I’ve made jokes in the past about how I mostly review old things because I’m a lazy prick, but in truth I think that it is important to look at what has come before. There are multiple reasons for this but to me the most important reason is to create a commentary on the past.
To me, enjoyment of any form of art takes three stages: creation, critique and commentary.
Creation is literally the making of something, the reason why it’s being made, why/what the writer has written, the painter has painted or the director directed. At this point, the message lies with the artist and how they wish to convey it.
Critique is how the product is received in the context of the time it was released. How was it received at the time? How did the attitudes of the time reflect it’s reception?
And finally (and most importantly, in my opinion), commentary. At this point we see a proverbial death of the author. The message is no longer with them because the message is from another time, a dead era, and it is up to us to learn from that and study it because in many cases art is a better indicator of history than history itself is.
Think about for a second- you can go out and read a textbook or watch a documentary about the American civil rights movement, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King and you can learn the facts and figures as presented by those who shape such things, but do we learn the feelings involved?
A piece of art is a window into the hearts and minds of an era- whether it takes the form of literature, film or whatever- in a way that facts and figures can not show us.
What made me think of this was when watching a UK television program called “It Was Alright in the Seventies”. The premise is showing clips from TV shows in the 70s to celebrities who were around at the time, celebrities who grew up in the 70s and celebrities who had been born at the time and see their reactions.
One segment in particular stood out to me where they showed pop music videos that related to the growing multiculturalism of Britain at the time, and they played this little gem by the Barron Knights. It all starts out as a fairly innocent, novelty pop song until 1:23.
I need to know, anyone reading this who was around in the 70s, WHAT PART OF THIS WAS MEANT TO BE OKAY!?!?!?!?!?!?!? The “Rondon, Ipsrich, Blistol” part? The “all look the same” remark!?
Jokes aside I do think the intention was to create a harmless, novelty song, and if the rest of the show was anything to go by being tolerant of other cultures in the 70s meant being equally racist to everybody, including whites, but this is the kind of clarity that the Commentary stage of my theory gives us. This would never be okay now.
Maybe it’s a part of the PC culture that has risen up in Britain that a novelty song like this can have shock value 40 years after it’s release. I mean, it is in no way, shape or form meant to inspire hate but it does conjure the image of an entirely negative stereotype, which I guess is where the shock value lies.
I’ll leave it to individual listeners to decide if they find this offensive or not, but my point is that this is the kind of discussion that would have been impossible at the time it was released.
I would like to draw readers back to my earlier point about the civil rights movement (I need to get better at organising my thoughts). You can watch as many documentaries as you want and learn about recorded events, but how do we measure what was in the hearts of people?
The World, The Flesh and The Devil (Randall McDougall, 1959) is a film exploring racial attitudes of the time through an end of the world narrative. After the world’s population is decimated by a nuclear attack (nuclear attacks were the zombie holocausts of the 50s), black man Ralph (Harry Belafonte) and white woman Sarah (Inger Stevens) find themselves the only two survivors in New York. The two have an instant attraction to each other but find that racial differences keep them apart. This situation is complicated by the arrival of white man Ben (Mel Ferrer) who is also attracted to Sarah and sees Ralph as a rival for her love, leading to a violent confrontation in the film’s climax.
What makes this an interesting film to discuss is the way race is used to set up dramatic tension- Ralph and Sarah are clearly romantically interested in each other but struggle to start a relationship due an attitude that theoretically should have died with society. Things like race, gender, sexuality- would any of it matter in the apocalypse? There is something heartbreaking about Ralph’s admission that he feels he would not be a good match for Sarah because of the colour of his skin, despite her protests that it does not matter anymore. That was my interpretation of it, anyway.
This is not a film that could be made now. In the hearts and minds of 21st century Western society a mixed race relationship seems trivial, something barely worth noticing (to a vast majority, at least). Watching this film in 1959 the idea of a mixed race relationship would probably have seemed a ludicrous, perhaps even offensive, concept. Historical documents may be able to tell us this, but watching the film in 2016 gives us context and helps us FEEL it.
And that, my friends, is why artistic commentary is important.
So what do you think? Is cultural commentary as important as I claim or should we leave the past in the past? What are your views on political correctness? Does my theory suck?
Your song for this week is Fight Like a Girl by Emilie Autumn. No particular reason, just kind of digging her music at the moment. Victorian, Gothic Industrial with a Feminist twist. What’s not to like?
Peace out xx