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How the Comedy of Manners Foretells the Future

Stuck watching classic movies, one wonders how far we have fallen.

Barbara Stanwyck is seated on a bench with Gary Cooper, Henry Travers and S.Z Sakall in a scene from the film "Ball of Fire," 1941. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

During the months of the Covid-19 lockdown, I passed many nights in front of the boob tube surfing the cable news channels. During the interminable commercials from Big Pharma for this-and-that miracle cure and their interesting side-effects (e.g. “death”), I found myself clicking over to the Turner Classic Movie channel where there are no ads and some old chestnut is always roasting on the electronic hearth. I came to jokingly call it the time machine as I grew ever more enthralled by the changes in manners and styles in American life between way back in the 20th century and this shaky new time we’re in. 

It’s really astounding how protean the behavior of our species is. Check out any 1930s screwball comedy and you will learn that it was normal then for young women to aim all their energies at landing a husband. What an idea? And they were allowed to make jokes about it. Yet, they called each other Miss and Mister, inserting a respectful layer of formality between people avid to mate who really hadn’t gotten to know each other. How quaintly practical! In our time, young people might not remember the first or last name of the person they woke up next to those boozy-druggy nights of hooking-up, and marriage itself is the joke.

All sorts of large and small differences then and now got my attention in the old movies, for instance, the incessant cigarette smoking. Not only did it furnish a range of vivid gestures for punctuating speech—lighting up insouciantly (or desperately) before replying to a question, angrily stabbing a butt into an ashtray, or flicking it with contempt to the floor—but you got the distinct feeling that the whole population was acting out a weird kabuki representation of the industrial ethos they were immersed in, going around with a smokestack plugged into their faces, as if they envied the factories that made modern life possible. The plush interiors of the movie-set nightclubs and penthouses—tented ceilings, soft furniture, flowing draperies—seemed to denote that those people of the 1930s and 40s literally needed padding to stay sane while the fiascos of war and depression stormed around them. 

Another stark difference, then and now, was the portrayal of the city as the normal milieu of everyday life, which, in 1936—when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared in Swingtime—was true not just for New York, but for Dayton, Ohio, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and scores of other American places that had only lately risen out of piney woods and prairie. From sea to shining sea, in cities large and small, it was all dynamic bustle, formal manners, and spiffy dress. Even laborers worked in neckties and hats. (Hoboes, too). The city represented the highest of possible aspirations, whether for Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar or Joan Blondell in Footlight Parade. Overlay the silky tenderness and drive of a Gershwin tune and you get the essence of it.

After 1950, though, it was all hard edges, metal claddings, aluminum tubes, plate glass, concrete, and sleekness for us. What exactly was the point of that? To decree that there was no longer any room for soft sentiment in a world ruled by machines? To reinforce a compulsion for order after the epic chaos of Auschwitz and Hiroshima? On-screen, Rock Hudson and Doris Day still followed their biologic promptings, now constrained within the severe geometry of a Manhattan office tower by Mies Van Der Rohe. And over on the margins, beatniks like James Dean and Maynard G. Krebs mocked the sterile boredom of all that comforting conformity.

For thirty years after Easy Rider, on-screen manners just got cruder, as the payoffs from the entertainment industry grew more profligate and the fantasy machine of Hollywood got more detached from the everyday America it extracted its wealth from. The behavior of film characters eerily mirrored the self-referential, vulgar blusterings of movie producers themselves in their raptures of greed and malice. The city of the 1980s and 90s on film was the colossal Nowheresville of Los Angeles and the signal glimpse into its future was the acid-rain-washed androidal perdition of Blade Runner. The east coast analog of that was Snake Plisskin’s Escape from New York, a massive ruin populated by human vermin. The city was written off as a hopeless failure and, by implication, the human project itself, per se. During the Baby Boomer generation’s childbearing years, cinema life moved up a cul-de-sac into Mr. Spielberg’s endlessly replicable beige suburbs, places with their soulessness designed-in. 

By the 21st century, cinema shifted to its strategic occupation of TV, which was no longer literally a tube in a box but your own widescreen display on the bedroom wall. The manners of onscreen characters in the new multi-season cable network opuses evolved from simply crude (The Sopranos) to extravagantly atrocious (Game of Thrones). Financialization of the economy and the NextGens’ rejection of those soulless suburbs prompted a rediscovery of the city, as in the hipsterishly renovated Brooklyn of Lena Dunham’s Girls series, while the young folk depicted banging around that milieu no longer follow any recognized scheme of manners at all. Compare the infantile and slatternly presentation of Ms. Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath with Rosalind Russell’s Elizabeth Kent in Man-Proof.

Which brings us to the current moment, surely another inflection point in history. The 21st century looks more and more like an accelerating crack-up of everything, starting with the financialized economy, and proceeding to just about all consensualized workings of society and culture. The collapse that I call the long emergency is taking us through an ordeal of discontinuity, disorientation, and loss probably more profound than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Suddenly, with coronavirus on the scene, even showbiz has had to stop its production activities while the nation tries to figure out what to do with half its working-age population unemployed, the cities getting torched and looted, and the culture under siege by “Marxist” race hustlers. In the streets now, it’s the manners-of-no-manners whatsoever, including the basic regard for human life. It looks like chaos will rule for a while

And then, what new disposition of human relations, styles, and manners are we moving toward? I’d say the end of Modernity itself, the assumption that humanity always moves forward to things bigger, faster, and better. Suddenly city life at the colossal scale looks finished. But how charming cities at a smaller scale will be. Wait for it. And wait for an interesting range of new manners to go with it, including possibly the return of straight-up politeness. What an idea! What a relief!

James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward.

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