Friday, October 03, 2008

The Original Maverick

In a new television advertisement, John McCain’s campaign for President refers to its candidate and his running mate, Sarah Palin, as “the original mavericks.” The Democratic Party and the Barack Obama campaign almost immediately aired a response ad that renews their challenge to the noun, contending that McCain is no longer anybody’s maverick and that Palin never was: the ad shows photographs of him with Washington lobbyists and with the President himself, and trots out the by-now-familiar statistic that McCain has supported the White House’s policies 90 percent of the time.

There’s a larger point here, though, that has to do with the adjective and the way John McCain has appropriated the noun, and the way he’s been allowed to do so over the last eight years. It illustrates the idiomatic savvy of the Republican party and the U.S. electorate’s willingness to believe what it’s told. Here it is: Samuel Maverick (1803-1870) was a land baron and cattleman in the nineteenth century, in what was not yet the state of Texas. He refused to comply with the accepted practice of branding his calves—mostly so that whenever he found a calf without a brand, he could claim it as his own. This is where the term comes from; this fact is not in question. It’s in the encyclopedia. Since then, countless U.S. politicians, a television series (in 1957), the NBA team in Dallas (who played their first game in 1980), and Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun (1986) have been called mavericks. Unless John McCain (born August 29, 1936) is claiming that he was a “maverick” before Texas was a state—and before the word had acquired its present signification—he’s lying. What’s more, we all know it.

This is, I submit, a big lie masquerading as a small one: a more pernicious lie than “no new taxes,” than “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” or even than “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” It’s the worst kind of cynical manipulation, because it depends upon an audience that expects to be manpulated, cynically. To wit: when the Republican Party brands its candidates “the original mavericks,” nobody believes those words to express anything even approximating their literal meaning. It’s just an exercise in branding, like Budweiser calling itself “the king of beers” or a Store 24 closing at midnight. In other words, it’s the kind of lie that doesn’t just deny or refuse to tell the truth, but rather denies the very possibility of telling the truth, by refusing to acknowledge that, simply put, words have meanings.

The philosophy of language is profoundly unsexy, to say the least. Nobody expects Barack Obama, however educated an elitist he may be, to take to the campaign trail this week talking about Wittgenstein, Saussure, or good old Stanley Cavell. Splitting the difference between that and calling McCain a liar (again), however, can illustrate how “John McCain and Sarah Palin: the original mavericks” is, in fact, bad for U.S. democracy. If we’re going to have a democracy, we need an informed electorate—that’s hard enough when politicians tell regular old lies: recall where the last paragraph’s three Presidential lies got us. But we rely, for the kind of information we require to be an electorate, upon language and communication. We absolutely need to agree on it. That’s not an English Only argument: if someone ran for President speaking only in Latin or Hebrew or American Sign Language, we could figure out what he was saying, evaluate his claims, and decide what we thought of them.

We would take for granted, though, that he meant it, and that he wanted us to believe it (once we deciphered it). He might be lying, in other words, but he would be trying to convince us because he would care what we thought—and he assumed that what we think is based on what we know. “Original Mavericks” doesn’t give us that credit; it doesn’t possess the intellectual integrity to lie to us. It doesn’t care if we believe what it says, because it doesn’t pretend to mean it. It recalls a much-ballyhooed 2005 book on, well, the philosophy of language, in which Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt distinguished between lies, which perpetrate falsehoods but maintain the binary between truth and fiction, and bullshit, which denies altogether the relationship between language and verifiable fact.

We’re used to seeing the latter in product advertising: we know better than to think that advertisements represent a realistic experience of the products they want us to buy. Rather, we’re just supposed to associate the product with a matrix of ideas, images, and feelings, which doesn’t have to be either conceptually coherent or plausibly true: McDonald’s and Ronald McDonald and Michael Jordan and the latest kids’ movie; Jack Daniel’s and rock n’ roll and please drink responsibly; cigarettes and anthropomorphic camels who play the blues. John McCain can trumpet his intra-party collaboration with Russ Feingold, a campaign finance law whose every loophole he’s widened; Sarah Palin can propose to shatter both the “glass ceiling” and the laws protecting women’s rights; together, they are antecedent to Samuel Maverick. This associative linguistic territory, in which white, black, up, and down all mean BUY ME, is where the McCain campaign is actually operating. The next ad might as well claim that McCain has fewer calories and a higher average resale value than any other presidential candidate.

In this way, McCain and Palin are, believe it or not, both pioneers and mavericks. They claim to be positioned themselves outside a system—denotative language, in this case, as well as standard Beltway politics—because that’s how they can make those systems work in their favor. “Original Maverick” has found a term that nobody has identified precisely enough to claim or control it, and the McCain campaign has told us it belongs to them. It doesn’t, though; it’s ours, and we very much need to brand it for ourselves. We probably have to expect politicians to lie to us; we should at least require them to do it on our terms.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 08, 2008

They Love Extraordinary People

by Jonathan e Goldman

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 3: The Black Dossier

DC Comics, 2007

Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series, introduced in 1999, draws famous characters from the British literary canon and turns them into American-style superheroes, a Justice League for an older age. Since its debut, Moore’s many fans have devoured two collected editions of the work (and sat resentfully through a 2003 feature film that defines the concept of “loosely based”). Now, Moore and O’Neill, bypassing serialization, have published another volume, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 3: The Black Dossier, an intermediary installment that bridges the gap to the fuller, further adventures of the League currently being sorted out for future tomes but also underscores the project of historical revision that has underscored the series from the start.

From its inception, The League has been based on the premise that the twentieth century’s obsession with superheroes--people both perfectly ordinary and extraordinarily gifted—finds root in the adventure stories that gripped nineteenth-century England. Indeed, our Twentieth Century, proclaimed “the American Century” by an Indiana senator before it had even started, is marked by our fascination with those who could elevate themselves above the masses, literally or figuratively, whether they look like Spiderman, Lindbergh, Monroe, Ali, or Hitler. There is real logic behind Moore’s identifying this as a development commencing in the previous century; the 1800s were when (at least) English agrarian culture finally succumbed to industrial culture, which gave way to mass-industrial culture, which, by the 1890s, led to mass-visual culture. In such a society, the only way to rise above the faceless urban pedestrian crowds was to use one’s unique, extra-human abilities to fashion oneself as an icon. (See Wilde, Oscar—who knew this as well as Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did.) So Moore’s League narratives treat popular, some would say pulp, characters—the Holmeses, the Moreaus—as if they were all living in the same universe, one parallel to our own. His personae team up not only to fight Britain’s enemies but also to usher in a century in which ordinary people identify themselves not by clan allegiance, not my class allegiance, but by allegiance to the individuals who represent the ability to distinguish oneself from the rest. In other words, Moore’s backwards glance toward the last time we were changing centuries signals the transition to a culture defining itself by its extraordinary individuals.

