Stephen J. Bullin

American Pop illustrates American culture in a patrilineal model, what is passed is always a step removed and abstracted from the mother as original source and never achieving authenticity. The distinct and present absence of the maternal figures and the regular loss and substitution of the paternal figure for the characters in American Pop throws into suspect conventions of heritage and subsequently the self as something made from inheritance, supplanting inheritance with a personal reconstruction in it’s image. Inheritance and therein successful cultural lineage, becomes not transferable but transformative.

Same as a palimpsest the journey of the Zalmie lineage leaves only traces of its origin through each transformation, unmistakably both part of the same and unique. The films primary exploration of this is the journey of the young Zalmie his processors fixation on music and its performance. Where Zalmie cultivates the dream of singing and performing, he loses his voice and ability to perform. His son Benny is able to perform on the piano, but is unable to perform as he wishes with the past of his father’s actions in organized crime. Benny’s talent as a pianist here reflects the movie’s themes of inheritance and transformation twofold, first his talent as a pianist and potential for fame to Zalmie is redemptive of all the families struggles and his dealings with organized crime to give his family what he has, to Zalmine the genuine talent and fame is the transformed inheritance from the collective hardship and degradation of the family, both from needing to flee his own country, the loss of his family, the loss of his dreams. Zalmine asks Benny to pursue this fame to justify and in effect rewrite all the hardships and wrongs the family has gone through. But to Benny his talent and possible fame is inherently linked and inseparable from the hardship of losing his own mother and the family’s history in crime and there in the cover legitimate business of show biz, reflected in his pursuit of Jazz, Benny craves to push his abilities beyond the scripted expectations and covers that are performed for large crowds in the mob run clubs, but the unexpected explorative spaces of small jazz dives. Where the career proposed by Zalmine offers Zalmine something transformative and redemptive, to Benny it offers a continuation on the same, the same still needing true transformation and in that redemption.

Benny seeks this in joining the army and going to war. Moments before his death at a piano in a bombed out city, when cornered, Benny takes the situation he placed in and transforms it on his own terms. He plays one last short, beautiful song before being shot. Before addressing the succession of Benny’s legacy to his son, we should address if Benny’s place in the war and subsequent death; was this redemptive? Benny’s position in the European front removes him completely from the relations of his father and those criminal acts as illustrated by his harmonica. In the trenches he is no long the brilliant musician guaranteed an audience in mob run clubs, but a poor harmonica player that keeps to himself and no one much cares about. This total separation from the heritage that preceded him places him in a unique position of constant self construction. Any lie Benny would tell his platoon would be just as likely and considered to be a part of Benny as any truth. Happening upon the piano and playing, Benny becomes something completely distinguished from his surroundings; a scene, with a uniform, while setting aside tools, of destruction for a chance to create. Then cornered by a German soldier, bringing the antithesis to the scene, both surrounded and now shadowed in imminent destruction Benny’s decision to create illustrates redemption in that it is the family’s first expression of radical freedom.  

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre writes “Man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, only afterwards, defines himself.” To Sartre we are not brought up into the things that we are, so all of Benny’s training and performances as a pianist, a father, a man, under the guiding actions of his father prevented any of his successes much less actions from being his own. Maintaining his pre-planned life was, existentially, acting in bad faith; not that it was a sacrifice of his freedom of action because that’s not possible, but it was acting in the faith that his freedom was faux. So in the position of war, where destruction is the thing you are groomed to do, to recognize that he was not bound to the expectations of a soldier or enemy combatant and acting in spite of those expectations makes those actions an expression of freedom. Where not only as Sartre defines it, Benny finds freedom in acting with what was his position he goes above and beyond that by acting contrary to the expectations of his position. Benny’s freedom becomes the model of redemption the rest of the lineage unknowingly pursues, and a key to our map in understanding the transformations of each agent.

Tony, shadowed by his family’s ties to organized crime and his inability to transform beyond those bounds, leaves home, and unable to transform past the expectations of himself as the son of a musical genius is also unable to take satisfaction in his musical career as a songwriter. His bad faith and dismissal of his own radical freedom becomes reflected in his addictions and ultimate refusal to create, but this positions his son Little Pete similarly to his grandfather, Benny. Pete is passed the harmonica and, other than that, given essentially nothing. Pete makes his way in the city as a drug dealer but upon dealing to some big shot musicians in a recording studio, he talks them into letting him play some of his own music. Pete’s performance at the piano is comparable to Benny’s on the European front, coming into a place without regard to the expectations of his situation and expressing the radical freedom he contains by directly opposing those expectations, Benny’s subsequent stardom as a creative and genius performer illustrates not only the place things we inherit have in the construction of our selves as fulfilled individuals but the loose and ambiguous nature of inheritance as that fulfillment is relative person to person. While all related to music, each member of the family’s dream needed to be different, and subsequently their ability to achieve that transformation of the situation they were given. While this illustrates inheritance to be inherently rebellious, it also mirrors the same struggles through generations; only via rebellion, purposeful othering of self from the origin of self, can the distinct agents of a lineage share an existentialist correlation.

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