February 19, 2017

The Value of Crisis


In the days following the recent inauguration, a young female musician, as Morgan explained it to me, prompted a bit of a shitstorm online by twatting, in essence, that on the bright side at least the new administration would likely spawn a punk rock renaissance of angry underground protest music and art. I guess the mooncalves who took such umbrage at the idea felt she was being shallow and callous, hoping to profit from the disastrous times at hand instead of taking to the streets to chant “Hey-hey! Ho-ho!” and other tried and true gems. This thinking helps explain why such people are mooncalves.

            To quote Harry Lime from The Third Man (1949), “Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

            It’s no grand revelation to point out that crises—be they personal, collective, spiritual, political, economic, or what have you—have a tendency to spur creativity. A series of unimaginable personal tragedies (and the English Civil War) led Milton to write Paradise Lost. World War II (and its Spanish Civil War prelude) gave us Picasso’s “Guernica,” Berlioz’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” and some of the finest novels America has ever produced. It could be argued that throughout history the world’s greatest art, music, literature and film were all the direct result of widespread misery.

            As the Great Depression spread and deepened, America was flooded with a new underclass, millions strong. And within that underclass, a collection of subcultures evolved, from bootleggers and gangsters to hoboes and migrant workers. Each subculture developed its own language and behavioral tics. They were interesting and colorful enough, and existed in such numbers that they came to the attention of not just the public at large but screenwriters and filmmakers as well, who saw plenty of story potential in these new breeds. Scarface, Little Caesar and Cagney’s move into tough guy roles spawned a new and endless wave of popular gangster films, and William Wellman’s revolutionary message in films like Wild Boys of the Road reached a decent-sized audience. There was even the occasional fascist fantasy (like Gabriel Over the White House) about a strongman savior who would pull the country out of the Depression.

            Perhaps most interestingly, in a point Preston Sturges makes in Sullivan’s Travels, the Great Depression spawned screwball comedies and lavish musicals, which worked as a reverse reflection of the era, an effort by filmmakers and studios to take the public’s mind off the realities of what awaited them outside the theater and negate the Depression for a while. Very often incorporating street slang into the dialogue, they were ninety minutes worth of diversion from hunger and misery.

            At the same time the Depression also witnessed the evolution and spread of jazz and blues as fundamental and uniquely American musical forms, and in literary terms we got Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner and Raymond Chandler.

            A new kind of national depression settled over the country in the late 1940s and early 1950s as millions of men returned from Europe and Korea to find the wives and jobs they’d left behind weren’t waiting for them as promised. They’d been screwed over by rotten forces beyond their control, and some of them started to make desperate, stupid decisions.

            After rushing the last of the gung-ho war pictures into theaters, the studios started catching wind of something else. What we consider film noir was of course a happy accident—merely the result of filmmakers consciously or unconsciously reflecting the national post-war ennui in a decade’s worth of B-films like Asphalt Jungle, Kiss of Death, and Detour.

            In an intriguing reversal, while screwball comedies and musicals worked as a distraction in the Thirties, noir operated as a dark reminder. While the public was being pounded over the head with sunshine and prosperity, freeways and the joys and convenience of suburban living, noir was an ominous tap on the shoulder, pointing out the nasty underbelly so many tried so hard to ignore—people were still people after all, and they were still doing awful things to each other, still getting hurt and falling into inescapable traps, and in the end we were all fucked, no matter how pretty things might look.

            At the same time, serious questions about what the nation had become and where it was headed spawned the Beat Movement, which itself was tied inextricably to the jazz scene as it evolved from the lush big bands of the war years to the leaner, tighter, more melancholy hard bop of Mingus, Monk, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz.

            It’s a pretty tired cliche to point out that the mayhem, bombings, riots, assassinations and protests of the Sixties were accompanied by a soundtrack that included The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. But the chaos also spawned an explosion of DIY garage bands like The Zombies, The Trashmen and the Monks, as well as the MC5, the Velvet Underground, and the Stooges. There was also Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” but we won’t get into that.

