July 17, 2016

The Tropes Weíve Lost


There are a number of mighty big, fundamental concepts that seem to have vanished from American culture over the past couple of decades, things like a staunch defense of personal privacy and the right to free speech no matter what your dumbass opinion. A respect for literacy is gone, journalism is gone, civil discourse is gone, and, increasingly, sanity is gone. But those are big things whose loss I note and mourn daily. I canít listen to the news, look at the Internet, or overhear a conversation on the street without being slapped in the face by their absence. Along with those big things, however, there are also a number of little things, objects and pop cultural tropes that used to be ubiquitous, but have since disappeared. Even if they were to reappear briefly, without the historical context or collective consciousness behind them, I doubt anyone under a certain age would be able to make the slightest sense of them.

††††††††††† On more than one occasion now, Iíve forwarded a theory (first proposed by my friend Dave Williams and later confirmed by other blindos), that the politically correct impulse, which has made it a criminal offense to poke fun at cripples, has had some damning and dangerous repercussions. Because you no longer see blindos with white canes involved in slapstick routines in cartoons and sitcoms and comic strips, people under the age of thirty-five no longer recognize a white cane for what it is. Iíve had youngsters approach me in bars and ask straight out what it was and why I was using it. I guess most thought it was some kind of fashion accessory. The two-fisted and stubborn cultural ignorance spawned by expunging the symbol from cartoons has left me in an increasingly dangerous situation whenever I leave the apartment. Not only do brain-dead young pedestrians ignore the symbol and become snotty obstacles as a result, but in a city in which hit and run driving has become the new sport of choice, now when I step into a crosswalk I can never be certain that simple Magoo luck will get me to the other side.

††††††††††† But Iíve ranted about that before. The situation also got me to thinking about other formerly omnipresent and universally understood cultural tropes which have since all but completely vanished. While a good number of the vanishings can likewise be explained by willfully stupid P.C. meddling, not all of them can. They just disappeared, is all, I canít say why, and I miss them. Their loss might not have the same kind of far-reaching ramifications that the loss of white cane recognition has had, but I still find it both intriguing and enervating. Here are just a few that come to mind.

††††††††††† There was a time when you couldnít watch an adventure film, cartoon, TV show, anything that had a jungle setting in which a character didnít get stuck in quicksand at one point or another. It was a cheap and easy danger that could be dropped in at any point, and it was as dire and deadly an inescapable trap as anything. Once you stepped in quicksand, you were almost certainly a goner unless there was someone on dry land who could throw you a sturdy vine. All you could do was stand there hopelessly mired as you slowly sank up to your knees, your neck, your nose, and then were gone forever, save for your hat.

††††††††††† I honestly donít know if real quicksand was as common a menace as the movies and TV made it seem, or as deadly, but seeing it everywhere when I was a kidóon Gilliganís Island, in Tarzan movies and countless cartoonsóit certainly kept me on my guard. But now itís gone. No one steps into quicksand anymore, and Iím not certain why. Maybe itís another global warming thing. But even if thatís the case youíve got to figure there must still be a few pits of quicksand left in the dwindling jungles of the earth, right? And if some unlucky twenty-five year old steps in one, theyíll have no idea what to do!

††††††††††† A couple of years back I wrote a stupidly long (and still unpublished) article detailing the history of Alpine rescue dogs, those St. Bernards with casks of brandy tied around their necks who went galumphing through the snow to search for lost skiers or people buried in avalanches. Alpine rescue dogs, though few, were a real phenomenon. They did indeed help find and rescue dozens of people lost in the Alps, (though the iconic cask of brandy was a bit of poetic license added later). None of that really matters, though. What matters is that they were once as commonplace in comedies and cartoons as quicksand, albeit in a different setting. Alpine rescue dogs showed up in W.C. Fields films and countless Warner Brothers shorts. How many times did a St. Bernard pull a frozen Yosemite Sam out of a snowbank, mix a martini, drink it, then galumph off again, hiccupping all the way? So where the hell did they go? My suspicion is they were victims of that insane push by frantic and overprotective parental groups who successfully purged all references to drugs, alcohol, violence, or St. Bernards. from anything that might be seen by anyone under the age of fifteen.

