Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stars Wars As 70s Cinema

Check out those sideburns!

[Editor's Note: Today is the 40th anniversary of the initial release of Star Wars, and keeping with tradition on this blog, I'm writing about it.]

For years there's been a narrative in film criticism that Star Wars was the death knell for the flowering of personal, edgy American cinema in the 1970s. After that point Hollywood would prize blockbusters more than small films by auteurs, seeing them as the key to big bucks after Star Wars' unprecedented success. This is all mostly true, of course, but it ignores one crucial factor: Star Wars itself was a product of the 70s cinema culture that it helped to destroy. Its roots in the auteur-driven, realist cinema of the polyester decade are in fact what made it so good and has helped it endure.

Let's first take the fact that 20th Century Fox was willing to give George Lucas millions of dollars to make a kind a movie with a plot and setting more commonly associated with B movies and 1940s serials. The freedom given to directors by studios is what enabled Lucas to even make this film in the first place. In today's environment there's no way a studio would allow a director the level of creative control Lucas had on Star Wars.

On the surface, the setting of Star Wars seems antithetical to the realist currents of 70s cinema. Watch a Robert Altman film of the era, for example, and you will go into people's cluttered living rooms in a way Hollywood films today never do. In Star Wars, we are sent off into a fantastical galaxy far, far away. But it still has the values of 70s cinema. As many before me have discussed, this is a "lived in" universe in ways that prior sci-fi and space fantasy never were. People usually talk about the beat up spaceships and dirty taverns, but there are even deeper examples. For example, when we go into the Lars homestead and see that bottle of blue milk and hear the hum of cooking machines, it reminds me of Elliot Gould's apartment in The Long Goodbye. The "lived in" world of Star Wars makes it so much more human and accessible than all of the space movies that came before and after. Luke Skywalker feels like a small town kid aching to get out, as much as Richard Dreyfus in American Graffiti.

Then, of course, there's Lucas himself. Like most of the other directors of New Hollywood, Lucas was of a generation that went to film school and was deeply influenced by foreign film. His first film, THX 1138, is both small and challenging, much like the films of other auteurs of his generation like Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, and others. American Graffiti was a crowd-pleaser, but it really just shows a slice of life on one night in a small town. Star Wars was more ambitious, but was grounded heavily in his foreign film influences. As Lucas himself has been quick to point out, Star Wars owes a huge debt to Akira Kurosawa. The plot resembles that of Hidden Fortress, and R2D2 and C-3PO were directly inspired by characters in that film. That's only the beginning, obviously. You can add the samurai sword nature of lightsaber fights and the long shots of the droids traversing the Tatooine desert.

But hey, don't take my word for it. If you can, get your mitts on a despecialized edition of the film and see it was originally made without all the embellishments. What you will see is a gloriously shaggy 70s movie, from the sideburns all over the rebel pilots and imperial officers to the ratty cantina to the matte paintings to Luke's haircut. And yes, Lucas did a lot of things new, such as his much more rapid pace of editing and his pulpy subject matter. But as much as Star Wars heralded the changes to come in filmdom, it only got there because it incorporated so well the milieu it would ironically destroy.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tom Waits, "San Diego Serenade"

I'm currently planning my road trip out to Nebraska to see my family this summer. I am getting excited by all of the possibilities of travel open to us, but also by spending a few days in the slower, less hectic world under the big Great Plains sky. While driving my kids around the suburban streets of northern New Jersey (my current home) this evening, I had a semi-official bootleg of a 1974 Tom Waits radio program on the stereo, and was struck deep by "San Diego Serenade."

It's a song Waits wrote about his hometown after having moved to and fully embraced Los Angeles. Like a lot of people (including yours truly) who leave where they're from to make their way in the world, he had long looked down on his hometown. The song is about that feeling when your teen angst fades and you can see the place where you grew up with more sympathetic eyes. The line "I never saw my hometown/ Until I stayed away too long" pretty much sums it up. My hometown is not as comely as San Diego, but it too deserves a serenade from me.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Nixon Ad That Was Roger Ailes' Ur-Text

I hadn't talked about Roger Ailes' death because his body wasn't in the ground until yesterday, and there's no point in spitting on an empty grave. 

Well now I can have at it. Plenty of people have been writing his obituary, and if you want a really good one, read Matt Taibbi's. No, I am just going to play historian here, and discuss an artifact of Ailes' that embodied his worldview and tactics. In 1968 he had his big chance when Nixon made him the head of his campaign's television operation. Ailes responded by making inflammatory commercials intended to excite the resentments of white middle and working class voters who might otherwise be inclined to vote for Democrats. 

