Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Dark Underbelly of the "Bromance"? Judd Apatow's Problematic Female Film Characters

“In Hollywood, humor tends to go in cycles, with the late '80s and early to mid-'90s heavy on romantic comedies (''Pretty Woman,'' ''When Harry Met Sally ,'' ''Sleepless in Seattle,'') and I'm-with-stupid-style movies (''Dumb & Dumber,'' ''Kingpin,'' ''Ace Ventura: Pet Detective''). The latter part of the 1990s was thick with gross-outcomedies like ''There's Something About Mary'' and ''American Pie.''
This decade seems to be the province of Mr. Apatow and his broader group of comedy buddies -- Mr. Carell, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn among them. But not everyone thinks this vein of humor is entirely worthy.”

-- Alessandra Stanley, New York Times, "My Friend is from Another World", Oct 1 2007
Undoubtedly, the last five years of comedy have belonged to Judd Apatow and his disciples. Yet, while movies like Knocked Up, Superbad, The Forty Year Old Virgin, I Love You Man, Pineapple Express and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (some Apatow written, some directed, some produced) have raked in ticket sales and for the most part, critical favor, as Alessandra Stanley points out above, not everyone has been thrilled. If some people find his “bromance” comedic structure tiresome, others point to more disturbing developments. For example, the blog site Alphazero suggested that though Apatow’s works, particularly Knocked Up and Superbad, are not necessarily misogynist, they do exhibit what the blog labels “fairy tale sexism.” Put simply, “It’s idolizing the woman at the cost of her identity.” Anti-dis-arts-and-entertainment argued a similar point: “The driving force of Apatow Women – to coin a phrase – isn’t intelligence, or a developed personality, or an independent mind. They exist primarily as the unattainable goddess in flesh, made attainable only as a reward for male epiphany. Increasingly, Apatow Women have seemingly little existence outside the fantasy lives of the Apatow Men. Her basic subservient role is to ratify the nerd fantasy found in each of the writer/director/producer’s grasping male losers.” Anyone whose kept tabs on Apatow’s film work can not deny that his female characters often lack the depth (okay, this is a relative statement) of their male counterparts. However, when the same website suggests that each subsequent Apatow related feature employs actresses of declining talent, the author’s argument seems hard to refute, “Why would an Apatow film need to pay for top-level female talent? There’s no need for a Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, or Irene Dunne. The women here are intended as objects of male worship, to set up raunchy male humor, and to emotionally fellate male fantasy lives. Then the women can take a few bucks and leave. Notice I diplomatically chose to say 'leave' rather than 'blow.'”

Certainly, Apatow films suffer from gender blindspots, even those of us (and I am one of the many philistines that have enjoyed several of his movies) who generally like his work acknowledge the poor construction of his females roles. For example, Paul Rudd’s wife in Knocked Up comes off as a shrew who belittles her husband for sneaking off to fantasy league baseball drafts and actually seems more upset over this than had she confirmed her mistaken concern of adultery. Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real life partner and Rudd’s fictional wife in Knocked Up, admits that when it comes to women Apatow remains basically disjointed. “'We've been married for 10 years in June, and he's still really uncomfortable with me sometimes," she said. ''He still spills things before giving me a kiss. He'll knock a glass over and get flustered by it. Sometimes it feels like we're on a first date. He didn't outgrow the geeky boy he was. It's still there in him." Mann also plays Adam Sandler’s main love interest in Funny People (a movie that is decidedly unfunny despite being about comedians). Unfortunately, her character in the Adam Sandler feature might be even more limited than Knocked Up.

Perhaps, Apatow’s works simply reflect generational trends. Though it would seem Hollywood's record of creating memorable female characters remains anemic, without a doubt, gender roles over the past 30 years have undergone serious alterations. Today more women attend college then men, while the professional ranks from lawyers to doctors to accountants and beyond feature increasing numbers of female faces. Even reputable news shows like the PBS Newshour (previously titled the Lehrer News Hour) have reported on diminishing male numbers in college and the fear it has struck into the hearts of columnists such as David Brooks (Messers Suarez and Cummings find his work intoxicating) who noted that men fare worse in economic downturns, “The economic response to the crisis is everywhere debated, but the social response is unformed. First, we need to redefine masculinity, creating an image that encourages teenage boys to stay in school and older men to pursue service jobs. Evangelical churches have done a lot to show how manly men can still be nurturing. Obviously, more needs to be done, and schools need to be more boy-friendly.” Yes, schools need to be more boy friendly, a counterintuitive notion considering the nation’s nearly 235 year history. However, no matter what one thinks of Brooks, his larger point illustrates the very quagmire Judd Apatow envisions men trapped within. Journalist Sharon Waxman extrapolates on this point in a 2007 article, asking what about Apatow’s movies draws so many American males: “The reactions to Mr. Apatow's work suggest something close to catharsis in the depiction of hapless losers as heroes, a notion that, in movie terms, probably starts with Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. But Mr. Apatow turns out mainstream comedies, not cutting-edge fare, and unlike Benjamin in that 1967 film, the men in these contemporary comedies often consider women as scary (like the self-pleasuring vixen in The 40-Year-Old Virgin') as they are unattainable (Alison in Knocked Up). Perhaps there is something in the culture, a generational cue that may come from the rise of women's economic and sexual independence or from the arrival of a recognizable geeky archetype, that makes this paradigm comforting for audiences.”

