Wednesday, May 25, 2016

My Star Wars Day Wish

Today is May the 25th, and every Star Wars fan worth their salt knows that today, not May the fourth, is the true Star Wars day. It was on this day in 1977 that Star Wars was first released to theaters, and the world has not been the same ever since.  Despite that fact, it is extremely difficult to obtain an official, legally distributed copy of that film, which seems mighty odd that the local Target's bins are practically bursting over with the likes of That's My Boy and Fantastic Four. The only version available is one altered in key respects by George Lucas after twenty years of tinkering.

The crime of this came back to me recently when I taught an intercession course at my school about Star Wars. One thing I wanted to bring across was how and why so many people were wowed so spectacularly when they first saw it in the theater. I set that up by showing parts of other sci-fi films that preceded it in the 1970s, like THX 1138, Silent Running, and Logan's Run as well as the Flash Gordon serials that had been a big influence on Lucas. I decided to show them only the first reel of the film (even though we were seeing it on DVD), and then for us to analyze it.  And while I knew that there were not the kinds of severe alterations in the first reel that so badly alter later scenes (especially in Mos Eisley), I knew that there were small changes, some barely detectable. That fact bugged me, since it was hard even for me to know what was there in 1977, and what was not.  I realized that my students could not actually see the thing in 1977 that had carried such a heavy impact.

Forget all the whining by Star Wars fans like myself upset over "ruined childhoods."  In the first place, my childhood was ruined a long time ago by an abusive kindergarten teacher. In the second place, it's what posterity has lost that is more important. I came to realize that the vast majority of my students had never actually seen the original Star Wars, only the special editions. The original had been disappeared before they were even born.  Considering the massive cultural importance of Star Wars, it is a crime against history to suppress or destroy such an important cultural artifact. It would be like painting a permanent mustache on the Mona Lisa, or putting a neon sign in the background of Starry Night. It is my most fervent Star Wars day wish that the powers that be release a remastered version of the original 1977 version of the film on blu-ray.  If they want to include it with the special editions, or versions with different sound mixes for the true obsessive, all the better.  Perhaps that way George Lucas' feelings can be spared. Hell, I'll even allow them to call the original version "bonus materials" if that makes him happy. I would pay a pretty penny for it, like a lot of other Star Wars fans, so Disney, 20th Century Fox (who still owns distribution rights to the first films), and Lucas will all benefit. Despite rumors that it's going to happen, for some reason I doubt it.

Above all, I wish for a remastered 70mm version of Star Wars released to the theaters. I first wrote about that last year at this time, and plan on making the same plea every Star Wars day to come.


The film podcast The Projection Booth is a must-listen for me, and they've termed this month "maudit May."  They have been discussing films so snakebitten or unfortunate that they cannot be seen, such as Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind, which the master never completed.  Imagine my surprise when I saw that Star Wars is their film this week.  Wasn't the world saturated with Star Wars, and DVD copies easy to find?  After that initial thought, I remembered the reason: Star Wars cannot be seen in its original 1977 version, which George Lucas has kept under lock and key, and which he has even claimed no longer exists.  (I call shenanigans on that one.)  Instead we are stuck with constant revisions of the original film, which I can only see now with cheesy add-ons made with low-grade 1990s CGI.  This great film now has a completely clunky, idiotic scene with Jabba the Hutt jammed in where Han is forced to step on Jabba's tail to account for the gratuitous retrofitting of a fake-looking CGI slug, in addition to all kinds of silly crap happening during the trip into Mos Eisley spaceport.

The new sequels make me mildly excited.  You know what would make me truly elated?  Seeing a restored, remastered, 70mm version of the 1977 original in stereo sound on the big screen.  This would still technically be a "special edition" because the original, first release of the film in May of 1977 had multiple sound mixes, both mono and stereo.  The stereo mix was a bit of a rush job, and Lucas actually preferred the mono mix because it was more refined.  (Little known fact, the sound mix was still being put together just days before the film hit theaters.)

