Saturday, May 25, 2019

everything has a reason: lensing Apocalypse Now in the Phillipines

The good thing about a compulsion: there's always next time to get it wrong right.

The Vietnam War was eerily similar to U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: a quagmire in a far off, developing, non-white nation, sold with lies and testosterone.  The major difference was (is) the military draft.  The calling-up of 2 million men to serve in Vietnam inspired mass protests during the war, and thereafter, survivor's guilt.  The guilt, in turn, fed the war on terrorism, initiated by non-combatants George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

The survivor's-guilt boom left traces in our movies.  Initially, Vietnam vets on-screen tended anti-social and/or violent (e.g. The Enforcer, Black Sunday, Lethal Weapon, The Indian Runner).  The scapegoating didn't take, not for lack of trying, but Vietnam was a national disgrace that couldn't be shunted to a subset.

We embraced veterans in the mid-1980s: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (right; opened 1982), Platoon (1985, by veteran Oliver Stone), Hamburger Hill and Full Metal Jacket (both 1987), and on TV, Tour of Duty and China Beach.  The debt settled, on-screen vets turned comfortably cartoonish, whether frankly (The Big Lebowski) or not (Forrest Gump).   

The signal year, though, was 1978.  That cycle played it both ways, with sympathetic soldiers or vets nevertheless defined by mental and physical breakdown.  The Deer Hunter won Best Picture, and Coming Home, Oscars for Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, but Apocalypse Now may have aged best.  It inspired a celebrated documentary (1991's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, by Eleanor Coppola), as well as a substantially longer director's cut in 2001.

As Hearts of Darkness documents, survivor's guilt informs even the publicity around a Vietnam film.  The filmmaking-as-combat conceit was mocked in 2008's Tropic Thunder.  Still, Apocalypse Now came oddly close: the planned 16-week shoot lasted over a year, the obstacles including a typhoon, Martin Sheen's (near-fatal) heart attack, and the Filipino government's repossession of helicopters and pilots (to fight a communist rebellion).  As in Vietnam, there was drugs and alcohol.  Armchair doomsayers decried the ballooning project, its commander due for a fall (Coppola was coming off the Godfather films and The Conversation).

These troubles were largely predictable.  Various locales can double for Vietnam; the troubled Philippines was the director's choice.  In Hearts of Darkness, George Lucas recalls warning friend Francis: 
If you go over there as a big Hollywood production, they're gonna kill you.  The longer you stay, the more in danger you are of getting sucked into the swamp.
Excise "Hollywood," and these words apply to the Vietnam War.  But maybe that's the point: epic-film production as masochism, to exorcise survivor's guilt.  If such motivation was (largely) unconscious, it didn't stop Coppola capitalizing once the film was done.  The ringmaster's immortal words at Cannes, 1979:
My film is not a movie.  My film is not about Vietnam.  It is Vietnam.  It's what it was really like ... the way we made it was much like the Americans were in Vietnam.  We were in the jungle -- there were too many of us -- we had access to too much money, too much equipment -- and little by little, we went insane.  
It's not just the movie's director, star and co-writer John Milius (reputedly blacklisted after his militaristic Red Dawn, 1984): various figures would receive displaced punishment.  Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst spent a year as a domestic terrorist, then 22 months in prison.  CBS and Mike Wallace were sued by General William Westmoreland; years later, Dan Rather was baited with fake documents.  Bill Clinton was impeached; Colin Powell, recruited for deception.  Others caught hell for exaggerating their service (Tim Johnson, Richard Blumenthal).  Jane Fonda got off easy: an apology, and penitential aerobics.

As voters, we avoided a vet as president (John Kerry, John McCain).  As ticket buyers too, we'd  avoid triggers: males of draft-age became stars only in their mid-30s (examples include Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Patrick Swayze and James Woods).  Other than Oliver Stone, the most prominent (real) veteran in Hollywood seems to be Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue).

If Francis Ford Coppola wanted to show appreciation to veterans, he could have merely talked to them, and, perhaps, arranged film-industry internships.  Americans aren't particularly known for restraint or self-awareness.  If so, we might've avoided the quagmire of 2032.

Friday, December 28, 2018

everything has a reason: the corporate mind of MLB

This series attempts to illuminate human behavior, while assuming each choice has sufficient rational motivation, if not always (entirely) conscious for the actor.
meet the Mets: Robinson Cano
We don't make mistakes, then: we prioritize one motive over another.  It feels good to vent, but people don't suddenly become lazy-crazy-stupid, and even lust, anger and greed have nuances.

(Note: this post strays from film/TV to baseball, but is worded to include the non-fan.)