The new volume takes the two characters who emerged as the primary protagonists of the earlier books, Rider Haggard’s Allen Quartermain and Wilhemina Murray, bride of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and advances them a half-century into the future, dropping them off in the 1950s. How they manage to still be alive, and, in fact, suddenly returned to the bloom of youth, is a mystery revealed to only the most diligent readers. The two arrive in an England that has emerged from World War and gone through ten years of a totalitarian state, newly ended as we start the story. An Orwellian government—many will recall that Orwell wanted to set 1984 in 1948, but his editors persuaded him to postpone dystopia by 36 years—has been overthrown, in favor of a (supposedly) more open democratic society. So Moore, who already imagined a British dictatorship in V for Vendetta, gets to excoriate a capitalist democracy for the methods by which it maintains itself.

This involves enlisting some of British culture’s Cold War icons and giving them the by now familiar Allan Moore deconstruction treatment. Of course, the neuroses and sinister undercurrents of comic book heroes have been Moore’s concern, both in The League and in his venerated Watchmen series (1986-7), since long before they were being fashionably explored in books and film. The original League fought its battles with berserker rage (Mr. Hyde’s) and nihilistic misanthropy (Captain Nemo’s); part of the dynamic of the series is its challenge to readers to balance their revulsion for such characters with the childhood impulse to root like hell for good guys fighting bad guys. Yet the extraordinary gentlemen of the more recent vintage are accorded even less respectful treatment. “Jimmy” Bond is cast (satisfyingly, to this reader) not as the personification of post-WWII British suaveness and sophistication, but rather as an insubstantial, infantile lech, practicing his budding ladykilling skills on a vapid, naïve, “Ms. Night”—who will, we understand, grow up to be the Avengers’ Emma Peel. As a bonus to enthusiasts of the era, Moore revives (yet again!) Harry Lime, Graham Greene’s/Carol Reed’s/Orson Welles’ third man and makes him in charge of Her Majesty’s Secret Service—the original “M.”

The treatment of these more recent, post-WWII figures demonstrates Moore’s own old-school liberal humanism. When he draws characters from written works, he paints them richly; he adds complexity to traitorous Hawley Stevens (H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man), and makes Hyde and Nemo downright tragic. To the characters he appropriates from film (and sure, Bond is an Ian Fleming creation, but let’s be real here—he is above all a movie trademark) and television, though, Moore grants no such redemption. The League series, in this sense, constitutes an act of canon-revision, an argument about what we still need to be reading, about what we need to maintain as part of our cultural consciousness, as vehement as any Harold Bloom has made--and many would say more persuasive. As much as the first two collections reaffirm the iconic status of writings by Wells, Stoker, Jules Verne, and Robert Louis Stevenson, The Black Dossier subtly suggests that we have gone wrong since, attaching ourselves to heroes embodying none of the nuance of a more patient age. The stance may be summarized by Quartermain’s remark about Bond (after the latter tries to date-rape Murray and gets beaten over the head with a brick for his trouble): “God, is this what it’s come to? The British adventure hero? Pathetic.”

In fact, The Black Dossier, for all its updating, is not only concerned with the recent past; it constitutes Moore’s most thorough assessment yet of Britain’s literary and popular traditions. The volume’s plot concerns the titular dossier, which, amplifying hints offered throughout the series, chronicles the activities of the league’s various incarnations over the centuries. Murray and Quartermain, having found themselves on the wrong side of the British government (meaning the correct side, the left side), contrive to swipe and peruse the dossier, a compendium of stylistically diverse documents. To read what they read, along with them, in real time, so to speak, comprises much of the experience of The Black Dossier. Thus, this premise provides Moore and O’Neill with the opportunity to demonstrate their virtuoso mimicry and postmodern sensibility. The volume careens from a “lost” Shakespeare play to a “sequel” to John Cleland’s soft-porn classic Fanny Hill to a (P.G. Wodehouse’s) Bertie Wooster memoir to a Tijuana bible to a concluding 3-D section (cardboard 3-D glasses accompany the book) set in the “Blazing World”—a 1666 science-fiction invention of English writer (and Dutchess of Newcastle) Margaret Cavendish. This is a further exercise in canonization of course; not only do Moore and O’Neill re-draw British history, but in so doing they suggest that the true league of extraordinary gentlemen is theirs. They show us, in fact, that the genuine extraordinarily gifted people are the writer (particularly, one feels) and artist, who have mastered these many languages, these many genres, and can convincingly conduct readers through them all.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, March 20, 2006

The 30 Minute Presidency

The 30 Minute Presidency
By Mariana Aguirre

The first time I watched Rachael Ray’s show 30 Minute Meals, I was immediately annoyed by her. I am not sure what did it— her cute names for food (EVOO or sammies or jambalika, anyone?), her giggles, or her peppy attitude. Actually, it was the fact that her show is a travesty of cooking. In 30 Minute Meals, she attempts to prepare a full dinner that people who do not know how to cook can replicate at home. As a somewhat decent cook myself, “I already know how to do that.” In fact, I do it almost everyday. I can cook pasta and sauce from scratch, or meat and a side, or make a salad in about half an hour without emitting annoying coos. In an ill-equipped kitchen. Apparently, the rest of America (or at least a sizeable portion of Food Network viewers) cannot, since Ray is one of the most famous Food Network people. The fact that she is so prominent within a network dedicated to food filled with actual chefs such as Emeril Lagasse or Mario Battali is baffling. It seems that America likes its women cooks to be stupid.