Not only have economic and educational levels been altered between genders, but even broader social discourses about attractiveness and the like have come into play. Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (2000) argued that in many ways the American male now found himself subject to the same physical standards of beauty that women have endured for decades. Speaking to the New York Observer’s Alexandra Jacobs in 1999, Faludi argued “that men have been betrayed by similar cultural forces that women have grappled with for so long . . .The same culture that puts a premium on appearance and image and marketable fame and glamour and display," she said. "It's the water in which we all swim, and it's hard to get away from it." If Faludi’s point proves correct, Apatow’s male characters gain a sharper focus as the very sorts of men these standards further punish. Outcasts prior to such cultural developments, their schlubby underachieving nature places them at an even greater disadvantage while idolizing their female peers.

Still, one more factor deserves attention. The role of irony in today’s comedic circles. In a 2007 article in Journalism Studies entitled “The New Sexism: Reader’s Responses to the Use of Irony in Men’s Magazines”, Bethan Benwell suggests that “Irony is a versatile device which allows a speaker to articulate certain views whilst disclaiming responsibility for, or ownership of, them. This strategic use of irony is arguably a common device in men’s lifestyle magazines; firstly, to facilitate the expression of sexist or homophobic views, and secondly, to legitimise participation in the ‘‘feminised’’ realm of consumption.” (Benwell, 2007) Television series such as The Office and 30 Rock traffic in this sort of humor. In fact, 30 Rock’s third season featured several hysterical lines that while funny, might also prove troubling for some viewers. Take CEO Jack Donaghy’s response to underling Liz Lemon’s $12,000 savings account (“Lemon, what are you an immigrant?”) or when he suggests that NBC page Kenneth’s economic status makes him the equivalent of “an inner city Latina.” Other characters besides the imperious Donaghy engage in similar jokes. This is not to say “30 Rock” is racist or classist or anything else, but it does illustrate the kind of problems one encounters when employing this sort of ironic positioning. Dave Chappelle’s experience need not be recounted here as further proof.

In relation to Apatow, while much of his humor seems aimed at rehabilitating his loser characters, sometimes it seems less a rehabilitation than a crushing indictment. Apatow collaborator Kevin White speaking to the New York Times shared his growing reservations, that “jokes in both ''Knocked Up'' and ''The 40-Year-Old Virgin'' … skewer gay men and dismiss women. ''To me, I definitely stand in the corner of wanting to give voice to the bullied, and not the bully. Here's where comedy is catharsis for people who are picked on,'' he said. ''There's a strain in 'Knocked Up' where you sort of feel like something's changed a little bit,'' he continued. ''My sense of it is that because those guys are idiosyncratic-looking, their perception is that they're still the underdogs. But there is something about the spirit of the thing, that comes under the guise of comedy, where -- it's weird. At some point it starts feeling like comedy of the bullies, rather than the bullied.'' Perhaps, some lyrics off of Radiohead’s OK Computer might place Mr. White’s comments in perspective: “when I am King/You will be the first against the wall”("Paranoid Android").