The recent New York Mets trade for aging, overpaid Robinson Cano (coming off a suspension for Performance-Enhancing Drugs, or PEDs) is part of a web of decisions sketching the game's prospects (disclosure: I'm a diagnosed Mets fan).  This trade has renewed talk of the Designated Hitter¹ coming to the National League, but is only the latest of such indicators:
  1. baseball's fixation on power (home runs, the strikeouts that go with them)
  2. 1997: the inception of interleague (regular-season) play, breaking a 95-year custom
  3. 1998: the Milwaukee Brewers become a National League team, after 29 years in the AL
  4. 2013: the Houston Astros become an American League team, after 51 years in the NL
  5. beyond Cano, aging sluggers on NL teams include Yoenis Cespedes (Mets), Joey Votto (Reds), Ian Desmond and Daniel Murphy (Rockies), Buster Posey (Giants) and Josh Donaldson (Braves)
The Midwest switch (#3 and 4) made little sense: Milwaukee and Houston sit at roughly the same longitude, why not leave it alone?  Like interleague play, however, the switch defrayed league identity, already withering from free-agency and the resulting player mobility.  To put it another way: it adds a major market, Houston, to those with a DH history.  Of the greater metropolitan areas in MLB since 1965, only four have no experience with the DH: St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

There's DH resonance, too, in December's surprise Hall of Fame selections (by a Veterans' Committee, the second chance for players overlooked by the Baseball Writers of America).  The belated election of Harold Baines and Lee Smith leverages the need for inclusion (both are African-American) on behalf of marginalized positions: the Designated Hitter (Baines) and the closer (Smith).

Many experts say Baines, especially, isn't a valid Hall of Famer (these include Jon Taylor and Darren Rovell).  Still, his election may've held too many benefits to be denied.  Not least, it suggests the elevation of a dozen-or-so borderline hitters, such as Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, Gary Sheffield and Edgar Martinez.  Those admissions would, in turn, provide disarming context in the (likely) event the Baseball Writers, increasingly Generation X and Millennials, anoint their childhood heroes (but PED cheaters) Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez.²

Earl Wilson, A.L. pitcher pre-DH,
hit 35 career home runs
As a fan, I oppose the DH.  I'm reminded of the epigram (credited to Eric Hoffer), "you can never get enough of what you don't need."  The DH makes fans power-addicts, impatient for the next "jack."

Devil's due: MLB is going about it the right way.  Increasingly, MLB acts like a (single) multinational corporation, and if the Cano move is questionable for the Mets, it's perfect for MLB.  It bestows a redemptive halo on a high-profile PED casualty, while giving a major NL-market instant rooting interest in DH-expansion.³  (Cespedes doesn't do that: his contract ends in 2019.)

The DH in the NL fits a larger plan.  According to veteran commentator Mike Francesa (WFAN New York), baseball's owners won't shorten the (bloated) regular-season unless salaries also shrink, a third-rail for the player's union.

Given the above, the likely method to protect the game's Golden Goose, the overworked players, is to lessen the travel schedule.  The evident way to do that is realignment, junking NL and AL for an East-West scheme like basketball and hockey.  (Baseball's league structure dates from the early 20th century, when the westernmost teams were in St. Louis.)

The idea of abolishing the venerated leagues would've been scandalous even 10 or 20 years ago, but at this point, who cares?  MLB has been bumping the heat under the (fan) frog's pot.  All clubs play each other in-season, and conveniently, teams including the Red Sox, White Sox, Giants and Cubs broke their respective (World Series) curses, further acclimating fans to epochal change.  Expect announcements in the next 3-5 years.

1. Since 1973, the Designated Hitter rule has a tenth player take the pitcher's at-bats (pitchers tend to be weak hitters).  Excused from playing defense, the DH can be ideal for an aging slugger.  The National League is the holdout: everywhere else uses the DH 

2. In the name of control, younger writers seem bound for irreparable harm to this revered Hall of Fame.

3. (Edit, 20 Jan.) A boom in aging sluggers helped inspire the DH to begin with.  According to 2004's All Bat, No Glove, by G. Richard McKelvey, players whose careers were lengthened "a few more years" by DH inception include "Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Tommy Davis, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Frank Robinson, and Billy Williams" (p. 87).  

Sunday, October 28, 2018

underseen for Halloween, 2018

Busy with else, I for a time forgot All Hallows' Eve.  Fortunately, I neither tarry long, nor stray far from the darkness.
A quartet of amusements for a season of the witch:

Horror Hotel (1960)
spiritual, not religious
This mini-classic still falls below radar, into the monochrome shadow of Psycho, Black Sunday and Carnival of Souls.  It's not helped by a generic title, sometimes edited to the no-better The City of the Dead.
By any name, it's a quick-paced tale of revived witchery in a depopulated New England hamlet, with only notes of wry parody to tell British origin.

