In but not of the culture
I spent one night of my holidays watching the new Bluray re-issue of Meet Me In St. Louis, a film that might be the pinnacle of the MGM colour musical, and is very probably the zenith of Judy Garland’s career. I enjoyed it even more than the last time I saw it, but like almost anything from what’s called Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” it made me wonder at how gradually the world we live in changes, for better or worse.
The plot is in no way challenging, and can be boiled down to a single sentence – a family almost moves to another city, but doesn’t – but the movie really owes its everlasting fame to one tune: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” as sung by Garland to heartbreaking effect.
The film itself was part of a wave of nostalgia that began during the Depression and lasted through the post-war years, for America in the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, after the gaping wounds of the Civil War had somewhat healed and before the First World War taught us that not only a country, but whole continents, could convulse in bloodshed. It was released in 1944 but set in 1903, when people by then in the prime of their lives had been children, and senior citizens who’d lived through the terrifying first half of the century had become, understandably, nostalgic for what seemed like a simpler time.
Social conservatives are often accused of wanting to turn back the clock, but as much as we might enjoy a film like Meet Me In St. Louis, we know with utter certainty that it couldn’t be made today. (It probably couldn’t have been made 10 years later, and a hideously winsome 1966 TV pilot based on the movie, included with the Blu-ray release, is proof that it was impossible just over 20 years later.) It can be argued that we’ve become more sophisticated (doubtful) or more steeped in irony (likely) or that we’ve simply lost the skills needed to create a confection as light but affecting as Meet Me In St. Louis (probable).
The fact is that culture, pop and otherwise, rushes past us like a jet’s slipstream, and even the people who create it are barely aware of how it’s transforming and mutating. There was a time when core conservative ideals – the sanctity of life, the primacy of the family, religious belief – were considered mainstream, but at some point the culture started selling the idea that believing any or all of these things put you in some sort of minority, and around the same time conservatives started to disengage with popular culture, to our lasting detriment.
It’s hard to pinpoint just when this happened, but my theory is that it was sometime between the debut of All In The Family in 1968 and the downgrading of Archie Bunker from comic bigot to chastened widower after the premiere of Archie Bunker’s Place in 1979, by which point we had been duly marginalized and the self-appointed liberal majority was able to feel a bit sorry for us. By then, unfortunately, we’d accepted our new role as outsiders, and our engagement with pop culture was deputized to activist groups like the American Family Association and the Parents Television Council, whose stance was easily caricatured as perpetual outrage and just as easily dismissed.
The culture has changed, to be sure, but I don’t think that pretending to ignore it (a near impossibility) or living in eternal opposition is either viable or wise, especially as they both ensure that we’ll be regarded as a negligible part of the audience share that is, ultimately, the salient measure by which pop culture success is tallied. Culture isn’t a democracy, but voting with your pocketbook can occasionally make a difference, especially now when the decades-old production and distribution models are collapsing and technology such as online streaming makes it possible to reward what’s good with radical precision.
Which doesn’t mean that we need to confuse what’s correct with what’s good. A few years ago studios like Fox, tarred with the conservative brush, began experimenting with low-budget Christian productions marketed through churches and conservative media, but very little of it was really very watchable. Even a relative success like Alejandro Monteverde’s 2006 film Bella probably didn’t resonate with the public debate on abortion as much as the cloying arch critic’s favourite Juno, in which the titular heroine’s experience with the unsympathetic staff at a family planning clinic convinces her to keep her child.
In order to have films, television and books that we want, we have to be able to articulate our preferences, reward talent, and acknowledge that the world has changed, but that we’re still in it. Back during the last revolutionary change, conservatives were cast as the adults by the cultural rebels who desperately needed someone to shock. We should embrace the role, but the outrage, like the rebellion, ceased to be genuine long ago. If we’re the adults, we should let the people who want to make a living entertaining us know that they can be adults too, if they’re not afraid of a bit of hard work.