Feb/Mar 2011

A Really Big Show

An ambitious study grounds the shock of the new in the American experience

Gene Seymour


Modernist America is by no means the last word on its subject, though not for lack of trying. Richard Pells's book leaps, lunges, gallops, and, once in a while, pirouettes its way toward something very close to a unified field theory of twentieth-century American culture by charting its intersections, polarities, eccentricities, and, most conspicuously, impact on the world at large. This epic of ideas encompasses a cavalcade of mercurial personalities—dreamers, cranks, tinkerers, promoters, troublemakers, deep thinkers, and obsessive-compulsives—moving across Pells's grand stage as if they were making guest appearances on a very special pre-millennial edition of The Ed Sullivan Show, featuring acts every bit as diverse and conscientiously populist as those that appeared on the Sullivan show, if tilted at a somewhat higher intellectual angle.

Even if you've seen this program before, Pells, who teaches history at the University of Texas, Austin, is energetically engaged with the telling of his story and can make it seem as if you're hearing of these ideas and events for the first time. He has effectively woven modernism's mandate to "make it new" into the book's narrative strategy. And a big part of what makes Modernist America new is its craving to connect accounts of European movements that emerged at the dawn of the twentieth century with those of American innovations in the arts, popular and otherwise. Thus, what Pells, early on, defines as modernism's "effort . . . to invent a new language to describe the scientific, political, and social upheavals of the modern world" is carried out decisively by both George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg, Le Corbusier and Orson Welles, Jackson Pollock and Virgil Thomson, Marcel Duchamp and Fred Astaire (think, if it helps, of the riveting effect these two have had on the simple act of descending a staircase), Gertrude Stein and Miles Davis, Aaron Copland and Robert Altman, Ernest Hemingway and Woody Allen and Ornette Coleman and John Ford and Oscar Hammerstein II and so on. The chronology Pells adopts in Modernist America brings forth these disparate figures in a far more logical manner than the haphazard juxtapositions above suggest.

Pells's account succeeds, for the most part, in evoking the ongoing exchange between those in Europe who were boldly reinventing classical traditions in art, architecture, and music and those in America who were using the blank canvas of the twentieth century to either seek homegrown variations on European genres or invent their own traditions. America yielded composers such as Copland and Thomson, who yoked elements of early-to-mid-twentieth-century avant-gardes to cowboy songs, hymns, and folk tunes; meanwhile, jazz music, as forged by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and the musical comedy, as advanced by, among others, Hammerstein and his partners Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, became what people talk about when they talk about distinctively American art forms. Somewhere in between, as a romantic-heroic signifier for a century of new-world transfiguration, was George Gershwin, whose aspirations for success in the symphony hall yielded Rhapsody in Blue, while his commercial work supplied a harmonic template for 1940s experiments in jazz improvisation, as carried out by such bebopping insurgents as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Of course, Parker and Gillespie are part of this show, too. So are Salvador Dalí and Igor Stravinsky, whose affinity for self-promotion made them household names in the United States despite the challenging, even obscure, work that established their notoriety in Europe. (Schoenberg, it turned out, wasn't so hot at publicizing his musical adventurousness, and such widespread American celebrity eluded him.) There are also lesser-known but pivotal figures such as J. C. Nichols, a Kansas City real estate developer, spurred by his journeys to Spain at the turn of the twentieth century and the sight of the country's palatial architecture and urban marketplaces to help invent what came to be known as the all-American shopping plaza. Then there's Erich Pommer, Germany's top movie producer during the 1920s, who shepherded the Expressionist masterworks (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, The Blue Angel) that would, by the '40s, inspire the shadowy textures and ominous atmospheres of Hollywood thrillers later labeled film noir by French critics. (The Expressionist turn in moviemaking also influenced Citizen Kane, which sparks some of Pells's more cogent observations, and not just about Welles, for whom, Pells writes, "the point of cinema was not to sermonize but to keep the audience alert to what it was experiencing.")

The echt-modern genre, film also showcased the giddy movement of global culture across national borders and back again. Some of the French noir enthusiasts would, in turn, go on to make New Wave films—and in the next cross-pollinating twist, those midcentury works devoted to the recycling of Hollywood thriller motifs would help create such groundbreaking American movies of the latter twentieth century as Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction.