Also in the neighborhood: various episodes of Karloff's Thriller, and 1962's Burn, Witch, Burn, although Horror Hotel's studly professor (Christopher Lee) is no skeptic.  Journeyman director John Llewellyn Moxey may've neared the horror pantheon, but for later work being made-for-TV. 

Public-domain versions exist -- buyer beware -- but this isn't so bad on YouTube.  I wished for a version with a different score, rather than nudge-nudge jazz undercutting considerable atmosphere.

The Vault of Horror (1973)
The co-writer of Horror Hotel, Milton Subotsky, later co-founded Amicus, a Hammer competitor best known for anthology films.  These were inspired by EC Comics, banned in the '50s and destined for HBO's '90s Tales From the Crypt series. 
Dating from an era of Anglo-American guilt and surrender, the watchable tales deal punishment to characters who really aren't so bad, making viewers nervous.  Amicus films surrender, too, to inevitable TV comparisons, such as Night Gallery and Hammer House of Horror.
I choose The Vault of Horror partly for "This Trick'll Kill Ya," a weird white-guilt-trip looking to "Amelia," the tiki-doll horror from Dan Curtis's Trilogy of Terror.  Curt Jurgens plays a high-handed impresario who barely has time to regret pursuit of the Indian rope trick.  We're still whistling past the graveyard with such stories, where dominance of the world economy ends in shards, like Flightplan , The Lost Room, and anything by J.J. Abrams.
Look also for Anna Massey of Hitchcock's Frenzy, and dynamic Tom Baker as a pre-Dr. Who rotter in "Drawn and Quartered."

Fortress (1985)
unscheduled field trip
One of many worthwhile films made for HBO during the long, hungry years pre-Sopranos, Fortress is a home-invasion variant boasting the natural beauties of Australia, including Rachel Ward.  She's the lone teacher at a remote schoolhouse, a temptation for miscreants.
Again, we see earlier turns for tropes: intruders in animal masks; victimized characters show steel under pressure; and the bit where survivors stumble on perpetrators.
Still, Fortress seems less from another time as  another culture.  The genre hardly scans in the U.S.: a harsh thriller for family audiences.  While it may not be frightening, it's impressively edgy for a film about, and presumably for school-age children.  Australia remains close to pioneer past, evidently, making this one right for brats needing a booster of gratitude, with a lesson in fending for themselves.  (The film has moderate violence, and brief nudity.)

The House of the Devil (2009)
In the 1970s, horror relocated from cobwebby castles to small towns and suburbs.  In recent films, the realm is so disconnected, intruders come and go almost at will: You're Next, Martha Marcy May MarleneThe Strangers.  
Similarly, Jocelin Donahue never meets the real owners of The House of the Devil.  As college student Samantha, she takes a sketchy babysitting job, for rent money to ditch her slutty roommate.  Her trigger-sin is materialism: not just greed, but a skepticism that becomes its own sort of gullibility.  Tom Noonan's character doesn't try to touch her, after all, and pays cash.  As for the lunar eclipse, surely: news-radio trivia.
Built around a sympathetic lead performance, The House of the Devil is an uber-creepy slow-burn with several jump-scares.  Like The Fields, it's set decades past, to resonate with causes for the-way-we-live-now.

The American communities of midcentury had been condemned, but they were communities; not all the excluded were victims.  The retirement of Father Knows Best evoked competing proposals, but while we argued, the world doesn't stand still.  Some beliefs don't petition for approval.  One thing leads to another. 


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

everything has a reason: Marco Rubio reaches for water, 2013

This post develops an observation so obvious, it took five years to notice.
Time, February 18, 2013

As reported by Politico, Senator Marco Rubio (R, Florida) had a "water thing" before 2013 (despite his attempts to laugh it away):