Seeing the original film with cleaned up sound fit for modern theater speakers in glorious 70mm would truly be something else.  I saw the 1997 special edition at the now demolished Indian Hills theater in Omaha in 70mm on a towering, concave screen built for Cinerama.  Despite the annoying additions to the film, it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life.  Please Disney, get this right and give the people what they want: the movie they fell in love with (or at least the closest we can come to it) looking fantastic and sounding great in glorious analog film.  There are a lot of people who will put cash on the barrelhead for this.  If that isn't motivation enough, at least bring back one of the most culturally significant films ever made and stop allowing it to be suppressed in favor of a far inferior version.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Stop With The Narrative That Trump Is The Candidate Of The Downtrodden

In 1970, after the Kent State shooting, construction unions staged demonstrations attacking the peace movement, praising Nixon, and espousing "love it or leave it" nationalism. That nationalism is what drives Trumpism today, don't let anyone tell you it's all about economic despair.

I've written about this before, but I keep hearing the same damn false narrative and I have to respond to it. Today my friend and fellow (much more noteworthy) blogger Chauncey DeVega sent me a Thomas Frank article from a couple of months ago where Frank makes the same false argument that Trump's support lies in the economic slide of the white working class, not in racism. On its face, this just isn't true. If Trump is about soothing economic pain, why are the black and Latino working classes, who have suffered WORSE than the white working classes not voting for Trump en masse? Why aren't they energized by his language about "trade deals"? I mean, the answer is so obvious that I don't even have to say it. A man who does little to disavow the support of the Klan and who wants to deport millions of Latino immigrants and incites hatred against them is not going to get those votes.  There are also a lot of working class whites who do not support Trump, despite living in the Rust Belt. Trump's working class white support also tends to run high in the South, where whites are already disproportionately Republican compared to the rest of the country, with race a big element in that.

It pains me to go after Frank, because he has consistently been one of my favorite political observers. I think this is a case of someone trying too hard to say "see I told you so!" Frank has been saying for years that the Democrats' shift to the middle of economic issues has enabled Republicans to pick off Democratic voters with culture war issues. There's a lot to that, but Frank is misinterpreting the implications when it comes to his thesis. He wants to hit the Democrats for their failures, but Trump's support has a lot less to do with those failures and a lot more to do with the culture war that Frank did not talk about: nationalism.

Frank has discussed so called "values voters" in the past, but the current election has shown us that the real culture war, the one that has sustained itself since Nixon, is not over gay rights and abortion, but American identity. In the early 1970s hard hatted construction workers attacked anti-war protestors and praised Nixon, waving the flag and proclaiming their loyalty to the nation. After all, the one great privilege traditionally conferred by whiteness on lower-order whites is full citizenship, to be "free white and 21." Those hard hats thought of America as "their" country. Forty years later, the Tea Party movement stripped away a lot of the "values" issues to reveal naked nationalism inflamed by the "Kenyan Usurper" being in the White House.

I am sure there are plenty of white workers who think that Trump will somehow bring the jobs back, but they like him because they see him bringing jobs back for people LIKE THEM. Frank says that white working class voters aren't attracted to Trump because they want to support a flaming racist. That may well be true, but that does not change the fact that race is still a huge part of their support. They are well aware of his hate against Latinos and associations with white nationalists. Here's the deal: whites who are anti-racist look at that and refuse to back Trump, no matter his policies. Even those Trump voters who do not consciously respond to his racism are willing, consciously or not, to support him knowing full well that he is a white supremacist. That are okay with that, at the very, very least.

Most of his supporters, however, are willingly or even enthusiastically accepting the white supremacy as part of the total package. Look people, Trump voters are not new. They are the same people who voted for George Wallace, Jesse Helms, and David Duke. (While Duke lost the Louisiana governor's race, a majority of whites voted for him.)  Going back at least to Andrew Jackson there has been a place for the politics of white racial resentment pitched to the white working class, and working class whites more than happy to turn out in support. Trump is part of that tradition, but has incited more support than the likes of Pat Buchanan due to his novelty, political savvy, and media manipulation.

