Aesthetics, Alcatraz and Jerry Lee Lewis

Aesthetics, Alcatraz and Jerry Lee Lewis

Recently, I had occasion to fly to Korea via San Francisco. Flying across the US on a clear day is one of those rare pleasures which really allows you to get the geographical measure of the place: how flat much of the country is; how the snow-capped Rockies push the land upwards towards the sky in a sudden and dramatic fashion; and just how vast the continent is. Coming from a land which can be traversed end to end in a car in just about twelve hours, I find the distance from Atlantic to Pacific almost as incomprehensible as the electability of American politicians.

There is something even more astounding about flight, as was pointed out by a recent columnist in the London Review of Books, and that is that so many travelers pull down the blinds when in the air; indeed, they are often requested to do so, lest the sunlight interfere with the enjoyment of the in-flight entertainment: do they not realize they are getting as part of the flight a vision of the US, indeed, of the world in general, which could only be dreamed of by human beings up until the last century? Neither Alexander the Great, Charlemagne nor Napoleon, for all of their might, wealth and power, had the privilege of such a view; and yet my fellow passengers sat there and squandered it, watching Silly Movie 5 or reading US Weekly, oblivious to the near-miraculous aesthetic beauty which flight provides for us.

Yet the sight that most struck me was that which appeared as I left San Francisco: the disused island prison of Alcatraz. Situated in the middle of the bay, this prison was famously impervious to escape, strong tides guaranteeing a Pacific grave for anyone foolhardy enough to try to get out. I confess, it did give rise to some sinful thoughts about where Derek Thomas's Ref 21 office could be usefully relocated; certainly, it struck me as just as aesthetically impressive as pictures I have seen of Bayreuth; and I'm sure we could arrange an internet connection and reasonable visiting hours.

But there is more to Alcatraz than the fact it is America's most famous former prison. It has also over the years provided the setting for a number of good movies: for example, Burt Lancaster (possibly my favourite actor) played Robert Stroud in The Birdman of Alcatraz, a somewhat rose-tinted story of a convicted murderer's redemption through caring for birds; and, in a different vein, Clint Eastwood's action-filled thought somewhat unimaginatively entitled, Escape from Alcatraz. Yet the film which I most associate with the island penitentiary is (for me) the ultimate 60s flick, Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, Keenan Wynn, and the beautiful Angie Dickinson (who, pop-culture vultures like Derek Thomas will no doubt tell you, was once Mrs Burt `Do you know the way to San Jose?' Bacharach).

Point Blank is not a nice film. Far, far from it. It begins and ends on Alcatraz (already abandoned by the film's start), where Walker (played by Marvin) is double-crossed relative to a big money heist. The movie then follows Walker as he hunts down and kills the men who have betrayed him, his constant refrain being `I just want my money!' From hurling one man over a penthouse balcony to interrogating another while smashing a car to pieces between concrete pillars, the film is choreographed violence from start to finish. The granite-faced Marvin, a World War II veteran who had as a soldier killed in real life, is utterly convincing as Walker - not a man one would wish to doublecross. Yet what is even more striking is the complete amorality of the plot: Walker lives in a world where life really has no value and no meaning, and violence is as much part of the daily ritual as eating or sleeping. At least, one might say that the plot is amoral in the usual sense of the word.

Of course, not all will agree. For example, I can imagine a Marxist rather prosaically arguing that the movie does reflect, in an extreme the form, the morality of money. Walker `just wants his money;' and, with that as a given, the violence is entirely justified. Money is the ultimate fetish and, when it is set up as the only norm, it dehumanizes men and women and makes all moral judgments negotiable. This may have been the intention of the director, I don't know; but I would argue that the effect of the movie, especially when set in the wider cultural context, is not to preach Marxism but to make the move from the morality of law to the morality of aesthetics. It is not Marx but Nietzsche who offers a better explanation for Point Blank. Walker is beyond good and evil; and his values merely a matter of taste.

To explain: the choreographing of the violence combines with the laconic ambience of Walker's character to create a film where moral judgments are really suspended through an aesthetic of ruthless and violent cool. A similar thing is discernible in the fate of the Western during the sixties. In the fifties, classics such as The Naked Spur, Shane and The Searchers certainly contained their violence; but it was violence which always served the larger cause of redemption, whether of the community (as in Shane) or the individual, as in the figure of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Indeed, the great Gaelic poet (and, if I can name-drop, cousin of my wife) Iain Crichton Smith captured this when he wrote his wonderful elegy to Shane:

He stands by the fence

Undazzled yet alert, expecting evil

As natural as sunlight. Yet with what grief he goes

To find his guns again, to relearn his quickness.

The reluctant acknowledgment of the need for violence to defeat inevitable evil, the `man's gotta do what a man's gotta do' mentality, is what drives the great Westerns of the fifties; and it necessarily, even assumes a basic moral code, even while it presents flawed heroes, which transcends the events of the movie itself. Indeed, the violence of such Westerns can only be redemptive in such circumstances because it is more than a mere aesthetic.