Like Richard Nixon’s perspiring or John Boehner’s crying, Rubio’s need for constant hydration is a bodily quirk that impinges on his political life.
Contextualizing Rubio's post-State of the Union flub, writer Ben Schreckinger includes grousing from "a longtime Rubio associate":
(Rubio) says he just gets thirsty, but it’s clear it’s just a nervous tic. (Water is) something he just has to have around, like a security blanket or something.  
On sweating: 
I don’t think Marco sweats that much more. But Marco thinks he does. He’s always wiping, wiping, wiping sweat — even if he’s not sweating. It can drive you crazy if you’re watching him closely.
Analysis of the water-bottle moment overlooks a possible accelerant.  In The Atlantic (Feb. 12, 2013), Elspeth Reeve is merely droll:
As he sips, he seems to think he's doing something wrong, but he can't stop.
 Getting closer is Ian Crouch in The New Yorker (Feb. 13): 
he made a gamble and reached for a water bottle offscreen: he lurched down to his left and fumbled a bit, making a terrifyingly intimate moment of eye contact with the audience before taking a quick sip from an unfortunately tiny bottle ... 
There it is, what-could-be-worse for a conservative candidate: down to his left.  If only the bottle were to his right.  As it happened -- consciously or not --  the ingenuous senator seems torn by dread/desire of the sinister revelation (he's wearing a blue tie).  Could it be American polarization, then, to render water-break operatic betrayal, with guilty delays and fidgets and desperate gaze.  Perhaps the misplaced bottle caused the dry-mouth, during a short, 14-minute speech.  

Ultimately, Senator Rubio's exit-stage-left is like many of the (creative) gaffes by presidential aspirants: reason to wonder if he wanted the top job.  The presidency goes to the candidate with the least effective self-sabotage. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

everything has a reason: The Sopranos cuts to black (2007)

In November, I published this essay on Bright Lights Film Journal.  (My thanks to editor Gary Morris for the presentation, and for patience with endless revisions.)

The essay is 11,000 words and tough to summarize.  That being said, I examine the series-ending cut-to-black from three angles.  In critical context, the cut means parity, as it places Hollywood television beside the New Wave (e.g. The 400 Blows, Bonnie and Clyde), and foreign series such as The Prisoner.

An artistic nugget unearthed too late for inclusion: The Beatles "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" is a likely formal influence on the Holsten's scene, each using a guillotine ending.  According to Wikipedia, the song's overdub session was the last time the four Beatles worked together in the studio.  (Edit, 7/5: Sopranos creator David Chase is a fan, and remembered "fab" in 2012's semi-autobiographical Not Fade Away.)

In terms of closure, psychology and spirituality, the cut-to-black confronts viewers on identifying with these characters.  Along with the reminder to savor "the good times," the finale promotes humility: if we won't forgive Tony, why should anyone forgive us?  On the bedrock level of plot: if the cut-to-black symbolized Tony's death, why did Chase say it was "disgusting" fans wanted to see Tony die?  Is there so much difference?

Chase said the finale was meant to have a "sense of foreboding."  This is the political aspect:  Americans have reason to identify with an entitled clan wrestling decline.  The attentive viewer may be left feeling like Tony as he retreats from his final visit to Uncle Junior.

Originally, my goal was to dispute glib assertions that a) Tony is dead or b) the ending is false or otherwise disappointing.  I ended up solving the cut-to-black, to my own satisfaction, at least.  By their nature, some things can't be proven, but may have the ring of truth.

"Is Tony dead?" is the wrong question (as David Chase has said).  At this remove, the question, for America: Is Meadow in that doorway?  

Friday, June 1, 2018

everything has a reason: the Michael Richards outburst (2006)

Looking at some of John F. Kennedy's speeches, I got that feeling: this was our president.  Today's leaders can only represent half of us, and we seem to have little use for figures evoking bipartisan support: they write books like Chesley Sullenberger, give lectures like Valerie Plame.  Michael Jordan owns the Charlotte Hornets, among other business interests (and he reportedly likes to gamble).  Similarly, Henry Aaron, Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter stick to baseball.  Stephen King was an impressive critic, but seems to have retreated to fiction.  Mark Zuckerberg says, “start a company," Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos run theirs.  Most film stars are actually selective with political comments.

If success is hard, moral leadership might be hardest.  We know the checkered history of famous preachers.  David Letterman stumbled under the mantle of Paar, Allen and Carson.  Mel Gibson kept a lid on his considerable issues until The Passion of the Christ.  EDIT: add Lance Armstrong, Stephen Collins, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer.

Roseanne Barr made an unlikely bipartisan leader.  A gay-rights pioneer, she became leery of the extremes of the modern Left, and is a Trump supporter.  Certainly, she disappointed her fans, this writer included, with her pathetic tweet.  

