Guns and Cheesesteaks

November 22, 2015

s[r]headlineI have a new guest post on the “s [r] blog” from Superstition Review. Here’s the link.

The post is titled “Guns and Cheesesteaks,” and it’s probably not quite as silly as the title suggests. In fact, I believe it’s as meaningful as any recent utterances by Donald Trump.

A once-tragic figure (from Wikipedia)

At a party not long ago, a friend of mine, a dramatist who teaches film history among other subjects, launched into—or perhaps was provoked into—a sad critique of today’s students. As recently as a decade ago, he said, when he showed films that displayed sexist or racist attitudes or callous violence, he’d get a strong reaction. Today, the students seem indifferent, unprovoked, unimpressed. Nothing moves them.

My friend is of an age (as am I) when old-fogey-style complaints are natural, even expected. I withhold his name, though, to avoid informing his students that he criticizes them in public. But they wouldn’t care anyway, would they? “Whatever,” they’d yawn.

Normally I don’t indulge old-fogeyism except in private. But my friend’s remarks came to mind when I read an interview with Marc Schuster, whose new novel The Grievers was featured in my last post. Marc had this to say about American culture and in particular about his own still-youthful generation:

There’s such an emphasis upon entertainment in our culture that we’re losing the ability to take things seriously. We’re really into melodrama, into quick laughs, into anything that amuses us. Look at The Daily Show for example. I love watching it, but there’s something mildly disturbing about the fact that I get a lot—if not most—of my news from John Stewart. It’s like I can’t digest serious information without a heaping teaspoon of humor to help me get it down. What does this say about me? About people of my generation? When am I going to start taking things seriously? Questions like these were in the back of my mind as I was writing the novel, and they’re also the kinds of questions that plague its narrator.

Let me add a third comment to these two: In the past couple of years, as a subscriber to Philadelphia’s excellent Arden Theatre, I’ve seen two plays that offer a classic mix of comedy and tragedy: Cyrano this past season—a new translation and adaptation of Rostand’s 1897 warhorse—and Romeo and Juliet in 2010. In both cases, the productions had me laughing with the comic bits but utterly unmoved by the tragedy, which seemed as extraneous as a sticky note thumbed onto a computer screen. When the heroes and heroine keeled over dead, I merely noted that they had ceased to be funny. In each case the director (Aaron Posner and Matt Pfeiffer, respectively) was experienced and talented and known for drawing the best out of actors. So I had to blame either myself (have I lost the ability to appreciate tragic deaths on stage? admittedly melodrama has never been my favorite genre) or the actors as a group or the culture as a whole.

I’ll take the broad, easy approach, blaming the culture, and extend what honorary old fogey Marc Schuster said a step further. Not only do we demand “a heaping teaspoon of humor” (or, better yet, a campy irony) with our seriousness, but maybe we’re fundamentally desensitized in some important way.

What’s the reason? Video games! Violence on TV! The Internet! Lying, untrustworthy politicians! Loss of faith! Decline in moral standards! Televised wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan! Facebook! Cell phones!

But notice what most of these comments have focused on: our reaction to pretend-reality. Films, theatrical productions, even the news, which we access through the tinted glass of mass media. What happens when we move into real life? When a young ironist witnesses, say, a bicyclist run over by a truck?

Whatever. Don’t ask me. Just pass the pretzels, dude. What’s on Law and Order tonight?