In the age of Jerry Springer and Monica Lewinsky, one forgets that there was a time when works of art, music, film and literature could send shock waves throughout society. But as executive producer Jill Janows points out in this excellent four part series, these battles, although seemingly antiquated, still resonate today.
In fact, it’s too bad Janows’ docu was made before New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to deny First Amendment protection to visual art — that’s a battle that would have fit in perfectly here.
Actually, “Culture Shock” doesn’t point fingers or offer any answers. It tries to explain the nature of these conflicts as well as the reasons why people might fear jazz, say, or popular movies. As suspected, these fears represent bigger and broader issues.
History has provided us with many examples, but represented here are “Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”; “Shock of the Nude: Manet’s ‘Olympia’ “; “Hollywood Uncensored: Movies, Morality and the Production Code”‘ and “The Devil’s Music: 1920s Jazz.”
While all four episodes provide fascinating and detailed accounts of these purported cultural nuisances, the segment on Twain’s acclaimed book is by far the most provocative and detailed. Narrated by Courtney B. Vance, it explores the genesis of Twain’s book and its initial reception and offers a newsmag-like account of a recent debate over the educational value of what Hemingway called “the best book I’ve ever read.”
Featured is Tempe, Ariz., mother Kathy Monterio, who sees the book, in which the word “nigger” is repeated several times, as a source of negative self-esteem for her African American daughter, Raquel. She and other parents claim that it should not be required reading in high schools. Scholars argue that taken in context, “Huck Finn” demonstrates how one ignorant boy sheds his preconceived notions of racism. It’s an issue that summons as much passion as the current debate over the Confederate flag.
The other, shorter segments also manage to draw certain parallels to current events, but come off more like a history lesson. “Shock of the Nude,” narrated by John Lithgow, explores Manet’s 1863 painting “Olympia,” which debuted to jeers and laughter at Paris’ government-sponsored salon.
Among other things, the painting represented the blurring of classes at a time when the upper class was striving for distinction. Even Manet’s painting style, which literally blurred lines and colors, was deemed objectionable. According to “Nude” writer Richard P. Rogers, Manet was trying to shake up the system that dictated artistic expression.
Film studios faced a similar battle with the strict production code that plagued Hollywood for 37 years, as evidenced in “Hollywood Censored,” while many jazz musicians faced public scorn, much like today’s gangsta rappers. As noted in “The Devil’s Music,” these types of controversies aren’t new (even Plato recommended that certain rhythms and melodies be banned), and we’re not finished with them yet.
Docu is filled with interesting anecdotes — Henry Ford, for example, began a folk dancing crusade in response to jazz — as well as an impressive collection of film footage and images culled from a variety of media. John Newburger and Robert Marshall did a superb editing job, and each episode works as a neatly packaged stand-alone.
Despite different directors for each segment, most of the interviews are conducted in restaurants and bars, presumably to give the docu a more casual feel, but the distracting result feels too staged. The manic opening theme and visuals are a poor match for this carefully orchestrated docu, but overall, it’s a job well done.
While no real summation is offered, history has ruled in favor of Manet’s “Olympia,” now considered a masterpiece as well as jazz, a respected and popular form of music. It remains debatable just how much self-esteem has to do with reading “Huckleberry Finn” or whether the nation’s crime rate correlates with the movies produced by Hollywood.