EDIT, 12 August 2018: This is why I usually avoid writing about recent events.  Roseanne now says she thought (Obama advisor) Valerie Jarrett was white, as if to excuse (arguably, this makes the tweet worse, an attempt to sneak by a racial insinuation).  As someone who enjoyed Roseanne (1988-97), I'd prefer to assume its star is experiencing mental deterioration, may she find the humility to fall silent. END  

At the same time, it’s hard to wake up every day on-thin-ice.  That truth informs the following piece, written in 2017, mostly about events of 2006.  (I'll return to Roseanne at the end of the post.)
Coded Race and the Richards Outburst

Ty Cobb was a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.  He was also hypersensitive and a brawler, and the center of an anecdote that illuminates American racism.  On May 15, 1912, Cobb climbed into the stands in New York to beat up a disabled fan who’d called him a “half-nigger.”  (This incident seeded the idea of Cobb as virulent racist, a fabrication according to Charles Leerhsen, author of Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (2015).) 
The 106-year-old anecdote seems very American: we’re still violent, racist and baiting each other.  Nevertheless, it benefits from annotation: in 1912, many considered race more essential than skin color or facial features, and the “one drop of blood” rule classed a person “black” if they had any black ancestry.  This attitude factored into American resistance to Darwinian science (the "Scopes monkey trial," creationism), in that Darwin suggests — in these terms — we’re all black.  The racist (of any color) is self-loathing.

The fan’s insult points to a question for media criticism: can a character’s race be coded?  The following recreates my own train of thought, and therefore may not be complete, while parts may have been covered by other writers (although searches yielded little, as noted below).  I'll focus on a single combination: white actors as coded black characters.
A knowledge of science fiction gives an advantage, e.g. Star Trek’s Spock has (traditional) Asian characteristics, layered with Leonard Nimoy’s Judaism (the Vulcan salute derives from rabbinical practice).  In the 1980s, at least one critic compared E.T.‘s appearance to that of starving African children, a then-current image in Western culture.  E.T. launched a cycle in which white leads befriend innocent aliens (Starman) or A.I. (Short Circuit).  Sometimes, a black actor plays the alien: Joe Morton in The Brother from Another Planet, Louis Gossett, Jr. in Enemy Mine, Damon Wayans in Earth Girls Are Easy

Any discussion of race and science fiction brings up Star Wars.  It's rarely mentioned that James Earl Jones was originally uncredited as the voice of Darth Vader.  Jones was known in 1977, and has a distinctive bass voice — everyone knew it was him, but he and George Lucas playfully left doubt.  Or maybe not playful, given accusations of racism aimed at the franchise, decades before Jar-Jar Binks. 

This may sound comically conspiratorial, but we get caught up in what was/wasn’t intentional.  Both Jones’s non-credit and the Chasing Amy parody distract from the obvious: Darth Vader is a “black villain,” with the voice of an African-American then known for provocative roles.  Jones played the first black president in The Man, and based-on-truth films paired him with white women: he played the Jack Johnson figure in The Great White Hope (Best Actor nod) and the paranormal witness in The UFO Incident

Like the black hat in a Western, Darth Vader at least nods toward an African-American villain, relatively rare in Hollywood’s sound era (if more evident than black heroes).  The end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi reveals a pale wretch, but the tickets and toys had been sold, concurrent to the extended tease that Anakin might be African (note also the CW’s short-lived Star-Crossed, about the Atrians).  Similarly, J.K. Rowling was a billionaire before declaring Hermione Granger black.  

Bo Derek was unknown when cast as an idealized female in 10 (1979), source of comic anxiety for Dudley Moore.  The 10 trailer pushes mystery: as we first see Derek with cornrowed hair, the narration says Moore “doesn’t know … where she comes from.”  Again, the implication is she’s not-quite-white, but in this case it’s tantalizing.  Derek soon filmed Tarzan, perhaps the most racialist English-language classic.

Like James Earl Jones, Boris Karloff was uncredited in the 1931 Frankenstein (the credits have “?” opposite “The Monster”).  Like Derek, Karloff was not well-known.  He was British (born William Henry Pratt) but had adopted a stage name that (ultimately) matched an intimidating creature, in an era when the Slavic enemy was often demonized.  Karloff reportedly had Anglo-Indian heritage — his skin was variously described as swarthy, yellow, etc. — he played the title villains in The Mummy and The Mask of Fu Manchu (both 1932).   

Race is a background theme in any Frankenstein narrative.  As the daughter of prominent intellectuals, Mary Shelley had lifetime exposure to debates about slavery.  Whether they admitted so or not, Europeans had to suspect Africans were their distant relatives.  Whereas Dr. Frankenstein tries to abandon his sudden kin, whites enslaved Africans — both were hounded by judgment.

We’ve had media criticism exploring race (gender, class) for at least 50 years.  It’s hard to know if it’s doing more good than harm.  At times the writer (or reader) oversimplifies, or seems motivated by resentment or overcompensation.  In the remainder I try to locate understanding, if only for one person.