There are plenty of working class whites who do not respond to Trump's poison. Those are the voters that Democrats need to cultivate, the ones willing to be part of a multi-racial coalition. As far as those whites that don't, they just aren't needed anymore, and it would be insulting to the people of color who vote Democrat for the party to court that vote.  The Democrats rode the New Deal coalition of white workers, southern whites, African Americans, and educated liberals to victory for over three decades. That coalition was broken (after years of weakening) by Nixon's Southern Strategy and culture war appeals. Now the Democrats can forge a new, equally powerful coalition. African Americans, Latinos, Asians, the youth of all races, educated liberals, a big chunk of white workers, and a large portion of white women (still not a majority) vote for the Democrats. Instead of wooing whites who cling to skin privilege, the Democrats should build this other coalition, which has the potential to leave Trump battered come November.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mopey Mid-80s Pop Music

In lieu of a track of the week this week, I thought I'd write a little something about a very strange subgenre: mopey mid-80s pop. The music hitting the charts in the 1984-1986 period rarely sounds timeless to our ears today, considering how it incorporated production techniques that have aged poorly. Pop music today is produced within an inch of its life, but it sounds like a Ferrari.  Pop tunes like "All About That Bass" are the aural equivalent of the CGI cities being destroyed at the end of superhero movies: able to be enjoyed purely on technical merits, even if they're pretty soulless. By comparison, those mid-80s songs sound like a 1985 Datsun hatchback with a loose muffler. But the gauzy layers of nostalgia allow me to enjoy them, regardless.

In the midst of the bold, over the top productions of the mid-80s that reflected the Reagan era's confidence and materialism, there were sour notes. Many of them come from British artists, which might say something about the popular response to Reagan as opposed to Thatcher.  Here are some of those songs, overproduced and shiny in many cases, but nowhere near "Walking on Sunshine."

Mike + The Mechanics "Silent Running"

This song is the inspiration for this list. I heard it mentioned on the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast last week, and remembered the uncanny feelings this song would give me as I heard it coming out of the radio on a dark 80s night. As you would expect from a band including one of the members of Genesis, there's a strange prog rock shaggy dog story about some kind of dystopic future involving space travel. It's amazing that anything so obscure made it so high on the charts, but the synths and effects-laden guitar fit right in with 1985.

Simply Red, "Holding Back The Years"
Man, this has got to be one of the biggest downers to make it big in the days of hairspray and spandex, the 80s equivalent of "What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted." Despite the overly smooth accompaniment and soprano sax, I actually really like this song. It reminds me of rainy spring afternoons and having to stay inside during recess. On those days I would feel a kind of wistful sadness. Yes, I was a strange kid.

Wham! "Careless Whisper"

Speaking of sax, this song has perhaps the most iconic sax riff of its era, and that's saying something. Coming at the end of the Make It Big album, it throws cold water on an affair that began with the Big Brother Reagan Loves Me opener "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go." Now George Michael is telling us in a distraught voice that "I'm never gonna dance again." Just 40 minutes before he had yelled out "take me dancing tonight!" Perhaps the whole transition is a bigger metaphor for the exuberance of neoliberalism souring in later years.

Human League, "Human"

Even in 1986 I thought it was silly that a group called Human League would put out a song called "Human."  It's a far cry from their breakout music of the early 80s, which delights in the uptempo fun of synth pop even when telling the tale of heartbreak that is "Don't You Want Me." Nope, this song is just mopetastic. So much so that I think it was created in a lab for songs to be played in the waiting rooms of dentists' offices.

Mr Mister "Broken Wings"

If there's anything sillier than the Human League putting a song out called "Human," it's a band calling itself Mr Mister. It's easy for me to laugh now, but I loved this song when it came out. "Broken Wings" coincided with the earliest stirrings of my adolescence and all the emotional volatility that it implied. Perhaps that's why all this mopey music appealed to me.