In many ways, Rachael Ray’s success is a reaction against Martha Stewart’s overachieving and intimidating personality. Martha overwhelms her viewers with countless cooking tips, such as breaking an egg into a small bowl before adding it to a mixing bowl just in case it is bad or bloody (which makes sense, except that I have only encountered one bloody egg all my life), or running segments in her programs about overpriced kitchen equipment. I cannot say, however, that I have learned any skills from Rachael Ray. The only one of her teachings I remember is that she keeps a bowl to put her trash in, which is meant to save her from constant trips to the trash can. The thing is, I keep my trash can near the cutting area—that allows me to avoid having another bowl to wash—and I actually do not have a 30-minute limit on preparing dinner. Other things that she does that might be useful were things that my Mom told me or that I learned out of sheer laziness and being single. Due to my horror of not having a fully stocked fridge and pantry at all times I usually have enough things at hand to make some sort of salad or pasta dish. Moreover, if you cook in large enough quantities for a half hour one day, dinner the next day takes three minutes to reheat in the microwave. In fact, this is what millions of busy people all over the world do—if they refuse to eat takeout or frozen dinners on a regular basis that is. Maybe my Mom should get a show—she used to cook enough on Saturday so we could have 3 course lunches everyday. She also worked full time. But I guess a 3 hour cooking marathon does not make a good pilot.

Rachael Ray’s other show,
40 Dollars A Day, is also exasperating. It offends me because she gets to travel and eat, but also because her budget seems outrageous. Clearly, anyone with half a brain and 40 dollars can eat very well in most European cities. Before the Euro struck I was able to eat very well in Italy for 20 dollars a day. The show’s inflated budget points to the fact that 30 Minute Meals did not even promote savings—many of her shortcuts depend on using pre-cut, pre-washed vegetables and canned or frozen food, which are more expensively priced than regular produce.

One refreshing thing about Rachael Ray is the fact that she is not hung up on ingredients—thus sparing me Marcella Hazan’s scorn whenever the latter mentions that ingredients I buy routinely, such as capers or tuna in olive oil will never be as good as those in Italy. Conversely, Rachael Ray is not versatile enough to use ingredients in a way that would allow her to compete in
Iron Chef, since routinely chopping up vegetables and frying them with ground beef to serve on top of pasta is not very good training for cooking a five-course meal intended to showcase a surprise ingredient.

What is the source of Rachael Ray’s popularity, then? Part of it must be her “sex appeal”—as demonstrated by a very disturbing set of pictures published in
FHM. Need link The juxtaposition between seduction and sweetness in the pictures, especially evident in the shot of her licking a chocolate covered spoon (above), partly explains this. Although she is depicted in the kitchen in the act of cooking, Rachael Ray does not appear here as a chef, but rather as someone’s wife, who happened to get naughty while she was baking for the kids. Indeed, Isaac Mizrahi himself, has described her as “America’s sweetheart.” [Ed’s note: that name is taken, isn’t it?] In many ways, Rachael Ray is the Food Network’s sweetheart, if by sweetheart we mean a white and healthy woman who is non-threatening to men (see Meg Ryan, for example). Compared to the other women regularly featured in the network, she is relatively accessible, and most importantly, young. She is not obsessively attentive to detail, like the castrating Martha Stewart. Neither does she possess Ina Garten’s cliquish nature, reinforced by a home in the Hamptons and guests who happen to be stylish gay men. Sarah Moulton is also approachable, but too old to pose for FHM, not that she would do that, since she has a magazine of her own (Gourmet) to edit. Clearly, Rachael Ray’s appeal lies in that she is silly and average and most importantly, will never make you eat anything you do not like or suggest doing anything in the kitchen that seems like a waste of time but actually makes a difference, such as making homemade broth. She is comfortable creating nothing new because her audience does not demand it. When she gets ‘creative’ she waters down ‘ethnic food,’ such as that one time she decided to make Chinese food at home in order to make a healthier version of take out (which of course drove me to order Chinese food, hoping to get as much fat, salt and MSG as I could).

Rachael Ray’s ‘sweetheart factor’ was key to her success, and most importantly, it extended into the Food Network’s airing more shows featuring youngish women, such as Giada De Laurentis from
Everyday Italian and Sandra Lee from Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee. The latter is a taller, thinner, blond Rachael Ray straight out of a University of Wisconsin at Madison sorority. Because she has children, a husband and her lady friends to entertain, her recipes are even simpler than Ray’s, making her show almost as useless, except for the fact that she regularly features recipes for cocktails, which I appreciate. In a sense, she is the married version to single girl Rachael Ray, and must plan her husband’s tailgates and kids’ parties. This has led her to propose strange recipes—not long ago she crumbled up a whole, perfectly decent store-bought apple pie, stuffed it into baked puff pastry and threatened to top it with a concoction of whipped cream and cinnamon (I believe—I changed the channel once I realized what she was attempting). She is the Food Network’s desperate housewife, who is somehow too busy to actually cook, a latter version of Rachael Ray’s very New Jersey Sex and the City gal. Now that Rachael Ray is married, I wonder why she has not updated her show to a full hour so that she has time to pack a lunch for her husband and kids.

Rachael Ray’s status as a woman within the world male chefs in the Food Network is further underscored by her feminine, old fashioned kitchen. The retro decorations (including a very strange looking microwave) cue the viewer into the kind of her space her kitchen is—a woman’s domain. See Gale Gand’s kitchen on
Sweet Dreams for another version of an old-fashioned, female kitchen. Bobby Flay, whose passive-aggressiveness fascinates me to no end, gets to grill (a male task, of course) from the terrace of his expensively furnished Manhattan apartment, while Emeril’s kitchen emulates Oprah’s set, serving as a shrine to himself. Together with her non-threatening persona and the boring approach to cooking she promotes (nothing too fancy, cook it as soon as possible so you can eat it and watch TV), Ray’s kitchen establishes her status within the Food Network as a dilettante, a woman who cooks, presumably for a male partner, not to amaze or because she particularly enjoys it, but rather because whether she stays at home or works, that is her lot in life. Namely, to exist as a practical homemaker and cute cook/girlfriend. It is sad to see that she is the most successful woman within a network of mostly male expert chefs who own restaurants, edit food magazines and compete against each other in Iron Chef America. Martha, of course, is more famous but her career had grown before her show was featured in the Food Network. Although she is a very successful businesswoman, Rachael Ray has made a lot of money by playing a white middle class woman who has been relegated to the kitchen and has to make do.