Michael Richards played Kramer on Seinfeld; he’s also known for his racist outburst/rant (in 2006) when confronted by a black heckler at a comedy club.  Richards’ famous role may have been a contributing factor.  Although originally based on a white man (Larry David’s former neighbor, Kenny Kramer), and sometimes characterized as a slacker (nut, "pod," hipster-doofus), TV’s Kramer has much in common with the “coon” stereotype of minstrel-show tradition, as described by sociologist David Pilgrim:
“The coon was portrayed as a lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, buffoon. … The coon differed from the Sambo in subtle but important ways.  Sambo was depicted as a perpetual child … the coon acted childish, but he was an adult; albeit a good-for-little adult.”
(from the site of The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia)

Like the coon, Kramer has distorted beliefs and comical fears, and penchants for wild schemes and fresh fruit.  Like the “Urban Coon” subtype, he’s a sharp dresser despite lack of conventional employment.  Admittedly, Kramer is smarter than typical.  Richards:

“The real key came about eight or nine shows in.  I had been playing Kramer as if he were slow-witted … Then I learned to play him as if he were blocks ahead of what everyone’s saying, and I had him.”    

There are various ways this argument may be misunderstood; for one, I am not defending abusive speech.  Granted, I will omit various Kramer traits and storylines, but even among other influences, the parallel seems clear.  I'm assuming any use of the stereotype was unconscious on the part of the white boomers producing the series (it would hardly have remained unremarked, otherwise).    

Like various plotlines, the casting of Richards plays into a race-bending subtext, in that he’s a large man with kinky hair.  In “The Fusilli Jerry,” Kramer errantly receives “ASSMAN” vanity plates, but soon adjusts to the persona.  In “The Wig Master,” circumstances leave him an evident pimp.  In “The Burning,” he’s an actor for a medical school, and is typecast as gonorrhea patient.  Kramer is an effortless seducer, a recovering gambling addict, and afraid of clowns (they wear whiteface).  He favors Cuban cigars; also Hennigan’s scotch, because it leaves no smell. 

Several misadventures involve skin and/or color: in “The Wife,” Kramer falls asleep in a tanning bed, after which he appears to be in blackface.  In “The Abstinence,” his home smoking-lounge damages his skin.  In “The Butter Shave,” the mistake is butter as tanning lotion.  In “The Chicken Roaster,” Kramer can’t sleep due to the brilliant (red) sign of a new Kenny Rogers Roasters.  After switching apartments, Jerry starts behaving like Kramer, but it’s Kramer who’s addicted to the chicken. 

According to Donald Bogle’s standard reference Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, the foremost screen-actor of coon roles was Stepin Fetchit, who was known for physical mastery —a Richards specialty — and being unfazed by criticism (when in character), also like Kramer.  Bogle notes two 1934 films: in The World Moves On, the character finds himself in the French Army — compare Kramer’s bumbling into jobs in “The Bizarro Jerry” and “The Summer of George.”  In David Harum, the character does dishes while soaking his feet — Kramer prepares salad in the shower in “The Apology.”  

Seinfeld was slow to address Kramer’s lineage, but what’s there connects.  In “The Nose Job,” he needs a jacket from the apartment of his mother’s imprisoned friend.  Elaine pretends to be the man’s daughter, “Wanda Pepper,” while Kramer poses as her fiancĂ©.  The cover is blown when the building’s manager disparages Babs (Kramer’s mother) as “nasty,” a “drunken stumblebum” who’d typically get loud as she “drank Colt 45 from a can.”  (In the U.S., Colt 45 malt liquor is associated with African-Americans, as in ad campaigns with Billy Dee Williams and Snoop Dogg.) 

In “The Switch,” we meet Babs (Sheree North), a bathroom attendant who tells Kramer she has “two years clean.”  The episode ends with Babs discovered in bed with Newman, the unappealing postman.  Per traditional stereotypes, Babs is the sort who’d have sex with non-whites.  Considering all of the above, the buried implication is that Kramer is (part) black.  And regardless of origin, the surname cooperates, by suggesting “creamer,” thus a lightening in color.  (Coffee is a theme for Kramer, e.g., he’s hooked on cafĂ© lattes.)  Finally, in Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s arc about a Seinfeld reunion (2009), Michael Richards fears he has (fictional) “Groat’s disease”; to raise his spirits, the Kramer-like Leon (African-American actor J.B. Smoove) claims to have Groat’s.  (Of course, the plan goes awry, giving Richards the chance to express anger respectfully.) 

The 1990s was a comeback decade for the coon, inspiring Spike Lee’s despairing Bamboozled (2000).  I’m suggesting neither moral equivalency, nor that Richards was victimized in any way.  Nevertheless, the sampling of a powerful stereotype could cause identity issues for the actor playing Kramer for a decade.  Turning the screw, the character became an icon to a young generation known for hypersensitivity to prejudice.  The actor would have to be the perfect cosmopolitan.  (Kramer’s first name is Cosmo.)  

