October 9, 1997
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers art that lasts.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Two recent events bring a question from my generation. One is an A&E biography show about the life of Oscar LeVant, and the other an autobiography by the great English actor Alec Ginnis. I wonder who will be interested in much less moved by such retrospectives outside my generation and our elders. More than that, I wonder who will remember the value and the valuable feelings created by such people after my generation is dust. There's an odd feeling of helplessness in not being able to transmit not just the excellence of these artists but the affection one has for them. (music in background)
We gave rock'n roll to our children but there's more to life than rock'n roll. People in their 50's today are the last repositories of cultural valuables like LeVant and Ginnis. We were too young for Ginnis's early pictures but we grew up on gems like "The Man in the White Suit" and the "Lady Killers." LeVant we caught only in his super crazy period when he would appear on the Jack Parr show high on his neuroses.
OSCAR LE VANT: I was asked to go on "This is Your Life" but they couldn't dig up one friend.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Still, we knew that he was the conduit for the music of George Gershwin, who grew up on the echoes of Gershwin too, and that LeVant was the symbol of the sweet pain of the devotion of talent to genius.
ACTRESS: You know, George has often spoke about you. I understand you compose too.
ACTOR: If it wasn't for Gershwin I could have been a pretty good mediocre composer.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Another example are the movies of Hitchcock. (scene) Much of his best stuff came before our time, like "The Lady Vanishes" and the "39 Steps," but they were handed down to us by our parents, and so they seemed a part of our world. "Rear Window," "Psycho," and "Vertigo" were parts of our world. We were also alive for the last works of Hemingway, so Hemingway was a portion of our reading life. (music in background) Louie Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were still growing strong when we were teenagers; they kept jazz, the blues, and Cole Porter in our air. It wasn't merely that we appreciated such things; we felt them. (music) When we were kids, Fred Astaire was our age now. He was as much a part of our lives as if only yesterday. He'd look out at the camera and asserted "They Can't Take That Away From Me," a song by Gershwin.
FRED ASTAIRE: (singing) Oh, no, they can't take that away from me.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: There's a middle distance of culture in which things are too old to be accepted as current and too recent to be consigned to history. History is untrustworthy enough. Who knows what it will decide to preserve and honor from century to century. John Dunn remained buried for a couple of hundred years until T.S. Elliot resurrected his poems and sermons. Even Shakespeare had to be resuscitated from age to age. History is fickle enough in the long run, but in the middle distance it is particularly careless.
So who will be the inheritors of LeVant, Ginnis, Gershwin, Astaire, Hemingway, and Ella, and Garbo and Groucho and Harpo and on and on? How does my generation get it across to those in their 40's and younger that all that was wonderful? You can't shackle kids to chairs and force feed them "Rhapsody in Blue." This is a test of one's faith in popular taste and judgment. Should we just allow things to shake out and trust on the cream rising to the top? Can we depend on the goods to prove they're the goods?
In any case, we have no choice but to hope that somehow the next generations catch and cling to something in the air that looks and sounds so special they will know its worth at once, like the sight of Alec Guinness in the "Lady Killers," or the toot of Louie's horn, or that scene in "Rear Window" when Raymond Burr stares blankly out the window at Jimmy Stewart in the dark. They may even catch a clip of Oscar LeVant playing Gershwin and see a display of talent devoted to genius that could render a work of art powerful, beautiful, and everlasting.
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.