The Cars "Drive"

The Cars had managed a wonderful alchemy where they combined the sounds of the new wave and power pop underground with mainstream rock. Their late-70s debut was all killer and no filler. By the mid-80s the Cars had adapted their sound to the times and had a bunch of hits. Unlike the sunny fun of "Magic," "Drive" was deadly serious. Sung by Benjamin Orr instead of Ric Ocasek, it featured shimmery synths and little in the way of guitar. It's a song about seeing your former lover cracking up after they've pushed you away, a mopey topic indeed. Despite all that, this song has a soft spot in my heart because it was an early point of discussion with my wife and I when I first met her. (Two people that hung up on 80s pop culture were meant to be.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

I Didn't Lose The Bern, The Bern Lost Me

This year has been a first in my life as a voter. I am going to be withdrawing support from a candidate I was once very excited about due to the actions of his supporters. Since my one little vote will never sway an election, I always vote with my conscience, since that's how I'm able to sleep at night.  For a long time, despite my doubts about his capability of wielding the power of the presidency, my conscience was with Bernie Sanders. I consider myself to be a social democrat and his program to temper the excesses of capitalism and use the state to improve the lives of its citizens by effectively redistributing wealth was exactly what I'd been waiting to hear from the Democratic Party.

Now my conscience doesn't feel so clear, and it has little to do with Hillary Clinton, whom I mostly liked then and now (while still maintaining a healthy skepticism.) The behavior of Sanders and his supporters is exposing some major problems with certain sectors of the left. Early on I dismissed the "Bernie Bro" as an invention, but my time online has shown me that Sanders supporters tend to be excessive in their unwillingness to hear criticism of their candidate and aggressive in their treatment of others.  Whenever he fails at the polls, or fails to capture the votes of crucial parts of the Democratic coalition (African Americans in particular), there's always an excuse or a conspiracy theory. 

This week, with the violent displays at the Nevada Democratic state convention, things have gotten much uglier. I am also hearing talk of major disruptions at the party convention in Philly this summer by Bernie supporters.  This is happening despite the fact that he has no real way to win the nomination, and Donald Trump has emerged as the Republican nominee. The stakes of this kind of stuff are thus very high. 

I think I have discovered the conceit that lies at the base of all of this. Many Sanders supporters see him as the living and breathing embodiment of the popular will. This means that all who oppose or disagree with him are the forces of corporate evil or dupes. This explains the friend on Facebook who compared HRC to Reagan, as if the architect of the first real go at a national health insurance program was the equivalent of the man who railed against "socialized medicine."   

Furthermore, if Sanders is indeed the embodiment of the popular will, the only explanation for his defeat must be corruption and treachery. Hence the media gets blamed, or super delegates, or Democratic Party chicanery.

OK, Sandroids, you finally wore me down. I actually have detected a conspiracy! On random Tuesdays, Democratic Party voters are congregating scattered locations and going into covered booths where no one can see what they're doing. I've discovered that they are marking ballots that are kept secret, and that they are conspiracy to mark those ballots for Hillary Clinton. What's more, a majority of the Democrats actually appear to be in on it! How treacherous!

In all seriousness, it is hard for me to make common cause with people who treat politics like a religious cult. My days of dogma are long gone. When the primaries finally come here to New Jersey in June, I will not be so sure who to pull the lever for. Sanders supporters have themselves to thank for that.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Untangling Class, Race, and "The Good Old Days"

Quite a few trees have been felled and servers burned out in the cause of explaining the support for Donald Trump's presidential bid. As is usually the case with complex questions, people are looking for monocausal answers. Some in the mainstream media have gone out of their way not to talk about racism as a factor in Trump support, preferring to see him as the candidate of downtrodden working class whites. Others (more rightly) have highlighted the obvious face that white racial resentment is a huge element of Trump's support, but also tend to see talk of formerly middle class workers longing for the "good old days" to be a fig leaf for white supremacist yearnings. Though the latter group may be much more correct in their outlook, they also conveniently set aside the legitimate reasons so many would in fact pine for "the good old days." Not understanding that will make it very difficult to defeat Trump.

