The explosion of popular culture as a business in the early 20th century brought forth a specialized type of reporter and pseudo-critic. They didn’t have to know much about history, psychology, ideology, or institutions, as long as they were hip to sales, ads, ratings, and such like—whatever the studios put out for mass delectation.
Forget the fact that popular culture was usually blamed (wrongly) by leading intellectuals for the rise of dictators and fascism, with America often named as chief villain in exporting the craze for “materialism” and “consumerism” that not only thwarted the class struggle, but was the chief culprit in the great dumbing down, now deplored by the cognoscenti, but rarely if ever identified as populist in the most Romantic and defiant way possible.
For what was wanted (and still is), is the goods-buying 18-49 demographic, the generation that marries, sleeps around, procreates, and buys stuff—or makes revolutions. This demographic inhabits all positions on the social spectrum, so appeals are usually made to a variety of ideologies. Enter the social movements of the 1960s with their initial demands for integration and acceptance swerving into quotas, diversity, inter-racial sex (“take that, you Republican racists!”), and separatist strategies that plausibly left us with the same shallow, unmotivated characters, but with the same emphasis on likeability, melodrama (suspense, heroes, villains, and victims), family solidarity, and “positive images” that usually populated the dime novels, vaudeville, burlesque, and popular drama from which they originated.
Enter “The Slap,” a NBC television miniseries that mimics most of a best-selling, award-winning Australian novel by Christos Tsiolkas (b.1965, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christos_Tsiolkas). What attracted to me to the series was the apparent deviation from the NBC left-liberal line. For once, I thought initially, liberals, counter-culture types, and conservatives confronted one another, without excessive caricature of the conservative position. Moreover, instead of the usual alternatively noble or racist working class characters, we got a peep into the interactions of arty professionals, none of whom is without flaws or was particularly PC.
Indeed, in the novel, “Anouk” (played by Uma Thurman) has an abortion, but in the television series, though abandoned by her much younger actor boy-friend, she brings the baby to term, and in the last scene, the no-boundaries very young villain (roughly 8 year old Hugo, he who gets slapped on the cheek by a businessman for threatening “Harry’s” son, perhaps with a baseball bat), holds Anouk’s new baby boy with affection and care. The “dysfunctional family” has been reunited and no one is beyond redemption when presented with an innocent male infant. Was it an accident that the series was scheduled to end the night before Good Friday?
And so, being moderate, and the home network for the principled Law and Order series, the suspenseful NBC plot is resolved with a compromise: Harry the auto dealer and abusive slapper is found guilty of hitting a child not his own, but the hippie, arty, parents are also slapped on the wrist by the very annoyed female judge with a promise of state intervention if they do not cease indulging their son, the out-of-control Hugo (still being nursed by his wine-drinking, hysterical mother though he is anywhere from four to seven or eight years old, depending on whether you are reading the novel or watching episodes in either Australian or American tv series).
But the most compelling feature of the series finale was the episode devoted to “Ritchie” (played by Lucas Hedges), a gay victim of heterosexual gang style bullying, who has hidden his suicidal, institutionalized past, fleeing with a bossy MOM to Brooklyn, for the author of the novel The Slap is also publicly gay. The uber-talented promising artist-photographer Ritchie, faced with testifying in court and humiliated by having his past dredged up by the press thanks to the shyster lawyer representing Harry, tries once again to kill himself with pills and booze next to a carousel he has been turning into strange “bleak” images, but two or three of the (now somewhat repentant) friends track him down and the artist Gary rescues him, just in time for Ritchie to testify at the trial’s climax. Ritchie loves or admires (or doesn’t admire) all the people at the original party (the scene of the “crime” where he was a stranger!), hence he says he deleted the damning photos of Hugo being slapped, because he knows what it is like to be exposed. He remembers precisely what happened at the party, enabling the compromise ending, and affirming that the one gay character might be associated with Jesus—he is that all-embracing, and early on is described by Gary as “innocent.” Although Ritchie clearly disapproves of Harry’s slap, he slips in this phrase, “these people I love” and reiterates an ongoing theme–odd for an artist who distorts reality: Ritchie: “the truth is all we have.”
These are the sentiments of a revolutionary Romantic (not a postmodernist), perhaps reflecting upon his own unresolved relations with MOM.