Archive for the ‘Unsung Heroes’ Category
The other night I was watching a chunk of Paths of Glory and savoring the performance by the guy on the left here.
His name is Richard Anderson—yes, he’s with us still—and he was in a lot of schlocky TV shows in the ’60s and ’70s. He never impressed me then but in Paths he held his own amidst a host of big-name stars, and showed what he could do as Major Saint-Auban, aide to the almost metaphysically evil General Mireau. In his scenes with the general he’s in a state of perpetual alert, like a pointer hound on a hunting trip, and when Mireau explodes into a tirade because the regiment hasn’t left the trenches, Saint-Auban simply trains his snout on his master and holds that pose, knowing the right answer is to simply agree with anything the general says, even if it’s an order to shell their own troops.
Leeches like Saint-Auban—the sycophant who enables soulless bureaucracies to flourish—are peppered throughout Stanley Kubrick’s movies. Paths of Glory is infested with these termites—Lieutenant Roget and General Mireau himself belong to their ranks—and the military is such a natural magnet for them that Kubrick would return to that milieu through the rest of his career. But they exist everywhere, and they’re also reflected (or parodied) in the repulsive social worker, prison guard and hospital staff of A Clockwork Orange, the gangsters kowtowing to their ringleader in The Killing, and Clare Quilty’s impersonations of a cop and a school psychologist in Lolita. Thanks to his obsession with food-chains and pecking orders, picking out the biggest prick in Kubrick’s pictures would make a good day’s work for anybody. Any short list, though, really ought to include the government’s point-man on the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just look at this smug bastard.
Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (played to a turn by William Sylvester) is dripping with a sense of entitlement from the second he steps onto the space-station. He absently talks down to a helpful receptionist without ever seeing her; he calls his daughter back on Earth so he can rush through a list of bullet-points, one of which is her birthday; he coldly stiff-arms some Russian scientists who are concerned about (gulp) a lunar epidemic; and he quashes his staff’s discontent by telling everyone to keep their pie-holes shut if they know what’s good for them. He can’t even do a voice ID check without giving the machine a condescending smile.
Dr. Floyd needs a scant few minutes for all of these breaches in civility, but it’s during the moon-bus flight that we see what a putz he really is. Along with a pair of gray-souled subordinates he engages in some frosty bonhomie that’s the verbal equivalent of white noise.
Floyd Minion #1 (opening a cooler of synthetic sandwiches): Anybody hungry?
Dr. Floyd: Great. What do we got?
FM #1: You name it.
Dr. Floyd: What is that—chicken?
FM #1: Something like that. Tastes the same anyway.
The men chuckle.
FM #2: You know, that was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood.
FM #1: It certainly was.
FM #2: I’m sure it beefed up morale a hell of a lot.
Dr. Floyd: Thanks, Ralph. By the way, I want to say to both of you I think you’ve done a wonderful job. I appreciate the way you’ve handled this thing.
FM #2: Oh, the way we look at it, it’s our job to do this thing the way you want it done. We’re only too happy to be able to oblige.
On paper this reads like nothing at all; one must hear the faintly snotty inflections, deadpan deliveries, and lifeless chuckles to appreciate the exchange. The ending of it recalls the moment in Paths of Glory when General Mireau offers Saint-Auban a shot from his flask and the canny major insists that the general take the first drink, causing a thin smile to crease Mireau’s face; here, too, a subordinate being thrown a bone immediately turns it into a boomerang flying back to his master. The rules of the game aren’t merely adhered to in Kubrick’s world. They’re enjoyed.
And a moment later there is this exchange:
Dr. Floyd: I don’t suppose you have any idea what the damn thing is.
FM #2: I wish to hell we did.
The casual condescension in Floyd’s voice, the forced nursery-room profanities, and the hollow collegial laugh that follows them—these are not the sort of things that Kubrick is noted for. He’s normally remembered for grand set-pieces and camera-moves that cry out for attention, but these moments of overgrown boys jockeying for position employ a quieter action that goes on just beneath the surface of our gaze. The constant in all of them is the way they sound, a kind of sub-bureaucratic murmur delivered with only a shadow of human personality. Everybody is oh so nice on the surface, but in truth they’re all busy repressing, repressing, repressing. Listen closely and you can hear the throb of blood under each exchange; it’s no surprise when these people sometimes react like the apes of 2001 and panic over a noise in the night.
In the (increasingly rare) examinations of machismo and power-worship in our cinema, we’re more used to seeing the gristly, often lethal likes of criminals or renegade spies, but Kubrick understood the dangers posed by the Saint-Aubans and Dr. Floyds—the bland, un-extraordinary men who we must deal with every day. The Shining opens with a long job interview in which a rageaholic puts on his best face for an overworked hotel manager and his eagle-eyed security chief, and for perhaps ten minutes the three men sit and exchange banalities while looking like they want to tear each other’s throats out. The next time you’re on an elevator with two coworkers talking over a deadline, just listen to the sound of it and see if it doesn’t ring a bell.