In the first place, the white racial resentment driving Trumpism is obvious, and the evidence for its strength grows with each passing day. A recent article in Salon shows this very starkly. Even without the statistics handy, the fact that working class people of color are not supporting Trump is a pretty glaring sign that his appeal is in no way purely or even mostly class based. As the article shows, Trump supporters are more likely to hold negative views of African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, and the LGBTQ than even other Republicans, and higher opinions of white people as well.

At the same time, Trump supporters look to the past, when things were better for "people like us." In my mind that's why I call them Archie Bunkers. If you remember All In The Family, Archie was always railing against the same people Trump voters don't like, except for Muslims, who had yet to become as vilified by his ilk. Every show started with he and his wife Edith singing "Those Were The Days," a song that longed for a former time when "men were men" and there was no "welfare state." Then as now, this pining for the past before the social revolutions of the 1960s is politically reactionary when put in those terms. Archie himself benefitted from the white affirmative action aspects of the New Deal, from his union job to a house whose mortgage one could assume was backed by the FHA. It's when others benefitted from the welfare state that he got mad, a pretty typical occurrence after the Great Society among Nixon's "silent majority."

But the old Archie Bunker still lived in the postwar world of high paying blue collar jobs and a growing middle class. Large swathes of the country in the last forty years have experienced great economic decline, from the Great Plains farm belt to Appalachia to the Rust Belt cities of the Great Lakes. The Rust Belt declines have had an even harder impact on African Americans (just look at Detroit, Cleveland, and Flint), but it is working class whites who have leveraged these declines into Trumpist anger. Whereas deindustrialization kept other groups from getting the entree into the middle class that they sought, the same factors have been pushing whites in many areas out of the middle class that had just been entered into by their parents' generation. The anger over losing has been transferred onto the "other," which Trump has exploited. Loss of economic power can be blamed on immigrant laborers and foreign trade, not on the vicissitudes of capitalism.

When a lot of older white folks answer poll questions and say life in America was better before 1965, they're not necessarily pining for an older social order. My own hometown in the farm belt of Nebraska is a place that was certainly a lot better off economically before the massive blows to the farm economy in the 1980s. However, it is possible for voters to be driven by BOTH racial resentment and economic privation.  The latter is not imaginary, and the notable spike in deaths caused by drugs, alcohol, and suicide in working class whites shows the human toll this is all taking. But a lot of the same people who are upset at seeing their towns crumble as the jobs have moved away also have plenty of hate in their hearts and cling to a threatened white supremacy which they used to count on.  Working class people of color continue to have it a lot worse, but the discrepancy is not enough to satisfy the need by many white people in this country to be in a special slot on the hierarchy.

The thing is, a lot of those whites unhappy at the economic turn are not turning to hate. The Democratic party has to reach those voters. I am not making the usual call for Democrats to appeal to working class whites at all costs, because those days are over and the Democrats ought to prioritize those loyal to them. Instead, I want the party to solidify its connections to those working class white voters willing to be in a multiracial coalition. While there is a stereotype that the white working class is overwhelmingly Republican, that is actually skewed by the numbers from the South. Outside of the South, it's much less the case. The Democrats can use the "good old days" narrative in a more positive way by arguing for worker protections, strong unions, and support for college and child care. Trump is actually handing them an opportunity, I only hope that they take it.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Track of the Week: Beach Boys "Hang On To Your Ego"

As readers of this blog know, changes in the seasons have a big effect on my emotional state. Here in mid-May we are in a time of year I've always loved: late spring. It's warm but not yet hot, baseball is starting to get serious, and school is almost out. There are albums that I never listen to other times of the year but spin incessantly in late spring. The most notable is probably the Beach Boys' magnum opus Pet Sounds. It's an album that's light years ahead of stuff like "Fun Fun Fun," famously inspiring the Beatles to try to top it on Sgt Pepper.

The music fits this time of year, since it's about life transitions. Beneath the sparkly, beautiful surface are words of doubt and sadness. Evidently on "Hang On To Your Ego" things got a little too real, and Mike Love forced a change in Brian Wilson's lyrics over the same backing track, which appears on the album as "I Know There's An Answer." "Hang On To Your Ego" is thus one of the great deleted tracks of all time, as far as I'm concerned.  Instead of bland words about self-discovery, it's a warning against losing yourself to outside forces. While people tend to focus on it as giving caution to those who use LSD, the lyrics are mostly about people and the social pressures they exert. Usually songs on that subject are too adolescent or simple-minded, but this one has an air of wisdom about it.