This article (it costs money) from the New York Times also underscores her persona—her success seems to be accidental, and she is portrayed as a helpless gal who is finally making it, not as someone who has worked hard to reach her goals.

Given that the status of food in America is so contradictory—obesity and malnutrition coexist, chain restaurants bloom as well as organic farms multiply—it is interesting to compare it to politics. Despite her show and persona, Rachael Ray is not stupid. Rather, she has made a success out of herself by playing a stupid girl who happens to cook—much in the same way that George W got to be president by being a ‘regular guy.’ And by regular guy I mean someone who did badly in school, had no interest in foreign travel and was routinely unable to make something of himself without his family’s help. Further, they exemplify America’s attraction and utter indifference to food and politics—which allow ignorant individuals to teach one how to cook and run the country.

In general terms it is extremely disturbing that two of the most successful people in their respective domains, Ray and Bush owe their status not to their skills and experience, but rather, due to their ability to tap into an everyman-woman quality that is so appealing to middle America. It is telling that this is a country in which both food and politics have turned into spectacle, in which pretending to be a fool in order to be win an election does not even matter because one can lose elections and still become president, a country in which ketchup was a vegetable, pasta might come out of a can and a fast food Mexican restaurant advertises a turkey club taco. It is clear then, that our culture is not interested in skills, or results, but rather, wants to be entertained, reassured and coddled. Thankfully, as a woman, as long as I put something edible on the table and act pleasant, I can be someone’s sweetheart . After all, it only takes one more minute to fix a dry martini.


Monday, February 06, 2006

The Mighty Quill Award and American Imperial Power in Marvel’s 1602 Series


Literary awards have always functioned as a way of conferring status upon their awardees. When the Quills foundation decided to include a "graphic novel" category among its vaguely populist 2005 awards -- readers elect the winners by voting for those the expert committee has nominated -- the comic book community responded with a predictable mix of cheer, disdain, and ambivalence. Less predictable, perhaps, was the nomination and eventual victory of Marvel 1602, Neil Gaiman's luminously detailed, densely textured time-warping story of Marvel Comics superheroes in Elizabethan England, which has since begat a sequel, Marvel 1602: New World, created by Gregs Pak and Tocchini, set entirely in the western hemisphere. The unpredictability stems from the fact that 1602 beat out works by Harvey Pekar, who had the weight of a movie behind him, and by Art Spiegelman, who had the weight of the New York intelligentsia behind him. Regardless, 1602 is the perfect first champion in the category, as it perfectly epitomizes the comic book genre’s formal potential, literary strivings, and, no slight intended, inherent dorkiness. (Hey, it’s about super-heroes.)

The two 1602s together also constitute, in a barely disguised way, a most American text. American imperialism goes to extremes, as the superheroes of the Marvel universe are called upon to save first the strife-ridden world of Renaissance Europe, and then the incipient civilization composed of Europeans and Native Americans. Gaiman, a Brit and a scholar of early modern culture, clearly recognizes that the comic book superhero is a particularly American invention, and so at the end of his book he resettles the heroes of 1602 in colonial Virginia, where they will, it is suggested, establish modern democracy. The superhero genre is also a particularly twentieth-century invention, of course: the costumed, crimefighting superhero, born in the 1940s, faded practically into obscurity in the 1950s, revitalized (largely due to Marvel) in the 1960s, and currently as potent as ever, has always represented a balancing act between the fantasies of transcending and protecting the masses, remaining anonymous all the while. Marvel characters like the X-Men, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange et al. are recast in history by Gaiman and the innovative artists Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove to strive for this dream as they save the first 1602 universe. In the sequel, Pak and Tocchini enlist the Hulk, Spider-Man and Iron Man to bring peace to the not-yet-lost colony of Roanoke.

The authors' conceit is to transplant characters based on Marvel figures into the (mostly) historically plausible past. So Matthew Murdoch, the blind lawyer who is secretly Marvel’s crimefighting Daredevil, appears in 1602 as a blind Irish balladeer. He secretly works for Sir Nicholas Fury, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster of sorts, a (pre-)incarnation of Nick Fury, the United States special government agent of the current Marvel universe. The evil mutant Magneto of our time is the Holy Grand Inquisitor (the position, which, having morphed into “Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” was held in the 1960s by the man who is now Pope). In this world, the Grand Inquisitor has worked his way into the position by capturing and persecuting not Jews and Muslims, but other mutants, here called "witchbreed." The revelations of certain of these parallels between Marvel and 1602 characters–some are much more subtle than those enumerated here–play crucial roles in the plot.

Why are these heroes popping up in this very dark, actually medieval–feeling early modern moment? In short, because of the arrogant actions of the twenty-first United States government, headed by a nameless, smirking "President-for-Life," whom Kubert and Isanove depict in garish 1950s pop-art style frames that contrast with their dynamic, shadowy, almost impressionistic figures and colors on display otherwise. The despotic not-too-distant (to our time) future administration has tried to rid itself of an antagonistic nuisance by banishing it into the earth’s past–has tried, in other words, to alter the present by changing the past, a not-unusual theme in science (or speculative, if you prefer) fiction. But the ensuing "temporal disruption" endangers the fabric of the entire universe, all of time. Here we get shades of Gaiman’s acclaimed imaginative but unapologetically new-agey Sandman series. The universe, in response, defends itself against the possible apocalypse. It births, or spurs the transformation of, the men and women whose superhero abilities raise them above the ordinary folk of their time, endowing them with those powers that, used for good and not evil, can save the universe.

