It's a question I've been trying to sort out in my mind, as I think about the difference between popular culture, including folk art, and mass entertainment. In a way it is like the difference between the poetry of ballads, or folk tales, and the slick and predictable fiction smelling of the cheap white wine and crackers at an academic workshop.
The other evening my wife and I watched William Wyler's The Heiress, starring Olivia de Havilland in what seemed to me among the greatest performances I've ever seen by any actress, period. She begins the movie as an ingenue, utterly uncomfortable in society, awkward of speech, overshadowed by her well-meaning and lively aunt and her chilly father (Ralph Richardson). He continually compares her unfavorably to his deceased wife, who apparently glittered without trying. Yet the daughter is deeply attractive, womanly, and intelligent, as the audience well perceives. She is also the possessor of "ten thousand a year" in her own right, and an additional twenty thousand a year at the demise of her father, who has a heart condition. Then along comes a handsome young man without a dollar to call his own (Montgomery Clift). He breaks the barrier of her shyness, professes his love, and asks her to marry him. I don't want to give away the plot -- I confess that until the last sixty seconds of the movie I was not sure what was going to happen, or even what I thought should happen. The point is that The Heiress could not be a B movie. It could only be a great movie, or a miserable attempt at being a great movie. That's because, for all its reliance upon immediately recognizable types, or rather archetypes, the characters transcend them, and compel you to rethink what it is like to be, for instance, a vulnerable woman in love, or a father who believes he loves his daughter but does not, or a young man with nothing to recommend him. Add to that a magnificent and understated score by Aaron Copland.
We also watched a movie I'd never heard of, called The Missouri Traveler, with Lee Marvin playing Lee Marvin -- the gruff and ornery strong man who doesn't give a damn about anyone or anything, and a teenage Brandon de Wilde (the kid in Shane and the young man in Hud) playing a runaway orphan. The boy shows up in a small town on his way to Florida, where he hopes to make a living somehow. He ends up staying in town, befriended by a bachelor newspaper editor, and basically adopted by the townspeople after a period of disgruntlement and suspicion. Not for one moment does this movie veer from what everybody knows about boys and men, and men and women. It's a story about a boy's struggle to become a man -- and it's pretty straightforward in that regard; the kid takes his lumps and stops whining about them; he isn't coddled and doesn't want to be. It's also the Gilgamesh story all over again -- enemies fight (in the movie, it's boxing) and because of the fight they become friends. And the Problem Man is brought into domestic life in the end by the love of a woman, who, as it turns out, wants a man for a husband, not the males she so frequently bosses around. It's well done, no fuss. A straight B movie, which is all that it pretends to be.
Now I wonder what has happened to that type of thing. Our editor David Mills recently sent me a book of short stories called Island, by one Alistair MacLeod, Nova Scotia's most renowned author. Most of the stories are about growing up among the farms and fishing villages and mines of Cape Breton. The writing is excellent, except when MacLeod falls back upon political poses -- and I say this even though I'd bet that we agree on our politics. When he remains with the archetypal stories of the human race, he is fine, and sometimes more than fine. In one of the stories a ten-year-old boy has come to Cape Breton with his father and mother for the first time, to visit the father's family. The mother hates Cape Breton; she has social ambitions, and prefers the sophistication of Montreal to the ruggedness of a miner's house. But once they're on the island, the boy finds ways to be outdoors from breakfast to nightfall, roaming about with his cousins, and learning in fact to be a boy. In any case, he and his father one evening go to the mine to pick up the rough old grandfather and four uncles. The miners come out of the earth all black except for little rings of white around their eyes; most of the men are laughing and talking salty talk. The grandfather, hobbling with age, follows them all quietly into the general washroom, with his son and grandson coming along. There he takes his grandson and presses his head against his shirt and belt buckle, hard, getting him filthy black. "There's nothing for it now," says the grandfather, except to clean the boy off, too. So the boy strips down, alongside grandpa and the uncles and all the chattering men, to shower in the big open room. It's as if to say to the boy, "You are one of us."
That's solid B material, I'd say. And again, I wonder what has happened to it, in music, in movies, in most fiction, and perhaps -- perhaps -- in poetry. I say that because the bad movies I see now are not B movies. They are just bad. The B material works from an archetype, and doesn't try to do more, and that reliance upon the wisdom of the ages, with no genius and sometimes with only an ordinary degree of intelligence, is enough to see you through. But when the archetypes aren't recognized any longer, then the ordinary "artist" has to fall back on something, and then all the choices are bad. He can fall back on stock characters he has seen not in life but in other movies or books, without understanding really how they reflect the unchanging nature of man; and then you get second-rate stuff that doesn't annoy but doesn't please, either. He can do much worse, though. He can fall back upon his own "originality," and produce dreadful stuff. And there is even worse than that. He can fall back upon the fads of the day -- in our day, the politically correct. And then the ineptitude is glaring and ridiculous, as when the idiots who produced Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter a few years ago turned it into a story about Being Nice to Indians. It's as my wife said about whether John Wayne's movie The Cowboys could be produced now. That's a B movie marred by occasional pretensions (not on the Duke's part; he is excellent) to be more than that -- not least, by the typical John Williams bombast-with-kitsch score. I said that it could be produced, but it wouldn't. She said that it couldn't, because they'd have to include with the boys the Duke hires at least one Tough Girl who's better than the boys at lassooing and shooting and breaking a crazy horse and so forth. And that, of course, would ruin the movie -- which is an archetypal tale of boys learning to become men.
All of which makes me consider that the great wealth of hymns that I see in old hymnals is of that B variety, with occasional gems (Bach's Passion Chorale, Bach's Christ lag in Todesbanden; well, anything by Bach, for starters). That's no insult. It's just what I see as characterizing a really popular form of art. Isaac Watts on the best day of his life was a very fine poet. On the worst day of his life, though, he was not a bad poet; he was simply a poet who relied totally upon the archetypal stories of the Christian revelation, just as he relied upon the fundamental meters of English ballads. Now that does not characterize church music as it's composed today. That music seems to me composed by people with all the pretentiousness of John Williams, none of the talent (and I confess the man has talent to spare), no fund of tradition to rely upon, and no sense of the archetypal stories. The typical hymn of old is neither pretentious nor fatuous. It is just what it is, a solid, honest attempt to tell the story that had been told a thousand times before. When it's well done, it can touch upon sublimity:
When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gains I count but loss,
And throw contempt on all my pride.
Our hymns now, or rather our awful show tunes, won't condescend to do something so humble. Your thoughts, ladies and gentlemen?