Whither Al Jolson?

At the beginning of every semester, I always pass around notecards and ask students to list the last five films they’ve watched.  In a film class this helps to establish a baseline for conversation, but it can also be a moderately disturbing experience.  In this case, out  of the fifteen students who returned their cards, the most watched film was The Dark Knight Rises (eight saw it).  That’s neither a surprise, nor especially disconcerting.  The problematic part is the composition of the rest of the list which included three titles from the 1960’s (My Fair Lady, A Fistful of Dollars and 101 Dalmations – presuming that the student was not referencing the live-action version), and precisely one each from the 1940’s (Citizen Kane), 1950’s (Strangers on a Train), 1970’s (What’s Up, Doc) and 1980’s (This is Spinal Tap).  Putting aside the fact that each of these outliers is packaged, marketed and sold as an established “classic” (however that mushy term is defined), this list also means that approximately ninety percent of the films mentioned were from the last 20 years – effectively ignoring a full hundred years worth of film output.  Even more surprising/telling, aside from a few Miyazaki films and A Fistful of Dollars, everything mentioned was a product of the American film industry.  Such major production centers as India, Nigeria and China were completely ignored.

My point here is not to castigate my students for their viewing choices, but rather to comment generally on the absurdity of the entire situation.  We live in a time where vast amounts of cultural output are available to us from around the world and covering over a century.  So why do we insist on restricting ourselves to such a tiny slice of it?  Are the films or songs of the Teens worse than the films or songs of today?  Different, certainly, but just as valid as cultural products.  Are American films “better” than those produced by Bollywood or Nollywood?  Are my grandparents, or my Indian friends misguided in the placement of their cultural affections?  It’s almost as if we willfully put on blinkers as a defense against the sheer volume of material available.  The result, however is a narrowness of vision that isn’t helpful to anyone.  People pay lip service to “globalization” but blithely persist in not knowing anything about Mary Pickford, Googoosh, Shah Rukh Khan or Al Jolson.  This is despite the fact that each of them is or was a household name for huge swaths of the globe in their particular time (up to and including now), and each of them says important things about the culture from which they emerged.  Even more puzzling, performances by any of these people can be just as pleasant/rousing/entertaining now as when each was in their prime, so why ignore them?

The same phenomenon can be observed every year around this time when Beloit College publishes what it calls the “Mindset” list.  Started as a way to remind faculty that their cultural and historical references might eventually require further explanation, the annual list now invariably occasions a curmudgeonly article about “these kids today” and how innocent, naive and uninformed they may be.  As E.D. Hirsch suggested so many years ago in his book “Cultural Literacy” we need to make certain assumptions about cultural knowledge to communicate effectively.  Doesn’t it therefore make sense that in order to communicate with other cultures (temporal as well as geographic) we need to have a broader knowledge base?  Don’t those students need to brush up on things?

Well, yes, but we ALL do.  I’m not suggesting, that this is a one-way street.  Especially with the Beloit list, it always fascinates me how deaf the exercise is to its own implications.  It’s just as crucial that the faculty be aware of new references as they are of the meaninglessness to their students of old references.  Faculty should be held to just as much account for their lack of knowledge of Nicki Minaj, Psy and Community (to cite a few recent examples) as students might be for not recognizing Dean Martin, Birth of a Nation or Mao Zedong.  I’m not suggesting this is an easy task for anybody (it isn’t) or that the new references will end up being as significant as some of the old ones (many won’t), but it’s essential to our understanding of each other, it makes us more interesting people, and it opens up whole new avenues of thinking (and entertainment) for all of us.

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