In other words, it is the twenty-first century American government’s particular way of dealing with a threat to its own dominion that causes a greater threat to the world, surely invoking recent international developments. Indeed, 1602 is an emphatically post-9/11 work of fiction. Gaiman himself tells us in his "Afterword" that on September 11, 2001, he decided that his incipient book would contain "No planes. No skyscrapers. No bombs. No guns." Instead 1602 emerges as a glaring embodiment of the idea that a work of fiction that is set in a prior historical moment refers ineffably to its own, redressing the problems of the present by costuming them in the past. Of particular interest in that regard is the centrality of America’s role – America’s careless, self-centered, inadvertent role – in the affairs of another continent here, that the remedy with which Gaiman will save his world, the superhero, is drawn from one of the most American and most popular genres of American popular culture, and embodies the American dream of individual power and fame. Thus 1602 suggests how circumscribed we in 2005 have become by the cultural logic of American power. Now, Team America: World Police this is not. (Thank goodness.) Gaiman’s heroes are for the most part thoughtful and reasoned, weighing the consequences of their actions and choices. Fury, the career military man, is particularly torn by his conflicting duties to conscience and to the newly crowned King James (and therefore to his god and religion that placed James on the throne after Elizabeth). This is a shrewd enough move on Gaiman’s part, making his most physiologically human protagonist the one we twentieth-first century readers would most recognize as psychologically human.

All this shrewdness, and the subtlety of the artwork, sadly, disappears from the sequel, which one can safely assume will not be winning any awards, Quill or otherwise. Happily, it is not in anyone’s interest for me to excoriate the inferior quality of the writing or the slapdash quality of the illustrations in New World. Of greater significance is the way New World enlarges on the original 1602’s project of having United States popular culture colonize the past. New World sends its superheroes (and a few other Marvel characters) to Roanoke and implies that had these avatars of freedom and justice been there all along, strife between Europeans and Native Americans would have been assuaged. Here, it is Peter Parquah, proto-Spider-Man, who is given all the best renaissance lines that, really, a 14 year-old shouldn’t be thinking in 1602 unless he’s been reading Marvel Comics 400 years later. ("In our hearts, we know . . . deep inside, we are good . . .") New World evinces its deep sympathy for the victimization of those societies that predate the European arrivals, but stops short of implying that the Native Americans would have been better off without the presence of the British colony altogether. In the book’s most telling moment, the Native Americans (with the Hulk’s assistance) seem to have driven the colonists out (over Peter’s objections), but Pak has Iron Man interfere, leading to an ending in which everybody tries to hammer out their differences as if it were some idealized, oversimplified version of 1776 (the year not the book).

Both 1602s are, in the end, specifically examples of their genre, the comic book. (The vogue over the last twenty years to call such texts graphic novels actually demeans the comic book genre, the validity of which we should accept without having to rechristen it.) New World has all the simplicity and silly dialogue those who pooh-pooh comics would expect. The Gaiman book, though, as a comic book, is often brilliant, reworking aspects of the genre so that they enhance the overall text. For example, the very lettering of speech, or the shape of speech bubbles, often reinforces aspects of character: Count Von Doom’s words appear in gothic font, while the Human Torch’s are a fiery gold. It may be that these innovations can be found elsewhere in the comic book world, but certainly here they add to the air of intense invention that surrounds Marvel 1602. They also reveal, along the way, that our ideas of artistic invention still revolve around some essentially modernist criteria; that is, it is the energy its creators have poured into having the text make sense holistically, having the details of form seem appropriate, somehow, to the content of the story. Such devices irrevocably draw attention to the author, of course, reminding us of our inherited (from the romantics, via the modernists) notions of artist’s role in society, as a kind of superhero him/herself. And since literary awards have, indeed, supported such notions, it seems appropriate that the first mainstream award to go to a comic book should land here, making explicit a subtle yet telling relationship between the arts and entertainment in American culture -- that we glorify most those author-figures whose innovations persuade us that they are modernist superheroes.

Click here to return to the Academicrats
front page.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Post-Noir Confidential: Style, Politics, and the Case Against James Ellroy

On January 15, 2006, James Ellroy addressed the San Francisco Film Noir Festival, whose website identifies Ellroy as “America’s greatest living writer of noir fiction.” Now, if you’re putting together a film noir festival (or a noir fiction festival, or a book fair, for that matter) and you can book James Ellroy, you probably should: lots of people read his books, even more people went to see L.A. Confidential (1997), the film adaptation of his novel of the same name, and later this year, probably more people than that will go to see Scarlett Johansson in The Black Dahlia, an adaptation of another novel in his famous “LA Quartet.” Many of these people will agree with the San Francisco festival’s assessment of Ellroy; they will buy tickets to hear him speak; your festival will make money. But let’s not get confused here: James Ellroy does “noir” like Bill O’Reilly does “journalism.” If you prefer, calling Ellroy a “writer of noir fiction” is like calling Howard Dean a liberal firebrand. Ellroy apes noir style and convention, and it’s true that he reproduces its characteristic tone and mood. Ellroy’s novels, though, for all their fidelity to the iconography of the kind of noir film and fiction that film noir festivals celebrate, empty noir of its historical acumen and its political content.

Ellroy himself probably wouldn’t argue with this assessment; he imagines himself correcting the mistakes of classical noir—a body of stories and films that runs, generously, from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s and whose characteristics I’ll take up later. In a 1991 interview, he told John Williams that “the private-eye icon/hero . . . that Raymond Chandler created and which has spawned so many imitators is essentially bullshit,” and that his novels seek to provide “an antidote to that.” In the same interview, he says that “[his] Los Angeles” was “very much a white city,” as opposed to the “black and Latino” metropolis of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Talk about bullshit: to claim that El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula became Latino in James Ellroy’s lifetime is preposterous. The fact that the self-appointed guardian of civic history, interviewed in the months between the beating of Rodney King and the trial of Officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno, deracinates the city’s past seems more insidious than any misrepresentation Raymond Chandler may perpetrated. More to the point, when he writes the private eye out of history, Ellroy manufactures a reactionary image of Los Angeles at mid-century.

Noir is famously difficult to define, especially if we open up the category chronologically to include Ellroy’s or Walter Mosley’s novels, or Polanski’s Chinatown. The “private eye icon/hero,” though, is close to a constant, so we can begin there: think of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashell Hammett’s Sam Spade (and their most famous onscreen equivalent, Humphrey Bogart), Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949), Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944), or any of the down-and-out small-time crooks who populate James M. Cain’s and Jim Thompson’s stories. This figure works outside of, whether against or alongside, the law and the police department. His greatest asset is street-level knowledge of the city where he operates, and he uses that to hold together the social landscape and maintain an acceptable level of disorder. This is a democratic take on the crime narrative: it entrusts the private citizen, not the state, and privileges local knowledge and personal encounters over centralized, governmental authority. Noir shows us the triumph of street-level urban intuition and human interaction over impersonal, government surveillance.

