Thursday, June 27, 2013

Heroes write the History

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post defining and explaining Nostalgia which largely criticizing the media industry's explicit exploitation of the past. Even in that post, I acknowledged that not all use of 'the past' was Nostalgic, and not necessarily bad. Successful shows like Mad Men (AMC) and Boardwalk Empire (HBO) or movies such as Lincoln (2012) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007) do rely on audience's idealized preconceptions of the past, but not in the same way as Man of Steel (2013) or The Carrie Diaries (The CW). The latter use Nostalgia to tell the same story while the former use History to tell a new one. Revisiting History within the context of New American Mythology reveals shifting perspectives of the past while offering direction to our present lives.

We all know the general story of Lincoln, the Civil War, and Emancipation. In any historical retelling of the story, we know how it's going to end (a bullet, Northern victory, and segregation). So why recreate it- to simply to relive our glory days? No, that's Nostalgia. We use History to help understand present issues, and look to our heroes for guidance. Take the 1988 t.v. miniseries, Gore Vidal's Lincoln.

Skip to: 5:03

 Admittedly, Vidal wanted to illustrate the founding fathers as less than heroic. The television series shocks audiences with a racist Lincoln in order to nudge audiences into considering how far society had come, even from desegregation two decades earlier.  What may have seemed radical ideas in the 60's were just common thought, especially in light of recent confirmation of humans as originating in Africa. The morally questionable honest Abe was not meant to glorify his personality or accomplishments (Nostalgia), but give a new perspective on the past (History).

Spielberg's Lincoln, is much like Vidal's in mannerisms, but he reclaims an untouchable aura of heroics (albeit not to the point of romanticism). What makes this version of History particularly interesting, is the "gritty" politics Spielberg demonstrated. Perhaps our previous idea of the 1860s included a virtuous political system that actually worked. The fact that Lincoln had to wheel and deal not only made History more real, but it also made me feel better about the current state of Washington.

Other Historical fictions in American Mythology today reflect similar sentiments. Instead of the idyllic portraits of great men that we find in textbooks (or even comic books), we see the complex interactions between individuals who live in a morally grey zone. By toning down the rose tint, we can see beyond the nation's grand rise to power and acknowledge that at no point have times really been easy.

HBO's Boardwalk Empire takes place in the roaring twenties, when the 18th Amendment essentially restricted alcohol to a point where bootleggers were working in a free-market system. This allowed them to to collect great wealth, obtain great power, and occasionally accomplish great things. However, the actions various gangsters take to gain or retain their greatness/monopolies follow neither general idea of a 'good' man nor the idealized free-market system.

(A meeting of all the East coast bosses)

The main character, Enoch Thompson (aka Pasty Breadstick in a Bowtie), constantly re-balances his political and economic powers in order to create an image of a great man. In this scene particularly, he decides its better to deny his business partners booze (limit the free market) in exchange for a 'prettier' public face. Rosetti (the angry one) acts in the opposite manner, disregarding Thompson's overall well-being for greed. Audiences know Enoch Thompson as not the most morally sound individual, but at least he has some sense of gentlemanly character. Or not. Which may be the most surprising aspect of the show. Despite wanting to like any one of the characters, audiences must see them as willful participants in a corrupted system that operates under a facade of glamour.

In this way History surpasses Nostalgia in its message to the masses. Instead of longing for yester-year, the former sends a message of 'things can get better'. People can change, circumstances can alter. It's up to the hero to decide whether he or she will give up or move forward.

Que Donald Draper, Mad Men Season 1, Episode 1

Mad Men has largely been about the fall of the All-American hero. Audiences see Don as a flawed individual who hides his despair and vulnerability from the people around him. Throughout the series such deception drive him to act immorally, without regarding his actions as harmful to himself or others. In the above scene, he casually says he does not believe in the tomorrow. We know that this isn't the truth, and not just because we know the bomb didn't go off. He simply fears the past, choosing to ignore the gritty details. If you've watched the latest season, then hopefully you can compare this scene to the final one in the last episode. Don now looks to the past, not in fear of its consequences nor shame of its contents, but with a sense of pride and purpose. That is where he is from. From all that shit, he became...

Donald Fucking Draper
We'd prefer to hide away the dirty bandages and dead bodies of History, but they describe more authentically than the glorified poems written after the battle. Americans want to acknowledge the grime under their heroes' nails, because that's proof that they weren't divinely designated as saviors to society. Is the American Dream not to achieve greatness despite through equal opportunity, no matter your race, creed, gender, orientation, social status, etc? Our heroes must live with flaws in a past which is realistic. Americans look at History not to show off our grandiose rise to power, but to understand that despite whatever shit storm we're going through now, we will not only survive, but emerge [hopefully] as a better society..

No comments:

Post a Comment