Novelist Milan Kundera suggested vertigo is the fear of falling meeting the desire to fall.  In 2006, Michael Richards lived a white-American nightmare, but he received compensation: in addition to affirming his own whiteness, he no longer had to fear ruining his career with a racist outburst.  This payoff becomes more tempting if the career is essentially over. 

Given an imperfect memory, I recall one critic citing a coded black character: in Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene discusses the title character in Edward Scissorhands.  (I was unable to find references to Kramer in this context.)  Apparently, for our talk of racism, we make the essentialist assumption that a white actor always plays an (entirely) white character.  We diminish the reefs; American race-consciousness is fathomless. 

afterword (2018)
I’ll attempt an updated conclusion, while planning to address these matters at greater length.  Also, please note that for various reasons, comments are disabled on this blog. I apologize to any who might otherwise have left (civil) comments. 

In his classic Wayward Puritans, Kai T. Erikson explained that a society gets the deviant behavior it expects.  Sometimes, we overreact: troubled by Quakers (1650s), the Puritan fathers banished these dissenters “on pain of death.”  The policy was “an invitation to disaster, for nothing could so satisfy the Quakers’ call to persecution as a chance to suffer on the gallows for the sake of conscience.”

This dynamic, definition-of-deviance vs. behavior, evolved because it strengthens the community, assuming a consensus majority.  The Puritan authorities prevailed, of course, until later centuries.  Today, we are precisely divided, as between those who consider Roseanne’s tweet deviant, and those more troubled by (what they consider) the overreaction. 

Like Michael Richards, Roseanne became wealthy and famous playing a working-class individual with poor boundaries.  As with Richards, we can assume some degree of identity whiplash.   Roseanne’s career wasn’t over, of course, she’d made a comeback.  In any case, she’s a 65-year-old, on medication, has profusely apologized, and she deserves a second chance.  (EDIT: No, she probably doesn't, in the absence of real contrition.) 

Our excess condemnation stems from the overarching myth addressed by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: “the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves” (page 2).  And in his preface: our “refusal to acknowledge human nature is like the Victorians’ embarrassment about sex.”  This becomes “the mentality of a cult,” with one inevitable result being “a ‘politically incorrect’ culture of shock jocks … emboldened by the knowledge that the intellectual establishment has forfeited claims to credibility in the eyes of the public.”

The mistake made by scientific writers, including Pinker, is to presume logic can ever hold sway, society-wide.  History suggests societies run on myths, not facts or logic (perhaps for the same reason no driver expects a terrible accident: reality is too much).  Even when we remold the community to be fairer than in the past, we must compensate with new myths ... or a stealthy return to old ones. 

Like good utopians, Americans are constantly declaring the end of old myths and customs, but with a fatal inability to agree on new (or newly strengthened) ones.  Our usual self-evaluations — tolerance, freedom, free markets, voting — don’t work here because essentially negative (don’t infringe on my rights), and too nearly-global to serve as national/cultural identity.  The syndrome helps explain the runaway wealth gap: even as traditional values fade, we value money. 

As Pinker implies, we are neo-Victorians, with speech taking the place of sex, and those with poor (verbal) impulse-control the “perverts."  This exchange leaves American racism as our primary existential threat.  Cracking down on speech is understandable: unlike systemic racism, we can (often) identify the guilty.  But it doesn’t seem to help, indeed, it may not be coincidence that mass incarceration paced political correctness.  As Van Jones comments in 13th (1:22:30), criminal justice reform will trigger substitute abuses.  

There is nothing audacious about false hope.  We’re in bad trouble, and no one is coming to bail us out.      


Friday, May 18, 2018

everything has a reason: Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal, 1995-99

In his introduction to When Presidents Lie (2004), author Eric Alterman explains his inattention to Bill Clinton, whose lies should've been
"no one's business but that of the liar and his intimates. ... Clinton lied publicly ... only because he was being pursued by a fanatical group of politicians and ideologues who sought -- with the unlimited resources of the Independent Counsel's office -- to make his private life public, something that had happened to no previous president ... Clinton lied about his adulterous behavior to spare himself and his family further public humiliation."  
If the above is true, there's still something missing: after many years doing a pretty-good-job covering his adulterous affairs (little or no incriminating evidence such as photos, letters, etc.) why did Bill Clinton get stupid?  Why did he cheat not only in the White House but the Oval Office, making revelation radioactive?  Why with a woman too unworldly to be trusted with secrets?  There's no avoiding, it wasn't Monica Lewinsky's great beauty.  We can assume people, even presidents, have discreet sex in the White House (the following from the White House Historical Organization):

  • The White House has 132 rooms, including 16 family-guest rooms, 1 main kitchen, 1 diet kitchen, 1 family kitchen, and 35 bathrooms.
  • Floor area (total of 6 floors) approximately 55,000 square feet.