††††††††††† I also did another long piece (and this one did get published) about the history of barrel suits as an easy bit of visual shorthand for poverty. You donít see those around much anymore, do you? Interesting history, though. While the image as we understand it was first drawn by song lyricist and political cartoonist Will B. Johnston in the Twenties and Thirties, using the image of a naked man wearing a barrel to represent the American taxpayer, actual barrel suits had been employed as a form of punishment for Confederate POWs during the Civil War. But thatís irrelevant, too. Barrel suits, which really made little sense if you think about it, are gone as well, perhaps because its considered grossly inappropriate to mock the poor in such a humiliating way.

††††††††††† Indian totem poles, those tree trunks elaborately carved into towers of stylized animal, human, and deity faces, were at once beautiful and terrifying. Whenever you saw a Native American, you were gonna see a totem pole, and vice versa. No two ways about it. And whenever a group of characters in a movie or TV show came upon one unexpectedly in the forest or jungle, you always knew trouble wasnít far behind. When I was in grade school, teachers were always having us bring in empty Quaker Oats drums so the class could build their own totem pole out of construction paper, sticky tape, and Elmerís glue. It was a creative way of teaching us a little something about our Native American neighbors (and they were plentiful in Wisconsin). But when was the last time you heard or saw any reference to totem poles? I guess their disappearance is sadly understandable, another victim of the criminalization of co-opting another culture for entertainment purposes.

††††††††††† And while weíre on the subject, I know grade schoolers are by law no longer allowed to celebrate birthdays by bringing cupcakes to class or eating those little corrugated plastic cups of vanilla ice cream with those flat wooden spoon things, but do they still make art projects out of construction paper, sticky tape and Elmerís glue?

††††††††††† And what about dune buggies? Do people out West still go zipping around Death Valley or the Mojave in brightly-colored dune buggies? Back in the Sixties and Seventies it felt like everybody had one but me. Do twelve-year-old boys still luck into stashes of ratty porn left by riverbanks? Do gunslingers still blow smoke off the muzzle and twirl their guns around their fingers before slipping them neatly and smoothly back into their holsters? What about those deep sea divers in the heavy leather suits and globular brass helmets with the window plates? Do telephone operators still exist, plugging and unplugging wires in a complex control board? Do people still put clothespins on their noses to avoid noxious odors? And are there still people out there who walk on stilts, particularly while dressed like Uncle Sam? I think I was probably ten last time I saw one, but time was they were a given fixture in any parade, and they always scared the shit out of me.

††††††††††† When was the last time you saw a movie or TV character looking through a set of binoculars, before cutting to that familiar POV binocular shot with the universally understood shaded periphery? Do people still use binoculars, or is there some fucking cell phone app for that now?

††††††††††† Last week Morgan and I were walking down Third Avenue here in Bay Ridge when she pointed out that one of the stores we passed had a small display of butterfly nets out on the sidewalk. Beyond trying to remember the last time I ever saw a kid using a butterfly net to actually catch butterflies, I also thought further back to the days when butterfly nets were the tools of choice for burly men in white suits trying to capture escaped crazy people. Even when I was a kid that never made much sense to me, but dammit, I accepted it.

††††††††††† And for godsakes, when was the last time you saw a guy on stilts wearing a barrel suit stuck in quicksand? That would be a test, right? Show some blank-eyed twenty year old college student a picture of that and ask them to explain it.

††††††††††† Like the end of both the Cold War and the ever-present threat of global thermonuclear annihilation, the loss of butterfly nets, quicksand, totem poles and barrel suits as common icons of our collective consciousness and comic imagination has left the world a much less colorful and much more annoying place. I blame everybody under forty, the stupid asses.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.