February 23, 2008

Pop Culture Literacy

First published on October 17 2005

When I was young, old shows and movies on rerun were a staple of TV as they had been for the previous decades. At random and in no chronological order I can recall Tarzan movies, Donald Duck, Tom and Cherry, Tweety and Sylvester, lousy Elvis Presley vehicles, Laurel and Hardy, the three stooges, Abott and Costello. It was pretty much impossible to grow up and not be exposed to Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn James Dean, John Wayne, Cary Grant Erol Flynn and all the other classic hollywood icons because their work was on such heavy rotation. So were TV shows such as Sgt Bilko, Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners, Happy Days, The Twilight Zone.

That was then and this is now... Without anyone really noticing it seems to me that these movies and shows have almost entirely disappeared from the pop culture landscape.
Can a black and white movie even be considered mainstream entertainment anymore these days? I dont know... When I was a kid I watched old movies on their own terms. The oldness was not intrusive and rarely even occured to me. Im not sure if that is still the case for kids today.

My generation may be the last that is reasonably wellversed in the whole panorama of 20th century pop culture.. Why? Old stuff is quietly disappearing from main TV and being confined to media ghettos such as the Classic movie channel. Without anyone really noticing all these things have quietly slinked off TV screens around the western world I guess this really got into high gear in the early 90s. There is something creepy recognising the mortality of these icons.
How and why did it happen? In Hollywood I would have to go back to Jaws, and Star Wars, which pretty much begin the modern era of cinematic storytelling. driven primarily by dynamic visuals and RAPID storytelling. Narrative on steroids.... I think a consequence of this is that pre-star wars movies are left looking as creaky and anachronistic to modern teen audiences as old footage of skinny white basketball players in the 1960s NBA.

It could be argued that the beginning of the blockbuster era in the late 70s marks as abrupt a breaking point in the history of popular movies as the birth of rocknroll was to the music.. and I think that as time progresses what came before it will appear as less and less relevant. If I think of my own knowledge of popular music, I am pretty familiar with famous popular music starting from the 1950s. But If I try to go back further back... boom... Its like I run into a black hole. My mental filing cabinet not only thins out but is almost entirely empty. A famous blues or Jazz musician here and there is probably all that it contains.
With the rise of hip-hop culture eclipsing rocknroll in the mid 90s I wonder if we have come to a smiliar rupture. Will The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison remain part of our shared tribal vocabulary or will they simply vanish into thin air like the pop icons of the 1930s and 40s?
I guess the thing that has really hit me is that this process is not as organic as I had always assumed. At times the curtain comes swiftly down, and for suceeding generations what existed previously becomes almost completely invisible.

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