TCS Daily

Isn't It Romantic?

By S.T. Karnick - March 10, 2003 12:00 AM

It is by no means well-known that America is in the midst of a Romantic era. Quite the contrary: most of today's social and aesthetic critics continue to look at cultural phenomena as if we were still in the kind of ultra-Rationalist, materialistic culture as America was until the 1950s. But this is most decidedly not true, as our tastes in entertainment should make quite clear.

For example, America's movies are more romance-based today than they were even in the 1920s and '30s, and our novels are even more so than the popular fiction of the first half of the twentieth century. Most popular fiction then was based in realism, whereas today it is full of super-powerful vampires, preternaturally canny serial killers, spies and other government agents engaged in potentially world-shattering conflicts, and crusading lawyers locked in unsubtle struggles between good and evil. (Erle Stanley Gardner's hugely popular Perry Mason novels, though explicitly romances themselves, are a model of subtlety when compared with today's legal thrillers.)

Romantic fiction in the past was largely confined to the cultural fringes: pulp magazines, comic books, Saturday afternoon movie serials, and radio. Today, by contrast, it is at the very center of the culture, with large-budget movies, popular fiction, and big-budget television series all reflecting a romantic worldview.

Similarly, whereas yesterday's music typically dramatized dilemmas of love that were rather straightforward though often interestingly complex, popular music today typically operates on an operatic level, openly so in the case of the many popular "diva" songstresses and less literally so in the rest of the field. Just consider the difference between the wailing, sweating, flailing singers and rappers one sees on today's TV talk and comedy shows and the smoothness and self-control of their predecessors such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. The older generation had passion and projected it, but saw the value of controlling its expression. Not today.

Visual art in the past half-century passed through symbolism, expressionism, and abstractness into today's increasingly desperate attempts to shock and horrify the audience. Museums have become places for the mentally healthy to avoid.

None of this is to suggest that the culture then was decisively better that it is now. It has been a mixed bag at both times, and if the greater rationality of the culture of the first half of the twentieth century is more appealing to this particular critic, its open materialism is certainly not. Similarly, I find that the careless irrationality, sensualism, self-indulgence, and egotism exemplified by much of today's culture are frequently overcome by the benevolent human compassion and yearning for transcendence for which it so often reaches even when it fails to grasp it.

America has always been a place of rampant idealism, from the early Puritans seeking religious freedom, through the fight against the King for self-government, a Civil War and two world wars, the long struggle against communism, and the current War on Terrorism. We seem to have a national cause more often than not.

Daredevil certainly has a cause. Based on a comic book and operating as it does almost purely on a symbolic level, this big-budget Hollywood spectacular exemplifies the romantic worldview of today's American culture. The central character, Matthew Murdock, played by Ben Affleck, is a lawyer who was blinded by radioactive chemicals as a boy but received, in compensation, superior powers of hearing, taste, smell, and touch, which enable him to "see" his surroundings more effectively in some ways than the rest of mankind. (The film, to its great credit, never pretends that his blindness is inconsequential; it is a defect, but one that he overcomes.)

His father having been killed by gangsters when Murdock was a boy, Matthew becomes by night the Daredevil, whose mission in life is to "help people [whom] nobody else will help." He leaps nimbly through the air and uses ropes to climb buildings like Spider-Man, uses martial arts like Neo in The Matrix and the great Hong Kong film fighters, and like Batman, he uses cool gadgets and wears a weird costume. To solidify the sense of romance, Murdock, like a knight of old, falls in love with a billionaire's daughter who is in grave danger.

None of that, of course, is likely to please most film critics, for whom originality is the number one aesthetic consideration. All of it, however, is sure to appeal to the heart of any reasonably normal, caring, and sensitive audience member. That is why any new combination of romantic clich├ęs works even though we've seen the constituent elements so many times before: the emotions behind the characters' choices are most assuredly real, and they are the essential point of the thing. That is romance.

Daredevil does not stint on the supply of meaningful symbols, either. The title character lives in the upper reaches of a cathedral, dispenses justice by, as he says, sending evildoers to the devil, crouches among stone angels on the church's walls, sacrifices himself for others and has a body covered with scars to prove it, and goes to confession regularly. He costumes himself as a devil, though his activities are more those of an avenging angel.

And he is no choirboy, as his sex life shows and his choice of costume confirms. After he chases down an evildoer, a light behind his costumed figure leaves the enormous shadow of a devil on the wall behind the miscreant. There are also many allusions to classical Greece: the woman he loves is named Elektra, and his father is killed outside the Olympic theater.

The picture is spectacular and rousing, as its creators evidently wished it to be. Not everything turns out well, but justice is ultimately done, as in all true romances. Moreover, the Daredevil's climactic moral decision does powerfully show the essential difference between the good guys and the bad guys. As suggested earlier, the romantic nature of contemporary American culture certainly has its ups and downs. In its symbolism and purpose, at least, Daredevil is one of the ups.

The clarity of the moral cause behind Daredevil compensates for its logical flaws. That is the way it works in movies and books and on stage, and these stories can delight us greatly. But when the romantics among us start to whip up another real-life crusade-such as those against global warming and globalization-it is important for realists to stand up and be heard, lest, like Don Quixote, we tilt at windmills. Unfortunately, in a romantic era such as ours, it is increasingly common for such voices to be drowned out by well-intentioned idealism.

The author is Editor in Chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, quarterly in print and daily on the Internet.

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