Maybe Woody Strode was getting his head polished that day, but I have no idea why Satchel Paige materializes in a cavalry sergeant’s uniform in the scenic but slightly dull The Wonderful Country. I’m just glad he does. Paige doesn’t get to demonstrate Long Tom, the two-hump blooper, or any of the other pitches that left Walter Johnson, Dizzy Dean and DiMaggio awestruck by his talent, but he’s in such fighting trim and sports such a rich, melodious voice that the man could’ve had a real movie career. As it is, this was his only feature credit when he wasn’t playing himself.
Also really good: Pedro Armendáriz’s seven-minute tour de force in the middle of We Were Strangers, a political thriller that John Huston turned out between Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle. The film’s a showcase for solid performances by everyone not named “Jennifer Jones”, but Armendáriz outshines them all with this fat, showy scene. Just roll forward to the 55:00 mark, and watch as Armendáriz, playing a Cuban policeman who enjoys toying with people, unexpectedly turns up at Jones’ house, where John Garfield and his revolutionary buddies are hiding in a back room. As his case of the hot-pants for Jones gets the best of him, the cop loses all self-possession: he gets drunk on rum and sucks down a plateful of crab-legs, all the while lecturing Jones on the evils of revolution and what a great guy he is, and he isn’t done until he’s hit every cardinal point on the emotional compass. The scene hits me as a strange instance of a top star taking backseat to a character actor (an ethnic one at that) for an extended period of time; heck, stars rarely had to sit out a scene so completely even for other stars. Armendáriz was also terrific in The Fugitive, John Ford’s overbaked adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, but not even Ford gave him a chance like this one. (Armendáriz was born in Mexico City, but he’s probably best remembered as the Turkish spymaster in From Russia, With Love.)
More than most kinds of nostalgia, Texan nostalgia is absurdly easy to overdo. That helps to explain why Eagle Pennell’s first two feature films—The Whole Shootin’ Match and Last Night at the Alamo—are such special things. Both movies are intricately, almost embarrassingly, familiar with certain Texan types and attitudes, yet manage to explore them without either sentimentalizing or condescending to them. To this pair of eyes at least, Pennell’s movies, even with their rough edges (and some of those edges are really rough), present a truer picture of Texas than all of the Hollywood colossi striding through Giant, the dirt-kicking mumblefucks of Tender Mercies, or the upscale hot-house symbols and tropes swarming like locusts through Hud, Lone Star, and The Last Picture Show.
I first saw Last Night at the Alamo on television around 1985. It definitely stood out from the other cable fare of the time, if only for the humble place it occupied in the world. Its miniscule arena extends no further than the premises of a mildewed Houston dive—“The Alamo”—on the night before it’s to be bulldozed and replaced by condos; its action consists of about a dozen of the bar’s regulars acting out their nightly rituals one last time before losing what for most of them is their real home. In places the movie feels like an artistic commando raid, rescuing characters—a henpecked husband, a perpetually pissed-off redneck kid—who are usually confined to the background of movies, and dragging them front and center where we can take a good, long look at them.
The movie’s brazenly foul-mouthed dialogue also made it memorable, for Last Night at the Alamo has a case of potty-mouth like few other movies do; Deadwood by comparison sounds like the Gettysburg Address. One character in particular—the almost metaphysically miserable Claude, played by Lou Perryman—delivers a graduate seminar in framing life’s dilemmas using only four-letter words. Yet for all its rambunctiousness, Last Night at the Alamo remains focused, mostly on the travails of “Cowboy” (Sonny Carl Davis), the bar’s most celebrated regular. Cowboy is a balding, sawed-off John Wayne wannabe who gets through life by posing as a grinning, strutting good-time-charlie. A little man revered by the other barflies only because they themselves are so small, Cowboy claims to have a secret plan to save The Alamo, and it comes as no surprise when it works about as well as Nixon’s secret plan to get us out of Vietnam. (Because of their relative sizes Perryman and Davis resemble a redneck Mutt and Jeff, but in terms of what they mean to Pennell’s movies it’s more useful to think of William Demarest and Preston Sturges or Elliot Gould and Robert Altman—as living, breathing manifestations of the filmmaker’s personality.)