Yet, things were not always so in the Apatow creative universe. One of his earliest critical successes Freaks and Geeks failed to suffer the gender blindspots of his films. Written by collaborator Paul Feig along with several collaborators such as the aforementioned White and produced by Apatow, F & G wowed most critics to the extent that six years after its one season run, writers continued to reference it as short hand. Take a 2005 review of indie rockers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. When lead singer Alec Ounsworth sarcastically announced ''We're the kind of guys that everyone carried around on their shoulders in high school,'' New York Times music critic Jessica Pressler commented, “, it's clear that back in high school these 20-somethings had more in common with the cast of ''Freaks and Geeks'' than with the cool kids on The O.C. F & G featured two main characters within an ensemble cast, the sibling duo of Lindsay (Lisa Cardellini) and Sam (John Francis Daley) Weir. When compared with the female characters that inhabit Apatow’s films, Lindsey appears to be a complete anomaly. Sporting her father’s old army jacket and a general attitude of discontent, Weir smokes up, causes trouble, but remains sweet and intelligent throughout. She’s complex and insightful, easily one of the most, if not the most developed character on the acclaimed but short run series. For those readers who actually experienced the 1980s, F & G gets a lot right. For example, the debate over Molly Hatchet, the perennial Scottie Pippen to Lynyrd Skynryd’s Southern rock Michael Jordan (or as neo-southern rockers the Drive By Truckers belt out in “Let There Be Rock,” “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Molly Hatchet”), or the episode in which Weir’s mother prepares her famous holiday cookies for Halloween only to be ostracized by Trick or Treaters because of fears over hidden razor blades, poisoning and the like (pitch perfect). More to the point, gender roles in the 1980s had yet to be truly challenged. Anyone whose seen Nine to Five knows that the early 1980s especially, remained tied to sexist ideas of female roles and employment, yet F & G ignores this to a large extent but also refuses to traffic in the “bromance” humor of Knocked Up or Superbad. Ironically, despite being situated in a decade notorious for white male privilege, F & G seems downright feminist when compared to Apatow’s movies, even though professionally, the Aughts provided far more opportunity and equality than the 1980s.

F & G identified the new comedic medium that would sweep the aughts, humiliation. Terry Teachout suggested as much in a 2001 retrospective article on the show, “The most believable thing about this utterly believable show is that virtually every episode is made to pivot on an experience intrinsic to teenage life: embarrassment. Things rarely go right for Lindsay, Sam and their friends, at least not for long, and the things that go wrong are often as pathetic as they are amusing.”  F & G collaborator Jon Kasadan admitted as much six years later, “''The culture in the last 5, 10 years is one of shame and humiliation, and Judd gets that,.' He continued: ''Part of the experience of being a man in this postmodern life is humiliation, and wearing it as something to be proud of. This is a true frustration that Judd is expressing in his work, almost a romanticized version of being a schlub.''” When one considers the explosion of gotcha TV shows like Punked and the in your face awkwardness of Borat, Bruno, and several other work along with the fascination/horror directed at post 9-11 torture, maybe Apatow simply tapped into an unconscious vein of American thought. [authors note: AC helped on this point] Still, while Kasdan’s point certainly holds merit, it fails to explain why Apatow’s female movie characters remain barred from such considerations. Lindsey Weir illustrates that Apatow once had a sense of this, but now seems to have turned his back on it. To be fair, while many critics note F & G as a previous Apatow production, few if any ever bring it in to the discussion regarding Apatow’s treatment of women or even any sort of juxtaposition with his films. Moreover, after the cancelation of F & G and its college sibling Undeclared, perhaps, Apatow and others simply concluded that America would rather explore immature adolescent men then sullen, challenging women.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It's My Panther Party and I'll Cry If I Want to

How Fox News Bum Rushes the Mainstream

Once again, Fox News has ambushed its ever-gullible competitors with an unlimited willingness to lie, distort, and sow fear and hatred among the American people. Every time you think they’ve done their worst, they find new ways to push the outer limits of journalistic ethics and civic responsibility.

Their latest feat? Cooking up a phony “controversy” about supposed racial favoritism at the Department of Justice, which, under Obama’s watch, has supposedly adopted a policy of not prosecuting African Americans. On election day in 2008, several members of the New Black Panther Party stood outside a polling place in a mostly African American neighborhood in Philadelphia; in a video that has been replayed endlessly on Fox, one Panther member waves a nightstick and shouts, “You’re about to be ruled by the black man, cracker!”

The Fox gang is outraged that this clear example of voter intimidation has gone unprosecuted. They ignore the fact that the case occurred under the Bush Department of Justice, which could have pursued the case but didn’t. No one has come forward to claim that they were intimidated or threatened by the Panthers. In fact, the Obama administration sought and won a default judgment against one of the men who stood outside the polling place.
None of this, of course, matters.

Fox is busy whipping up hysterical fears in an audience that appears willing or even eager to believe that Barack Obama and Eric Holder have seized power in order to show favor to fellow African Americans, to the detriment of white Americans.

Why do so many people believe this? Because a Republican operative says he heard Julie Fernandes, a Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, say that the DOJ would not pursue any cases against African Americans.
This claim has since been quoted and re-quoted on one conservative blog after another, to the point that it has become a matter of unquestioned fact that Fernandes said there was a no-prosecuting-black-people rule at the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

As in money laundering, the deception sheds its criminal quality with each remove from the original source. Nobody asks for any evidence of whether such a policy exists, or whether the person who first made this allegation is credible. It is cited and re-cited as incontrovertible evidence of the racial reign of terror currently existing in this country. There is just an endless font of outrage.

