Sunday, February 27, 2005

Scarborough Country

I should really stop watching Scarborough Country. I flip through the channels when a commercial comes on and I stop at Scarborough Country. It never fails. I want to like Joe Scarborough. I really do. I enjoyed his coverage of the nominating conventions with Chris Mathews and Ron Reagan. But when I watch his show I want to scream and throw things at the television. I think it’s the sneer—that total contempt he shows for me and mine, for all liberals, for all secularists, for all academics. He claims to speak for “mainstream America,” and I suppose he does speak for about 51% of America, but for the other 49% of us would prefer he shut the hell up. Like, who died and made him Pope of this joint?

Last night he was going on about the Oscars. His main beef was that “The Passion of the Christ,” which ended the year as the number three movie in box office receipts, wasn’t nominated. To Joe, this indicated that religion scares Hollywood, and he concluded that it was because Hollywood is “a cesspool of secularism.” As self appointed guardian of American values, he felt obligated to say something about it.

First some words about “The Passion.” It was a decent movie, but it had some problems. Obviously, it touched a bunch of people, and I was moved by it as well. But it wasn’t all that. I thought the little demon anti-Christ baby was way over the top, as were the demonic faces that appeared on the children who tormented Judas. But that is nit-picking. If Joe wants to thing The Passion deserved an Oscar nod he’s entitled.

Next some words about politics. That I heard, Joe didn’t mention the other big movie of last year, “Fahrenheit 9/11. If Joe can be outraged that “The Passion” didn’t get nominated, I’m certainly entitled to be outraged that “Fahrenheit 9/11” didn’t get nominated. It did amazing business, it broke records for a documentary, and it was many people’s pick for the best movie all year. And therein lies the rub. If Hollywood is the bastion of liberalism Joe always claims it to be, and if it is making some kind of statement with the films that get nominated for the Oscars, why wasn’t “Fahrenheit 9/11” nominated? Might it be that the academy was avoiding controversy? Or perhaps the academy is actually as divided as the rest of the country. I don’t know. Looking at both movies together, I think, gives a great deal of insight into their relative success. Both films made a powerful statement that a large segment of the population wanted to hear: “Fahrenheit 9/11” said a lot of things about Bush that not only people on the left but moderates who don’t like the president instinctively believed. “The Passion” was a celebration of the foundations of conservative Christianity, and in the great tradition of Medieval passion plays graphically displayed the horrors of the crucifixion. They were both released into a politically charged atmosphere during an election year, one in which the whole country was participating, which was particularly divisive, and more then just a bit nasty. Notably, both did well in all sections of the country: “The Passion” did great business in the blue states, “Fahrenheit 9/11” did great business in the red states—so much so that, in both cases, they were obviously being viewed by people who did not agree with their respective messages. And both were highly controversial. Critics pounded on Michael Moore for his leftist politics and his Bush Bashing, Mel Gibson was accused of Anti Semitism, to the point that statements his father had made years ago were brought into the argument. And this is probably the biggest reason for both films success: while both movies struck a chord with their respective audiences, they also did great box because of the controversies surrounding them. It is an axiom in show biz, and has been since David Merrick staged fist-fights in the lobby during opening night intermissions: controversy puts butts in the seats. Nothing can replace the buzz created by pissing off a vocal group of people.

Joe thinks Hollywood is out of touch. He thinks uplifting films like “Spiderman 2,” “Shrek 2” and “The Incredibles” should have been nominated over the dark, gloomy and ultimately depressing films that got the nod this year. He sees it as a back lash against the success of “Titanic,” (interestingly, he doesn’t mention “Return of the King” which broke box office records and tied with “Titanic” and “Ben Hur” for the most Oscars ever at 11: I suppose it’s because the fantasy element of LOTR is a bit touchy for his Christian sensibilities). According to Joe, what the Hollywood cesspool thinks is “art” is completely out of touch with mainstream American values.

I want to point out that I am an American and I resent Joe Scarborough telling me what my values are supposed to be, but I digress.

