The past year has seen the demise of two major figures of American culture, filmmaker Russ Meyer and architect Philip Johnson. Although Meyer was the purer talent, both made enduring, seminal contributions to the ironic, vaguely pornographic, and deeply kitsch sensibility that has become one of the major markers of our contemporary creativity.
Meyer\the celebrated soft-core "King Leer"—began his career as a combat photographer during the Second World War, went on to make industrial films and take photographs for Playboy, leading to his cinematic breakthrough in 1959 with The Immoral Mr. Teas, a film which Time magazine suggested had "opened the flood gates of permissiveness as we know it in these United States." The film was Meyer's Glass House, for it put him on the map by exposing almost everything. His oeuvre went on to include such legendary works as The Supervixens, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, and Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, the latter described by John Waters as "beyond doubt the best movie ever made." Meyer himself responded to the film's cult status by insisting that "too much emphasis is put on it being significant."
The critic Roger Ebert—author of the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—described Meyer as having "a sensibility somewhere between Andy Warhol and Al Capp," a succinct appreciation. Meyer's legendary attachment to big breasts (often described by him in such architectural terms as "cantilevered," "superstructure," etc.) is strongly analogous to Johnson's feeling for architecture, which might, in its sensibility, be described as somewhere between Andy Warhol and Walt Disney. Both Meyer and Johnson were professionally inspired by a deeply felt connoisseurship of the chosen objects of their affection, and both devoted their lives to inventing forms of representation that were worshipful rather than inventive. Both also displayed a critical relationship to their own work that consistently refused to treat it seriously according to the canonical theories of the day. And both were clearly enabled by the sense of liberation that grew out of the styles of consumption that blossomed in the 1950s.
The central mass-cult figure of the period was certainly Disney, whose project suffuses the work of both Meyer and Johnson. For Johnson, the kitschily creative geography of Disneyland, with its recombinant approach to form and style, was the substrate of his own practice. By liberating the juxtaposition of nominally discrepant, phony mimetic architecture in space—Main Street, U.S.A., terminated by Ludwig's Castle—Disney anticipated the temporal trajectory of Johnson's career, which in due course managed to superficially ape
virtually every known architectural style and, in turn, freed a legion of hacks to do the same.
Because Johnson and Meyer so succinctly embody the sense of excess that is central to kitsch, both are likely to be remembered less as auteurs then as exemplars. Both represent the entertaining but vapid core of American mass culture, the complete disengagement of form from constructive systems of meaning, amusing inducements to stop thinking. Although Meyer was well grounded technically and Johnson was unable to draw two parallel lines, neither proposed any purpose for his project other than self-entertainment (in Meyer's case, what used to be called self-abuse). Both were flacks for the kind of confident American styles of hyper-consumption that were spawned by postwar prosperity and that morphed over the succeeding years into the unsustainable Bushian greed ravaging the planet today.
Both men had, to put it mildly, problematic politics. Meyer floundered on his "Playboy Philosophy" approach to women. If he was less self-conscious than Hugh Hefner, who made endless claims to be an avatar of liberation, Meyer nonetheless shared the same stupid core of unremitting objectification, never mind efforts to invent him as a kind of proto-feminist. Johnson, whose writing is vastly overrated by his coterie of sycophants, was purer in his evil—although, like Meyer, he did contribute, via his utter cynicism, to the anything-goes assault on the era's hypocritical Puritanism. The generation of his Postmodern admirers (themselves using Johnson to justify a social indifference that pollutes the profession to this day) worked hard at ignoring (or excusing) the fact that Johnson was an out-and-out Nazi. This was not the youthful indiscretion that many suggest, but a dedication of years, and one for which Johnson never fully accounted.
Johnson's fascination with fascism deeply informed his work. Just as Hitler's vision for the world was deeply couched in an aesthetic vision of uniforms, redemptive violence, and racial purity (and just as Walt Disney's seemingly benign project occluded his own racism and anti-Semitism), so Johnson's emptily aestheticized world view conceals a politics of privilege and indifference. (For a discussion of Disney's prejudices, read Richard Schickel's The Disney Version, published in 1997 by Ivan R. Dee.) In a life of nearly a century, Johnson never interested himself in any of the registers through which architecture and its philosophy can help enfranchise; never showed much, if any, concern with housing the poor, with the environment, with the fate of cities. His own philosophy was rooted in a school-boy Nietzcheanism of supermen and the will to power. Indeed, his major contribution to the intellectual history of architecture is probably his early, largely successful effort to introduce Modernism to the United States (via the famous 1932 Museum of Modern Art Modern Architecture show) in a way that thoroughly sheared it of its originating commitment to social betterment, reducing its content to nothing but form.
My only regret over Johnson's shuffle from the coil is that he never wrote an autobiography (unlike Meyer, who left A Clean Breast, published in 1992). How fascinating it might have been to read his own account of his meetings with Kingfish Huey Long or Father Coughlin, his ride into Poland following the Wehrmacht, his appreciation of the décor at the Nuremberg rallies, his real opinion of the younger generation of architects who devoted so much time sucking up to him, his take on the so-called sexual revolution. Unfortunately, all that's left is his mediocre, superficial body of work and his lavish contribution to the politics of narcissism. The end of an era, let us hope.
Michael Sorkin, a record contributing editor, is director of the Graduate Urban Design Program at the City College of New York.
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