This, by itself, would be a tempest in the cable news teacup. Though Fox is by far the most watched network of its kind, the audience for cable news is small compared to the broader TV-viewing audience. (For instance, NBC’s Today show draws well over four times as many viewers as Fox’s morning program.) The average Katie Couric watcher or Huffington Post reader might never have known that the New Black Panther scandal was rocking the country and consuming massive amounts of airspace (more than eight hours of Fox News’ time on this one story since June 30th).

But the next step in Fox’s game plan is the really clever part. Just as Fox fooled its competitors at ABC and NBC into calling the 2000 election for George W. Bush, despite their own projections of a Gore victory, the network has become adept at hectoring other news organizations into treating its trumped-up storylines as legitimate news. It guilts other networks and newspapers into taking its stories seriously, crying about “liberal bias” if CBS does not treat the Tea Party as the most important political movement since the American Revolution itself.

You may recall that Fox News devoted days and weeks of airtime to covering the nascent Tea Party when it first emerged in early 2009, helping to organize its demonstrations by telling viewers of the times and dates of events, encouraging them to sign up online or call in to join the movement, and so forth. Fox News became like an infomercial for a movement that it played no small part in creating. And then its reporters feigned shock and outrage that other news organizations weren’t also giving the Tea Party its due – which is to say, nonstop coverage.

The same thing is happening now with Fox’s quest to uncover anti-white racism in the Obama administration. There was the claim that a new tax on tanning beds unfairly targeted white Americans, which goaded a few right-wing blogs on the fringe to jive themselves into a tizzy of self-pity. (The blog Occidental Dissent linked the tanning bed tax to “the actual ongoing anti-White genocide.” You would think that if you wanted to kill people, you’d be giving them incentives to hop into tanning beds, not out of them, but I digress.)

Just in the last few days, Fox and its allies in the conservative blogosphere have peddled a misleading video of a (now former) employee of the Department of Agriculture, in which Shirley Sherrod, an African American, says that she did not do all she could to help a white farmer avoid foreclosure. Conservative activist Andrew Breitbart cited the video as further evidence of anti-white bias in the Obama administration and ultimately won Sherrod’s resignation – despite failing to note that the incident happened twenty four years ago, before Sherrod worked for USDA, and that she went on to help the farmer and form a lasting friendship with his family, according to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Sherrod had told the story to a local NAACP chapter last year to explain her own coming-to-terms with racial bias long ago, but Fox was none too happy to try to destroy a woman’s career based on the thinnest evidence of persecution. The tactic’s genius lies in its ability not just to spread outrage, but in its power to force unsuspecting opponents into a corner. Without knowing much about the real story, the White House instantly demanded Sherrod’s resignation, and even the NAACP issued a hastily written statement saying it was “appalled” by Sherrod – a statement it quickly retracted as new details began to emerge.

The trick works just as well with the bogus allegations of racial bias at the Department of Justice. CBS’s Bob Schieffer has come under attack for not quizzing Eric Holder about the case – in other words, he should have carried out Fox’s hit for them, out of an obligation to his duty as a newsman. Now the Black Panther story is one news item; the kerfuffle over CBS’s blindness to pervasive black persecution of whites is another. Queue up another six hours of outraged coverage of the story about the story. And so on.

Why is this so troubling? Not just because Fox shows zero interest in letting viewers see the complexity of the events it covers. And not just because one news organization can use its small, homogeneous audience as a megaphone to amplify one political viewpoint over others. It is what these stories say about the people who watch and believe them that should give us pause.

Why is it that Barack Obama and Eric Holder are so easily portrayed as radical, aggressive racists? Why is it so easy for the people on camera and the people at home to sit there and hear Glenn Beck say the president of the United States has “a deep-seated hatred of white people”? Those of us who support Obama find it hard to understand how the guy who said, “There’s no white America, there’s no black America, there’s the United States of America!” – you know, the guy who made unity and reconciliation the theme of his campaign – can be so readily perceived a fire-breathing, favor-giving partisan to the black half of his heritage.

