MyAmericanFuture

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MyAmericanFuture

Friday, September 30, 2016

September 30, 2016: Legends of the Fall: American Pie



[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American images of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn. Add your thoughts on falls, seasonal or symbolic, in comments!]
On the straightforward and more subtle sides to a beloved ballad about individual and cultural losses of innocence.
Like I imagine many teenage boys in the four decades since its release, I memorized the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971) during my high school years. Partly that had to do with one very particular moment in the song, and just how much every teenage boy can associate with watching that certain someone dance with a certain someone else in the gym and “know[ing] that you’re in love with him”—and how much we thus all felt at times like “a lonely teenage bronckin’ buck.” But partly it seems to me that McLean’s song captures and allegorizes a more general part of teenage life, the life and death significance that we place on music, relationships, friendships, social status, all those potentially fleeting things we care about and worry about and love and hate with such force.
As this piece on McLean’s official website indicates, McLean intended the song as a tribute both to his own turbulent teenage years and to the even more turbulent American moment with which they coincided—a moment that began (for McLean and in the song) with the February 1959 death of Buddy Holly (among other popular artists) in a plane crash and would conclude a decade or so later with American society and culture in one of our most fractured states. His song thus became an anthem for two seemingly unrelated but often conjoined narratives: “The Day the Music Died,” the story of one of the most tragic days in American cultural history; and the decade-long loss of innocence that is often associated with the 1960s and all the decade’s tragedies and fissions. These aspects of McLean’s song are contained in every section: the February 1959-set introduction, the increasingly allegorical verses, and the far more straightforward chorus.
But there’s another, and to my mind far more ambiguous, side to that chorus and to McLean’s song. The question, to boil it down, is this: why do the chorus and song focus so fully on Buddy Holly, rather than (for example) on his fallen peer Ritchie Valens? Holly is generally cited as far more influential in rock and roll history, but at the time of the crash he had only been prominent for a year and a half (since his first single, “That’ll be the Day” [1957]); Valens, while five years younger, was on a very similar trajectory, having recorded his first few hits in the year before the crash. Moreover, while Holly’s sound paralleled that of contemporaries such as Bill Haley, Valens’ Latino American additions distinguished him from his rock and roll peers. So it’s difficult not to think that an Anglo-centric vision of America has something to do with McLean’s association of “Miss American Pie” and “good old boys” with Holly rather than Valens—an association that, aided no doubt by McLean’s song (if complicated a bit by the hit film La Bamba [1987]), American narratives too often continue to make.
September Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. One more time: images of fall, or The Fall, that you’d share?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

September 29, 2016: Legends of the Fall: Presumed Innocent



[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American images of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn. Add your thoughts on falls, seasonal or symbolic, in comments!]
On the multiple layers of revelations built into the best mystery fiction (major SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t read Scott Turow’s novel or seen the Harrison Ford film, and might at some point).
I’ve blogged frequently enough about mystery fiction (and films) to illustrate just how seriously I take the genre as art well worth our analytical time. There are lots of reasons why, but a prominent one would have to be just how much the genre, by its very nature, can teach us about society. That is, the detective’s job, or at least a necessary corollary to his or her job, is to learn about the world around him or her, whether specific (as in Agatha Christie’s town of St. Mary Mead or Ross MacDonald’s California) or broad (as in the mysteries of human nature with which Sherlock Holmes seems so frequently to grapple). And while it’s not impossible for those deductive revelations to include inspiring lessons (about love or courage in the face of threats, for example), the genre’s nature likewise means that most of the time the lessons entail literal falls from innocence, recognitions of the guilt not only in those who commit crimes but (much of the time) in the world as a whole.
I know of few mystery novels that better exemplify those multi-layered, sobering revelations about the world than Scott Turow’s legal thriller Presumed Innocent (1987). Turow’s first-person narrator, prosecutor Rusty Sabich, stands accused of killing the woman with whom he was having an extra-marital affair; the evidence against Rusty is overwhelming, and although he is eventually acquitted, the cause is simply another level of guilt: Rusty and his lawyer discover that the case’s judge has been taking bribes, and use the information as leverage to force an acquittal. Moreover, virtually every other character in the novel is guilty of something significant as well; the cop who first investigates the case, for example, is a longtime friend of Rusty’s and illegally disposes of evidence in an (unsuccessful) attempt to shield Rusty from suspicion. Rusty’s story and world are so choked with guilt, so driven by it from start to finish, in fact, that the title begins to feel less like a legal concept and more like a sardonic social commentary.
Moreover (double SPOILER ALERT for this paragraph!), the novel’s final revelation adds two intimate and even more compelling falls from innocence to the mix. In the closing pages, Rusty discovers evidence that makes clear that the murderer was his wife, who had uncovered the affair, confronted and killed the mistress, and then tried to frame Rusty for the crime instead (going so far as to plant his semen at the scene of the crime). Even on its own terms, this fall from innocence, connected as it is to the woman with whom he has spent his life and has a family, is the novel’s most shocking and damning. But Rusty chooses not to turn his wife in, and the reason is his recognition of the story’s fundamental layer of guilt, its original sin, the fall from innocence that started it all: his affair. Which is to say, the book’s ultimate revelation is that its first-person narrator, its voice and perspective, and (as in almost any first-person book) its most intimate connection to its audience, is the most guilty party of all.
Last fall tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