When one moves to the mid-sixties, however, the great Westerns, whether those of Peckinpah or Leone, generally reduce the Western to the realm of iconic violence, of extremely cool but dangerous characters who create their own morality and who frequently triumph because they play the game in a dirtier, nastier way than their enemies. Yet such characters have become iconic; indeed, I have a still of Eastwood as Manco in For a Few Dollars More on my own office door (incidentally, only a Spaghetti-Western lightweight ever believed that Eastwood had no name in the Leone trilogy). Why do I have it there? Not because Manco represents my lifestyle; after all, I am not (despite rumours to the contrary) a ruthless and cold-hearted killer; rather it is a sad and pathetic attempt to look cool, to participate, albeit vicariously, in the aesthetic of the Spaghetti Western.

This leads to my central point: postmodernism is constantly heralded as, among other things, a `linguistic turn.' Certainly, many streams of this disparate collection of philosophies have made language into a virtual fetish, investing it with an omnipotent grip upon humanity such that it is both the substance and the limits of reality. A cage, I think, was how Wittgenstein described it. Yet I find myself attracted by Terry Eagleton's argument that what is often called postmodernism is not, ultimately, a linguistic turn but rather an aesthetic turn; it represents not so much the retreat to a linguistic cage as the triumph and absolutisation of the aesthetics of modernity. To put it less pretentiously, it's all about style, rather than substance; indeed, style is now the only substance that matters.

Point Blank represents this move superbly: the cool of Walker is beyond good and evil. Hard-bitten psychopath that he is, he is yet the sympathetic hero of the movie, the one the audience hopes will finally `get his money.' It is the same with Manco in For a Few Dollars More and Pike in The Wild Bunch - violent men, removed from any traditional moral framework, whose austere cool persona provides the only criterion for judging whether they are heroes or villains.

In movies, of course, it is harmless. But the aesthetic turn has impacted wider society as well. In a 1984 essay, `Jerry Lee Lewis: the Killer', respected rock critic Mikal Gilmore pointed to the wreckage of Lewis's personal life (including the mysterious death of Lewis' fifth wife) and asked whether the romanticizing of rock's violent side created a situation where `a roughhouse aesthetic and mean eyed stance seem to take on matchless and inevitable value.' In Lewis's case (and even more famously in that of Sid Vicious), this meant that his reputation survived - maybe was even enhanced by - the most depraved of actions. The public ended up not only excusing but even perversely admiring the darker side of their popular idols. After all, only a liar would deny that violence can be fun; many rock stars, films such as Point Blank and the many purveyors of violent cool since have all capitalized on precisely that fact and generally made a lot more money than I ever will; and the aesthetic turn which so much of modern culture represents has supplanted the moral frameworks by which such can be critiqued.

This aesthetic turn is, I think, a more adequate way of understanding modern society than all the huff and puff about linguistics. This concept allows us to do justice to the increasing importance of the visual in our culture, as driven by movies, TV and internet. It explains the propensity of many in the self-proclaimed cultural vanguard to stick the shibbolethic epithet `post-' in front of everything, signaling their trendiness not by argument but by preening and pretentious verbal packaging which hides the vacuous nature of their tragicomic inanity like some piece of gaudy wrapping paper around an empty shoebox. It also allows us to make some sense of the obsession with pampered and pointless celebrities who live lives of gross over-indulgence and yet whose lives are an obsessive focus of public interest and whose views on everything from interior decorating to the World Bank are sought even by those who should know better. Who cares if such-and-such star is a drug-dependent whacko; he's a good-looking star and must have something to say of relevance on any given topic.

Yet it cuts close to home as well, even or perhaps especially among those who pride themselves for their love of peace and tolerance. After all, the aesthetic turn does not necessarily involve violence, only the controlling role of style over substance. In a Yin-Yang balance, it can also manifest itself in terms of an uncritical tolerance. `Never mind the arguments, watch the tone' is a virtual mantra in all areas of Western society. It is, of course, a devious argument: most would agree that we need to be careful about how we say what we say; but when the only arguments put forward relate to tone, then we witness the aesthetic turn once again transforming the moral framework and evacuating discussion and debate of any real content.

This is where the final irony of all the talk about `tone' lies: whether we are dealing with violence or with tolerance, the downgrading of any moral framework within which these aesthetic concepts can operate creates a kind of substantial nihilism and serves not so much to set the tone of any ensuing discussion as to rule substantive intellectual engagement out of bounds from the very start. In Point Blank, Walker was at least honest: he wanted his money and did not care how he got it; I suspect the modern apostles of tolerance have somewhat less integrity. By playing the aesthetic `tone and tolerance' card they are, ironically, the most duplicitously intellectually violent of all.