Curmudgeon Faces Big Yawn
by Greg Rawlings
The critical and popular reception of a number of outstanding recent works of music, literature and film has come to characterize the state of culture in America circa now. I call it "The Big Yawn."
At the tail end of the '90s, and in the early days of the present decade, certain works best exemplify this reaction. First was the long-awaited epic novel, "Mason and Dixon," by Thomas Pynchon, our greatest writer. Next came the ultimate work, in more ways than one, by director Stanley Kubrick: "Eyes Wide Shut." Both of these were major works by major artists. Neither garnered an audience of any size and were panned by most of the critical elite.
The Pynchon novel, as with all of his work, is playful, erudite, rife with astounding tropes and really long. You can find a copy in any bookstore bargain bin, which is where most of the copies of the book seem to have landed. If you don't read any other work this decade, read this book; admittedly, it might take some people the whole decade to do so, but go ahead anyway. Set in the 18th Century, and written in the language of the period, it details the anguished friendship between Mason and Dixon, surveyors extraordinaire. It is also one of the funniest books ever written.
As for "Eyes Wide Shut," the title could best describe the film's critical reception. After an early press frenzy, due to the star power of star couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and the death of Kubrick, the film suffered a general mauling and crept into the darkness. All too predictably, the critics were wrong and Kubrick was right--"Eyes" is one of the finest films he ever made. It now sits unmolested on the shelf at Blockbuster, copies available at all times. The film will be the only English-language picture from 1999 remembered in days to come, with the possible exception of the bizarre, "Being John Malkovich."
Why this non-reaction (at best) to great works? Perhaps because they are just that--great works. The phrase alone makes some people's skin crawl. In modern America, such a category is a slap at our moribund culture. We live in a time when the best thing on TV is, and has been for a strangely long time, a cartoon: "The Simpsons." Except, of course, when "News Radio" reruns are on at night. Okay, I like both shows. "News Radio's" Phil Hartman was truly gifted, and America's favorite crackhead, Andy Dick, certainly had his moments. The writing on "The Simpson's" was/is often nothing short of inspired. But they're just TV shows. Nothing more, nothing less. The medium really is the message. The most influential shows of the past decade, "Seinfeld" and "Friends," compare so poorly to the important sitcoms of the past that it makes one wonder about our present mental health, much less our taste.
If "Seinfeld" equals greatness then what does "Mason and Dixon" equal? There is no longer an applicable category. As such, the culture shoves it aside, better to feel at home in the oozing miasma of mediocrity which surrounds--engulfs--us all. "Eyes Wide Shut" never had a chance. It is art. Therefore, it no longer has a place at the table. It is a great work: off with its head.
I remember a Shakespeare professor I had at CU, who handed out an essay about applying Grisham's Law (bad currency drives out good currency) in a linguistic sense to the word "tragedy." It explained how newscasts every night sucked the soul from this grand and awful word. The same abuse has come to apply to images and ideas. "Eyes Wide Shut" had the audacity to proclaim empty the idea of sex without love, preferably that between a husband and a wife. It dwelt at length on the work that is fidelity in this world of casual sex. How shocking. How retrograde. How Kubrick. Well, the real artist takes a dare. As did Pynchon in "Mason and Dixon" when he wrote an 800-page novel about, God forbid, friendship. In his meditation on love, sexual and spiritual, eros meets agape.
The Big Yawn. Love, marriage, parenthood, friendship. The things we need the most are the things we most easily shunt aside. Tell me, though, when was the last time you heard of any of the concepts noted above spoken of without irony or derision? When was the last time you read a book, or saw a movie, or heard an album where these concepts held sway? You may not love these works the way I do, but I think you would find that they stick with you, long after "The Green Mile" has been walked, and "The Cider House Rules" have been broken; long after Britney Spears has her episode on VH1 of "Where Are They Now," and far beyond the time when John Grisham has cashed his last seven figure royalty check.
We are a nation of men and women alone. And the few beacons that could light our way to something better, maybe just back to each other, keep getting snuffed out. The Big Yawn. America circa now. Pass the Prozac latte, please.