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Suggestions for a Transcultural Narrative: When Beckett and Fonzie Collide

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Like words paroled from the page, free to travel to the inviting face, few actions enrich the soul more than the gentle throwing together of high and low culture. Films and music, novels and television, marked by difference, joined into something new, mated and left pregnant with the unseen and unheard. Take that universally-respected icon of Modernism, sidle up beside it the pornographic must of a '70s sleaze flick, and leave them to intercourse, merge and birth. Miscegenation it might be; a levelling of tiers it is. The erasure of bourgeois elitism. A unique gift of praise words to art adapted to be bereft of such opinion, to be deaf to an enviable avalanche of criticism.

Amalgamation is a nice label. Determined to avoid accusations of pretension, to have spit-laden “artsy bastard balls” invective snorted at your body, let the quick, easy wave of citing low culture assuage the risk. Find yourself writing an essay on Manuel Delanda’s Deleuzian analysis of expressivity? Include a problematising reference to Jeff Fahey’s loss of bodily oneness in Body Parts. Halfway through a delineation of Gogol’s class commentary in Dead Souls and despairing of the dry, academic tone permeating it? Figure out a method whereby Hellraiser VII: Deader becomes the main focus, perhaps hypothesise a situation in which Kari Wuhrer is condemned to life as a serf, freed from the confines of a truly awful film.

Sure it’s contrived. It maintains, to an extent, the original hierarchy. By recognising the layers of difference, whether or not situated in perception, we perpetuate the separation of high and low culture. Such a division lives in our treatment, in the mindsets through which all is dredged. But all action has potential to be realised, all is kinetic energy in the limbs, and a new cultural edifice can be born. By blindness to past categories can we transcend a narrow and simplistic compartmentalisation that sees Persona and Evil Dead defined so far from each other as to be constituents in two completely different worlds.

Labels of quality force the issue. Moulded preconceptions make the actions of cultural hierarchy important. Preordained good and preordained bad, these are effects by which we forget about the quality of Con Air, or From Beyond, or Gunmen. Discrimination elsewhere is being weeded out (as it should be), yet the music of Municipal Waste is automatically perceived as inferior to, say, Vivaldi. The fact that Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ is essentially heavy metal is deemed unimportant. Necrophagist’s winding musical compositions, because of distinctions laid culturally far and wide, fed into by a saturated media landscape, is victim to the needless rancour brought with it by the descriptive term ‘death metal’.

No levelling-out happens spontaneously. Walls of division can only be chipped away – a long process arduous and replete with contention. The natural human inclination to classify has to be fought, or rather remoulded. What needs reconfiguration are the labels, the terms that create the illusion of guaranteed quality. Time at a premium leaves us powerless in the face of a vast field of culture, body shaking in insignificance, an overwhelmed nose leaking blood, pus and snot. The words dropping in the rain dance of indecision come ideologically invested, they are products of their sociocultural domain – inscribed upon each are signifiers signifying the superiority of Dostoevsky over Bukowski. Let us advance to each undeterred by external pressure and deal death to assumption by capturing the ideas of egalitarian politics. A freedom born of equality, an equality born of eroded distinctions. Feed education by breadth of experience. Eat the fruits of niche and mainstream, high and low. Disregard in turn the nagging obligation to unthinkingly place one above the other.

Transcultural coupling is one route to undermining the hegemony of cultural labels. Yet the route is laced with troubles. Annoyingly we are reminded that such amalgams are rarely undertaken on equal terms. A victim meekly murmurs disenchantment all too often, the loser in a game devoid of balance. A dramatisation of Marx’s Capital, for example, starring Steve Guttenberg as linen, an important part in the early chapters on exchange value. Initially one assumes that this pokes fun at Guttenberg, it revels in his position as someone once famous, now languishing in TV Movie hell. But does it not also mock the dry rigor of Marx, the hoity-toity intellectualism of his treatise?

Perhaps the emphasis ought to be shifted. Rather than posit as the subjects of attack Marx and Guttenberg, the real subjects could be the consumers of Marx and Guttenberg. The empty leftist posturing of those first flicked pages of Capital from people in love with the image of revolt and marginality is surely worthy of attack. Here Guttenberg is the site of criticism, a reminder of another culture, acting as a grand decimator of pretension. The interstice between Marx and Guttenberg is a place where the very definition of high and low is mocked, a Golgotha where the carriers of hierarchism are showily crucified.

The term transcultural tends to be used apropos geographical reality. Cut up the world into nations, regions, continents, steep for long enough and an individual culture arises – clearly identifiable characteristics and conventions giving individuality to the culture. However much this usage predominates, the application to our western, capitalistic culture seems more than appropriate given the strength of our penchant for having culture separated by such gargantuan chasms. Translate and transmit, yield to gestures suited to transcend the myopic and ignoble state of affairs.

And the Beckett/Fonzie subtitle?

It’s too obvious and probably done elsewhere. There’s the echo of laughed joy in its genesis – an imagined past indissociable from the act. Each name connotes other names. To know that the latter was a central character in Happy Days and to know that the former wrote a play called Happy Days is enough information, a veritable glance into the future. The only question the wedding of the two asks is which direction shall be pursued?

The image of American youth culture in the 1950s, nostalgically and colourfully created by Happy Days, scripted by a man who specialised in showcasing the bleak arbitrariness of everyday life. Or perhaps take Richie and the Fonz out of their milieu – and Potsie too, if the mood is one of generosity – and have them scramble around within the abstract walls of a Beckett play.

Outlandishness is the priority, below which stands everything else. I quite like the idea of Richie and Fonzie doing the Winnie and Willie roles in the Beckett-created Happy Days. Sitting atop a grassy knoll, Richie would fastidiously lay out a range of items, lipstick and whatnot, probably stolen from Joanie, occasionally using them to beautify himself. (Already gender lines have become blurred as Richie Cunningham indulges in transvestism and, let’s say, turns out to be an incestuous pervert.) Meanwhile, Fonzie sits half-concealed on the knoll reading a newspaper, interrupting Richie’s staccato monologue every now and then with the words of a headline. Much would be the same with the Fonzie/Willie role, except of course every headline would be followed by a very Fonzie-esque “aaay!”

As the play progresses, Richie’s imprisonment in the routine of banal everyday practice would begin to gnaw away at his brain. His cries for recognition in the desire of the other would be ignored, his sole companion being his own fractured subjectivity. Speaking to Fonzie’s only visible appendage, an elbow jutting through a tuft of thick green, he’d continually deny the knowledge that it is himself to whom he speaks. The final scene would see Richie’s body almost entirely buried in the mound, kidding himself about a fictitious happiness supposedly forthcoming, while Fonzie stumbles down the side of the mound to jump the shark at a nearby beach.

Too many words have been given to this. An existential play sounding a new timbre, a result of the insertion of two sitcom characters, is too playful a prospect not to consider. As is also the idea of a Beckettian Happy Days (Mr Cunningham would make a great Hamm in Endgame). But alas, in the end, the act becomes a mere coda to the words.

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