Oscar Afterglow, “American Century” and a War of Popular Cultures

While Oscar hopefuls An Education and Up in the Air may not have returned victorious from the 82nd Annual Academy Awards, they remain singular in their articulation of the ‘problem’ of popular culture. Set in different historical eras, and supported by the narrative monologues of two very different characters (each during very different life-phases), these films offer a rewarding, if not entirely unsettling commentary on the use and the role of pop culture. What is a popular culture for? By separate paths, both An Education and Up in the Air attempt the same cultural project.

Set in 60s Britain, An Education is the coming-of-age tale of journalist Lynn Baker. Quirky and slightly satirical, An Education depicts the staunch challenges faced Baker’s nascent third-wave feminist mentality in a way that succeeds as entertainment rather than a sermon. Jenny Miller (Baker’s fictive analog), is a young woman on the cusp of a bright future. Just about to exit the British school system, Jenny plays the cello and studies Latin. Both are done as extra-curricular activities in the hope of being noticed by the notoriously stringent Oxford admissions committees. For Jenny, Oxford is an escape from the humdrum drudgery that threatens to engulf the first sparks of a genuinely creative spirit.

But, as with many creative spirits, Jenny holds a secret torch for popular culture. Beyond her clear intellect that absorbs the principles of Renaissance art just as easily as it does complex arrangements for the cello or classical Latin conjugation, there is an imaginative yearning towards the contemporary. Jazz and French fashion magazines, existentialism (and the beatnik movement) are no less worthy of her attention than any of her more academic pursuits.

But it is more than that. For Jenny Miller, popular culture holds a particular intellectual allure. Jazz is studied with the same rigor as the Italian Masters, French literature is pursued with the same dogged determination as Latin grammar. Jenny Miller is an intellect, stepping into the world for the very first time. As with any gifted intellect, she absolutely fails to conceive of the world in that same narrow-minded terms as everyone else; as popular ‘versus’ traditional culture. Jazz and fashion are simply other things in the world that need to be treated with exactly the same respect as Latin and classical cello.

This is a radical position for the ’60s, and remains radical even today. The equality of knowledge, the pursuit of learning for the purest of reasons remains a position often relegated to hedonism of a leisured class. Intuitively, there just seems to be something wrong with valorizing popular culture in this way. Even An Education director Lone Scherfig (who remains singular in depicting the struggles of a young third-wave feminist), fumbles slightly the contestation between popular culture and a more traditional learning.

The BBC Films motion picture centralizes the external contest between Jenny Miller’s foreseeable boredom and her intellectual liberation rather than the specific struggle between (as Rosamund Pike’s brilliant rendition of a gangster’s moll reminds us) ‘reading books’ and ‘reading magazines’.

Jason Reitman, fresh from the runaway success of Juno, develops a very different kind of tension around popular culture. As a professional business traveler, who is employed to manage and execute the dismissal of employees from their current positions, George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air has excluded himself from the cultural mainstream. There is very little in his life that has not deliberately chosen to be there. As an ancillary to his job, Clooney’s character has crafted an incisive (but curmudgeonly) motivational talk–the empty backpack not laden with personal relationships, possessions and desires is the best way to travel through life.

This radical reductionism extends even into his personal life. In a moving scene with co-star Anna Kendrick, Clooney’s Ryan Bingham enunciates a profoundly dispassionate view of someone who has simply unplugged from human contact. ‘It’s simple’, he says. ‘You know that moment when you look into somebody’s eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul, and the whole world goes quiet just for a second?’ Yes, comes the excited reply. Clooney’s character continues in a brusque put down, ‘Yeah well I don’t’.

Yet even in the deepest recesses of this uniquely rarefied lifestyle, Ryan Bingham reaches towards popular culture. As a business traveler, he has begun collecting mileage points in the same way that neighborhood kids might collect baseball cards. His goal of collecting 10 million air miles becomes the nexus for the two central conflicts of the movie–his own job security, and his reaching out for a relationship that is more than just casual.

Reitman crafts a very different vision of popular culture. Unlike Scherfig who sees popular culture as radically new form of content, Reitman articulates it as a new practice–a behavior to maintain meaning and value in the absence of human contact. Ryan Bingham’s life might literally be up in the air, but there is a very down-to-earth sense in which he engages popular culture in the same way we all do.

Popular culture as new content, or popular culture as a new kind behavior? Together the two films seem to convey the full scope of human endeavors around popular culture. But the shortfall in one film, is emphasized by the other. Together the two films seem to work to great effect. Although, separately they fail to acknowledge their own limitations with respect to their views on popular culture.

As far back as 2001 however, Howard Chaykin and David Tischman’s American Century presupposes not only both facets of popular culture (both as behavior and as content), but almost uniquely examines the limitations of each facet in defining the experience of popular culture. Popular culture as behavior is at odds with popular as content, the series writers seem to say. And yet, paradoxically, one facet supports the other.

American Century tells a very simple ‘hard-boiled, hard-man’ kind of tale. Frustrated but the enduring ignominy of his 1950s middle-class life, where he has become another object in his wife’s suburban menagerie, Harry Kraft (formerly Block) escapes to a life of roguish adventurism. But the true target of his quixotic rebellion is the crass commercialization of American popular culture. Intelligent and highly literate, Harry fills his time reading emerging literature like Beat writer Jack Kerouac, and late-phase Ernest Hemingway. The series follows Harry as he attempts to escape the commercialization of popular culture, while thrust into various situations. The overthrow of a Communist government in South America, the hunt for Reds in Hollywood, a motorbike trek down Route 66 are just some of the scene-changes the series enacts.

And of course, in the gifted storytelling hands of Chaykin and Tischman, Harry not only reads popular culture, he dons it like a disguise. The Harry readers encounter each new storyarc is never the same as before. One time a ‘Lonesome Traveler’ down Route 66, another a security guard in Hollywood, and yet another, an American in Paris, Harry culturally chameleonic. Harry Kraft is as much heir to the tradition of James Ellroy, as he is to the high literary tradition of Henry James.

This casual reversal between popular culture as content (the books Harry reads) and popular culture as practice (the new personas he adopts) is exactly where conventional wisdom around popular culture breaks down, Chaykin and Tischman seem to argue. This perpetual reconfiguration leaves Harry having slightly more in common with Don Quixote, than with any Beat hero. Chaykin and Tischman expose the same circuit that Cervantes did–that popular culture begets action begets popular culture.

But the writers take their vision a step further. This simulacrum of lived experience, the construction of false identities with which to navigated an increasingly artificial world, might be the only sane path of escape in the face of cultural inertia. Like Salvador Dali’s illustrations of Don Quixote using his lance as a crutch, Chaykin and Tischman seem to point to the self-evident fact that dominant cultures are perpetually in a state of collapse. The tension between popular culture as behavior and popular culture as content thus becomes a highly productive one.