Notes from the Decade of the Empty Gesture

1980. Reagan elected. A feeling in our household of stunned nausea. The sense that his victory is above all an assault on meaning.

The breach in the wall between entertainments and politics. Reagan will prove to be the first of in a long line of entertainer/politicians — Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy, Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura.

On the other side of the wall: playing farmers in the movies now confers enough authority on actors like Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek to have them testify before congress as expert witnesses on behalf of the 1985 Farm Bill.

Reagan’s biographers all describe his inability to distinguish, on one hand, between incidents that occurred in his life and historical events he lived through and, on the other hand, roles he played as an actor and movies he watched. Perhaps for an actor, the emotional experience is the same.

Jimmy Carter, Reagan’s predecessor. Sanctimonious, humorless, a legendary micromanager. As progressive as he appears, his message is a thoroughly old fashioned American one — you will be held accountable for every single thing you do. Reaganism, though, promises the trappings of old-fashioned America without the struggle and the hellfire.

People don’t remember now that when Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980 he never mentioned personal morality at all…He saw that greed and hedonism did not need to be adversaries. By uniting the right wing that wanted wealth with no obligations with the left wing that wanted pleasure with no consequences, he built a new American majority.
 — Bill Flanagan, Evening’s Empire

Reagan’s new/old morality needs a reinvented or a recycled past. As Marc Crispin Miller described Reagan’s campaign slogan morning in America:

[it used] the myth of homecoming to enjoin our sentimental acquiescence in the general betterment of the rich. Home refers to an imagined past, a hazy paradisiacal interlude that fell sometime between Reconstruction and the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan. We were happy, back then. Watched over by God and a few other kindly tycoons, we understood the meaning of hard work , a dollar, life itself…We inhabited a paradise we can have again, the myth implies, if we just wish very hard and make no noise.

The first decade in which the centrality of cultural recycling becomes apparent. My friends and I devour the all-too-faithful TV serialization of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, that nostalgic, ersatz, reactionary work. The nostalgia of the Eighties for the nostalgia of the Forties for the Twenties. The lank forelock, tailored cricketers’ clothes, the indolent wit, the air of ease in a world of ancient privilege. It makes for an attractive outline — something, I hope, will come along to fill in the outline later on.

Popular culture becomes so oppressively familiar that this is the decade of the double impression: Robin Williams doing Elmer Fudd doing Bruce Springsteen; Bruce Springsteen doing Mitch Ryder doing Little Richard; my friends’ party bit during this time is Truman Capote as Dirty Harry, one hand cocked on his hip with an imaginary gun dangling from it, the other hand supporting his chin with the index finger pointed upward: dwehehehehellll… did I shoot five bulletth…or was it thickth…………

Here is Late Seventies Michael Jackson: a little odd, perhaps, as the title of his album Off the Wall acknowledges; but the irresistible song Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough is in the great tradition of the show-stopping Gotta Sing Gotta Dance number, and the sex/dancing metaphor of that song as old popular music itself.

Here is Michael Jackson in 1983: what is as startling as the surgical self-erasure is his newfound feral intensity, a manner which, except for the title track of his album Thriller, is scarily unrelated to the subject matter of his music. Though unlike other singers who often seem to be at odds with their material, his style is not a joyous celebration of virtuosity, like Ella Fitzgerald’s or of sexuality like Elvis’s (in fact, it’s curiously sexless).

Here is Tom Cruise, master of the fist pump, the swaybacked double finger point, the bizarrely non-referential grin.

I work as a waiter in the most popular restaurant in the city. The restaurant bears the name of the owner, the son of a powerful Reagan supporter who is its financial backer. The owner, with his gym-built body and perpetual tan, lives above the restaurant and occasionally attends staff meetings in his dressing gown. His managers, utterly dissimilar except in their uniform docility, are made to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as homework.

We watch with appalled fascination as the owner dances in his tank top at the company Christmas party. He has two poses: the first with his swollen arms raised triumphantly above his head is a celebration of dancing’s physicality; the second, cradling or fanning some invisible object in his groin area like Neil Diamond doing Jim Morrison on the cover of Hot August Night, is a celebration of dancing’s sexuality.

In Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, one of the few successful satires of 80s era America, the yuppie killer protagonist lectures his victims on the apparent subtleties of the decade’s most vapid popular songs — Huey Lewis’s’ ‘Hip to be Square.’ Phil Collins’s ‘In Too Deep’ — as a prelude to torturing and killing them. Like David Lynch in his 1985 film Blue Velvet, Ellis sensethat popular music unlocks, along with more benign emotions, a murderous rage within ourselves.

Describing his notorious broken-plate paintings, the Eighties’ most celebrated artist, Julian Schnabel, invokes “parents screaming on Kristallnacht, as their voices are lost as they are being dragged down the streets of Berlin while pieces of shattered glass glistened in the moonlight…The plates seem to have a sound, the sound of every human tragedy… All of this was happening before I even started to paint the painting.” The incoherence, the non-sequiturs, the odd aestheticizing detail (“while pieces of shattered glass glistened in the moonlight”) camouflage what is obvious: what Schnabel is looking for is not an artistic form to express his reaction to a tragic historical event, but quite the opposite: trying to find an equivalent to the violent intensity of the emotion that produces his fatuous art, he reaches for a tragic historical event and then, finding that insufficient, for all history.

From T.S.Eliot’s “Hamlet and his Problems”: Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.

In the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art. The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known; it is doubtless a study to pathologists. It often occurs in adolescence: the ordinary person puts these feelings to sleep, or trims down his feeling to fit the business world; the artist keeps it alive by his ability to intensify the world to his emotions.

The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding an object. The empty gesture, born of the feeling without an object or exceeding an object. The problem of Hamlet is the problem of Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, Julian Schnabel, Phil Collins.

A former waiter visits the restaurant during lunch service. Thanks to the gossipy bartender, everyone knows he left because he found out he has AIDS. He stands at the service bar, talking to the bartender in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice, like someone in the first stages of shock. We look at him with dread and pity and fascination; for most of us he is the first person with AIDS we have ever seen and in 1987 the diagnosis of AIDS is still a death sentence. As we maneuver around him to pick up our iced teas and beers and glasses of chardonnay we all excuse ourselves with bright stage politeness, as if it is we who are intruding, though it’s him who is standing in our work area. With each exaggerated apology he loses a little more of his resolve. Finally he says, with a rage-inflected cheerfulness, “Why is everyone being so polite?” But it is not his words I remember as much as the gesture that accompanies them, the frantic way he shakes his arms as if they are covered with hot tar.

At a low point, I watch the whole Brideshead series again for the first time in many years. The over-rich fall light filling the curtainless rooms of my rented apartment, the inscribed dust that’s settled on the grainy first- generation videos tapes I watch — it feels like the intercession of memory itself.

Nostalgia seems too simple and crude a word to describe what I experience. Surely there’s some fifty- three letter German word that means bewilderment induced by yearning for the synthetically nostalgic.

* * *

Read John Broening’s Column Note here.

— John Broening is a chef and writer based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, Gastronomica, Edible Front Range, and the Denver Post, for whom he writes a weekly column about food.

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