They are not subtle. While the completely insane "Convention" ad might be the most egregious example, it was so far beyond the pale that networks wouldn't run it. "The First Civil Right," on the other hand, used similar techniques in subtler ways. It used a sinister-sounding soundtrack, which accentuated the pictures of violent and even bloody protests shown in rapid succession. Nixon starts to intone about the need to address "the problem of order." We never see his face, only these images, which get increasingly heavy handed. For instance, it ends with what looks like the wreckage from a riot, and a coin machine reading "CHANGE" on it. The message is clear: protest groups calling for change are merely violent anarchists, and the iron hand of law and order must be brought to bear against them. As Nixon says, "Peace is the first civil right," implying order trumps any calls for social justice.

This ad does so much. The images and music are designed to turn off the brain and feel threatened. It treats "law and order" as a positive civil rights issue in the language, while using the music and pictures to jar the viewer into responded to their fear reflex in their lizard brains. It so expertly combines a well-cloaked lie in subliminal messages, the kind of thing Ailes brought to bear on Fox News. I still remember coming back to my apartment on 9/11, and my roommate (who at the time was politically naive) watching the coverage on Fox News. It just showed the towers getting hit and collapsing, over and over and over again, but interspersed with images of Palestinians celebrating the attack. The message was clear: go out and kill those people. In less than two years, we'd invaded Iraq.

I have witnessed the human effects of this strategy first hand. People who were once merely conservative in their viewpoints start spouting insane conspiracy theories once they become regular Fox viewers. Ailes mastered Nixon's message of the "silent majority" ie "real America" versus "them," the anti-America. Not only did that message twice win Nixon the presidency, Ailes then used it to preach to an audience in our current day and age frightened by change and resentful of others. Nixon is long gone and Ailes is in the grave, but their political style is never going away. Almost fifty years on, Ailes' ads for Nixon are still remarkably and sadly relevant. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Episode 11 of the Old Dad's Records Podcast

On the eleventh episode of my podcast I discuss the Pearl Jam song "Better Man." I was inspired to do this after a night spent with some friends where we listened to an endless string of songs from the 1990s. I also dug out The Kinks' Low Budget album from my pile of old records. It's yet another representative artifact from "Reagan Dawn" culture. After that I recommend Courtney Barnett, one of my favorite new artists.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Message Democrats Need To Send

In the midst of the political chaos this week, I have been thinking long and hard about the 2018 election. Why? Because it should be blindingly obvious by now that Republicans will not turn against Trump. And why should they? They know with him in power they will get to build prisons, slash social spending, and cut taxes for the wealthy. Basically, they will get their whole program passed, and that's all these ideologues care about.

Trump's opponents need to stop wasting time trying to cajole these conservative true believers and concentrate on how to vote them out of office, the only permanent remedy available. Doing this is harder than it may seem, because while Trump may be unpopular, gerrymandering and voter suppression and low voter turnout in midterms make this a difficult proposition.

There's also the difficulty of messaging. The scandals play well with Democratic voters, obviously, but you won't get independents with promises of impeachment. The health care bill is massively unpopular, making it a much more fertile ground to plow in the election. However, this did not mean giving up on Russiagate.

The two can be melded very effectively. Democrats simply need to tell the voters that "The Republicans are not going after Trump on Russia because they want to take away your health care and give the money to the rich." That needs to be the mantra. Voters must be told again and again that they are going to lose health insurance or pay a lot more for it so that the wealthiest people get even more money. And adding that this is the priority, not investigating Russia, keeps that issue around in the minds of voters who care about it more.

If the Democrats really want to be daring, they should offer Medicare For All. That will free them from having to defend the status quo, and also offer something tangible that would greatly benefit the majority of Americans.

Contrary to what some might say, Russia and economic critique are not mutually exclusive issues. They can, and should be combined, and if they are the Democrats will have a potent message.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Blood and Soil" Is The Story The Media Missed In Charlottesville

The German-American Bund filled Madison Square Garden in 1939. Nazis like Richard Spencer are nothing new in America.

The neo-fascist (don’t call it alt-right) movement made some waves this weekend with their torch-lit rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was ostensibly in response to the removal of Confederate monuments in public spaces, but was obviously intended as a kind of neo-fascist show of strength. I have found the reporting of this rally rather curious, though. I’ve been hearing a lot about the crowd chanting “Russia is our friend,” but little about chants of “blood and soil.”

The latter is much more alarming and significant, and needs greater attention. In case you don’t know, “blood and soil” is translated from the original German phrase “Blut und Boden.” That phrase is a kind of bumper sticker slogan for Nazism. At its base Nazism contained a very particular idea of what constituted German identity and belonging, summed up in that phrase. Only those of German blood could ever be German, and those not of German blood needed to be expelled from German soil. Hence German Jews, who had strongly identified with and assimilated to German culture after their emancipation, found themselves murdered and exiled.