In Chandler’s novels, Marlowe provides precise driving directions as he pieces together stories and makes sense of the modern city. For a cinematic example, we can look at White Heat. There, after Cody Jarrett robs a train and eludes law enforcement, the LAPD sets up an elaborate dragnet to follow Ma Jarrett back to Cody’s lair. They follow her in several cars, organized and directed by a central switchboard operator who holds a map of Los Angeles, but her intuitive, irrational driving allows her to avoid them in a manner she cannot have predicted: after she doubles back on a side street, a truck pulls out of a driveway between her car and the one following her. When it disappears, so has she. In this early scene, White Heat affirms the value of expertise to the noir crime narrative: she is able to outperform the better-equipped and better-prepared police department because she knows, and uses, the city streets more practically and effectively. Noir made popular this kind of urban practice.

When he hands over the city to the police department—in particular, to the LAPD in the 1950s—James Ellroy undoes all that. He moves his novels away from noir’s street-level navigation and the democratic politics of urbanity it implies. This observation is both generally skeptical of the repressive state apparatus’s liberatory capacities and grounded in the specific history of the Department in the middle of the century. In the 1950s, the LAPD substituted technology for manpower in an effort to remove the street and the people there from police work—compare Marlowe’s painstaking navigation and interviews to Joe Friday’s “just the facts, ma’am.” The police department into which Ellroy displaces his noir detectives is in fact a model for impersonal, technological surveillance. In the 1980s and 1990s, Ellroy gives over the figure of integrated or experienced community to the space police.

Spatial surveillance at the expense of urban practice is apparent in L.A. Confidential (1992), when Edmund Exley, the most cerebral of the novel’s flock of morally compromised antihero policemen, goes about organizing the facts of the baroque crime plot. Exley has, to this point, been the novel’s one consistent source of narrative fiction (even as the novel itself breaks down periodically into collages of headlines, chronologies and police reports); he is a professional storyteller who invents the department’s and the city government’s official explanations of police misdeeds and he turns this storytelling to his personal and professional gain. Faced with police work, though, Exley turns to visual logic:

One wall of his den was now a graph: Nite Owl related case players connected by horizontal lines, vertical lines linking them to a large sheet of cardboard blocked off into information sections . . . Ed crossed lines. (393)

Where classical noir navigates the city intuitively, in narrative, in order to put together an understandable order of events, Exley brings the mathematical precision of graphing to his detective work. This allows him to make sense of the plot that surrounds him without leaving his den and immersing himself in the city. The novel’s plot fictionalizes the construction of modern-day Los Angeles, from the political scandals surrounding freeway construction to the development of a barely-disguised Disneyland (the cartoonist and entertainment magnate Raymond Dieterling’s “Dream-a-Dreamland” outside the city limits, whose icon is Moochie Mouse) in Orange County. Exley comprehends it from a panoptical perspective, rather than the synoptical one that is traditional in noir, suggesting that stories are best told from the top down, by a police officer. Raymond Chandler would, I think, feel suitably (if incorrectly) chastised by this passage from L.A. Confidential. Removing the act of navigation from the process of understanding or decoding the city changes its definition; urban space is recognizable, in Ellroy, via surveillance and management.

Ellroy appropriates noir iconography and occasionally noir style, then, but he contradicts (sells out, really) its claims about knowledge and urbanity. Something similar happens in The Black Dahlia, when morally compromised antihero policeman Bucky Bleichert announces that “bop was moving into its heyday” (280). That’s a fine thing to say in 1987, or in 2006, but it wouldn’t have made any sense at the time. (One almost expects Bucky to go out and buy a “Best of Dexter Gordon” compilation CD here, so removed is his perspective.) Such historical shorthand transforms a resistant movement in jazz, defined by its difficulty and its shock to listeners, into a reified aesthetic period, limited and mass-marketed, something the cops listen to.

It’s that logic, unfortunately, that leads us to call Ellroy’s novels noir (or Dean’s politics liberal, or O’Reilly’s bullshit journalism): they’ve got the right packaging, however reactionary (very, mostly, and very) they may be. But we’re talking about a body of work that once had actual cultural-political value, that continues to be evocative and powerful in the present day, and that has contemporary practitioners doing interesting, innovative work. To dress up a street scene in old cars, trenchcoats and fedoras and call it noir is to deny all that.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Old Monsters, New Faces, Same Problem: King Kongs 1933 and 2005


The most interesting choice Peter Jackson and his King Kong crew made when updating the 1933 classic is also their most obvious choice, one that colors every aspect of the film: setting their movie in 1933. Think about it: almost all movie remakes contemporize their stories, setting them in their own time and translating all the details accordingly. But while the new Kong updates the story’s sights and sounds, using twenty-first century CGI to improve on the ginormous ape's movements as he rampages across first Skull and then Manhattan Island, it does not update the story’s cultural moment to the twenty-first century itself. While this decision allows the filmmakers to cram their movie with all kinds of depression-era period detail and Hollywood in-jokes appropriate to the movie-within-a-movie framework they inherited from the original, it yields some unfortunate results as well. Jackson’s Kong impressively expands and modernizes the special effects of the old, providing Kong with a trio of T-Rexes to battle instead of just the one of the 1933 version. The new movie also corrects the scientific errors of the old, incorporating our greater understanding of the prehistoric food chain; the brontosauruses here are herbivores, dangerous to humans only because of their wild stampeding as they flee from a pack of velociraptors. The problem, the unnerving, maddening problem, is that the new movie fails to modernize the sensibilities of the old, retaining much of the baldly racist-primitivist implications of the original.