Last Night at the Alamo’s finest accomplishment is recognizing its characters as the misogynistic alcoholic losers they are without ever giving up on them as human beings. Celebrations of the pathetic are rare enough in art, but they’re nearly unheard of in contemporary America, where normal human concerns about status and self-esteem have blossomed into full-blown psychotic obsessions, and people act as if spending time with even fictional failures brings bad juju. Yet Pennell and his co-scenarist Kim Henkel don’t bother giving Cowboy & Co. any synthetic little touches to redeem them or make them “worthy” of our interest. It’s simply assumed that their very existence is reason enough to care about them—a notion which, if it’s good enough for democracy, ought to do for a movie.
Pennell’s 1978 ode to scrapers and battlers The Whole Shootin’ Match is even purer than Alamo. It follows two Austin lowlifes, Loyd and Frank (Perryman and Davis again), who fill their days working as common laborers and dreaming up fanciful get-rich-quick schemes. Again Pennell (this time sharing writing duties with Lin Sutherland) doesn’t shy away from his heroes’ darker patches—at one point Frank, his manhood stung by his cousin’s flirting with his wife, mindlessly takes a belt to his young son—yet the movie’s overriding tone is affectionate and understanding. When one of their schemes seems certain of a big-time payout, Frank treats himself to a leisure suit and cowboy hat, and his shopping spree is a delight to watch even though we know he’s setting himself up for a fall. The last scene, in which the two old friends make a long quixotic trek across the Hill Country in search of Spanish treasure and wind up making some peace with their jimmy-rigged lives, is memorable both for its easygoing pace and the physically convincing vibe of a long day spent outdoors. (Robert Redford has often cited Shootin’ Match—the archetypal regional, independently financed production—as a primary inspiration for the Sundance Film Festival.)
Pennell made three more movies after Last Night at the Alamo, all of them unavailable on home video, and all of them reputedly awful. After his early successes he suffered a long, sad decline, eventually drinking himself to death in Houston in 2002. Earlier this year Watchmaker Films released The Whole Shootin’ Match on DVD, along with a documentary by Pennell’s nephew which, in the course of tracing his rise and fall, touches on filmmaking, Austin in the ’70s, and terminal alcoholism—and it’s superb on every count. (Last Night at the Alamo has never made it to DVD but remains available via used VHS tapes, occasional cable broadcasts and YouTube.) Perryman, Davis and their splendid co-star Doris Hargrave, about whom I haven’t said anywhere near enough, provided a commentary track for Shootin’ Match that’s colorful and informative, even if it doesn’t reach the uproarious heights of The A.V. Club’s fabled 2008 interview with the two men. In an agonizing postscript, Lou Perryman was murdered in his Austin home in April 2009. It remains a mystery why he and Pennell had to meet ends so much harsher than anything they wished on their characters.
Dog Canyon 2009
The 1979 TV movie Elvis offers the most commonly held take on Elvis Aron Presley: the poor son of Tupelo who, bereft of an inner life beyond mother worship, a love for performing, and a taste for success—each boundless and unquenchable—succeeded so completely that he lost his soul in the process. It has all the drawbacks common to the made-for-TV format, especially in its second half: rushed action, inert staging (scenes involving a toy airplane and Priscilla hitting a punching bag are so hopeless that their retention is inexplicable), characters popping in and out like restless genii, undeveloped plot points, and a sucker’s fall-back on formula: after an angry Elvis smashes a bedroom lamp, he clutches his head in his hands and wails “What’s happening to me?” That’s precisely the kind of thing that makes me want to grab the sides of my hair and run screaming out of the room, but other flaws run even deeper. Budgetary restrictions limited the concert audiences to a couple of hundred people, so that we never really see the fullest blossoming of the world that terrified and depressed the man. Key chunks of his output are omitted or glossed over, so that hit after major hit—including “Hound Dog”, for God’s sake—goes completely unmentioned. (From a purely entertainment viewpoint, there’s not nearly enough music.) The contractual stranglehold that enabled Colonel Parker to snuff out Elvis’ attempts to widen his musical and acting horizons is shifted into the hands of a few unseen, unnamed producers and, but for one quick reference, Elvis’ absorption of black music is wholly ignored. This is all by way of saying that all the things that actually made Elvis a phenomenon—something bigger and more different than most of us can even imagine—are largely ignored in favor of the ways that he was only like us.
It could have been worse. At least Elvis was made by people—most prominently John Carpenter, working on his first film after Halloween—who were clear Presley fans. In places—a simple shot of Elvis and his parents singing a gospel song on their ramshackle porch one summer night, or the scene in which Presley addresses his dead twin brother by talking to his own shadow on the wall—it’s a surprisingly evocative work. But Carpenter really captured lightning in a bottle when he cast Kurt Russell as his lead.