The best part, of course, is the music. The sounds are surreal and psychedelic without being tacky. Some are so fittingly odd, like the bumblebee hum of the giant bass harmonica paired with a banjo, that I can't listen to this song passively. More than once this week I've had the windows of my car open and this song on the stereo, breathing deep the fecund late spring air and enjoying a quiet moment of grace.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Cranky Bear Has An Election Pep Talk For Us

[Editor's note: after a long week of work I am exhausted and will hand over blogging duties to Cranky Bear, my rather passionate and impolitic friend. Cranky's views do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or Werner Herzog's Bear.]

Cranky Bear coming at you, with a big ass bottle of imperial oatmeal stout, because sometimes the Crankster feels like being sophisticated. Well folks, this it. Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. A lot of folks are understandably worried about this. Hell, I am too. A crypto-fascist who has brought white supremacy, hatred of Muslims, and nativist eliminationism into the political mainstream and is now one step closer to the presidency is certainly someone to be worried about.

But here's the deal. A lot of y'all are worrying in the wrong ways.  I hear you say "Oh my God, Trump is gaining in the polls! Oh my God, lotsa Bernie voters are going to stay home in the general election! Oh my God, Trump keeps lying/saying bigoted things/acts like an ass, but his campaign isn't sunk yet!"

Y'all are worrying wrong because you're doing it so damn passively. To paraphrase US Grant's words to his subordinates about Lee: stop worrying about what Trump is doing, and worry a lot more about what you're gonna do to him.  Stop worrying about Trump becoming president, because it ain't gonna happen if you do what you need to do.

He won't be stopped by John Oliver or Samantha Bee. He won't be stopped by being caught in a lie, because everything that comes out of his garbage mouth is a lie. And he sure as shit won't be stopped by fighting with him on Twitter, as much as I enjoy Elizabeth Warren's sparring with the orange pumpkin of doom.  He won't be stopped by arguing with that dipshit you haven't talked to since high school on Facebook. Nope, he is going to be beaten when we all go out and organize organize organize until election day, when we and all the people we've organized go vote and turn this racist braggart into the thing he claims he'll never be: a loser.  All this other shit just don't matter. Get off yer ass, fer Chrissakes, and take to the goddam streets.

Are you people Democrats, or what? Your party used to get out the vote like a fucking champion. While I don't endorse the policies of Richard J Daley, a lot of his spirit was there in Chicago this spring when folks showed up and let Trump know that they would not be having his shit in their city. On your turf get your people out there and to the polls and the state level results will follow. If you're in deep red territory rally the troops and get them to keep the faith.

The Republicans can given you a massive opportunity on a big bright shiny platter, and you're wringing your little hands about it.  Fuck that. There has never been a more unpopular man to get the presidential nomination of a major party. So you love Bernie and don't like Hilary and don't want to get out the vote for her? Well I don't care.  Cut the shit and big on your big girl/boy pants and do what needs to get done. How the fuck else is your "revolution" gonna happen if the Congress is still being run by ideologues whose ideas are to the right of Attila the Hun? I mean, deep down, don't you want to wipe the smug look off of Paul Ryan's face? Even if you aren't crazy about Hilary, that'll certainly be worth it, right my Berniebros?

Put down your damn phone. Get off the fucking Twitter. Get off your Cheetos-enhanced asses and knock on some goddamn doors for a change. Let the orange shitlord and his hairpiece talk as much shit as they want, you go out and organize and BREAK him and the sycophantic assholes in his party come November. Make Mitch McConnell's turkey waddle chin quiver as he cries bitter tears of defeat. Be able to taunt your racist uncle on Facebook the day after the election. Trump and his army of troglodytes have put away the dog whistles and have come out of the sewers to openly proclaim their bigotry. MAKE THEM PAY.