Engineer Hero addendum

March 15, 2012

In my post regarding engineers as heroes in popular entertainment, I neglected one movie that might not come up on everyone’s list.  I missed it!

Steve McQueen plays a chemical engineer in The Great Escape.  The sequences of him on his motorcycle, especially at the end, jumping the border wire into Switzerland, contain many iconic images, to use a much abused and overused word.  The fact that he is an engineer is not important to the plot as in the other films – it’s only mentioned in passing, but it is a piece of his characterization, emphasizing his no-nonsense, individualist, American practicality, in contrast to the smooth, worldly Brits who want to run the escape operation.  He just keeps trying to bust out on his own, until he finally joins the group effort.  A classic meme from Westerns; the loner and the community.

The moment when the camera zooms in on him, gunning the engine at the crest of a hill, as he says…”Switzerland!” is, well, iconic of heroic male individualism.  Best part of a movie that has its share of schmaltz.


One of Many…

May 9, 2005

The printing press was the first machine to allow people to create duplicate images and pages of text as a mass produced item. Our word stereotype comes from a printing method developed in the 18th century, and the French word, cliche, is simply the past-participle of the French verb for the same printer’s technique. Thus, at the birth of the mass production of images, we have an awareness of their downside, the not-so-slippery slope into banality, kitsch, and meretricious junk. Flaubert again…

In the greatly overrated work (in my opinion) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Mass Production,” Walter Benjamin (also overrated?) tries to put this situation into some sort of theoretical framework, and fails, I think. He talks about the “aura” of a work of art, the aura which is dimished by endlessly reproducing it. And with that, comes the fetishism of the original. (Seems to me that the aura is increased the more there are reproductions!) We see this attitude all the time in advertisements for “original” works of art, that are, in fact, cheap knock-offs, not to mention the related fetishism of “hand made” articles. Isn’t a shoe made with the help of a machine better? I doubt there are any shoes that are entirely hand made these days. I recall an article in the NYTimes a few years ago about very expensive fashion boutiques in which sweaters sold for hundreds of dollars, only to begin unravelling the first time they were worn. Seems that a little machine mass-production might be a good thing there.

Much has been written about the modern cult of celebrity. It certainly has taken on new forms by virtue of the mass media, but at its core, is it any different than the awe in which kings and popes were held by the masses in times gone by? You could argue that those individuals were worthy of the response they would instill in people, kneeling by the roadside as they passed. On the other hand, if there had been four popes, would the awe have been as intense? Wasn’t that a reason why the Great Schism was such a disaster for the church? No, being the one and only has a cachet that is special in itself, and our celebrity culture coasts along on that, creating new one-and-onlys each month, each with a very short shelf-life.

As for works of art, the reason that the original is worthy of special interest is simply that it isn’t like the reproductions. No photo-reproduced image is the same as the original oil painting – just compare ten images of the Mona Lisa and you will quickly see that none of them is the same. As for other media, why do prints created by James Gillray in his lifetime cost more than ones printed from the same plates after he died? Well, the coloring is better, and it was done to his specifications, but still, collectors are driven by the fetish urge. Why else would pickle jars sell on eBay for large sums?

Meeting a celebrity can be a jolting experience, no doubt about it. None of us is immune to the swirling “frenzy of renown” in which we live. And then, we may actually admire some celebs for what they do. I rather doubt my heart would skip a beat if I bumped into Brittany Spears on the beach someplace, but I won’t vouch for my sang froid if I happened upon Bob Dylan. I’ve met famous people, famous in the narrow realm of academe, for example, and it’s not the same as a celebrity. Who cares if that guy is the expert on… I saw Kenneth Clark speak once on Italian art, and I was entralled, too timid to ask a question, but still, it wasn’t the same. No, the celebrity is one whom our culture has designated with all of its media and icon-generating apparatus as one of the unique ones, walking among us, the members of the mass. Of course, the individual is not the celebrity – it’s just a social construction. As I read in an interview with Jakob Dylan, “There was always Bob Dylan, and there was Dad.” All in all, celebrity seems like it would be a real drag for a person who has other sources of self-esteem. No sour grapes here.