I first encountered Russell when I was 10 or 12 in the old Disney movie Follow Me, Boys, and in one scene the very young Russell, embarrassed by his drunken father, unleashed a blistering tirade against Fred MacMurray that absolutely gutted me. I’d never consciously gotten it before that a kid could have such strong feelings, or that those feelings could be put into words, or that those words could be pure enough, and angry enough, to spellbind and wound an adult. Most of all it was Russell’s fraught delivery that made me want to look away—it was searing, a bigger jolt of emotion than anything I’d ever feel from a James Dean performance.*
Beginning with the opening shot of Elvis sitting in a hotel room just before the first of his “comeback” concerts at a Vegas hotel in 1969, Russell’s impersonation of Presley is so exact that at times—especially when he’s wearing Elvis’ Army haircut—it’s hard to get your head around the idea that you’re not watching The King. He doesn’t settle for a mere impression, though. When Gladys Presley (Shelley Winters, in yet another of her grisly Oedipal mama roles) dies, Elvis bends over her bed sobbing, and after holding that pose a moment, Russell crashes to one knee in a way that looks not just unplanned but wholly out of control; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a physical movement by an actor that seemed more alive the first time I saw it. Russell’s taken for a lightweight in some circles because of his square ingénue features, his marriage to Goldie Hawn, or his not always stellar choices of projects, and even people who do like him are more likely to think of Snake Plissken or of Rudy Russo in Used Cars—roles which depend at least partly on a parodic appreciation of his looks. I like him plenty in those movies, too—hell, I even like him in Tombstone—but forget all that. Elvis, for all its problems, makes one thing clear: the man has chops, whenever he wants to call on them.
*After writing this I watched that scene on YouTube for the first time since I was a kid. It was like going back to a childhood home and being surprised by how small it is—the scene’s barely a minute long and what I remembered as a tirade is just a short sentence or two. Russell’s tears and quivering anger are still there, though, and still feel real.
It’s almost certain that Ray Teal gained his widest visibility as the gruff, avuncular Sheriff Roy Coffee on Bonanza, an unchallenging, largely expository role that must’ve offered little satisfaction beyond a steady paycheck. The well-meaning but party-killing sheriff, with his familiar moustache and round-brimmed hat, usually appeared whenever one of Ben Cartwright’s boys had been caught playing with matches again (he never seemed to bring good news to the Ponderosa), and Teal’s cookie-cutter contributions so resembled each other from one week to the next that even after 400 some-odd episodes of the series it was impossible to imagine Roy Coffee having a life beyond the TV screen.
But when he was given half a chance, Ray Teal had some game in him—for starters, he walked away with his single scene in William Wyler’s Carrie despite the singular disadvantage of having to play it against Laurence Olivier. He appears halfway through the movie as the slimy corporate detective Mr. Allen, who’s been pursuing the $10,000 which Olivier’s George Hurstwood, in a moment of love-addled folly, embezzled to finance his ménage with Jennifer Jones. When the detective materializes in the couple’s swanky hotel room just as Hurstwood is bestowing a closetful of dresses on his mistress, the mortified, frightened embezzler does his best to stammer his way out of the mess, but Mr. Allen, who knows better than Hurstwood himself which games he’s going to run, demolishes each gambit with lascivious relish before they can even get off the ground. It’s the palpable, lip-smacking pleasure that Mr. Allen takes from his work, and the distress it produces in others, which makes him so repellent—after emasculating Hurstwood in front of his lover, he chuckles and offers the man a cigar. Only a talented actor could believably reduce Laurence Olivier to jelly in a few minutes’ time, but Teal sails through the task, even while maintaining the guise of a New Yorker from some number of generations past: it’s easy to imagine Mr. Allen’s grandsons debating the relative merits of Mantle, Snider and Mays.
Teal also shows up in Phil Karlson’s forgotten classic Gunman’s Walk, playing a horsetrader and perjurer who casually shakes down Van Heflin for a string of ponies, and in Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives he’s the original black helicopter wingnut who buttonholes Harold Russell at a drugstore lunch-counter. (His voice dripping with condescension, he hectors the maimed veteran to “Just look at the facts!” while brandishing what’s either a rolled-up newspaper or a FOIA request for Harry Truman’s birth certificate.) Teal was pushing 50 when he appeared in the earliest of these movies, so he may have been a late bloomer after a long run of uncredited performances. Whatever the case, it’s simply bass-ackwards that people remember him today, when they remember him at all, as frumpy Roy Coffee. This man was born to play shit-heels of the first order.
