“The worst reproduces itself; the best is singular. Tyrants, it seems, can be spewed out by the dozens, and their atrocities by the thousands, as by a copy machine; but Kafka, tyranny’s symbolist, is like a fingerprint, or like handwriting, not duplicatable. This is what Henry James knew: that civilization is not bred out of machines, whether the machines are tanks and missiles, or whether they are laser copiers. Civilisation, like art its handmaid, is custom built.”
The thing is that democratic civilization is bred out of machines for without machines we would not have the mass produced books of Henry James, or the mass produced editions of Mills and Boons, or the digitally restored double disc set of Wild Strawberries, or the box set of Buffy. Machines have given us a torrent of culture, and that mongrel furnace fuels both the artistically great and terrible. As usual with man, it is not the tool itself but what man uses the tool for that we should be concerned with, for man can have the machine eliminate the human and create the generic when what we want it to do is mass produce the idiosyncratic, authored work.
I’ve been reading dime novels from the late nineteenth century. They are a perfect example of the mass produced. I have just finished one called Dashing Diamond Dick. Mr. Dick is the hero. He’s supposed to be a cowboy. It was when I read the scene quoted below that I first realised the story totally works as a gay musical.
As he finished he suddenly drew the cloak from his shoulders and tossed it to the care of his boy. And as he stood thus revealed, there burst simultaneously from the spectators a cry of wonder and surprise.
The stranger was a magnificent specimen of manhood.
He was tall of form and straight as a lance, his every motion being distinguished by a lithe, panther-like grace…. All about his person a myriad of diamonds flashed and burned, and sparkled, and shot out star-like rays of mystic light. In the snowy frills of his shirt, three stones gleamed like smouldering fire; the short jacket, terminating at the waist, had set in lieu of numerous buttons, on either side of the open front, a mass of sparkling brilliants, the nether garment, slashed open at the side, almost to the hips, was ornamented by a double row of flashing gems, and the soft felt hat upon his head was looped up at the side by a diamond star.
In the silken scarf wound time and again about his waist, the ends trailing gracefully down at the side, were thrust two revolvers with diamond sights.
Many an admiring glance was cast upon this cool, handsome man.
Times have changed. I think Mr. Dick might be the kind of cowboy who would get picked on by the other cowboys nowadays.
Clint Eastwood: “Nice nether garment, partner”
Dick: “Hand-stitched, calf skin.”
Clint Eastwood: “You don’t say.”
John Wayne: “Did your mother pick that outfit for you?”
Dick: “Just the scarf.”
John Wayne: “We don’t like your kind around here.”
After a variety of plot twists Dick’s latest true love is shot by his ex-true love (now dressing up as a man, or a tiger, depending on the situation) and Dick launches into quite a long speech about how he will now hunt his ex down to the ends of the Earth (“and become to you a destroying angel more remorseless than the Danite dogs of the Mormon Church”… you don’t hear this kind of threat so much in gangster movies anymore). The threat is somewhat undercut by Dick’s next action:
His voice ended in a scream, and, like one stricken with quick, sudden death, he fell forward on his face, and lay there upon the ground without motion.
“My Heaven! This is awful!” the woman cried (his ex in a tiger outfit) her face ghastly with terror and dismay. “Is he dead?”
One of the masked men was bending over Diamond Dick… “No,” the man answered; “he’s overworked himself, and has burst some small blood-vessel. He’ll be alright in a day or two.”
That’s a pretty nifty off-the-cuff diagnosis.
Tastes in popular entertainment have changed since Dashing Dick stalked through the dreams of young boys. Although I suspect the main thing to change has been the style of presentation rather than the underlying themes, or plots. And to be fair to Dick, his story has been a lot more arresting than the other examples of dime novels I have read: Frank Reade and his amazing flying ship of racial stereotypes; or Frank Merriwell’s meaningless pursuit of college baseball glory. At least in Dashing Diamond Dick a little flair remains, a little trace of the author, no matter how absurd.
Last week I played Jason and the Argonauts for my Classics class. It was released in 1963 and is considered the finest special effects achievement of Ray Harryhausen. Compared to the special effects of today Harryhausen’s stopmation is pretty clunky and obvious, but it is also great fun. My Classics class enjoyed the movie even though Hercules looked like your slightly dodgy uncle gone to seed, and Zeus like an equally avuncular retired accountant dressed for the sauna. The special effects had their moments, and were done with panache. The towering bronze statue of Talos clasping his throat in his death throes, and the Triton pushing aside the clashing rocks for the Argos really stood out for me.
Film is a perfect example of civilisation generated by machines: both the good and the bland.
It’s when you watch the original King Kong and recall that this movie once stunned the world that you realise that the past is indeed a foreign country. I love these old movies. They are so transparent, they wear their motives and their hearts on their sleeve and their effects are so obvious you can somehow enjoy them more. When you watch a Peter Jackson movie you spend half the time thinking how amazing it is that you can’t notice that it’s not real which somehow is more undermining to the reality than watching poor special effects and letting your imagination do the work. But let’s be fair. I don’t truly enjoy Dashing Diamond Dick or Jason and the Argonauts, but I find they have charm and the charm is the sense of authorship. I don’t enjoy Jackson’s King Kong or Lord of the Rings because they lack charm, a charm that was evident in the originals.
Tolkien’s original books as I remember them had the distinct smell of the author on them; in their obsession with Norse and Anglo-Saxon myths, and the linguistics of Old English, and the curious spindley drawings, and their obvious delight in suburban middle class British habits like pipes and slippers and pots of tea. King Kong has the rush-of-blood amateurism of the director Merian Cooper who constructed quasi-documentaries in Africa, and filmed She soon after Kong.
In Jason and the Argonauts the human touch is in the smell of Harryhausen allowed to live out all the dreams of his boyhood. The obsessive, compulsion of spending those months and months animating a single scene where a seven-headed hydra fights a man. It’s the kind of pointless compulsion that men are capable of and which women don’t understand. And the staggering naivety of Harryhuasen when it comes to storylines! He later made a movie involving cowboys rustling dinosaurs in the Wild West. Why? “Well”, he explained, “at that time dinosaur movies were popular, and so were cowboy movies so we thought combining them would be successful”. This is completely idiotic, and yet somehow I would really like to see it.
Reading Dashing Diamond Dick and a Nick Carter story made me turn to Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dickens and H.G. Wells, pioneering authors in the age of the machine. What seperates their books covering much of the same ground from the heap of discarded penny dreadfuls tossed in the bins of railways stations in Victorian England?