“Blut und Boden” is farcical concept, of course, because there is no such thing as “German blood,” and what constituted “German soil” was historically widely variant. That concept is equally, if not more farcical in the American context. The only reason to invoke “blood and soil” is if you are the kind of person who admires Hitler and wants to incorporate his ideas into American politics. Those people chanting it in Charlottesville are basically Nazis if they buy into it, and ought to be labeled as such. Richard Spencer, the leader of this rally, is himself essentially a Nazi as well.

So why are news outlets calling this a “protest” about Confederate monuments? This might be mostly due to not understanding what these monuments actually mean. They were erected after the violent death of Reconstruction, and are thus monuments to the glory of white supremacy. Many of the monuments themselves are direct enough to even say so. Some try to defend their continued presence as evidence of the past, but we certainly never had that feeling about the statues of Lenin that were toppled in the Communist bloc after 1989. We understood that toppling to be a symbolic blow against a repressive regime, and the removal of Confederate statues ought to be seen in the same light.

The neo-fascists following Spencer understand this meaning, too. They too perceive the statues as monuments to white supremacy, hence why they would be chanting “blood and soil” rather than singing “Dixie.” They are using the opposition to the removal of these statues to recruit garden variety racists and resentful white people to be full fledged fascists. (I am sure that they are also aware that in Germany, where Nazi symbols like the swastika are banned, white supremacists fly the Confederate flag.)

The media doesn’t know what to do with this, because, as Kelly Baker so rightfully pointed out, they have a misbegotten notion that racists and Klansters look like the characters in Deliverance, not well-dressed, well-educated people like Spencer. They also seem to be under the misconception that Nazis are fictional beings or somehow not part of America’s social history.

Sadly, out and out Nazis have been present in this country practically ever since Nazism existed. There was the German-American Bund back in the 1930s, which dressed up in brownshirts and swastikas and managed to fill Madison Square Garden. Openly declared Nazis also fought to keep Atlanta and Los Angeles segregated after World War II and threatened to attack the March on Washington in 1963. Gerald Carlson, an ex-Nazi, managed to get the Republican nomination in Michigan's 4th District in the early 1980s. (I only just discovered this insane fact.) David Duke (who sported a swastika in the 1970s) almost won the governorship of Louisiana in 1991.

There’s a crucial difference today, however, that ought to make us more, not less concerned. Namely, the president of the United States has people affiliated with the circles that Nazis travel in as his close advisors. Steve Bannon, a man openly inspired by fascist intellectuals, still has the president's ear. The president also came to power with the support of Nazis like Spencer, who the president has been unwilling to disavow. These fascists have always been on the fringe, now they are actually getting traction in the political mainstream.

Seen in this light, pro-Russia chants are meaningless compared to the open embrace of Nazi “blood and soil” language. We are in a very dangerous moment, and anyone who urges “dialogue” with these people or laughs them off or gives them a public platform is sorely misguided. Combat and only combat is the sole response necessary.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Why Comey's Firing Is The Third "Constitutional Crisis" In A Year

After Donald Trump fired James Comey, and then had the temerity to admit in an interview that it was, as everyone suspected, to end the Russia inquiry, there's been a lot of talk of a "constitutional crisis. I laugh a bit at this, not because I deny the seriousness of of Trump's action, but because we have been in crisis mode for quite some time.

The first such crisis came last spring when the Republican Senate refused to even consider president Obama's pick for Supreme Court justice, effectively treating him as illegitimate. The second crisis came after the election, when the candidate who lost by millions of votes was allowed to become president. The Supreme Court battle was a case of the Constitution being ignored, the election was a case where the Constitution appeared to be at odds with its intended purposes. And now, of course, we have a crisis where the chief executive is behaving like an autocrat, but his Republican allies are unwilling to provide a check on his power.

At base in all of these cases the issue is that one of our political parties is merely the vehicle for an extremist ideology that will stop at nothing to grab political power by any means necessary. This ideology is also not supported by a majority of Americans, which is why this party suppresses the vote, gerrymanders, harnesses gushers of dark money, and puts its support behind a nationalist demagogue who promises "jobs" while passing all the cuts to taxes and health care that they want.

Anyone who fails to understand the true nature of the Republican party fails to understand the current political reality. Those "objective" journalists who portray it as just another center-right political party are wrong, as are the radicals on the Left who treat them as one side of the neoliberal coin, with the Democrats on the other. It is not fear mongering to say that the Republican party as currently constituted poses a threat to the existence of constitutional democracy in this country, it's the truth. Democrats, radicals, and journalists all need to be acting under this assumption. Our three constitutional crises in the past year ought to be proof enough.