I spent this afternoon watching the last half of something I forgot I even had, the 250-minute documentary about Nixon’s second term simply called Watergate that BBC and The Discovery Channel put together about 15 years ago. I have about five documentaries and specials about the mess but this one is the mother of them all. That’s partly because it isn’t fixated on The Washington Post’s role the way the others are—Woodward and Bernstein make an appearance alright, but they’re onscreen just a tad longer than Tony Ulasewicz, and they get a helluva lot less face-time than Dean or McCord or that bow-tied dandy known as Archibald Cox. Another thing that makes it great is that the filmmakers somehow put all the subjects at their ease, with Haldeman and Ehrlichman in particular showing hitherto hidden human faces. Nixon himself is present only in the form of generous excerpts from the David Frost interview in ’77, and when describing the meeting in which he fired Haldeman, Nixon describes his old chief of staff, spitting the words out as they come to him, “not as some Germanic…Nazi…stormtrooper,” which does pretty much nail the public’s perception of the guy, but as a “decent public servant.” That last phrase might be stretching a point but Haldeman comes off well. With his hair grown out a tad and wearing a plaid shirt, khaki pants, and a pair of half-glasses, he comes across like an uncle at his favorite fishing lodge. And he’s not alone. Ehrlichman, Liddy, Dean, Magruder, Colson, Mardian, Porter—damn near all of them—speak out with a surprising openness and lack of rancor, and the way their interviews are woven together makes us feel for once that everyone’s telling the truth.
There are exceptions. John Mitchell, who died years ago, isn’t on-hand, of course, but you get the feeling that even if he was he wouldn’t have been interested in opening up to a film-crew for a documentary narrated by Dan Schorr. He’s the one who bluntly told the Ervin Committee that he considered Nixon’s re-election so important because of “what the other side was putting up” that he would’ve done anything to accomplish it, and he’s also the only one who failed to see the humor in his exchange with Sam Dash. When Dash asked Mitchell why he hadn’t thrown Liddy out of his office while Liddy was describing one of his hare-brained (and highly illegal) schemes, Mitchell, pipe in hand, evenly replied, “In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t just thrown him out of my office, but that I’d thrown him out of the window.” With a professional’s timing Dash let the answer hang in the air before prefacing his next question with, “Seeing as how you did neither…” As the caucus room rang out with spontaneous guffaws, the camera zoomed in on Mitchell who, judging by his expression, looked as if he were trying to decide whether it would be more fun to kill Dash by roasting him on a spit or throttling him with his bare hands.
Still, the man who comes off the ugliest isn’t named Mitchell or Haig or even Richard Milhouse Nixon. It’s E. Howard Hunt, the reputed “spymaster” who did us all a favor by dying and going to Hell just a few short weeks ago. Hunt, it will be recalled, led the planning for the break-in along with his co-mastermind Gordon Liddy, and it was he who began squeezing his former bosses for hush money after his arrest. Hunt, too, appears in contemporary interviews, but where even the likes of Colson, Magruder, and Ehrlichman mellowed with age, and managed to recognize the tawdriness in their own souls somewhere along the way, Hunt gazes into the camera as one might regard a bottle of cyanide as he talks about the “considerations” he felt were due him. It’s a disgusting, even disquieting, performance.
Thanks to my friend Chris Lanier, I wound up appearing on Steve Lambert’s show on UC Davis’ radio station a couple weeks back. (Chris can also be heard on the program, recounting with Homeric splendor the mighty Battle of the Pine Needles.) Steve’s ostensible theme was “Fist Fights and Violence” but that didn’t stop me from saddling up some of my pet hobbyhorses—Peckinpah, The Sopranos, the corruption of feminism—and riding them into the ground, thus boring an audience much wider than my close circle of friends for a change. You can hear the show on Steve’s website by scrolling down to Episode 10 and clicking on the sound bar. There aren’t any earth-shaking insights, but I did I get to tell a couple of my circus stories (though I unconscionably neglected to give shout-outs to the two horses I handled, Pancho and Frosty), and Steve did a really nice job with the editing. That post about Dority’s fistfight also got cannibalized for a contribution to The High Hat a couple of issues ago. That issue was intended (in part) as a tribute to Robert Altman (who died unexpectedly about 24 hours after it came online, making me think that a special issue about Dick Cheney might be in order), and also includes my take on California Split—still a piece of relevant (and hilarious) filmmaking 30+ years after the fact.
A couple days ago a local big-time criminal defense attorney found his wife’s body in their home – she had the ol’ multiple blunt trauma to the head thing going – and the TV media here, smelling another O.J./Laci epic in the offing, have gone absolutely nuts. They lead off every newscast with the story (what Iraqi referendum? what fascistic special election?), refer to the victim exclusively as “Pam,” keep reminding us of the money factor by endlessly re-running chopper footage of the Xanaduesque hilltop mansion that the couple was building, bring on FBI profilers whom they then machine-gun with leading, lurid questions (“Does the fact that Pam was in her T-shirt and panties indicate that she knew her attacker well?”), and otherwise openly flirt with the line between showing proper sympathy for a grieving husband and accusing the bastard of outright murder. I’ll probably never mention this case again, but just know that for the next year or so I’ll be banging my head against the wall whenever I stumble across the 10:00 news.
