Exploring the American Dream – with a twist
POP CULTURE AND THE DARK SIDE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM by Paul A. Cantor. Published by University Press of Kentucky. 224 pages. $40 retail.
Subtitled Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies, Paul A. Cantor’s latest book is only the latest in his series of works devoted to popular culture. This, after all, is the man who gave the world a political analysis of Gilligan’s Island in his 2001 volume, Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization.
After his introduction, in which he occasionally refers to (or plugs) his previous works, Cantor gets down to the business at hand, offering an analysis of the impact of such quintessentially “American” works as Huckleberry Finn, The Godfather, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and comedian W.C. Fields.
It’s certainly a diversity of topics, and Cantor offers a concise and clear analogy to them and other works that have influenced popular culture. In the case of Breaking Bad, the widely – and wildly – praised AMC crime series created by Vince Gilligan that ran 2008-13 and won 16 Emmy Awards (including back-to-back trophies for Outstanding Drama Series in 2013 and 2014), there’s a little Hamlet and a lot of Macbeth in the tale of teacher-turned-crime kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston, four times an Emmy winner for the role).
In the case of The Godfather (1972) – Cantor focuses more on the film than Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel – there’s a little Macbeth and a lot of Hamlet. Yet Breaking Bad and The Godfather share a similar perspective – admittedly skewed – in that both are a representation of the American Dream, and how it can go wrong. Cantor includes The Godfather Part II (1974) in his discussion, yet dismisses, with good reason, The Godfather Part III (1990). Even devotees of Breaking Bad and The Godfather – and there are many – are liable to find some intriguing observations new to them.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is certainly among the great works in American literature, but Cantor also finds some fresh perspective in the venerable work, noting that it’s less a nostalgic trip through Americana than a potent examination – and in some cases, condemnation – of society at that point in time. As he points out, most of the characters are either hypocrites or outright phonies. Even Huck himself is forced to represent himself as something he is not in order to “get ahead” in the world.
W.C. Fields (1880-1946) might seem an unusual figure as one who was emblematic of the American Dream, but Cantor quickly and convincingly makes his case. Both a comedian and a contrarian, Fields could be considered the “ugly American” for his drunkenness, sloth, ill temper, bad manners, and generally obnoxious demeanor. Yet these were the very qualities that made him a superstar on vaudeville, radio and later in film. People loved Fields because, after all, he was just as rotten as the rest of us – only funnier. And the fact that he made no apologies or excuses for his behavior didn’t hurt his popularity. On the contrary, it made him more popular.
In 1940, he even authored Fields for President, which is exactly what it sounds like – an unapologetic, typically blustery campaign for the U.S. Presidency. Was Fields kidding? Did it matter?
In the case of AMC’s series The Walking Dead, Cantor came to it in mid-stride. Unlike Breaking Bad, which he admired from the get-go, it was the mounting groundswell of the series’ popularity that piqued his interest, and although he’s less enthusiastic about The Walking Dead than Breaking Bad, the themes explored by the series easily fit into Cantor’s criteria here.
Yes, The Walking Dead is about zombies – after all, what’s the title of the series? – But it’s just as much about how the surviving remnants of humankind attempt, with varying degrees of success, to maintain some semblance of a normal society … both the good and the bad. The zombies are less a threat than those human characters that use the catastrophe for their own gain. Yes, indeed – the American Dream is alive and well. Even as the undead hold sway over the world, man is still the most dangerous species.
For more information, visit the official University Press of Kentucky website.
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