Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Pinch of Ridicule

In yesterday's blog, I said that nothing could appear a less promising topic than the movie career of Elvis Presley. Observing that movies in general have always been culturally ambiguous because they blur clear distinctions between art, commerce, and mass communication, I then immediately suggested that the films starring Elvis Presley are an exception to this culturally ambiguous status: they are not considered ambiguous at all, but rather as artless mass entertainment. In its most negative formulation, they are used as an example of Elvis’s tastelessness, made simply for crass commercial reasons: although nothing but tripe, they remain, nonetheless, quite profitable. What I didn't discuss yesterday are the reasons for this widespread cultural perception, and it's not clear to me that the reasons are due to the actual films themselves.

The reasons for this perception are best explored in a remarkable essay written by a former teacher of mine, Linda Ray Pratt, titled "Elvis, or the Ironies of a Southern Identity," which can be found in Kevin Quain, Ed., The Elvis Reader (St. Martin's Press, 1992). In one of the best pieces ever written about Elvis, in the essay, writing as a Southerner herself, she discusses Elvis with the kind of understanding and empathy that those outside the culture often lack. I remember having brief conversations with her about Elvis--this back in the early 1980s, just a few years after his death, probably while she was thinking about the issues that ultimately emerged in this particular essay. She makes so many acute insights that it is impossible to list them all here, but here are a few insights that may help explain why Elvis's films are held in such widespread contempt, even by those who perhaps have never seen but one or two of them, and perhaps even by those who have never seen them at all--to see them would demonstrate a noticeable lapse in taste. Writing about Elvis in the context of Southern culture, she says:

C. Vann Woodward has said that the South's experience is atypical of the American experience, that where the rest of America has known innocence, success, affluence, and an abstract and disconnected sense of place, the South has know guilt, poverty, failure, and a concrete sense of roots and place.... These myths collide in Elvis. His American success story was always acted out within its Southern limitations. No matter how successful Elvis became in terms of fame and money, he remained fundamentally disreputable in the minds of many Americans. Elvis had rooms full of gold records earned by million-copy sales, but his best rock and roll records were not formally honored by the people who control, if not the public taste, the rewarding of public taste.... His movies made millions but could not be defended on artistic grounds. The New York Times view of his fans was "the men favoring leisure suits and sideburns, the women beehive hairdos, purple eyelids and tight stretch pants".... (96-97)

Observing that Elvis "remained an outsider in the American culture that adopted his music," she goes on to say:

Although he was the world's most popular entertainer, to like Elvis a lot was suspect, a lapse of taste.... The inability of Elvis to transcend his lack of reputability despite a history-making success story confirms the Southern sense that the world outside thinks Southerners are freaks, illiterates . . . sexual perverts, lynchers. I cannot call this sense a Southern "paranoia" because ten years outside the South has all too often confirmed the frequency with which non-Southerners express such views. Not even the presidency would free LBJ and Jimmy Carter from the ridicule.... And Elvis was truly different, in all those tacky Southern ways one is supposed to rise above with money and sophistication. (97)

Regarding the deification of the dead Elvis, she observes:

The apotheosis of Elvis demands . . . perfection because his death confirmed the tragic frailty, the violence, the intellectual poverty, the extravagance of emotion, the loneliness, the suffering, the sense of loss. Almost everything about his death, including the enterprising cousin who sold the casket pictures to National Enquirer, dismays, but nothing can detract from Elvis himself.... Greil Marcus wrote in his book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music that Elvis created a beautiful illusion, a fantasy that shut nothing out. The opposite was true. The fascination was the reality always showing through the illusion--the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos.... Elvis had all the freedom the world can offer and could escape nothing. (103)

Her final, acute insight is painfully true: by saying that Elvis could escape nothing, she means escape Southern mythology, both what he inherited as a Southerner by birth, and what someone from the South is perceived to be by non-Southerners (think: Deliverance). In a sense, his movie career failed because he was never allowed by the general culture to be a movie star. Even Jimmy Carter as president couldn't escape the stigma of being from the South: the mass media was brutal on him, his brother Billy, and even his daughter Amy. Although Dr. Pratt corrects an observation made by Greil Marcus in his essay "Elvis: Presliad," Marcus nonetheless cited portions of the above passage in his scathing review of Albert Goldman's biography Elvis (1981), a biography I've cited on a few occasions. Her essay helps immensely to explain why so many were offended by Goldman's biography of Elvis: his (perhaps unconscious) contempt for the South and for Elvis's Southern identity taints almost every page.

But rather than fixate on the mote in our neighbor's eye, perhaps we ought to examine the sources and motivations for our own perceptions, in this case why Elvis's films are widely considered jokes, even by those who may have never seen them, or seen very few. To extrapolate a bit on Linda Ray Pratt's essay, we might say that those perceptions may largely be determined by factors that have nothing to do with the films themselves.

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