…but tonight I felt a real rush of sadness that Robert Altman just can’t be with us that much longer.
There’s a little advertisement for a bail bond company that shows up on late night broadcasts of Jerry Springer and Cheaters which is so cheesy, both morally and aesthetically, that I feel rather happy whenever it comes on. It follows a doltish looking white guy who lip-synchs a cheap rap ditty as he’s being busted, booked, and then bailed out of jail, and ends with him arriving back at home where his mother is waiting for him, only “Mom” is a mustachioed black man done up in drag. (Whether this is meant as some jokey allusion to the actual penitentiary experience, I don’t know.) I’ve never managed to notice the company’s name because the whole thing throws my mental gyroscope too far off its axis, but the ads for another company, Aladdin Bail Bonds, emphasize just how serene the whole Gettin’ Busted experience can be. Their most memorable effort begins with an attractive, wholesome looking blonde—why, it could be you, missy—being rousted from her slumber by a ringing telephone and then crying out, “Ar-REST-ed!?” (Ma’am, may I ask just who it was you thought you were married to this whole time?) Cut to the Aladdin offices, where some bail-bondsman cum New Age guru brings the distraught woman a glass of water (aww…) and touches her comfortingly about the shoulder before shooing her off to bail Clyde Barrow out of the pokey. All of these ads treat the criminal act with the same non-accusatory indifference with which insurance companies view cyclones and hurricanes; in fact, they’re so impartial and highminded that their creative director probably deserves Rehnquist’s chair. Aladdin’s slogan—“We get you out. We get you through it.”—is the perfect enabler’s motto, glossing over as it does the traumas that grease its wheels. In their view it’s a given that your husband or son will be arrested someday, whether it’s for jaywalking or attempted murder who’s to say, and there’s no point in wondering how things came to such a pass. Bailing the hubby out of jail in the dead of night is just one of life’s grubby little chores, like cleaning up after the dog, that’s handled quite easily if you just bend your mind the right way.
So in the space of two weeks Mother Nature has accomplished what the war in Iraq couldn’t do in two and a half years: first, forced George W. Bush to admit that he’s less than perfect, and then forced one of his staffers to pay the price for his mistakes. FEMA chief and personification of cronyism Mike Brown walked the plank yesterday, and whether or not he was forced to do it at sword-point, he delivered one last maudlin gust of the misdirected reasoning that’s made his name an international byword for incompetence. Insisting one last time that he’s been scapegoated by the media (but not by the president), he said, “The press was too focused on what did we do, what didn’t we do, the whole blame game. I wanted to take that factor out of the equation, so that the people at FEMA, who are some of the most hard-working, dedicated civil servants I have ever met, could just go do their job.” (See, he’s not just some historical footnote—he’s a martyr.) But it doesn’t take a Plato to suss this one out—the press was only doing its job when it “focused” on Brown’s appalling shortcomings, and it was clearly Bush who cut Brown’s legs off and then left him swinging in the winds of history. (Brown was unharnessed from his hurricane duties four days ago to decrease his visibility, after which that jerk Scott McClellan refused to give him a vote of confidence even when the reporters howled for one).
If not for the damage he’s caused Brown would be remembered as a two-bit resumé padder, and even with it I suspect it’ll take some googling a year from now to recall who the hell he was. But Hurricane Katrina has accomplished things even more remarkable than making Bush flinch. For one thing, a poll last week showed that 44% of the country was “ashamed” of the government’s response to the disaster. That’s right—ashamed. This, in a country where the biggest insult one person can lay on another is, “You don’t have any self-esteem,” where France and Germany are regularly hooted at for their effete and timid morality, and where the mantle of self-entitlement weighs so heavy on us that we continue gobbling up fossil fuels and our grandchildren’s capital without a second thought. Bush’s ratings have taken a further beating, with only 39% of the voters giving him a thumb’s up, as the man himself has looked hard-pressed to explain his own response to the storm. The largest issues of our day—the federal government’s responsibility for its citizens, the roles that race and class play in American society—are getting a more serious hearing in the media than they’ve had in years, and twice now on major network news shows I’ve heard the word “property” pronounced with a nearly Marxist disdain. We suddenly have our heads cocked quizzically to the side and one ear raised like dogs watching their masters do something funny. We’re almost cute in that position, for sure a lot cuter than the supine position we usually adopt in the face of the White House’s antics, and all it took was the trashing of one of America’s great romantic jewels. It’s happened here, in our backyard, and the people we see struggling in the muck look unmistakably like ourselves. The Department of Homeland Security has been exposed as a hive of grifters and incompetents, Bush’s take-charge reputation is in shreds, and for once Karl Rove can’t control the camera angles or redirect the anger. Whatever Katrina did to New Orleans, it’s done even more to America, something that Richard Clarke, Cindy Sheehan, and 1,800 ghosts working full-time couldn’t do. Even if the furor dies down before the World Series begins, it’s a breath of fresh air in the meantime.