What ultimately emerged from all these boomeranging transactions between continents, Pells contends, was a hybrid American culture—blending high and low, classical and popular, polished and unruly—that has come to dominate the global marketplace, if not its collective consciousness. At the end of the twenty-first century's first decade, such a conclusion doesn't seem nearly as outrageous or overreaching as it might have to previous generations of cultural arbiters. Whereas even as recently as twenty years ago, a book such as Modernist America might have been used as kindling by potentates of the classical tradition of art, there no longer seems much to negotiate, arbitrate, or apologize for as far as American contributions to global culture are concerned. It's bye-bye, old-world cultural hegemony, and, as Jelly Roll Morton sang, "Hello, Central, give me Dr. Jazz!"

It's difficult to argue with the new consensus on American cultural innovation that modernism bequeathed us, but you still want to, if only because of the nagging suspicion that, for all the terrain covered in Modernist America, it misses some points of interest along the way. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm guessing more than a few people are going to be mad at Pells for shortchanging—indeed, all but omitting—rock 'n' roll. Few things in the latter half of the twentieth century were more emblematic of trans-Atlantic transactional upheaval in culture than the way British artists such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones validated for American audiences the vibrancy and force of their country's white rockabilly and black rhythm 'n' blues. Pells gives rock a backhanded acknowledgement when he writes that while "jazz relinquished much of its popularity in the United States in the late twentieth century, no other American music—not even rock and roll or the music of Broadway—could claim to have had such long-lasting impact on international audiences." Jazz's ascension to a worldwide stature equivalent to that of European classical music is one of the triumphant stories of the past century. But if you tell enough people you write about jazz for a living (as I have) you'll hear too many of them respond by marginalizing or even dismissing the music because they're either intimidated by its present-day innovations or find its past glories too remote to connect with.

But one needn't presume that jazz was the only great American art form overpowered by rock's glare. If anything, the Broadway musical was a more direct casualty of pop-rock's melodramatic power and unfettered emotional force—even though rock and Broadway have those features in common. (Should you doubt this, trying singing Oklahoma!'s title tune along with Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." An acquaintance of mine did some years back, and while he was being way too snarky at the Boss's expense, I still believe he was on to something.) After getting swept up with Pells robustly connecting the dots between genres, idioms, and cultures, you're conditioned to expect that some theorizing in his chapter on the Broadway musical would take in the pop-rock explosion. After all, such touchstone pop albums as Michael Jackson's Thriller, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may have diminished the primacy of the Broadway musical in mainstream culture more than did the rise of cinema. But the subject never comes up, not even obliquely.

In fact, by chapter 8 of Modernist America, Pells chooses to abandon Broadway—and just about everything else—in favor of the movies, saying at the end of the previous chapter that Hollywood "became the locale most responsible for the global impact of American culture." So the rest of the book is a brisk, thorough, but hardly groundbreaking critical history of motion pictures through the 1970s, which Pells considers "Hollywood's second golden age, the age of the foreign-influenced American auteur," notable examples of whom range from the aforementioned Altman and Allen to Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Bob Fosse, and Sam Peckinpah. When Pells, toward the end of the book, looks for contemporary filmmakers who carry on the influence of these '70s directors, he rounds up such usual suspects as Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, and other independent (or indie-style) filmmakers. He gives shrewdly articulated props to Hollywood blockbusters, notably Titanic, and their dominion over the global marketplace. But by the time Modernist America ties its threads to India's Bollywood film industry as confirmation of Hollywood's power to influence the world, you sense that the book's compulsion to make it new has all but exhausted itself.

Still, even when its reach exceeds its grasp, Modernist America conveys genuine excitement about and wonder at the evolution it chronicles. If Pells leaves open spaces for others to fill, that, too, is part of what makes American culture so enviable and overpowering: that there's always something else to add. There has to be. Unless we're just too scared of saying that anything's over, whether it is or not.

Gene Seymour has written about jazz, film, and literature for Newsday, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. He teaches at the New School and Lehman College.

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