“ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”
That classic line in the epic movie “Gladiator” follows the bloodbath that was the Roman arena, where gruesome spectacles of human carnage provided the “entertainment” for the masses as well as the elites. It’s clear that what we humans create and crave as entertainment also reflects our culture. In turn, our culture is a window to our own souls.
The image of Lucille Ball and her one-time mentor and coach Buster Keaton is iconic for it displays types of entertainment that ranged from the infancy in the early 20th century of silent movies through to the (literally) colour filled movies and family-friendly shows over the ensuing seven decades. Both were skilled performers of their art; Buster particularly (in black-and-white) for his daring, edge-of-the seat stunts and slapstick; Lucille for her wide repertoire of on-screen virtuoso. Their comedic output was extensive and truly laugh-out-loud.
The Western culture in which they performed had its limitations, yet the content of their entertainment is much different from our post-2020 world.
Their performances and routines were no less sophisticated than today’s; no less demanding; yet they reveal simpler, more straightforward and transparent attitudes, aspirations and values than those now emanating from the eye-watering, budget-driven products of contemporary entertainment.
Compare Roman culture and entertainment with Lucy and Buster. What changed? Both, with the culture leading the way, and then each feeding off the other as the entertainment industry, once the child and servant of culture grew to become the big beast insatiably hungering for cultural change to feed its voracious appetites.
Western culture over eighteen centuries had been shaped by Judaeo-Christian principles, bringing a depth of value for human life that stood in stark contrast to all others, past and current. Every cultural, social and civic advancement in Britain can be traced through to these Biblical roots: science, medicine, abolition, human rights, universal suffrage, public housing, sanitation, education, welfare, philanthropy, prison reform and even care of animals,
Find something good in Western civilisation, and Britain in particular because of its former influence, and you will discover a man, woman or group of people who believed that their faith meant they had a duty and responsibility to make the world a better, fairer, more just place, capable of providing for human flourishing.
By the middle of the 20th century such barbaric tastes and practices appeared to have passed out of popular consciousness. Higher standards of living, improved health outcomes and longer life expectancy, coupled with democratic power (apparently) now in the hands of the masses, and technological advancements created a culture increasingly being driven by consumerist expectations.
But despite the benefits, the underlying reality of human nature that relished the Roman arena’s thrills and exotic entertainments remained unchanged.
As the 1960s rolled into the 1970s the Lucy and Buster-type of entertainment was becoming old-fashioned and marginalised. Western culture was imploding, as traditional values, family and marriage not only were being questioned, but also aggressively undermined by ideological forces. Rising tides of change swept through the culture. These were evidenced by explicit and greater levels of violence in entertainment and gaming; pornography; idolisation of sexuality; epidemics of gambling and substance addictions…
When you are caught up cultural change you may not be aware of it; or you may feel that it’s just what you want (who can argue with “Make love, not war”?). But rarely will anyone be able to glimpse the effects of such changes for the future.
And the morphing in Western culture was fully portrayed in the multitude of entertainment opportunities. Now people could watch and listen; they could also feel, taste and experience in the flesh. The highs and extremes of Rome were back. You could get a ringside seat in the arena. You have the choices about who lives and dies.
A wealthy West now gives you “Bread and circuses”: it’s all about you; how you feel; what you want and what makes you happy.
By 2023 Lucy and Buster seemed to be part of entertainment history.
Apart from the re-runs. It’s interesting to see how movies and shows from past years are making a comeback. People still say they watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas.
More than merely nostalgia, it may be that the human soul, ever craving for a sense of completeness and fulfilment, is reaching out, beyond the current culture and its various forms of entertainment, for something else.
Something outside of itself.