…and…nothing, I guess. I stopped writing on that last post, feeling too dispirited to go on, and it turns out it was just as well. Virtually everyone I know who’s blogged about Katrina, and a lot of people who don’t blog at all, saw New Orleans the same way I did, as a giant brackish Petri dish where Social Darwinism, supply-side economics, and Compassionate Conservatism are finally free to breed with each other. Talk about your toxic soups. At least we know now why Republicans think that Big Government just messes things up—it’s because it does when it isn’t accompanied by a little thoughtfulness and compassion, which are not these people’s long suits. No one’s captured the nightmare of Bush’s America better than my friend Dana Knowles when she said, “Living under BushCo is like being trapped inside a Ponzi scheme run by the Manson Family.”
Now, if you’ve never seen this cocksucker Scott McClellan, today he bullshitted his way through another White House press briefing, parroting the operative Talking Point over and over again: “Now’s the time to help people, not play the Blame Game.” The Blame Game! See, it’s all just tiresome partisan politics, people trying to nitpick this president so he can’t get it on with his compassion! In different conditions I might agree, but not here, not with this crowd, because George W. Bush and his friends live in a Never-Neverland of eternally deferred accountability. They know if they stonewall long enough people will either stop caring, lose track of the details and chronology, or both. (The White House has already floated the idea that the feds couldn’t move without a state of emergency being declared. The amazingly few non-amnesiac members of the press quickly noted that Blanco—and Bush himself—had done exactly that the night before Katrina made landfall.) I’d love to hear what the reporters say to McClellan when they get a couple drinks in them, even if I suspect McClellan knows better than to drink too much around them. McClellan is a Frankenstein stitched together from pathetic qualities, but the most pathetic of them all might be his “affable” way of occasionally acknowledging his adversarial relationship with the press with statements like, “I like and respect you all, and I don’t take it personally.” Well, not even Scott McClellan is so goddam stupid that he can’t see that the tone and implications of the press corps’ questions, at least on the days it does its job, are a spit in the face to whatever shred of personal integrity he thinks is still clinging to him. You can practically see Karl Rove winding up the crank in McClellan’s side just before each briefing, and his status as a tool is so apparent that his greatest qualification for the job is that he doesn’t seem to mind that fact. If he had an ounce of self-respect he’d be challenging Bush and Rove to a duel with pistols at dawn.
As usual the administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time. Just as McClellan is busy decrying the Blame Game, nearly everyone else is busy pointing fingers: at the locals who didn’t evacuate, at the (Democratic) governor and the (Democratic) mayor, at the (probably Democratic) looters, at all that gosh-darned water that came in with the hurricane (who’d a thunk it?), and at those reliable old stand-bys “red-tape” and “bureaucracy.” An interesting sidebar to the whole mess is the Name Game: what to call the victims. Last week most news reports were calling them “refugees,” and around Saturday, having scoured every other website, I happened to look at Limbaugh’s to see what Fathead had to say about the mess. It was surprisingly little, but his home page did contain a headline reading “These People Aren’t Refugees” and a link that took you to a Merriam-Webster page defining “refugee” as “a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.” Okay, fine, I thought, if for whatever arcane reason Rush doesn’t want to call these people who’ve suddenly been made homeless and transported to aid shelters in other states “refugees,” then I’ll just avoid that word in his tender presence. It turns out, though, that many of the victims themselves are balking at the word, preferring instead “American citizen,” “survivor,” or even the white-paperish term “evacuee.” Any of these do lack a couple subtle insidious connotations that give them the edge, I guess, as they carry neither the depth of powerlessness nor the seeming permanence of “refugee.” On the one hand it’s just another indication of how much importance people place on language, even in times when you’d think such fine distinctions would be the farthest thing from their minds; on the other hand, we should probably be elated if this is Limbaugh’s greatest insight into the whole fiasco.