The new Kong, in fact, in its compulsion to outdo every aspect of the original, makes greater use of the fact that the story starts in a depression-era New York City. The movie’s opening moments announce loud and clear that Jackson’s people researched the original Kong’s setting pretty thoroughly; the scenes of poverty-stricken New York, replete with a shantytown in Central Park, soup kitchens and labor demonstrations, not only reveal an American underside that 1930s Hollywood rarely acknowledged, but also pay homage to the few films, like Hallelujah I’m a Bum, Modern Times and Sullivan’s Travels, what did--however tamely. Of course, to generate the obligatory irony, the soundtrack for these shots is Al Jolson’s “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” (also a joke about the movie’s finale, natch.) In both of these versions, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray once, Naomi Watts now) is compelled to join Carl Denham’s film/crew sea expedition mostly through hunger and a desire to avoid entering the less reputable professions available to young women of 1933. The new one gives her a whole vaudeville background backstory, including an anachronistic reference to the Federal Theater. (It started in 1935).

Most emphatically, the period detail in Jackson’s film emphasizes and enlarges upon the racist discourse the original was both enlisting and perpetuating. Stop and think for a minute about the 1933 version, directed by Merrion C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. A group of white filmmakers travels to an island somewhere in the tropics that is populated by prehistoric fauna and a primitive, dark-skinned community of people who sacrifice blonde-haired white women to the giant ape who terrorizes over the whole place. The film crew scraps the movie idea and decides they can do one better by abducting the ape and putting him on a stage on the Great White Way. The body of the other, on display, for the tonily-dressed white audience. The racial undertones of all of this are obvious enough, and even vaguely acknowledged in the 1933 movie: when the film crew first meets the natives and begins backing away nervously, one of the men whistles the tune of "St. Louis Blues," the W.C. Handy standard (frequently recorded and heard in the 1920s and 30s) in which an African American woman laments losing her lover, perhaps to a white woman--as if the blues will placate the savages’ anger. While the people inhabiting the island are not directly equated with Kong, they share the main attribute of being somewhat human, but less so than the whites. Having a white woman captured by a dark male, of course, would set off plenty of anti-miscegenation alarms in a film released less than 20 years after Birth of a Nation was a hit. Cooper was aware enough of this blatant racism that for his next film, an adaptation of Rider Haggard’s She, he took a novel set among savage peoples in Africa and transplanted the events to . . . Siberia.

Cut to 2006. Jackson’s Kong replaces "St. Louis Blues" with "Bye Bye Blackbird," one of the most vexed songs of American popular culture, at least from the standpoint of racial history. This is the song that, during the New Orleans flood of 1927, a steamboat orchestra was playing as it pulled away from the docks, carrying white passengers to safety and leaving African Americans stranded in the flooding city. It’s also a song whose most famous version including lyrics was recorded by Josephine Baker, herself an icon of the primitivist obsession gripping western culture throughout the 1920s. The song arises on the soundtrack of the new Kong immediately after the scene when the ape has been unveiled to the Broadway audience, surrounded by dancing "savages" – African American dancers clad in outfits not unlike those that Baker herself was wearing in 1933. The film cuts from this scene to that of a vaudeville stage where a troupe of white-clad white women, including Darrow, dance to "Blackbird." The intense color contrast seems to be exposing the problematic racial structures of the story.

But the 2005 Kong does nothing to address the backwards and sinister associations of non-whiteness with sub-humanism. The new Skull Island denizens are both more violent and more creepily unearthly than their 1933 equivalents. When they attack the film crew they are filmed in close-ups, in low-angle shots, turning them into flailing, moving parts of black bodies, effectively dehumanizing them. In fact, with their hoarsely whispered, guttural speech, their dreadlocks and primitive clothes, they superficially but unmistakably recall the orcs of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In other words, they carry the earmarks of Jackson’s most evil, inhuman, near-human race from his recent epic. Furthermore, another text casts a strange racializing shadow over the film. Adding a note not found in the original movie, Jackson takes on references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as ballast. This is a book whose dark-skinned natives never seem to be whole human beings. Conrad depicts his Africans as being "a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling." The new Kong actually quotes the text immediately before and after that description while omitting these phrases—and does so right before the islanders attack. The filmmakers are admitting a debt to Heart of Darkness, but unthinkingly aping the way it dehumanizes non-European bodies by turning them into a dizzying mass of black body parts.

This gets more complicated. In the movie, Heart of Darkness is being read, implausibly enough, by a half-literate character, Jimmy, the film’s coming-of-age cabin boy (who has his own mysterious savage past). Jimmy likes to ask reading-group style questions about the book to the ship’s mate, a gruff African American named Hayes. These two are engaged in a mentor/mentee relationship that is hard not read some homoerotic hints into. (After all these are sailors.) Furthermore, and obviously enough, both the May-September and the white-black aspects of this pairing point toward that erotic relationship at the heart of the movie plot.

Ah, that romance. From the white folks’ arrival on Skull Island, Darrow and Kong are locked in some sort of symbio-erotic dance. Her primal scream when she is seized by the natives is answered by the monster’s distant roar. This is jungle fever. Of course, as everyone who has ever read a word about either the original or this Kong knows, the ape is meant to be, and indeed emerges as, a human, all-too-human, sympathetic character. Again, Jackson’s version outdoes 1933 in this regard, providing the ape with interiority in his scenes with Darrow: the ape laughs at her stunts and howls angrily at her rejections. Indeed, when Kong momentarily escapes to Central Park with Darrow (not in the 1933 script) the scene is endearing enough to put all those mawkish Ephron, etc. movies to shame (not that they needed any help). But humanizing the ape is a problematic thing in light of the movie’s treatment of racial others; it is as if the Big Lug has received the human characteristics that have been denied the Skull Island natives.

The Darrow/Kong romance is complicated, of course, by the difference in species and, furthermore, by the love triangle, in which Adrien Brody plays the third leg/wheel/man, Jack Driscoll. Driscoll's participation is fraught with the erotics of race. Hollywood movies have a history, of course, of coupling two appropriate white protagonists at the end of films, regardless of whom the characters might have been attracted to along the way to the conclusion. (In some ways, this is Hollywood’s history, the dominant feature of the aesthetic.) The 2005 Kong injects Driscoll into its ending in a way the 1933 Kong does not, emphasizing how the narrative has successfully returned the white woman to her proper partner. It is a telling moment, at the movie’s very climax, visually as well as thematically. Probably Kong’s most famous physical feature is his flattened boxer’s nose. Meanwhile, probably Brody’s most famous physical feature is his elongated hawk's beak of a nose, certainly popularly thought of as an ethnic signifier. Jackson likes cutting from one to the other. He does this at the movie's finale, on the top of the Empire State building: flat nose, Darrow, big nose, all on top of pointy spire. I’m not going to get all Freudian here, but you sure can.

