled love stories. Her earlier suitor, the disfigured amnesiac with a Canadian accent, sure did remind one of The English Patient, except of course for the fact that Ralph Fiennes didn’t whine about having a mummy’s head. Maybe it’s just that some Downton scriptwriter has a thing for movies with Juliet Binoche—Matthew’s last drive looked an awful lot like the final minute of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

If that’s too far afield, find yourself some Downton fanfiction: with two thousand plus entries and counting, you’ll have plenty to read. Prefer professional writing? Never fear: the Fellowes’s are here. Jessica and Julian have helpfully penned The World of Downton Abbey and The Chronicles of Downton Abbey. Don’t think the actual inhabitants of Highclere are just renting it out for sets either. The Countess of Carnarvon would very much like you to read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. In case your taste runs more to the downstairs, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” has been conveniently re-issued and re-titled.

For the less literal minded, Downton as metaphor might work. Downton’s depiction of a hierarchical social structure under pressure has inspired some reflections on contemporary Catholicism. On the secular side, it turns out that Downton confronts us with questions of free will and individual agency. It might seem a bit like shooting fish in a barrel to point out that Downton’s popularity can be pegged to current concerns about rising income inequality, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Too many words, not enough pictures? Let’s take a look at the lamps of Downton Abbey. We could consider the clothes as Downton struts the runway. But you don’t have to drop that many dimes to dress Downton with these outfits for under a hundred. Don’t forget our crafty friends at Etsy: handmade Downton, anyone? Once you’re all decked out, you might as well go on the road. There are all inclusive season three tours and DIY budget vacays. For those stuck stateside, a tour of the mansions of Newport might do as the next best thing. By the time you’re back, season four might be ready to roll. Finally, don’t forget to cook up some Downton dainties. They’ll come in handy in case you get the Downton d.t.’s.

Three and a Half Weddings and a Funeral

British Female Munitions Worker

British Female Munitions Worker (Photo credit: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives)

The leading ladies of Downton have almost caught up with Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell. Sybil, Mary, and Anna (yes, she’s a shadow sister) are all married. Edith got halfway married. And now Sybil is buried. So that makes three and a half plus one. One wonders of course whether the other half will be the forthcoming happy ending of season three, but since there’s only a little over a week to wait we can be patient. For the moment, Lady Edith remains unmarried and on the verge of turning into a career girl. For once, the historical reference for this plot line is both subtle and resonant. If Ernest Hemingway’s lost generation was mostly men, the other half of the sun that also rises was the generation of women who came of age with them. Back in Lady E’s day, poet and novelist Vera Brittain helpfully coined the term “superfluous woman” for all the single ladies left unwed by the war. Just a few years ago, Virginia Nicholson wrote a book titled Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men after the First World War. If Edith represents the high end of the trend—an educated woman of means who becomes (just guessing here) a crusading journalist—then kitchen maids Daisy and Ivy (btw: what’s up with the plant names?) represent the low—service workers who scrabble over the footmen. It’s a pity the scriptwriters didn’t think to come up with the third option: emigration. If we usually think of first world men importing third world women as picture brides, apparently British women were encouraged to take advantage of their vast imperial holdings and set out for India to husband hunt. Hmmm…a Downton Abbey: Empire Edition has real possibilities.

For now though, Edith remains tethered to the island. Her travails might be historically accurate but they are also notably of the moment. It’s been hard not to notice the full slate of “sex-marriage-mommy” magazine pieces that have made a big splash in the past year or two. If the lack of intellectual coherence in the genre that ranges from “Marry Him!” to “The End of Men” has made Pamela Erens in the L.A. Review of Books ask whether The Atlantic is making us stupid, its salience reminds us why Downton has done so well. As a group, its ladies and their domestics confront the modern girl’s every trial, tragedy and tribulation. As this post’s title suggests, most of these are by now resolved. Only Lady E’s fate remains to be seen. If one suspects—due to relentless conditioning over three seasons—that it will be a happy one, a word of caution. While Erens main point is that the recent high profile writings on the state of modern womanhood lack a crucial historical sense of feminism, one of the kickers in the piece is the news on how outnumbered women writers are at serious magazines and journals. So let’s cheer on Edith and her newspaper column. The world could use another woman writing.

Zombies and Vampires: They Just Keep Coming Back

Zombie Walk in Edmonton

Zombie Walk in Edmonton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The lies of the past were long gone and now the truth was everywhere, shambling down their streets, crashing through their doors, clawing at their throats.” World War Z

Does the zombie apocalypse speak truth to power about the past? It might seem so from looking at how zombies and vampires just keep coming back. Although set in the future, in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War author Max Brooks nods to Studs Terkel’s The Good War an oral history that chronicled American experiences during World War II. (And for those of you who haven’t read it, note that Terkel’s title is ironic—it’s not at all clear that many of those interviewed believed in the goodness of World War II.) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter turns plantation owners and Confederates into the other undead. It might not be good history but it vividly captures the sense of horror that plantation slavery and the carnage of the Civil War evoke. Zombies and vampires: the past that persists, the history that has to be confronted.

It turns out that zombies and vampires make perfect metaphors for just about everything that comes back to haunt us. Inept policies in response to a severe recession sparked by a mortgage meltdown created a zombified economy, according to Paul Krugman. And it’s hardly a stretch to link vampires to debt collectors. As David McNally points out in his Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, folklore has long used monster metaphors to characterize predatory economies. On the political side, the legions of zombies and vampires haunting popular culture might also be the ghosts of foreign policy past. Zombies, of course, literally came to Americans’ attention after the United States Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The tragedy of 9/11 exposed other fissures that most Americans became aware of only in its aftermath. The abstractness of the threat that the event implied made responding to it directly difficult. In Wired, Spencer Ackerman has compared the war on terror to a zombie “lurching forward thoughtlessly on instinct.” Nor are zombieism and vampirism purely American metaphors. The recent Cuban film Juan of the Dead makes Fidel himself the last zombie standing while Latin Americans have long had their stories of chupacabras (animal vampires) that correlate to hard times.

Zombies and vampires are everywhere and in this they also closely resemble the most powerful current keeper of our collective past: the internet. Facebook has been around for just under a decade now but one of its current worries is what to do with its own “zombies”: the Facebook pages of deceased users. Yet it’s the living who have more to worry about from being haunted by posts past. This is now the first generation coming of age who cannot re-invent themselves when they go off to college or otherwise sail into adulthood. Their past persists and it’s not unlike the student debt many will face. Unlike other kinds of debt, student loan obligations cannot be discharged through bankruptcy proceedings and can, vampire-like, seemingly persist for all time. Little wonder that such monsters appeal to boys and girls alike. Vampires might be from Venus and zombies from Mars, but there’s something there for everyone.

So welcome to the past persistent, but I have a warning for you, or maybe it’s for me. This blog post? Undead.

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