Popular Culture

Writers like Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion have inspired a generation of other fine writers who keep us abreast of another world, that of our rapidly changing and wonderfully diverse popular culture. Sometimes these writers give us our first insights into what's happening to us as a people right now. We see our foibles, our fads, and our lives, sometimes distressingly clear, through their marvelously refractive eyes and quick intelligence. We all like to read about ourselves, thus opening a wide field for good writing about popular culture.

The Christmas party at the new Manhattan town house of Robert Soros and his wife, Melissa Schiff-Soros, was in full swing. As adults sipped Champagne in the candlelighted parlor, children raced upstairs to experience the electronic high life in its latest flowering: a home theater screening of the Disney classic, "Peter Pan."

The large screen descended from the ceiling with an extraterrestrial hum, but the house lights refused to dim—despite a horde of caterers stabbing frantically at a panel of small buttons on the wall.

As bright spots flashed and faded overhead, Mr. Soros, an investment manager and philanthropist, bent prayerfully over a control panel, playing its glowing touch-screen like a pipe organ as he tried to raise the volume on Tinkerbell. He had given up when the sound suddenly surged to Imax level. Children screeched.

"I would give anything to go back to good old toggle switches," his wife, a filmmaker, said later, sighing at the memory.

On their own living room wall in upstate New York, John Markus, a screenwriter and television producer, and his wife, Ardith Truhan, an artist, have 14 buttons that control lighting; 22 buttons for the stereo and CD player; and four buttons for the window shades. Another panel operates the DVD, satellite service, and laser discs in their home theater system. Six lines accommodate the couple's telephones, fax machines and modems. By phoning the control "brain," Mr. Markus can regulate every device even from the middle of a studio set in Los Angeles.

Julie V. Iovine "House & Home," New York Times (January 13, 2000)

Every decade seems to end, if not begin, with a handle—the "flapper era," the "Vietnam period," the "me generation"—all related to some outstanding event or popular practice. These are not official designations assigned by the government. They are usually invented by some writer about popular culture, someone like Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion, who seem to see more clearly, and earlier, some of our human foibles and behavior patterns. I've written in more detail about this in earlier chapters on the realities of group life, individual lives, and realism in general.

A writer capable of seeing changes, new directions, new behaviors, new loves, and new fads before most of us can carve out a writing niche for him or herself. Usually, these writers about popular culture point out our foolishness with humor and affection, but others will sometimes write with snide, nasty, elitist commentary. Unless this latter type write in a masterfully clever way, they usually lose their audience to those who write with affection and understanding. E. B. White, for example, might point (with a slightly embarrassed finger) at the latest fad, but always with good humor, wit, and in a graceful style that makes us love him for pointing out our weakness.

I was wearing jeans, a blue shirt, a brown knit tie, a dark-blue sport coat, and Weejuns. We walked into a huge suite of rooms. Lynette Bernay, a wardrobe woman, said, "You're not going to wear jeans on Miami Vice."

"I know that," I said. Did she think I was stupid? "I have another pair of pants up in my room."

"What kinds of pants?" she said.

"Brown corduroys," I said.

She shook her head. "Sorry," she said. "No earth tones."

She led me into the complex of rooms where the Miami Vice costumes were kept. I had never seen anything quite like it. The first section I ran into contained ties—more ties together than I had ever witnessed in my life. There were lime-green ties, pink ties, and aqua ties, and light-blue ties, and bright-yellow ties, and ties with birds on them. Beyond the ties were shirts and jackets and pants and dresses—all in the same dizzying array of pastel shades. The clothing stretched on as far as the eye could see. At one end of the room was the shoe department. Eleven rows of long shelves, all displaying men's shoes. White shoes, gray shoes, pink shoes—not the kinds of shoes you would ever wear in the regular world. Lynette Bernay pointed out one pair of shoes to me. "Phil Collins wore these on the show," she said.

Bob Greene "Vice Capades," Esquire (July 1986)

Those evenings were high drama. There on a low platform before a large fireplace in the lodge was a white-bearded Old Testament-like prophet in a white jumpsuit asking if anyone wanted to volunteer to work with him. To the amazement of those who wouldn't dare submit themselves to such an ordeal, fully a third of the fifty to a hundred people usually present, would raise their hands, eager to sit in what Perls called the "hot seat" and have their psyches laid bare for all to see. Perls distrusted long-term therapy. Sometimes in a matter of minutes, employing a keen theatrical sense and a surgeon's skill, he would cut away every prop that his "victim" habitually used to bolster his or her neurosis, even charm and humor, until nothing was left but the opportunity for an existential leap into a new way of being. At this point, as the victim sat paralyzed on the edge of an abyss, Perls would turn to his audience and, in a thick German accent, utter a classical aside: "Ah, ze impasse." It was stunning. It was just what the people who came to Esalen wanted.

George Leonard "Encounters at the Mind's Edge," Esquire (June 1985)

Gene Tulich, seventy-three, a consulting engineer: "I've been commuting to Manhattan since December 1945. When I started, I was coming from Poughkeepsie, a two-hour ride up the Hudson River. I did it because I was a licensed engineer, just back from the war, and New York was where the jobs were. After forty years we still have the unwritten rules of commuting, and they haven't changed much. The main one is: No talking. Especially in the morning. You say hello to the people who sit in the same seats around you every day, then you read your New York Times. If someone new comes on and they're chattering away, you still don't say anything, but you give them, you know, the Look.

"And then there's a rule about the three-seater: the person on the aisle absolutely never slides over to let someone else in; he stands up, and if you want to sit by the window or in the middle, you've got to squeeze by. It's awkward, but once you've staked out your seat, it's your territory. Once, years ago, my wife rode down with me and took up a seat that normally belonged to someone else, and boy, did she get the Look. People will abandon their regular seats only in very unusual circumstances, such as when the person next to them slumps over suddenly, sick or dead, which has happened a few times on trains I've been on. After a few stops the conductor would see a lot of empty seats around this one fellow, and he'd call for an ambulance____"

Charles Leerhsen

"Life on the 6:55," Esquire (June 1986)

This series of examples ends with one by Red Smith, who could always see the minor absurdity where others saw only the major reality.

A visit was made to the [Madison Square] Garden for the dual purpose of schneering at the other dachshunds and admiring the ladies who are led across the ring by toy breeds. It is a scientific fact that the ladies tethered to the tiny toys are invariably the most magnificent members of the species. No exception was taken in this case; the smallest pooch noted was towing the largest handler, a celestial creature measuring seventeen and a half hands at the withers, deep of chest, with fine, sturdy pasterns.

Red Smith

"In the Doghouse," The Red Smith Reader

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