Saturday, May 30, 2009

Even in our ashes live their wonted fires

What happens to us when the past asks us to act as if we remember?

According to Stuart Elliott's column in the business section of May 29's New York Times, some advertisers are now curious about that question. They are turning a dark era of the past into an economic theme for consumers -- a theme that assures the American people, "We survived the Great Depression, and we'll survive again."

Elliott illustrates his point with a print advertisement for a chain of gourmet food stores. "New Deals," says the ad's headline in a 1930s font, and between the words is a jaunty caricature of Franklin D. Roosevelt, all chin and grin and rakish cigarette holder. The ad itself, of course, is contemporary. Its item at the bottom about the e-newsletter is 2009, and so are its prices. But the retro headline makes them feel manageable after all.

However, one of the article's other illustrations, from a TV commercial for the Farmers Insurance Group, is more resistant to historical revision.

The caption in the Times reads, "A Depression-era insurance office was depicted in a campaign for Farmers." The ambiance certainly seems right for the attribution. Architecturally, for instance; because that house with its porch and its porch swing says, "I have vanished" to us now. Standing stiffly unsmiling by their neon sign, District Manager Glen M. Kaufman and his staff assure us that we're alive after all, because they must be dead. That pose of theirs is all funeral, and the picture of them and their house is black and white. The monochrome too says, "I am past; I am over." The time it shows us may be early spring; the lawn is dead, the forsythia bushes aren't yet in leaf, and the storm windows are up, but in one of the windows a shade is partway down against the sun. Little do those dead people from the past know what the remainder of their spring will bring them, but we know and we can take that knowledge of ours for a kind of comfort.

But the image isn't Depression-era. The woman standing before the house is wearing the short skirt and squared shoulders of the mid-1940s, the medium-narrow brims and medium-high crowns of the men's hats are circa 1950, and in one of the house's windows can be seen the triangular Art Deco "CD" placard of the World War II and Cold War Office of Civil Defense -- a logo created in 1939. If I were obsessive about these things, I'd guess that this picture was taken in 1948 or '49, just before Christian Dior's 1947 "New Look" became the iconic American women's style of the 1950s.

Well, 1948 was a nervous time in American history, but not nervous enough for the voters to reject President Truman's candidacy for reelection. Nobody -- neither the Farmers Insurance Group nor I -- cares whether this picture from 1948 lives or dies. The images that really attract the obsessives are the ones that bring us close to that mysterious sense of meaningfulness called myth. Look under "Goofs" in the Internet Movie Database's article about Titanic, for instance, and you'll see note after note calling attention to errors in the film's historical reconstruction. Some of the notes even correct errors in other notes. Does the film show copper tubing with sweated fittings in the act of communicating steam from the doomed ship's engines, rather than the historically correct brass tubing with screw fittings? If that has to do with what we believe to be our memory of the Titanic, it matters. And at the very moment in Untergang (Downfall) when Dr. Stumpfegger was mixing the poison for Goebbels's children, an alert hobbyist was rushing to his computer to inform the IMDB that Dr. Stumpfegger's Erlenmeyer flask was postwar. Hitler and the Titanic: we think we remember them, and so (we think) they'll never die. That's one of the things myth does for us: it convinces us that because we remember, we'll never die either.

Meanwhile, the still picture of the insurance agency looks up at us from the page as if it too were alive. All it asks of us is to remember what a spring breeze felt like on a day in 1948. But how can we know that memory, how can we learn to listen for the image's plea? Hasn't its modest request to remember and love been sent to drink of Lethe by Untergang and Titanic -- works of photographic art far more powerful as such than the random distributions of dead leaves on a lawn in front of a house one morning in the era of black and white?