The site chastely omits bedrooms, but per this Quora thread, there are at least 11, depending on utilization.  A Business Insider list adds such features as the Workout Room, Family Theater (42-seat), Solarium and Private Study.  FYI: in 1997 the Clinton Administration set a record with 36 Christmas trees in the White House.

Less-touted: the Kennedy Administration employed "Fiddle and Faddle," two secretaries who serviced the president.  Granted, scrutiny has increased greatly since the early 1960s, but Bill Clinton knows to find the quiet corner of a sprawling mansion.  Like any president, he has a Secret Service detail sworn to protect him and his secrets.

So: do lust and hubris sufficiently explain Clinton fooling around, in the Oval Office.  With a starstruck 22 year-old.  Who'd attended Beverly Hills High School. Whose mother had written a "gossip biography" (per Wikipedia) on The Private Lives of the Three Tenors, dropping hints she'd had an affair with Placido Domingo.

Alterman is right: Ken Starr was out to get Bill Clinton on any pretext.  As I noted in a piece for Pop Matters, Clinton was an existential threat to the Republican Party, because he re-branded Reaganism as Democratic and hip.  None of which explains delivery of a sex scandal with a big-red-bow.

As in my last post, on the selection of Sarah Palin in 2008, I'll propose a "motivation theory."  First, a few disclaimers:  
  • Whether attributing the unconscious to Freudian denial or computer-like efficiency, the mental health profession acknowledges its role in decision-making.¹
  • Psychologists and psychiatrists have little incentive to address matters of national interest, leaving these open to any with the requisite interest and insight.  
  • The supposed dichotomy "conscious vs. unconscious" is at best a convenient reduction.  Intent is a slippery scale, notoriously hard to prove, and mysterious even to the actor.²   
  • To reject motivation theories mainly on grounds of absence of proof is a fallacy: the appeal to ignorance.  
  • A motivation theory is an unusual angle on familiar events; it may have been broached before.   
Our chronic resistance to the twilight of consciousness is reflected in our vocabulary and rhetoric.  The suggestion "New Orleans effectively cleansed itself of poor people by its lack of preparation for Katrina," will likely be challenged: "Are you saying it was conscious?"  Well, waiting on that knowledge delays the charge indefinitely.  Casual talk is more likely to concede reality, as in "accidentally-on-purpose."  

Another instance: O.J. Simpson and the Low-Speed Chase.  In 1991, when TV Guide asked for memorable TV-viewing moments, Simpson recalled true-crime, celebrity and altered perceptions: 
"The live coverage of the (1974) SLA/Watts shootout.  There had been much speculation about (Patty Hearst's) innocence and the political implications ... (but) the viewing audience came to the realization of the criminal acts of the SLA."  
In 1994, the media-savvy ex-running back inverted the SLA shootout, thus painting himself a victim of fate and the LAPD.  In the wake of Daryl Gates and Rodney King, Simpson effectually staged a long, sympathy-generating perp-walk.  (Edit, 8 July 2018: After her career as a bank-robbing terrorist, heiress Patty Hearst was sentenced to seven years in prison; the sentence was commuted after 22 months.)    

What if Bill Clinton had committed a crime(s) worse than a failed real estate deal or running around on his wife?  In any case, his administration was mired in scandal by 1995, investigated not only by the Independent Counsel but both houses of Congress.  In October, the Senate Whitewater committee issued 49 subpoenas.  In November, Clinton began his affair with Monica Lewinsky.  In January 1996, Hillary Clinton was the first wife of a sitting president to be subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.  

President Clinton had no reasonable way of stopping Ken Starr, or he would've done so.  Consciously acknowledged or not, the Lewinsky scandal might have been least-of-evils: a distraction so spectacular as to stop Starr's investigation, for the same reason a gorged python stops eating.  The affair revealed, Bill Clinton was subjected to scorn and condemnation -- but also sympathy and forgiveness.  And as difficult as impeachment was, it had relatively little to do with shady loans, or with Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey.  

Bill Clinton, like O.J. Simpson, was acquitted.  He then completed his second term.  

1. In psychology known as Dual Process Theory.    
2. In February 2015, in his speech on race and law enforcement at Georgetown University, then-FBI Director James Comey noted "much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias," but also, "racial bias isn't epidemic in law enforcement any more than ... in academia or the arts."