I find myself increasingly tired of seeing Andrew Garfield’s face these days. This puzzles me, given that I’m a fan of his of long standing—or as long as one could be for an actor of his young age. What about his success and sudden ubiquity might bother me? Wouldn’t I want the best for such a talented, charismatic, young actor? Then it hits me, as it has hit me so many times before: I’m witnessing the growth and development of culture, more of a sideways slide than an uphill climb. The feeling I’m having has little to do with Andrew Garfield, and even less to do with his face.
Culture will eventually absorb what it at first does not broadly accept or understand. As it absorbs and assimilates, it makes what previously looked unusual or outstanding into something far more commonplace. Cell phones, interestingly, give an early, obvious example of this assimilation in this century. The Motorola Dynatac phones of the 1970s were unwieldy, strange beasts, seemingly more fit for comedy than for daily use—remember Zack's phone in “Saved by the Bell”? As time passed, they were refined as their utility became more obvious and they began to resemble more an object which might be put to use, rather than stared at or envied. And now? Well, you might be reading this on a phone. Ditto for computers: the earliest usage was purely academic, and their size and bulk made them seem awkward, even potentially intimidating. (See Mad Men this week?) And yet, as time passed... In the arts, this sort of assimilation is more rampant and simultaneously more insidious. Examples are everywhere. Take, to pluck one random example, the career of R. Crumb. Crumb’s comics were, for decades, many things: obscene, brilliant, earthy, soulful, sexist, misogynist, complex, hilarious. His women waved their bloated, distended breasts high in the air, simultaneously thrusting their bulbous posteriors out far beyond the range of physics; his men, similarly, either thrust their hairy, wizened, members upwards, or grasped them like there was no tomorrow, or both. In short, not New Yorker material. And yet, behold: his last New Yorker appearance was less than 2 years ago, in September 2012. The Pixies, college-punk favorites, hatched their sound in garages and bars in the Boston area after meeting at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; though they achieved broad popularity among the college-educated, possibly even Masters-Degree’d set, their recent appearance on an iPhone commercial set off a small wave of what seemed either to be a qualified pleasure or a modified horror among the band’s longtime fans, somewhere between “That’s amazing” and “How could they do that to my favorite band,” the idea being that The Pixies’ raffish, loud, angry beauty was somehow being co-opted for a suspicious cause, embraced by The Establishment. In film, take the career of Christopher Nolan. If we compare early films like Following or the brave, intriguing and more watchable Memento with the most recent Batman extravaganzas, it’s hard to believe the films were made by the same filmmaker—and yet, they were. Somehow, big studios made him their own, idiosyncratic warts and all. Do the new films have the inventiveness and imagination of the old films? Sure. More money, more imagination. Do I miss the Memento director? A little.
Which brings me to the matter of Andrew Garfield’s face, popping up in magazines, on SNL, on talk shows, on movie posters—everywhere an un-careful eye might chance to look. His performance in the first Red Riding TV film was remarkable; as a young detective in the 1970s U.K., he managed to take a certain type of boyish affectation characteristic of the period and change it into near-choreography, even amidst fairly graphic and horrific inner and outer violence. And if I had to explain why, while watching Never Let Me Go, I was slumped in a sobbing heap in the corner of my over-large theater seat, the most damning piece of evidence would be his devastating performance as a young man who had held out hope for survival in a cannibalistic future society and then had it taken away from him bluntly and cruelly, leaving him with no choice but, in a well-known moment from the film, to scream, loudly and without restraint, into the cold night air. These were small films, in a sense—they starred well-known actors, but their scope was local, they weren’t blockbusters, they weren’t aimed at profit. They were aimed at simply doing a good job at what they were trying to do, be it create a suspenseful crime story or present an adaptation of Ishiguro’s nightmarish novel. I remember wincing slightly when I learned he had been cast in The Social Network, not because I thought he would hurt the film—on the contrary, his turn as Zuckerberg’s sidekick was beyond responsible—but because I had a sinking feeling in my gut. Oh no, I thought. They’ve come for him. I thought I was the only one who noticed. Ah well… But maybe there’s hope?
Enter the new Spider-Man films, stage left. The explosions. The spider webs. The starlet love interest. The villains. The special effects. The famous backstory. The famous suit. Here comes Culture: we can be sure that, regardless of whatever roles Garfield might play in the future, many, many viewers will know him primarily as Spider-Man. Culture spots the highly personal performance, the nuanced approach to a role, the note of eccentricity, and tries to bottle it as soon as possible—in this case, to give an affecting insecurity to a famous character from a comic book. Whether the actor can climb out from underneath the weight of Money and Prestige obtained through this exchange is entirely up to the actor. Kate Winslet has given moving performances in many films since Titanic, but if pressed, more moviegoers would remember her for her role in the film about a huge sinking ship than for her performance in Jude, sadly enough—or even more sadly, for her first film role, as a murderous teen in Heavenly Creatures. Ditto for Jake Gyllenhaal: you know him from Brokeback Mountain, but do you also know him from Donnie Darko, in which he played a far more insecure role? For which film did he get broader recognition? And ditto for many others, a long list of the absorbed.
Of course, at this point, it must be asked: who the heck do I think I am? Why am I making vaguely resentful judgments about people I will never meet? And, above it all, isn’t acting a job, e.g., that which supplies a pay-check—which must, in the case of the more low-budget films mentioned above, have been quite small? And hopefully I’m not pointing the Sell-Out Finger at these poor souls, am I? No, to the last two questions. In fairness, though, I seek mainly to raise a question or two of my own: will there be a time in American culture when the artistic work which pays its practitioners the most, and in which premium investments are made, matches that investment with like quality? Or must it always be the case that that which attracts the masses in the greatest numbers must all-too-frequently be of lesser quality due to the mercenary nature of its intent? And beyond that, here are some other questions: how long does it take for Culture to move on, to lose interest? Does the flavor of the month last for a whole month, or is closer to a week? And, most importantly, if we accept that our cultural world is an amoeba, absorbing particles of talent and enterprise into its bulk, at what point will that amoeba begin to evolve?
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.