Aside from the fact that he is banging the drum on that totally over hyped 22% of voters who claim moral superiority over the rest of us, his argument is actually not new and not new to him. Other critics have phrased it a bit differently in the past, that is all. People have complained for years that Hollywood pretends to care about art one night a year for the Oscars, and spends the rest of the time on crass commercialism: sentimental melodramas, spectacular melodramas, and scatological farces. Normally, Hollywood is accused of hypocrisy for pretending to like good movies. Joe has simply turned it around, calling Hollywood out of touch for not pretending to like bad movies.

Ok, not all bad. “The Incredibles” was a great film, and I can’t call “Spiderman 2” or “Shrek 2” bad because I didn’t see them. But I wonder how many of the nominated films Joe saw that he could dismiss them out of hand like that.

It is an age old argument, the one that Joe is making, one that has pitted artists against producers and consumers for years. I had a girlfriend once who hated what most critics think to be good movies—that is movies that make you think—because she didn’t go to the movies to think, she went to escape. She wanted to see good looking heroes with tight butts kicking the bad guy’s ass, and not be psychoanalyzed. I’m down with that. We went to a lot of action flicks together, and I just took my mom when I went to a Woody Allen picture. Back in the 19th century this same battle was being waged on the stage by the likes of Henrik Ibsen, Emile Zola and George Bernard Shaw. They decried the crass commercialism of the popular theatre of their own day—the sentimental melodramas, the spectacle melodramas, the well made melodramatic comedies that dominated the stage back in the days before film came along and melodrama moved on to a new medium. Playwrights like Dion Boucicalut and Guilbert de Pixericourt and William Gillette wrote the great, uplifting, fun, exciting entertainment of the day. But to Shaw and his ilk their plays were unrealistic, sentimental, and in no way artistic. And he might have had a point. After all, Pixericourt, Boucicault, Scribe, and Sardou are mostly known only to academics, while Chekhov and Shaw are constantly in revival, and Ibsen is considered the Shakespeare of Modern Drama.

Looked at that way Joe’s complaints seem particularly hollow. The Oscars are a professional award, one in which a professional association honors what they consider to be the best work of their peers. It does not need to reflect popular taste, nor should it necessarily do so. “Shrek 2” and “The Passion of the Christ” won their award at the box office. The Oscars are a time for people in the business to vote on what they think was good from a professional standpoint. They reflect the professional opinion and professional tastes of people in the industry, and that will often differ from popular taste. A lot of movies have won Oscars that I thought sucked, and a lot of great films have, in my opinion, been ignored, but I don’t’ get a vote (yet—I’m working on that). I vote at the box office, like Joe and everybody else.

So please, Joe, just shut up and watch the movie.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Nobody Comes to Rick's (anymore)

A friend of mine is taking a film studies class at Marin College in California. Last week his professor showed the class “Casablanca.” That’s number three on the AFI list of Best Films Of All Time “Casablanca.” Humphrey Bogart, Paul Henrid, Ingrid Berman, Claude Rains “Casablanca.” As Time goes by “Casablanca.” That one.

I have often suspected that Casablanca is the most quoted movie ever. It might be “The Wizard of Oz.” or perhaps “The Godfather” (everything comes back to “The Godfather” eventually), but Casablanca has got to be up there. It is certainly more quoted then the AFI’s #1 movie, “Citizen Kane.” It has, after all, provided the title for two other hit films “The Usual Suspects” and “Play It Again Sam.” We all know what it means when somebody says “I’m shocked to discover there is gambling going on in this establishment!”

Of all the gin joints in all the towns of all the world. She walks into mine.

Anyway, his students hated it. They thought it was slow and boring. They thought it was overacted. They thought the humor was lame. They thought it was terrible beginning to end. That’s no big deal. There’s no reason why somebody under 25 should identify with a love story made sixty years ago. On the other hand, when asked what kind of movies they had seen recently that the students thought were better, the general consensus was “Resident Evil II.”

Now that’s scary.

But it raises the question, could “Casablanca” have been the “Resident Evil” or its day? Could people have thought of it as a ridiculous bit of fluff? Could “Resident Evil II” be considered a classic in 30 years? Could it end up on the AFI list in the year 2100? After all, as a post modernist I have to recognize that canonization is impose an older generation’s values onto a younger generation, and that the student’s opinions of “Resident Evil II” are just as valid as the professor’s adulation of “Casablanca.” Susan Sontag in her famous essay “Notes on Camp,” said “Maltese Falcon” was among the greatest camp movies ever made, and the same reasons would apply to “Casablanca” which would mark Casablanca as gloriously bad.