September 28, 2016: Legends of the Fall: The Body and Stand By Me



[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American images of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn. Add your thoughts on falls, seasonal or symbolic, in comments!]
On the novella that’s explicitly about the “fall from innocence,” and the film adaptation that’s less so.
In 1982, frustrated by his inability to publish works that weren’t part of the horror genre in which he had risen to fame, Steven King decided to release four such novellas as one collection, Different Seasons, with each novella linked to one of the four seasons. The most famous, thanks to its cult classic film adaptation, is almost certainly the collection’s first piece, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (seasonal subtitle: Hope Springs Eternal). But nearly as well-known, thanks in large measure to its own popular film adaptation Stand By Me (1986), is the collection’s third piece, The Body (seasonal subtitle: Fall from Innocence). (The collection’s summer novella, Apt Pupil: Summer of Corruption, has also been made into a recent film, and is, in its portrayal of a teenage boy corrupted by a former Nazi war criminal, a candidate for this week’s series in its own right.)
On the surface, The Body and Stand By Me are almost identical: in each forty-something novelist Gordie Lachance narrates the story of a teenage adventure with his three best friends, a trip that the four boys take after hearing about a dead body out in the woods near their hometown. Moreover, each ends with (among other things) Gordie informing the audience that his best best friend, Chris Chambers, worked his way out of a poor and violent upbringing to reach college and law school, only to die in a random and tragic stabbing, a detail that certainly symbolizes the loss of childhood innocence as the protagonists move into the often brutal and cold adult world. Yet the change in title from the novella to the film illustrates a broader thematic shift: Rob Reiner’s movie is far more centrally concerned with the camaraderie and joys of teenage friendship (its last line is “I never had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”, which appears in the middle of King’s book and is thus emphasized far more in the film); while King’s novella depicts the world’s brutalities much more consistently, including a savage beating that all four boys receive at the hands of an older brother and his friends.
Which is to say, at the risk of oversimplifying the two works, Reiner’s film is ultimately pretty nostalgic about the world of childhood, while King’s novella complicates and to my mind ultimately rejects that kind of nostalgia. Concurrently, the two could be read as depicting the loss of innocence in very different ways: Reiner’s film portraying it as a moment of genuine shift, from one kind of life and world to another; and King’s as more of a realization about the darkness of the world we have always inhabited, even as young people. I think there’s a place in our narratives and images for both stories, and that they complement each other nicely; but I also think that King’s story is a bit truer to the world of young adulthood, which while certainly free of various adult responsibilities and pressures can still be (as the Knowles and Cormier books from Monday’s post illustrate) as fraught and perilous as the darkest realities of adult life.
Next fall tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?