It’s what Griel Marcus termed “the old, weird America.”; a peculiar terrain, a strange yet familiar backdrop to a common cultural history of America : the “playground of God, Satan, tricksters, Puritans, confidence men, illuminati, braggarts, preachers, anonymous poets of all stripes” ( Luc Sante )
Well, There ain’t nuthin’
but heroes and villains
more villains than heroes
But can you tell
one from the next?
Can you go down from zero?
There ain’t nuthin’
but heroes and villains
more villains than heroes
All lined up
from the east to the west
black hat born or an ‘S’ on your chest… ( Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks )
America is as much an idea as it is a country, its history often veiled by legend and innuendo. The pastime of parody of America is not really an end in itself, but an ongoing means to get at something deeply resonant in American life. Within this search, there is always the question of what constitutes amusement and what constitutes art. Sometimes by taking an irreverent approach to the culture we eventually take a fork in the road that explores ambiguity and doubt; an America that is really about misfits, con artists, killers and misanthropes.
A society where you can become a stranger, even to yourself, is liable to encourage the emergence of confidence men; tricksters who unremittingly alter their masquerade, thus becoming fitting metaphors for the shifting values of American life. “The very process of becoming an American is in part the making of a new self… to become American is essentially to divest oneself of a past identity, to make a radical break with the past, and so the construction of a new identity becomes a significant theme in American literature”…( Stephen Matterson )
…Who got in your head?
Who told you those things?
You better put ‘em up
When you hear the bell ring
seeing things clear
in the blackest of night
and sometimes the good guys
they dont wear white…
Are our unreliable and untrustworthy narrators fading out or is it simply another act in the long drama: The characters in prestige-heavy American television have in recent months revealed a persistent common theme: psychological depression. Chronic melancholia emerges as the current favourite mood, either blatant or furtive, of the people who write and produce ambitious television. It crops up often in Boardwalk Empire, the recent Mad Men season, Rubicon and Treme. And then of course there’s In Treatment, about psychotherapy, in which both the patients and their therapist are seriously despondent — the audience too, sometimes. ( Robert Fulford )
To take the metaphor of Herman Melville’s , “The Confidence Man” , the American s a masked individual, a riverboat gambler who wisely conceals their hand. Yet, if one can only guess at the cards being held, the study provides a nuanced example of a country whose virtues and conflicts seem to co-mingle magically. This mask changes hands; it takes different forms, sometimes concealing as much as it reveals. But it always remains a fascinating fixture that helps define the American character. The self-doubt and artistic disguises can take one down into a labyrinth of paradoxes.
…Gangsters and mobs
with itchy trigger fingers
or some love song singers
they all got their rules, man,
are trades of the
but give ‘em one chance and
I swear they’ll all switch…
“…The enthusiastic publicity that preceded HBO’s big production, Boardwalk Empire, made it sound like a historical crime drama of exceptional interest. Instead it turned out to be to be a monumental downer. The central figure, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, may not be clinically depressed but he’s for sure downcast, downhearted and down in the mouth — a feeling he shares with almost every male and female character in the series. The king of crime and politics in Atlantic City in the 1920s, Nucky is easily the most morose gangster in cinematic history. Played by Steve Buscemi, he indicates pleasure by scowling, displeasure by suggesting someone be shot. There are no light moments in his life, just the odd passage where his mood is slightly less dark. The poor women surrounding him can barely manage a sad smile, the men not even that….”
The paradox of America is that every person is supposed to be free, but rarely is. There are almost overwhelming contradictions that are torn out of the history of a country , built on a dream, handed down by forefathers who fought a revolution to claim it, even if it ultimately was a grubby war over taxes and tariffs. The Artful Dodger’s as persona has always held a multitude of meanings, but at heart is a utopian, belonging to no established order.
Like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Diddler” , the Confidence Man has in its origins, played a significant role in European history, but he would ultimately take a vise-like grip on the American imagination. There has always been a peculiar American delight in confidence tricksters; an affection perhaps based on America’s emphasis and admiration for individual enterprise and ingenuity that a considered notable Yankee qualities. As opposed to Europe, America is a country in movement, which also indicates a propensity to permanent estrangement.
…The ad guys who inhabit Mad Men have seldom shown signs of exuberant mental health but the most recent season took a sharp turn toward the pathological. The audience has known for years that Don Draper’s life is an elaborate lie, based on a battlefield change of identity in the Korean War. This backstory makes his controlled depression part of the drama; his past can suddenly erupt and destroy him. This also gives him the charm of novelty. He’s a rarity in popular culture, a cardboard character at the very core of a popular drama….
Alexis de Tocqueville, the historian and political observer, saw Americans as people who continually transform themselves, while shedding their past like dead skin. “Thus, not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him. …it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. ”
The con-artist is a leitmotif that runs through every facet of American culture. You can find them in various guises from the boorish Rush Limbaugh to the shambling snake oil salesman of the left, Michael Moore, back to Sarah Palin and over to the sonic socialism of Naomi Klein, and into the crowded religious sphere. And to find this comfortable home in American culture, they all need a mask that obscures the identity and the true aims.
The paradoxical considerations of Bob Dylan , and the role of the mask became the subject of the Larry Charles film “Masked and Anonymous” in 2003. The story centers on Jack Fate, played by Dylan, an aging weather worn cult singer who gets pulled from prison to headline a benefit concert in an alternative America that is torn by civil war and corruption. “Masked” posed more questions than it answered and Dylan remained as much a puzzle at the end as before it, a reflection of America as something undefinable, original and impossible to pin down due to the fluidity of identity and ability to conceal origins in mists of ambiguity.
The con man depends on the trust of his victim… he flourishes best in a country where it is natural to trust people; he goes against the grain of liberal pieties such as Emerson’s claim, that if you trust man, they’ll ultimately be true to you. The confidence man’s role is much more adversarial, and it relies on out ability to be sharp and informed. … the con man’s game is also a humorous one. Absurdity plays a big hand in his success at turning the trick.” ( Courrier )
Constance Rourke: Masquerade was as common to him as mullein in his stony pastures. He appeared a dozen things that he was not. Long-backed, thin, “lank as a leafless elm,” a New England coach driver might look as though a high wind would blow him away, yet he would wear nankeens and low shoes in winter weather, and was not fragile but lusty. Crowned by an old bell-shaped white hat, a tall lad in towlinen trousers reaching halfway down his legs would appear at a tavern. Listless and simple, he might be drawn into a conversation with a stranger, and would tell a ridiculous story without apparent knowledge of its point. With no change of tone, out would leap an odd figure. “He walked away as slick as a snake out of a blackskin.” “There we was amongst an ocean of folks and cutting up capers as high as a cat’s back.” A gulf often yawned between the large facts and his scanted version of them; as he marshaled the characters in a story he was an actor and a troupe.
He seemed cautious and solitary. Asked a question, he was likely to counter with another. One of the early wandering New Englanders who went to London soon after the Revolution wagered a friend that the first Yankee they met would answer any question with a question. They agreed to inquire the time and stopped a man from Salem, who pulled out his watch, gazed at it, said, “What time have you, sir?” Then, in reply to the stated hour, he asked, “Isn’t your watch slow?” But this reluctance was only another form of masquerade. These bits of indirection were social; direct replies would end many a colloquy: questions or evasions prolonged the talk and might open the way for more. The habit had a deep root and appeared in many forms. For years stories were told of transplanted Yankees who kept this pattern of conversation.