            Following Manson, the disillusion that accompanied the end of the Sixties, Watergate and the ongoing war in Vietnam, the prevailing mood across the country became cynical, bitter, and paranoid. The cities were filthy, crime was rampant, and nobody trusted anybody—not their neighbors, not the cops, and certainly not politicians. While disco music dominated the pop charts, punk rock, as it would later be dubbed, emerged out of the East Village in the disparate form of The Heartbreakers, Ramones, New York Dolls, Suicide, Television, and Talking Heads, while elsewhere in the country and quite organically we got the likes of X, the B-52s, Devo, Rocket from the Tombs, and The Residents. Over in London, which was arguably in even worse shape than the States in the mid-Seventies, a parallel scene began to grow and make headlines by spitting in the face of the Establishment.

            The rage and euphoria of the Sixties produced its own unique brand of films, including the early work of John Waters and Paul Morrissey, but it wasn’t until the Seventies that the decayed and broken state of the nation brought indie filmmaking into the mainstream. A new crop of young, energetic, independent filmmakers, many of whom had been connected with Roger Corman and American International pictures, began making classic films that reflected that dark mood in exciting ways. There was Coppola with The Godfather and The Conversation, Scorsese with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Altman with MASH and Nashville, Lumet with Dog Day Afternoon and Network, the list goes on. They nearly turned alienation into a film genre unto itself, and the dominant genre of the age. If you go back to 1975 and 1976 and look at the list of films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, it’s mind-boggling to consider that so much great work was being produced at the same time, and that films this dark and cynical would ever be considered for an Oscar.

            Well, then Steven Spielberg and George Lucas went and invented (if accidentally) the Blockbuster, and that era of young, independent auteurs came to an abrupt end, as did the very idea of films on a wide scale acting as a reflection of the national mood.

            People seem to think punk rock died the moment the Pistols imploded in January of 1978, but the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the rise of the Moral Majority prompted a battalion of pissed off sixteen-year-olds across the country to crop their hair, don torn jeans, pick up guitars, learn three chords and begin screaming about how much society sucks. In a blink and without anyone noticing, there were suddenly hardcore bands in every little town across America, playing garages, basements, and rented VFW halls. They put out their own records and printed up their own magazines. Then thousands of other kids started printing up their own magazines. Then dozens of radical indie book publishers started popping up, releasing radical and dangerous books. None of it would have happened without Reagan and his agenda.

            Okay, so from the Nineties onward things have been pretty fucking dead. The corporate labels came along to co-opt, sanitize and re-package punk for the teenybopper crowd. Indie film production houses were likewise gobbled up by the studios, and the Internet came along to stupefy everyone. It all helps explain why a stolen election, the Patriot Act and the War in Iraq were met with yawns and shrugs.

            But the point is this. Take a look back over those earlier tumultuous and bloody periods of our history. Even if you don’t know the details surrounding the war in Vietnam, the Watergate break-in, Chicago ’68, Iran-Contra, or the Great Depression, even if you’ve never heard of the Army of the Unemployed, SDS, Legs Diamond, or James Watt, you are familiar (well, some of you anyway I’m hoping) with the art, music, literature and film they directly or indirectly inspired. Those are the cultural artifacts that define an age long after the historical details fade away. They remain a reflection, sometimes an intense and powerful one, of everything that was happening at the moment.

            After a two-decade cultural drought, who the hell knows? Maybe something interesting will happen. An absolutely insane seismic shift is underway with a confused and quite possibly deranged blowhard asshole kook signing orders and appointing staff members intent on, well, lord knows what really, but it sure has been funny to watch. The initial street protests (and I’m not a big believer in the value of street protests anymore, unless they turn ugly and violent) don’t seem to be going away. The stench of seething hatred in the air is palpable, which is always a good sign, The news is jam-packed every day with more outrageous and buffoonish idiocy from your newly-chosen rulers, and even though no one in the government proper seems to know what the hell to do about any of it, a bunch of scrubby little bands are starting to post new songs online, independent radio hosts are dredging up some classic protest songs, cartoonists are getting nasty, and John Waters is praying for a resurgence of punk filmmakers as he tours with the re-release of his strangely prescient 1970 wonderment Multiple Maniacs.

            Yes, it all seems very promising, as if for the first time in a long time we might be on the brink of a long-overdue underground renaissance. Or if we’re lucky an out and out civil war. Personally I don’t think it’ll ever really happen. As with every other crisis these days, people will get bored and distracted, and thirty years from now the cultural fragments letting us know what the early Trump years were really like on a street level will amount to a couple of comic book movies and a cute emoji or two.


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