The mainstream media is getting back to normal after the stress and trauma of doing its job last week. When some reporters asked George Senior a couple days ago about the criticism of Numbnuts, he said, “Well, if you repeat it to Barb you better wear a flak-jacket,” and the press corps hooted with laughter right on cue, as if she really is just Irene Ryan in pearls instead of some backwater Lady Macbeth. (Senior then went on to compare the criticism to the Monday morning fallout after a losing football game. The apple didn’t fall six inches off this tree.) From here it looks like the media loves Hurricane Katrina. With Bush’s negative poll numbers and the “great visuals” of human suffering in hand, they’re feeling a little reckless and can be seen striking skeptical, angry postures they never dreamed of taking post-9/11—you know, when it might’ve done some real good. They take time out from that yummy footage of ballooning corpses bobbing in the floodwater to recount the latest zingers flying back and forth between the state and feds, but it feels less like an exercise in democratic illumination than someone swinging a stick in a big circle and whacking two hornets’ nests at the same time. At least BBC is relishing the administration’s discomfort for truly political, not Nielsen-driven, reasons. Their raw footage and blunt narration is strikingly devoid of American news’ “balanced” dithering, or what Al Swearengen would call “this several hands fucking shit.” As the camera zooms in on a pile of debris, topped by one of the pathetic HELP signs, still littering the Convention Center, the British reporter flatly declares: “It’s a monument of shame.”
· Survivors living among corpses
· FEMA head: Working in “conditions of urban warfare”
· Armed gangs attempting rapes, police warn
· Bodies dragged into corners at convention center
· Sniper fire halts hospital evacuation
That’s the slate of subheadlines that could be found at CNN.com two nights ago. I include them here not because it still seems unreal that the location in question is New Orleans, Louisiana, but because seeing them grouped together like that—from before the first convoy of relief trucks rolled in, causing the resulting gasps of relief to be mistaken for “cheers”—does a good job of showing just how ugly this thing got. That’s important because in an about-face the Bush administration had chosen to answer the accusations of incompetence and insensitivity with a limited modified hangout, rather than the straight-ahead stonewalling it normally prefers. Bush has offered a couple of mea culpas in the last 24 hours, but they’ve been watered-down generalities (e.g., the relief effort was “not acceptable”) that identified neither specific shortcomings nor (most importantly) who was responsible for them. But that’s Bush’s way. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert had to issue a clarification for floating the idea of bulldozing instead of rebuilding the city. Not so FEMA head Michael Brown, though, who suggested that those haggard people clinging to life on chunks of shattered Interstate highway wouldn’t have anything to complain about if they’d just gotten their asses out of town when they were told to. Despite being fired from his previous job as the head of the International Arabian Horse Association (what’s the emoticon for throwing one’s hands up in the air?), and despite his supremely fucked-up job on Katrina, Bush gave “Brownie” a very public atta-boy yesterday.
America is a country famously uninterested in history. Oh, we like to watch grainy footage of German artillery corps blasting their way across the Russian steppes, and we like to make grand, meaningless comparisons when they serve our purpose (indeed, one of the duties distracting Bush from Katrina the day after she made landfall was a speech likening the Iraq war to World War II), but when it comes it to actually observing the results of some past occurrence, deriving a lesson from it, and then retaining that thought long enough to base some future decision upon it—well, forget it. More and more we live in a nebulous haze where things just happen. The President makes some bold statements. We invade a foreign country. The President’s statements turn out to be lies. We reelect him. Now a hurricane blows in. People suffer. The President mumbles some shit. Life goes on. The subtly anesthetizing quality of American life can make it hard to remember what it was that pissed us off a year ago (while writing something about the war a couple of days ago, I had to Google “nicholas + beheading” because I couldn’t remember Nicholas Berg’s name), and even within a week’s worth of 24-hour news-cycles, developments that were amazing on Tuesday can seem ho-hum by Friday.
But what’s going on in New Orleans is a genuinely big deal—or should be. That qualification is necessary, of course, since all the wrong things become big deals in America. The Rodney King riots, which should’ve touched off a moratorium on all human activity in the United States until we figured out some way for the people who just happened to be born black and white to coexist without freaking the fuck out over everything, were instead dropped like a hot potato; after all, it was an election year, and after Bush and Clinton each did a quickie goggle-eyed tour of South Central, they got the hell out of there and didn’t mention race again for the rest of the campaign. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, instead of fostering much sincere or thoughtful analysis about gender issues, turned into political football, with both sides’ cheerleaders overlooking the weaknesses of their own arguments and witnesses in their eagerness to pummel the others’. (Far more objectionable than the pubic-hair joke—I mean, come on already—was Thomas’ ludicrously transparent lie that he’d never discussed Roe v. Wade in law school.)
New Orleans is also being talked about in terms of race and property, as well it fucking should be, but it offered something more: It offered a vision of the way of life we’ll have if we don’t stop thinking of Big Government as an obscenity. Ever since Reagan first claimed the Republican nomination in ’80, we’ve been backsliding in a way that’s eventually going to kill us, city by city, if we don’t put the brakes on. I must’ve heard a hundred commentators compare the scenes in New Orleans to a Third World country—the city’s French colonial architecture summons up mental pictures of Haiti, in particular—and