In a world cluttered with prized possessions like our homes, cars, TVs, computers, and 101 increasingly exotic digital baubles, have you ever calculated your most important possession....? Think about it. More than likely it's your image. That public perception of you which tends to click into place the minute you walk into a room. An elusive thing -- not so much learned as earned -- it has something to do with the rhythm of your body, the physiology of your face, the sound and substance of your voice. You may have planned one kind of entrance, but projected another far closer to the truth of you.
What's true of us is also true of a nation.
If you had to find the image that best projects who and what we are, what comes to mind? In the 19th C it might have been the trail-breaking hunter, cowboy, or farmer taking on the endless treks of continental frontier. In the 20th C the shirt-sleeved factory worker, white-coated innovator, or helmeted GI. Here in our own century, we have the obligatory end-of-year summations like TIME MAGAZINE's person-of-the- year. [I'm guessing it will be Steve Jobs].
Meanwhile, back in our First City, NEW YORK MAGAZINE just published its annual the-year-in-culture edition. Scanning the faces they've selected, there's almost no one with whom I'd liked spending a weekend or who strikes me as representing we 330 million Americans circa 2011. But then that's someone from the Second City talking.
To see who they are, you first have to page your way through the pre-requisite ads from Bergdorf- Goodman, Gucci and Rolex featuring some of the gauntest, most androgynous, dead-staring beings I've never had the pleasure of encountering on any of the real-world streets of my country. But then, starting on page 60, we meet those Americans of whom -- at least New York -- is most proud.
I have no right to judge, but I'd love you to do so. To pluck out those fellow Americans who you consider the most representative image of the "exceptionalism" so many of us see in us. God knows there are scores of exceptional Americans who have changed their world. But where are they here among the likes here of: Amy Poehler, Rob Lowe, Charlie Sheen, Simon Cowell. Claire Dane, Damon Wayne Jr, Snooki, Kenrick Lamar, Katie Stelmanis, Laura Marling, Adele, Claire Mussid, Mario Battali, Christian Marclay, Kristen Wiig and Ashton Kutcher?
I bear these cultural icons no grudge. I just don't know one who I could feel represents what is American about America. Oh wait! There in the upper left background of the front cover is an image that for me leaps off the page. A smallish, stuttering, self-proclaimed neurotic: Woody Allen. I'm not especially small or stuttering, but neurotic I can understand...!
To weigh this wispish American's body of work -- from stand-up comedy to stand-out cinema -- is for me to discover an image which may come closest to our pre-dispossed sense of exceptionalism in these times. But then I'm not exceptional enough to be taken that exceptionally serious.
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