It is campy, isn’t it?

And “Resident Evil II?” Maybe “Resident Evil II” is really a much better movie then “Casablanca,” and me, the professor and Woody Allen just don’t get it.

Friday, February 04, 2005

The Death of Freedom

Not to long ago my mother got really upset at me. What had started by her asking me to explain post-colonialist theory to her, progressed through an accusation that I wanted to do away with Shakespeare and Mozart and everything beautiful, and ended with her tearful accusation that I “hate God.” Just for the record I don’t hate God, I do love Mozart, and I’m a hardcore Shakespearean. I’m a middleclass white male; God, Shakespeare and Mozart are icons of my culture, and I love all three of them. But they are not part American Indian culture, or Zulu culture, or Chinese culture, and there is no reason they should be forced on any of those cultures as they were during the colonial period.

But I digress. Part of my mother’s tearful denunciation was a statement that liberals like me want to dictate what can be said from the pulpit. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think the government has any business getting involved in religion, any more then religion has any business getting involved in politics. The establishment clause is a two way street. Furthermore, most liberals are secularists, and as I said to my mother, they don’t care what’s said from the pulpit. It’s not their bag. It’s not on their radar, and they really don’t give it much thought.

I am dwelling on this now because it has become evident recently that while Liberals may not want to dictate what is said from the pulpit, conservatives most certainly do want to dictate what is said in the classroom. Conservative pundit David Horowitz, who wouldn’t have a career were it not for liberal campus activism back in the sixties, has been whining about radical liberals on campus for years, and, as with much of the right, he and his followers have been emboldened by President Bush’s reelection and are demanding something now be done. He has authored the deceptively titled “Academic Bill of Rights,” which seeks to limit what can college teachers can say in the classroom at public universities. Among other things, it would require universities to seek out conservative faculty, prevent professors from taking a position, and states that “controversial issues” shall not be brought into the classroom. In other words, it is an effort to muzzle those college professors who disagree with the conservative position. It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. Horowitz was on Scarborough Country just last night stumping for it, and a state legislator in Ohio recently submitted it as legislation which would govern not only public universities but also any private university that receives state funding in any form. Of course, Scarborough pretended, as he always does, to be objective and give voice to both sides of the issue. He invited some feckless liberal professor from the University of Texas to offer a counterpoint, but as happens in most cable news “debates,” Scarborough just teamed up with Horowitz and bullied the poor guy. More to the point, the show framed the discussion by showing pictures of former Black Panthers and Weather Underground members who now have teaching positions, referring to college campuses as the last bastion of radical liberalism, and suggesting that college professors, including this guy, are un-American traitors. Even in the moments when the professor got to state his case, the producers kept a split screen up showing Horowitz shaking his head and scowling, treating the professor as either a liar or a misguided fool. I’ve no doubt this is how Horowitz feels, and likely Scarborough, but it can hardly be called objective journalism or an equal debate to frame one party to the debate as an idiot.

And people wonder why we feel like Jews in 1933.

The attacks on freedom are everywhere, and they do not come just from the terrorists:

* Gerald Allen, an Alabama state senator wants to ban all books that “promote a homosexual lifestyle,” prohibit lectures by gay speakers, and to prohibit the production of theatrical works that have gay characters from all public schools including universities. He has said flat out that this means they could not produce musicals like A Chorus Line or plays like Angels in America. According to James Joyner of the Birmingham News: “Allen said that if his bill passes, novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed. ‘I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them,’ he [Allen] said.”

* Science teachers are being required to teach pseudo science as legitimate in the from of creationism and “intelligent design.”

* The federal government pushes abstinence only sex education curriculum, a practice which harms kids by feeding them incomplete and often false information.

