I've got little time for nostalgia over how the world used to be and, as a Christian, no use for despair over the sorry state we're in now.
But, every so often, things come together in a way that has me shaking my head over just how much the times have changed during the course of my own lifetime.
I had one of those moments late last month. It was set off by a couple of snapshots of New York Times cultural coverage—one old, one new—that made their way across my desk.
First, while checking some facts, I was thumbing through my set of “This Fabulous Century” books, Time-Life's decade-by-decade chronicle of America through the 1900s. In the 1950s volume, for reasons I'm not sure of, I stopped when I came to a spread on Elvis Presley. Accompanying a series of early shots of the king of rock ‘n’ roll doing his stuff onstage was a brief quote from a New York Times writer commenting on the singer's seminal 1956 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The excerpt captured the writer, famed radio and television critic Jack Gould, urging Sullivan's network to be more responsible with the choice of stars it chose to deliver to a national, prime-time audience.
“When Presley executes his bumps and grinds,” wrote Gould, “it must be remembered by the Columbia Broadcasting System that even the 12-year-old's curiosity may be overstimulated.”
The New York Times scolding CBS for corrupting the culture with a cautious helping of Elvis—that was good for a laugh. I returned to my fact-checking, set the book back on the shelf and that was the end of it.
Until the next day. When I got into the office, I picked up that day's New York Times. When I got to the arts—excuse me, that's “The Arts”—section, I read a review of a new mainstream film written, directed and starring a guy named Tom Green. Evidently the film, Freddy Got Fingered, billed as a comedy, features Green engaging in a series of revolting, arrested-development antics. Example: When a friend tells Green's character, an aspiring animator, that he needs to “get inside his animals,” he finds a dead deer by the side of the road, skins it and dances around in the uncleaned hide.
And that's one of the quiet scenes. Most of the rest can't be repeated in the Register.
Sounds like a laugh riot, doesn't it?
But it wasn't so much the description of the puerile proceedings that brought me within a breath of asphyxiating on my cup of morning high-test. No, the particulars of this picture show might be unique, but the general idea—shocking audiences into laughing, or leaving, or somehow reacting viscerally—has long since become a staple of contemporary adolescent entertainment.
What turned my stomach was the Times critic's take on the thing.
“I come not to bury Mr. Green,” wrote our urbane and knowing gallery guide, one A.O. Scott, “but to praise him.
“Mr. Green stage[s] his gross-outs,” Mr. Scott insisted, “with a demented but unmistakable integrity. Like it or not, he's an artist.”
An artist. In a less-enlightened age, Green would have been called an out-patient.
I guess Mr. Scott's point is that, if you're going to be warped and disgusting, you need to be consistent about it. Never let up. Only then will your cretinism rise to the level of craftsmanship.
Yessir, the arts section of the New York Times. All the art that's fit to praise. If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere.
The times have changed, all right. Not to mention the Times. If Elvis isn't turning over in his grave over what's become of modern music, Jack Gould, wherever he may be, is surely hurting over the state of “The Arts” in the nation's unofficial newspaper of record.
Now, to be perfectly accurate, Elvis’ appearance on the Sullivan show predated my birth by a few years. I was conceived while the ‘50s were still underway, but not specifically born until 1960. Yet, after taking this little era-jumping side-trip in words and pictures, I felt like checking into the Heartbreak Hotel. It might be a little shabby by now, the amenities a little lacking, but at least it's not situated on a hostile, alien planet.
This called for a return visit to ‘50sville. This time, for a dose of sappy sentimentalism. A good, five-minute wallow in pure, unmitigated, misty-eyed nostalgia. Ike would be in the White House, Beav and Wally on the tube, Mom in the kitchen and a 3-speed Schwinn on the front lawn. I'll be home for supper, Ma …
I never made it there.
Sitting on my desk, in the space between “This Fabulous Century” and me, was a printout of Pope John Paul II's March 12 address. That was the day he spoke to the throngs of Spanish pilgrims who traveled to Rome for the beatification of 233 souls martyred for the Catholic faith during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
“The legacy of these courageous witnesses of faith, archives of truth written in letters of blood, has left us an inheritance that speaks louder than that of shameful indifference,” said the Holy Father that early-spring day. “It is a voice that urgently calls for our presence in public life: a living but peaceful presence which will lead us, through the incomparable transparency of the Gospel, to present its ever timely radicalness to the men and women of our time.”
That's when I remembered why I'm here—in this place and at this time—and discerned what I needed to do next: get back to work.
Features editor David Pearson welcomes e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.------- EXCERPT: