I steal my cultural identity.
Which IS my cultural identity.
Album of the day: Damn Fever by Six Def.
I remember when I was a kid that I never thought the term sequel with the term “unnecessary” in front of it. That was because all I wanted was more time with the cultural items I identified with. I felt eager for any retread of comfortable territory that I could use to define myself. Nobody else was going to identify me for me, and I certainly wasn’t going to do it myself. I needed outside sources and checks that I could use to understand my own decisions, and to inform their honorableness and their consistency of purpose, which is what culture is meant to do. Culture is the personality of the place and its population, and it’s invincible. I mean, essentially what Batman’s saying in that part where he explains that a man can be killed but a symbol can’t is that he wants to create a culture that he can inject with a bunch of action items. In his case it’s a culture of fear, but the point is it gets people up off the couch and doing something. There’s some nobility in that.
When I was a child, back before the Mouse had Horns and the behemoth wasn’t such a force of nature so scary we’re uncertain if we’re living in individual countries or in different divisions of Disneyland, one film that spawned a franchise in an unexpected and comforting way was the Mighty Ducks. Since the film, the branding has taken on some of the oddest but coolest life of its own that something like that might do. If you don’t remember it or you’ve never seen it, the original film was about a little league hockey team called the Ducks, and it belonged to the controversial and never-since-better-represented genre that occurs at the intersection where sports movies and feel-good, kid-friendly films celebrate their skating-on-thin-ice (pun unpardonable), asking for lawsuits kind of attitude. I think the genre began and ended with Bad News Bears, because the original one with Walter Matthau was excellent but in poor taste and everyone wanted to make that movie, and the remake with Billy Bob Thornton wasn’t very good at all but still in poor taste and nobody wanted to be associated with the genre again. That’s my theory, anyway.
In some people’s mind, the genre reached its peak moment with the film The Mighty Ducks which, in retrospect, wasn’t that great a film, but nobody needs to know that because it was exciting and made kids of all stripes feel like they could be winners. If it did nothing else, it did that, and that isn’t bad.
Like many other children of the time, I loved sequels of movies that I genuinely enjoyed. There wasn’t anything more exciting than knowing I would have another opportunity to hang out with the characters who I liked in the world I wanted my world to reflect, and the people who made these movies back then knew that. They knew the reason we want sequels, as children, is because we spend all our time trying to find something — anything! — to create a meaningful context of our lives. That’s the whole point of being a child: learning what it means to be a human being at all. And, as a child, I’d look to movies to help me think through what I needed to think through. And, as filmmakers, people like Disney, the Mad Mouse, knew that and they addressed it. There was this brief period when you could pretty much expect the sequel to be a more thought out, more ambitious, more fun version of the first film. There was a period — a very brief one — when it was part of the social contract that it was assumed that the first one was essentially a two hour long trailer for the second one, when they could try out the concepts and characters and see if we liked any of it. And if we did, then the second one would have a proper budget and proper sets and actors and, with it, an increase in the storytelling as well. It didn’t always happen, but it often happened. Films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie are examples of this.
My poor taste in movies notwithstanding, the point is that sequels, once upon a time, almost always reached further than their prequels. They did more than simply grab for another handful of cash.
Case in point: in the first Might Ducks film, I don’t remember a single instance of explicit discussion of any overarching social issues. One could argue that it demonstrated greater writing chops, deeper subtlety perhaps, by leaving its thematic ideas subliminal and letting them worry at the edges of my spongy, childlike mind for years, so that I learned by cultural example how trends and forces set a stage for class and racial acceptance or dismissal — whichever is more appropriate. One could argue that showed more skill.
This isn’t a statement about skill. This is a statement about ambition.
Because in the second Mighty Ducks film, there was commentary about cultural identity as the citizen of a country. The writers of the film used the Olympics as a reason to talk about national identity.
Now, one might be justified in arguing that a movie about a hockey team going to the Junior Olympics, that was released in the wake of Rocky VI, with an antagonist in the form of barely camouflaged soviet symbol represented by a team of hulking, square-jawed “Icelanders” is a convenient platform to present a sophomoric simplification of world politics in the wake of the Cold War. That being said, their commentary blew the mind of the adolescent version of me. They didn’t talk much about the whole east-west conflict. That was their intelligently sublimated side bar, cunningly forming my impressions of the Soviet Block before I had even heard of Vladimir Putin. No, what I thought about for years afterwards was a scene when one of the adult members of the cast explained to the trenage team of hockey players that the United States was not as old as any of the countries in Europe.
I knew that the U.S. must not be as old as Europe, or anywhere else, I suppose. I knew that the U.S. came from somewhere. I had no image of how young it must be until that moment, somehow.
In the film, the lady describes the U.S. as in its adolescence.
And for some reason I could understand that. I could visualize it. I could empathize with the idea of a country in the awkward stage of life when it’s not quite a grown up, but it’s starting to wonder how it’s different from its parents, if at all.
It’s a hard place to find yourself. I speak from experience. I spent most of my life so far in that stage. And I’m about to turn thirty-ish.
I feel for you, United States. That’s all I’m saying.
I think a lot about where culture comes from. Not only because I feel like I’ve been in my adolescence for the last twenty-five years, not only because the search for self-identity and therefore culture is ultimately what drives us all, but also because frankly I feel like the country where I live hasn’t got any. Maybe everywhere else feels like this too, but the land where I live, and by extension me, feels like it comes up wanting in the measuring of cultural depth. I feel like everywhere else has more of a claim to the phrase “cultural differences.” Whenever the United States arrives in discussions of culture it comes across as a little bit forced. When Japan, say, or Ethiopia, or, heck, even little Wales talks about their culture it has the weight of long years of adding to the family’s closet full of skeletons.
When the United States joins the conversation it comes across as a little disingenuous.
Doesn’t it? Maybe. I suppose it might.
The thing is, culture is like mold. Literally in the case of cheese. I think I alluded to this earlier. It grows over time. Things just need to be a little damp and left alone to stew, and culture will eventually grow. Anywhere that hasn’t got culture will, inevitably, have some. Which is as it should be.
What I want to know is when will the United States embrace its culture as, essentially, a pirate nation?
Now, some have speculated that aspects of the U.S. Constitution owe their inspiration to pirates. We can’t ignore the timeline, for one thing, or the area of the world. The so called Golden Age of Piracy happened in the early 1700s, and people living in the “New World” would have known about pirates. The pirates in the Caribbean Sea traded with the British Colonies in North America, so everybody knew about pirates.
Other historians have pointed out that the first group of historians just want that to be true because wouldn’t it be cool. And maybe it would, but there’s no basis of it in the facts, which is all anyone cares about. It doesn’t look good if you concentrate on the acts and movements that brought you to where you are, if the acts and movements have, in themselves, the potential for being embarrassing. We concentrate on the result, because the result covers it all up and makes it all right.
And that’s fine, but it doesn’t change the fact that the whole premise of the independence of the United States rests of an act of mutiny. Treason, technically, but that’s just a question of geography: having it or not. It’s treason if you’ve got geography, and it’s mutiny if you haven’t
That’s how that works.
Which is a cheap, semantical distinction if you ask me. There’s no such thing as solid ground. It’s all moving. Tectonic shift happens because the rock under your feet floats on liquid rock underneath, and even if that weren’t true, which it is, the whole planet whirs through space at a breakneck speed, and we’ve already determined that maritime law applies to spacefaring vehicles. I don’t know why that doesn’t apply to heavenly bodies like the Earth.
We should convert all of our language to maritime language, and I’m not just saying that because I feel like the term “lubber” doesn’t come up enough in conversation.
If we did, though, this would all make more sense.
The U.S. bid for independence was an act of mutiny.
In retrospect, we say it was okay because everyone else conferred legitimacy on it afterwards. That means that their paperwork was in order.
Which, okay, I’ll grant you that’s the basis of world order and always has been. The greatest defense anybody has against destruction is the self-control of everybody else. (There’s a scary thought.) The reason that people respect anything is because the paperwork is in order. It stands to reason. That’s why we call it a revolution. That’s the nice, legally way of saying that, in retrospect, it’s okay.
But if the United States had not got its paperwork in order, if the various old world powers had not decided to sign over ownership of the land and properties to the new tenants, then history would have looked a lot different than the triumphant, shouty, let’s-ignore-those-details affair that it has turned out to be. I mean, as a U.S. citizen I know that most of my history is an exercise in shouting louder than the facts. The facts confuse the mythology, and the mythology is what we use to justify how we misspend our resources.
Which brings me back to culture. Shallowness of culture — depth of culture — all sorts.
I think that the U.S. is culturally bankrupt. That’s maybe a cruel way of saying it, but I think that. That’s how the country appears to me.
I feel for it, though, for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. I spend most of my time jockeying for my place in the universe, I feel like. So I get it, little U.S.. I understand your pains.
As I see it, the problem is in our position in the culture/cultured relationship. I believe culture is a thing you accept, you see, not something you define for yourself.
You can have a say in it. Of course you can. You can decide which movies to watch and the crowd you roll with. What you immerse yourself in informs your culture. The trouble, as I see it, is when we try to embody a culture just because we like it when it doesn’t actually suit us.
I, for instance, had my Goth period. I tried to be a goth. I tried to be an emotional, jingly, pale person who only wears black and talks about my obsession with spiders and skeletons all the time.
I have a problem, though: it turns out that I am not a Goth kid. Not completely. I still like black and skeletons and things, but I also like sunshine and flowers and I like, I don’t know, brown. I like cheerful things, and I like science fiction and I like historical fiction, and I like genres of music that no self-respecting Goth would ever listen to.
I am not a Goth. I might be a metalhead, but even that’s not quite right because I like punk.
I’m probably a writer. Everything I steep myself in seems to be yielding an overall culture of Oliver that is both bigger and simpler than anything that I tried to embody just because I liked its color scheme.
You’re like that, little U.S.. You chanced across a handful of traits that you like, and you think that if you shout about those traits enough they become your culture. If you go to the right shows and wear the right clothes, and talk about shopping at American Eagle enough, then people will believe your culture is what you say that it is.
We both know, though, that approach doesn’t have a lot of backbone, does it? It’s not really how culture works. We think it is, but we can feel the doubt always at the back of our mind telling us we’re missing the point. And as we age, that doubt gets a little louder every year. Then every year we embrace the actual things we believe in just a little bit more.
The world rolled in favor of the U.S. after its mutiny that it got to rebrand as a revolution, and everything became legal. Go, team, I suppose. It saved a lot of headaches through the years since then.
Because we have a lot of examples of what would have happened if the paperwork had not been in order. Examples like Blackbeard and Calico Jack and Ben Hornigold, who were all men who did something similar (but entirely unrelated) to what the United States did: they saw an opportunity.
They saw that it would be inconvenient for their motherland to stop them from taking control of their own lives.
So they took control of their own lives. They had some ideas about how to be a little more fair and a little more profitable, and they noticed that their homelands couldn’t do much to stop them. I don’t think they had any grand design or long-term plan, but they did see an opportunity in the lightness of the presence of the authority of the Old World.
That’s what the people who started the United States saw too. Opportunity.
The United States is still a young country. I don’t know how old a country needs to be before it stops being young, but probably it needs to be older than the United States is. As a young country, it hasn’t got much culture. It’s trying. It’s glomming onto stories and ideas from history like a teenager glomming onto movie franchises, trying to find itself. Just like the rest of us, eventually the United States will steep itself in enough things it likes for it to gain enough wisdom to do what the rest of us do: embrace our roots, and be unabashed in our heritage without coming across as just trying to fit in.
Drink up, me hearties.