In a way it’s fascinating to see how painstakingly Jackson’s team has renovated the stylistic aspects of a classic film, updating its scenes of prehistoric adventure for the post-Jurassic Park, CGI generation, while utterly failing to address its racist undertones, except to make them overt tones. In another way, it’s disturbing. One of Jackson's goals was clearly to use technology to make his Kong more realistic-looking and realistic-sounding than the original. Reducing the goofy camp factor of the movie serves to turn the story's racist sentiments into a matter of film style, as if to deny their actual import in a world in which racism persists and, for example, African-Americans still get left out in the cold, in a pinch. The new Kong’s aesthetic upgrade makes the film’s sinister qualities all the more dangerous and difficult to swallow than those of the original.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Glory Road To Nowhere

Jerry Bruckheimer and James Gartner’s film Glory Road, which opened this weekend, tells the story of the 1966 NCAA basketball champion Texas Western Miners. It’s a story well worth telling: all five starters on that team were African American, as were the two reserves who played in the national championship game against an all-white University of Kentucky team. It was the first time a team with black players had won the national championship. Because sports plays such a big role in how America understands race, that team and its (white, though this won’t be parenthetical for long) coach, Don Haskins, are responsible for real changes in the nation’s cultural landscape. Glory Road has been getting predictable reviews: it tells the story of triumphs over racism, poverty and adversity, it shows us that men are men and ballplayers are ballplayers, it teaches us about how far we’ve come and how far we’ve still to go, you know the type. I should make clear, here, that I have not seen Glory Road, but the television trailer makes obvious that this film, which tells the story of a significant inroad made towards civil rights and equality, mobilizes racist strategies of representation and narrative. It depends on what it assumes to be its audience’s racism, that is, in order to deliver a putatively antiracist message.

In the trailer, Haskins (played by Josh Lucas) tells one of his players, “it’s not about talent—it’s about heart. It’s about who can go out there and play the hardest.” This is inocuous enough coachspeak, but the very next shot is of the player’s body rising from the floor to dunk a basketball: an image of enormous natural talent in action. If you’ve ever paid attention to pretty much any major US sport (note: hockey doesn’t count, I think), you know that words like “heart,” “guts,” “grit,” and “hard work” are code for white athlete, and words like “talent,” “ability” and “gift” are code for black athlete. That theory is obviously false, as nobody actually thinks that Peyton Manning, Roger Clemens, and Steve Nash aren’t gifted natural athletes, or that Allen Iverson, Barry Bonds, and Donovan McNabb don’t work hard, but it’s how we talk about sports in America, and it has negative consequences when you transpose it to how we think about race: according to the logic of that divide, white people are smart and hardworking, black people talented but lazy and untrainable. When it attributes the first set of ideas to the white coach and the second to the black player, Glory Road reproduces that divide: without Haskins, the film suggests, it would never occur to the players to “play the hardest.”

Indeed, the Texas Western players in Glory Road are so defined by their physicality in the trailer that none of them has a single spoken line. (This is not quite true in the longer theatrical trailer, but it gives the same impression.) They are mute paragons of physical and athletic greatness. In the film, I imagine the players have lines and stories and everything, but this version of the story of the first black players to win the NCAA championship is nevertheless focused on and filtered through its white coach. It’s Haskins’s story. That’s not weird, either: college basketball fetishizes coaches, and probably if you go ask a basketball fan for proper nouns associated with that championship game, he or she will tell you that Don Haskins coached Texas Western, Adolph Rupp coached Kentucky, and Pat Riley (the very same) played for Kentucky. But Glory Road is supposed to tell us more of the story, and instead it continues to silence the minority perspective in favor of a character who wasn’t turned away at lunch counters or hotels, who didn’t score a point or get a rebound, with whom a white audience can identify because, well, he looks like us.

Glory Road appears to do an excellent job recreating the world of the segregated 1960s: the haircuts and clothes are right, the team travels in one of those cool old tour buses that look like airplanes, even the uniforms look tight (they’re not Hoosiers-tight or anything, but still). Against such a carefully rendered historical backdrop, it’s that much more striking that the basketball scenes are anachronistic. The Texas Western team throws behind-the-head touch passes and alley-oops off the backboard, and dunks backwards in traffic—it looks like the And1 mixtape. Now, it’s true that the title game began with a dunk (David Lattin, on Pat Riley), and that Texas Western played an uptempo, fastbreak style of ball to pretty much run Kentucky out of the gym, but the moves they make just don’t look like basketball in 1966. It wasn’t until Connie Hawkins, David Thompson and Julius Erving came along in the 1970s that the slamdunk became the aesthetic endeavor it is today. Ballplayers didn’t dribble through their legs like the Texas Western players do in the trailer until Texas Western changed its name to the University of Texas at El Paso and Tim Hardaway frustrated defenders in the 1980s with the “UTEP two-step,” renamed the “Killer Crossover” when he got to the NBA.

Glory Road suggests otherwise, in a trailer that proclaims, “they changed the game.” They did, too—just not like that. Telling us that Texas Western changed not who played NCAA basketball but how it was played engages a corollary to the idea I discussed above: that black players are flashy and athletic and that well-trained, fundamentally sound, intelligent white players just can’t keep up. Now, I don’t remember basketball before Magic, Bird and Jordan, much less Connie Hawkins and Doctor J, and I love the And1 mixtape videos, but lots of people don’t. They blame it for an elevation of style over substance and individual over team play—which maps pretty neatly onto black over white—that they see plaguing college and pro hoops. Glory Road proposes a nearly precise correspondence between race and style of play, and that the moment the racial barrier came down, the game changed for (most people think) the worse. This gap in its historical sensibility shows an unfortunate truth about Hollywood’s latest attempt to represent the struggle for civil rights and equality in the US: in order to make us feel good about how far we’ve come, it relies upon contemporary racism.