A cultural paradigm should be a positive one, an object that, through its very being, encourages emulation. If that model is a man or woman, a hero or a heroine, then that person should, at all visible times and in all apparent ways (i.e., let’s acknowledge privacy as a personal need, People and National Enquirer to the contrary), be the type of person that others want to become, both for themselves and for the good of the community. One of the reasons why ours seems to be an age without heroes is simply because there is a common predilection, or programmatic approach, to emphasize the warts and other blemishes: somehow it is more exciting or sexy or enticing to have a drug problem or lovers and ex-mates or a wholly sick life-style (did anyone have a life-style in the pre-20th century world?) than to be the type of good, well-rounded, steady individual that was admired through the ages. Another reason may be that in order to be the latter kind of person staid would be the modern denigrating adjective–one must be not only decorous but also responsible, and that is no simple feat. To snort cocaine and then to deport oneself like a lower primate in heat is, presumably, a simpler task. This is not so much the Age of Ego as it is the Age of Ease.
Cultural paradigms are not necessarily people. They are often institutions, organizations that help shape people to abide productively within their given culture. Think only of small things like the Girl and Boy Scouts, groups that encourage young people to strive to do more than to become proficient with boom-boxes and make-up cases, objects of veneration for many American youths. Certainly, the scouting organizations seem rather insignificant with regard to the cultural milieu, but that is simply a distortion, one caused by the ubiquity of the vapid teenagers touted in Rolling Stone and on the covers of high-fashion magazines. To be “cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent” is to be out in an indulgent world; fortunately, the paradigm remains.
One institution that is unquestionably evident and pervasive is the American cinema. As Robert Phillip Kolker writes in The Altering Eye, an examination of post-World War II filmmaking in (primarily) Europe:
The presence ofAmerican cinema is a constant, and there is no filmmaker I know of, even the most revolutionary, who hates American film. Intellectual arguments are marshalled against it; the emotions always respond to it.
“American film,” of course, means “Hollywood,” and when pre-World War II Hollywood is considered, men like Ford and Hawks (born 1895 and 1896, respectively), men who firmly established themselves in that period, show why European and Latin American directors looked–and look–to that land of yore. Rossellini, Godard, Roeg, Fassbinder, and others Kolker examines, while not exactly making films that can be admired, are working in a manner that can be respected. Working is the key word, for whether they are making some semi-philosophical statement or typically leftist political point, they are applying themselves, striving to make films, perhaps even trying to push the cinematic art forward. The same cannot be said of innumerable contemporary American directors who are now cranking out footage that exists not for the sake of the feature itself, but for the soundtrack (e.g., Flashdance, Staying Alive). Will Hollywood endure? If it is considered as an industry, then the answer is yes–assuming that its managers, like their counterparts in automotive and steel, can contain the costs. If Hollywood is considered as a cultural paradigm, then the answer is an unequivocal no. Certainly, some directors–Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg–are working, but they can’t carry the freight of responsibility alone. Film as art is to convey meaning about life, to say how to live. At least that’s the way it once was. Should the present course be maintained, then it’s critical that the Boy Scouts endure: there will be more than a few who are unable to cross a street unattended. (SM)