* Bill O’Reiley spearheaded a campaign to have a campus in New York rescind a speaking invitation to a controversial professor from Colorado State because he had written an essay on the World Trade Center bombings stating that workers in the world trade center had been complicit in the deaths of thousands of people throughout the world by supporting international capitalism. (It was an incredibly offensive essay, especially to me, living in New York and having my place of work was destroyed in the attack, but it was wrong to shout this guy down).

* Jim DeMint, the new senator from South Carolina, has proposed that homosexuals be prohibited from teaching school (and where have we heard that before?) and that single women teachers who become pregnant should be fired.

…and on and on.

As I struggle through the final stages of my Ph.D. I wonder why I ever wanted to do this in the first place. I am the new Satan. Me, Michael Cramer from Sacramento CA.

And yet…..

I also wonder about the unrealistic liberalism of so many of my colleagues. It’s not that I’m not a liberal, and it’s not that I want people to change how they teach, but sometimes it’s a little too much for me. There is a real group-think attitude in academia sometimes. If you don’t think George Bush is an idiot (which I don’t—I think he’s smart but wrong) there is something wrong with you. If you are not a Marxist you may have few friends. When I entered grad school there were twelve people in my incoming class in my department. Four of us were straight white males and although three of us considered ourselves to be liberal (one is a Republican) we were all politically to the right of everyone else in the class. Not everyone welcomed us with open arms. Our politics were considered suspect by one or two people, and we were occasionally referred to as “the white boys.”

I attended a conference at recently. It was an interdisciplinary conference, and we had people from comparative literature, theatre, art history, political science, and languages, particularly French. We had lively discussions and debates, and also engaged in that other communal activity common at all academic conferences these days, sharing our collective angst over President Bush’s reelection. On the whole it was great. I met wonderful, smart people and shared ideas with them on many topics. Everyone there was both brilliant and interesting, but it was certainly one sided. I got into a fun exchange with a guy on how Frederic Jameson can’t be a postmodernist because his project is to support his own master narrative, that being Marxist Socialism, and he said “oh, I don’t mind that particular master narrative.” One grad student delivered a paper on martyrdom that noted the difference between suicide and martyrdom is that one is selfish and one egalitarian: the suicidal person takes his own life out of personal despair, whereas a martyr sacrifices his own life for a greater good. This position naturally has implications for discussions of terrorism which would get the person demonized as an apologist on Fox News. Some of it I thought was foolish, and one or two things made me feel uncomfortable, but there you have it. Nothing wrong with it, but it does add fuel to Horowitz’s fire (of course, I'm a liberal, a conservative might have felt under attack the same way I do when watching Fox news; I guess this is what it felt like to be a conservative in the 1960s).

For the most part though academics are preaching to the choir at gatherings such as this and that’s ok. I don’t mind the fact that some people in my field are further to the left then I am, or that I can have disagreements with them. That’s what academia is: it’s a debate, an exploration of ideas. People think we teach a “truth” and in some ways we do, but we are always debating or challenging that “truth” in the form of experiments or theories. Hopefully they are more valid then “creationism,” but even that has its place in the debate so long as it is serious scientists and not politicians who are arguing for it—it just doesn’t belong in high school curriculum until the scientific community has accepted it as valid. Academia is fluid and needs to be free. To use a metaphor most conservatives can appreciate, it is like the market: it is most efficient and works best when it is unregulated.

That both the conservatives and the Marxists, from different directions, argue that academia is a monolithic attitude which seeks to indoctrinate students to a particular world view with which they disagree (Marxists tend to see it as part of the hegemonic structure of contemporary capitalist society), indicates to me that it doesn’t really need fixing. If both sides hate it it’s probably doing some good.

The real problem as far as I’m concerned right now is with the right. It is David Horowitz and Joe Scarborough and Bill O’Reiley, none of whom seem to recall that the name of this place is America. And, frighteningly, they have the congress, the president, the courts and about half the American people on their side. They are going after those of us who disagree with them, gays, scientists, academics, leftists, Hollywood producers, abortionists, anybody who challenges their conservative doctrine. And most of this comes from the conservative media—the talk shows and the cable news networks who have whipped up a feeding that threatens to devour the academy, Hollywood, Planned Parenthood, New York and San Francisco, and freedom along with it.

Kristallnacht is coming. Mark my words.