Charisse and Astaire, in The Bandwagon
That's meant sort of tongue-in-cheek, but never let it be said that I'm one of those bloggers who believes he has more to teach than to learn, or that I learn more by writing than I do by reading other people. In fact, I can be swayed or educated on a lot of things. Like Socrates, all I know is that I know nothing. For example, for over a year now the young blogosphere radtrads have been writing with breathless anticipation like kids before Christmas about the supposedly impending Motu Proprio on the Tridentine Rite. I had problems with this for various reasons, but now I increasingly find myself thinking, hey, why the heck not? Why not take a shot at bringing back some transcendence, beauty, and formality if we can? What have we got to lose? We've tried everything else, haven't we?
I love Don Henley's song The Heart of the Matter. There's a stanza in it where he sings:
These times are so uncertainThat's a searing way to describe our times, "such a graceless age". Here's another story from our recent time on the road... While we were in our hotel room in Sandusky last week, I was flipping around the channels and I happened to come across an old film starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, The Bandwagon, which was made in 1953. I was mesmerized by its beauty, feeling an incredibly intense nostalgia for things I never even really knew. It didn't look like a graceless age to me.. Anne and the kids could barely pull me away to drag me down to breakfast.
Theres a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
This wasn't considered highbrow entertainment in 1953. It was popular entertainment.
In a lively discussion we had once on this blog, Mike McG once asked William about what sorts of things can be used today to ward off hopelessness. William cited his wife, friends and family, and interestingly, artists from a bygone era like Fred Astaire and Lester Young.
I think I know what William means. Well, maybe not exactly, but maybe it means something similar for me that it does for him. Now, I'm not one of these people who normally sees the world as irredeemably evil and going to hell in a handbasket. At least not on a good day. I can be a pessimist in the short run, but I'm generally an optimist for the long haul. In God's great plan, I trust that all will turn out well in the end. Even I have to admit, however, that our culture has undergone a sort of radical and rapid deconstruction over the last few decades which should give anyone a sense of pause. Look at the state of our popular culture and its coarseness. How did we get from Fred Astaire to Eminem? From Duke Ellington to Sir Mix-A-Lot? From Ingrid Bergman to Paris Hilton? From West Side Story to Boyz 'n the Hood? From Sugar Ray Robinson to the Ultimate Fighting Championship? Striving for simplicity can be a wonderful thing, but it doesn't necessarily have to lead to primitivism, does it? Has Occam's Razor cut us too deep? I think most everyone is familiar with the Scott Adams cartoon Casual Day Has Gone Too Far and can relate to it somewhat.
This video shows Astaire and Charisse "Dancing in the Dark" in the film The Bandwagon, a musical about making a musical. The number opens up with a scene of nicely dressed couples dancing in Central Park in NYC. I know it's a musical and all, but it's not ridiculous. My parents grew up doing this sort of thing. Not everyone of course, was in this "class", but it's what most everyone admired and aspired to. Maybe you could only afford one nice suit, but man, you sure took care of and treasured that one suit.
Just an aside for a moment regarding the movie itself... My wife Anne told me that she'd heard that Astaire hated working with Charisse - that she was just as much a difficult ballet prima donna in real life as the part she played in the film. I don't know if that's true or not. Most people prefer Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers together, but in my untrained opinion, Rogers moved like a ton of bricks compared to Charisse. When you watch Astaire & Rogers, you've really got your eyes on Astaire, she's almost like a prop, but when you watch Astaire & Charisse you can't help but watch them both. Then again, I'm partial to brunettes over blondes anyway (which apparently means I'm no gentleman), and quite frankly, Charisse was a real babe... A quote I saw about her once summed it up perfectly, "She has legs that start all the way down there, and then they go, well, they go all the way up there." I suppose it's good to make note of the fact, then, that even though this might seem pretty tame by today's standards, pairing Astaire with Charisse back then might have been considered quite sexually provocative.
Anyway, what have we lost and what have we gained since that era? Do we sorely miss the formality, elegance, courtesy, glamour, graciousness, tenderness, restraint, intellectualism and dignity of those times? Or, by the same token, is there an element of honesty about our more casual approach towards life today that is preferable? For all of those things we may feel nostalgic for, aren't we also glad to be rid of a sometimes superficial emphasis on outward appearances over substance, certain intolerances and bigotries, cocktail society, ubiquitous cigarettes, blandness, repression, intense pressure to conform, and sexual hypocrisy?