Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 9th, 2014

In with the old

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The Dick Van Dyke Show

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What are your pop cultural dealbreakers?”

Every year, it sometimes seems, a new television series is anointed the greatest show of all time. Oddly enough, it’s usually a show that happens to be airing right now, and which is still some distance away from finishing its run, which you’d think would be a necessary part of evaluating its place in the canon. It isn’t that the acclaim is always undeserved: even before “Ozymandias” and “Felina,” for instance, it was clear that Breaking Bad merited a place near the top of many people’s lists of classic shows. (And I’m not entirely innocent here. I think that Mad Men might be the best dramatic series I’ve ever seen, but I’m going to hold off until the series actually ends before staking out that position.) Part of this is simply an aspect of a larger trend toward hyperbole, which is inevitable given our fragmented media landscape: for a show to stand out among the dozens of hours of excellent television at our disposal these days, it needs to be hyped as the best thing ever. Fans have been doing this for a long time, but serious critics have started to do the same, to the point where if a similar tendency was at work among movies, we’d see a Sight and Sound list where Gravity and Inception had long since toppled Citizen Kane.

Still, there’s another, more disturbing phenomenon operating here, which speaks to a lack of curiosity in—or a sense of being overwhelmed by—the pop culture that emerged before we were born. Television in particular suffers from a loss of institutional memory. There’s just so much of it, with more being produced every day, that we don’t know where to begin, even if we make a point of seeking out older shows. Even as it stands, much of our cultural knowledge arises from accidents of biography, timing, and syndication. I was lucky enough to grow up during the golden era of Nick at Nite, which exposed me to some fantastic television (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Get Smart, Mary Tyler Moore) while leaving me unaware of many others (Andy Griffith, The Twilight Zone, All in the Family). And it’s likely that I suffer from some of the same biases that I see in others. I have a real problem with people who say that they can’t watch black-and-white movies, or three-camera sitcoms, but if I haven’t revisited many of the great series of the 70s, it’s because the videotape they used looks hideous to contemporary eyes, when older shows shot on film still look fantastic.

Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad

But a large portion of our responsibility as thinking adults who care about pop culture in any form lies in overcoming those preconceptions. It’s easy to stick with art that presents itself to us in a way we find immediately recognizable and accessible, but many—perhaps most—worthwhile stories teach us how to encounter them, whether because they’re rooted in the past, look toward the future, or both. Proust takes more effort than Stephen King, but both offer considerable rewards to those willing to seek them out, and this especially applies to works of art that have fallen off the radar. I’m always a little depressed, in a slightly guilty fashion, when I see that a friend’s bookshelves consist only of books published in the last five years or so, most of which might as well have been plucked directly from the front table at Barnes & Noble. Reading is a worthwhile pursuit in its own right, no matter the provenance of the works involved, but I still can’t help feel that there’s something limiting in sticking to the books that everyone else you know is already buying. (If anything, in recent years, I’ve become unfairly biased toward the old, neglected, and out of print, to the point where I find myself erring in the other direction.)

Of course, we all have our cultural blinders: I could stand to be more aware, say, of the current occupants of the Billboard Hot 100, and I’m more than a little influenced in my choice of what television shows to watch by what people I respect think is cool. But what counts more than the particular books, movies, television, or music you love is that willingness to move beyond the familiar. The gradual expansion of one’s cultural comfort zone is an essential part of becoming a grownup, and while I can understand that reluctance in the young—I vividly remember how it felt to be in high school, when the kind of music you liked seemed like the only thing defining who you were to your peers—adults have no excuse. And it doesn’t exclude the possibility of strong likes and dislikes; in fact, it lays the groundwork, because those tastes are nourished by curiosity and wide experience, rather than easy assumptions. If you’re a curious reader and viewer, I’m going to love talking to you, even if our tastes diverge; if you refuse to move beyond one comfortable slice marked out by the tastemakers around you, we might have trouble having a conversation, even if we agree that Breaking Bad is pretty darned great.

Written by nevalalee

May 9, 2014 at 9:45 am

Quote of the Day

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Robert Bresson

A sigh, a silence, a word, a sentence, a din, a hand, the whole of your model, his face, in repose, in movement, in profile, full face, an immense view, a restricted space…Each thing exactly in its place: your only resources.

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer

Written by nevalalee

May 9, 2014 at 7:30 am

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