In Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, two men in a prison cell who will be shot at dawn have the following exchange:
Man awaiting execution: “See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we’ll be dead and it’ll still be alive.”
Second man awaiting execution: [squashes the bug] “Now you got the edge on him.”
For man one and man two, substitute Conan O’Brien and Albert Brooks. The first was a bit down in the dumps when he noted that nothing he did could have any lasting impact given the evanescence of late-night television, whereas Brooks’s artistry, committed to film, would endure. Brooks had himself a laugh: “What are you talking about it? None of it matters,” Brooks told him, according to the New York Times. A day or two earlier, by coincidence, a college teacher had told me on Twitter that mentioning Brooks’s name in class elicited a complete blank from his students. Albert Brooks is no Albert Einstein (well . . . actually he is), but he got that one completely right. Nothing lasts, or almost nothing, and cultural death comes sooner than you’d have guessed. As I mentioned earlier, John Lennon is on the verge of being forgotten.
These days, in a cultural sense, the only two pre-1960 singers who still linger in the memory are Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Bing Crosby, as Terry Teachout recently pointed out in Commentary, has more or less disappeared. A case could be made that, in addition to being one of his era’s most popular singers, Crosby is the single most popular movie star in Hollywood history. Certainly he is in the top ten. Today he survives in the memory of specialists and historians and suchlike boffins. To the broader populace, the words “Bing Crosby” no longer have meaning.
Looking back on his four decades as a movie critic, John Podhoretz points out that even if you go back only to the 1980s, hardly anything survives. People still talk about Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Princess Bride (but not E.T., the biggest hit of the decade). Rain Man not only swept the Academy Awards in 1988 but was the biggest hit of that year, selling the equivalent of $380 million in tickets in today’s dollars. Bring up that movie in a classroom today and I suspect the reaction will be the same as if you brought up Mickey Rooney or Shirley Temple. Step forward, 1990s movies, and report to the vaporization facility. You’ve got a few years left, but only a few.
As the Who suit up for what I suppose will be their final tour (“Who’s Left”?), Chuck Klosterman points out in his book But What if We’re Wrong? that whole forms die out. He compares rock to 19th-century marching music: nothing left of the latter except John Philip Sousa. That’s it. And Sousa himself is barely remembered. In 100 years rock might be gone too, Klosterman guesses. Maybe we’ll remember one rock act. Who will it be? Maybe none of the obvious answers. It certainly wasn’t obvious at the time of Fitzgerald’s death that The Great Gatsby would be the best-remembered novel he or anyone else wrote in the first half of the 20th century. As for the novels of the second half of the 20th century, the clock is ticking on them. The Catcher in the Rye is moribund. Generation X was the last to revere that book. Teaching it to young people today would get you ridiculed. To Kill a Mockingbird? It had a good run but it’s now being labeled a “white savior” story by the grandchildren of those who revered it. Soon schools and teachers will be shunning it.
Which brings up another category of art that will be put through the virtual shredder because of the flaws of the people who made it. Bill Cosby’s TV shows and movies have already been disappeared, and he was perhaps the most beloved man in America in the 1980s. In 30 years, he will be no better known than Fatty Arbuckle is today. Critics have suggested it is no longer okay to watch Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and maybe not anything else he ever did. Louis C.K.’s oeuvre was removed from HBO.
It’s depressing, isn’t it? O’Brien, though, allows that he felt liberated when Brooks told him nothing lasts. Artists, it turns out, are no more immortal than the rest of us. Their achievements get applauded by their contemporaries, remembered by the next generation, forgotten by the next. Yet for some of those artists of whom moving images survive, there may be resurrections. The reason we’ve forgotten Bing Crosby is he hasn’t done anything for us lately. What if he were in some new movies, though? Recall that Peter Cushing had a sizable role in 2016’s Rogue One. Cushing died in 1994. It would be amusing if digital technology, which assisted in the great forgetting by deluging us with so much culture that is new, began to turn its gaze to the past, to revive instead of bury.