In the Depression era Our Gang comedies, a recurring gag was for the kids to get adult sized costumes and put on a show. The joke was the sight-gag of the kids wearing the oversize clothes, but trying hard to play the roles in their show. It was made in a time when there was a clear line between childhood and adulthood, so the audience understood that it was not just using kids for cheap gags. It was also a way to make sport of current issues without being too obvious.
The man behind the Our Gang series was credited with using children in a natural way, so they came across as real kids, not adult actors playing children. The authenticity of the roles, a group of poor children in the depression, often pretending to be adults or what they imagined it was like to be adults, allowed the adult audience to laugh at themselves and the foolishness of adult pretensions. The best comedy is that which allows the audience to approvingly laugh at themselves.
It makes for an interesting contrast to the modern day. The most popular movies in this age feature adults dressing up as children’s comic book heroes. They engage in the sorts of fantasy stories featured in comic books. These movies are not made for children, but for adults. The median age of the American comic book consumer is 34. The point of the movies is for the adults to escape anything resembling adulthood and engage in the sorts of flights of fancy normally associated with children.
Movies have always been escapism. In the Depression, people went to the theater to get some relief from the daily grind of hard times. During the war they went to be reassured that they were on the winning side. In the Cold War, movies often reminded people that they were on the side of angels in the great struggle with communism. Alternatively, they were a cautionary tale about the foolishness of war in a nuclear world. Movies reflect and shape the shared public consciousness.
That’s what makes those old Our Gang skits about kids in adult clothes relevant in the age of comic book movies. We live in an age in which fools and knaves dress up as serious people and perform serious roles. The typical politician is a dangerously stupid simpleton, but he can play his role well, so he gets the part. He is no different from the kids dressed up in adult clothes. The difference is you could laugh at the kids, but the modern version is nothing but horror.
Just look at the absurdity of the Covid panic. All over we see adult children cast in the role of political leader, playing a real-life action fantasy game where they are heroically fighting the Covid monster. Mario’s Cuomo’s oldest, currently staring as Governor, commissioned a book about himself fighting the Covid. It’s a wonder he did not have it titled My Struggle. Like so many other reckless idiots holding high office in this country, he lives in a fantasy land where he is always the hero.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but much of the outrage over Trump is that he is an authentic human being, not some airhead hired for the role. The long arc of our presidential candidates has reached the point where the Inner Party candidate is a man who could very well be dead right now. He stays locked in a basement. We are a click away from the next candidate being a concept or maybe a holographic image created by the special effects people in Hollywood.
That’s probably why the super hero genre has become so popular. In an age of mediocre men dressed up to play important roles, it is natural for the common fantasy to revolve around some great leader emerging to transcend the dreary blandness of the age and carry us forward into a heroic age. The foil for these heroes is always a group of people who are too small minded to appreciate whatever it is the hero is bringing to society with his super-natural or super-human skills.
It’s also not surprising that these emergent heroes are psychologically flawed in some way that will prevent them from fully realizing their power. The audience is supposed to see the foolishness of anyone trying to transcend this age. In the end, there is no escaping the dreary blandness of the egalitarian age. The subtext to these films is that only mentally flawed people think anyone should seek something more than material prosperity and temporary happiness. It is nihilism for a nihilistic age.
Another juxtaposition worth considering is that in the dawn of Hollywood, movies were a break from the labors of life. The audience was serious people engaged in the serious struggle of life. Today’s audience is composed of grown up children escaping the boring drudgery of life to pretend for a little while to be serious adults. They don’t desire a great leader to carry them to something better. They just think it would be cool to fly around in magic underwear for a while. Small men. Small dreams.
Joseph de Maistre said, “Every country has the government it deserves.” It is a popular quote with modern critics of liberal democracy, but they miss the larger point. The government is the reflection of the society’s elite, which in turn is a reflection of the people and culture that produced that elite. It is no wonder that modern leaders are grown up toddlers dressed up in adult clothes. They are the elite we deserve, because we are no longer able to demand more from ourselves.
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