Fox is able to peddle this fearful and vindictive storyline because some Americans are more than ready to believe it. Like a puzzle piece that snaps right into place, it fits in with a long-running perception among some white Americans that people of color have been getting favors, free rides, and special treatment for decades – at least since the tumult of the civil rights era. It is a perverse world in which prisoners get comfier conditions than the average citizen, illegal immigrants are treated to unlimited public services at the expense of hard-working taxpayers, and convicted rapist Willie Horton gets a “free weekend prison pass” to commit outrageous violence once again. There are those who nod along with Limbaugh when he says Obama is the “affirmative action president,” as if his long list of achievements only came to him because of his race.

This is why some of us see racism in the Tea Party movement – not because its members oppose the president’s policies, or even because some activists take ugly signs with Nazi and Stalinist imagery to marches, but because prominent conservatives at Fox and elsewhere have been so eager to play on imaginary, cockamamie racial fears to advance their agenda. And basically scare the pants off the gullible among us.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) got a firsthand taste of this paranoia the other day at a town hall meeting, when an elderly white constituent demanded to know about the Black Panther case and racial bias at the DOJ. “I am extremely sure we do not have a policy in the Department of Justice of never prosecuting a black defendant,” a smiling Sherman said, hoping, perhaps, to brush off the question as ridiculous. Constituents in the audience instantly shout, “YES, YOU DO!” in response.

They are not having it – anymore than other constituents in other districts were willing to believe Democrats when they said the healthcare bill did not have any death panels or free healthcare for undocumented immigrants in it. It speaks to an iron assumption among some Americans that each race or ethnic group is going to screw over the others once it gets a shot at being in power.

But perhaps it also comes from a fundamental suspicion of anyone in power, felt by voters who have been lied to more than once before. (See Bush, George W; and Clinton, William J.) Why they don’t trust Brad Sherman is understandable enough. Why they believe Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity is much harder to grasp.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Benetton Dreams: The Multicultural World of ‘Rachel Getting Married’

In John Sayles’s 1996 classic Lone Star, the filmmaker/essayist included a scene between two older romantically involved military officers, one a white man and the other a black woman. In a discussion about meeting her family,  the male officer asked if his race would be an issue, and his romantic counterpart commented that her family figured she was a lesbian at this point, so any man proved an improvement.  To which he replied, roughly, “It’s always good to see one prejudice defeated by another one.” Welcome to the modern American mind: a complex crisscrossing of biases and open-mindedness, a cauldron overflowing with solidarities and conflicts.

Enter Jonathan Demme’s 2008 film Rachel Getting Married. Filmed in the handheld, philosophical style of the waning Dogme 95 movement, the movie juxtaposes the dissolution of the American middle class family with a new, possibly utopian multicultural community. A.O. Scott cited the influence of avant-garde film; the movie owed a “clear debt to the ostentatiously austere methods of [Dogme 95],” wrote Scott, “The audience only hears music that the people in the movie hear as well, and the proceedings are recorded by a busily wandering video camera.” Of course, the New York Times critic also noted Demme’s softer edges as Rachel Getting Married lacked the “sadistic” edges of the famed Dogme director Thomas Vinterberg. The home film experience of the Dogme approach adds a gauzy earthiness to a story about collapse and reconstruction. This stylistic approach contributes to a broader message of unselfconscious diversity, one where a home film offers only cinema vérité, rather than commentary. Demme himself claimed to be attempting to create the “most beautiful home movie ever."

While Rachel Getting Married focuses on the awkward reintegration of Rachel’s sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), who receives temporary leave from her drug rehabilitation program during the older sister’s wedding, a central aspect of the work is the idea of loss and recovery – physically, emotionally, and existentially. One might argue, as some academics have, that the multicultural milieu of the film serves to portray America as a burgeoning mix of religions, races, and ethnicities comfortable enough to inhabit the same wedding for several days, with the only conflict unfolding among the white family members of Rachel’s brood.

Over the course of the weekend, the audience is introduced into a sprawling social landscape. TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe plays Rachel’s black fiancée, Sidney, while numerous yellow and brown faces abound. The wedding itself is a mishmash of cultural reference points, thrown together in Cuisinart fashion: a Brazilian samba dance troupe appears during the reception and the BBQ-style dinner featured waiter service by the groom and bride, both of whom are dressed in Asian/Buddhist style garb. Again, like a handheld video observing these events, no direct mention of this diversity emerges; as Scott acknowledges, “these facts are never mentioned by anyone in the movie, which gathers races, traditions and generations in a pleasing display of genteel multiculturalism. It’s a big, messy gathering even without Kym’s melodrama, so there may be no time for expressions of prejudice or social unease.”

However, not all critics viewed Demme’s vision so benignly. Time’s Richard Schickel described the family as “smugly PC,” gathering to celebrate their “perfectly balanced daughter” Rachel. Moreover, Schickel took issue with Demme’s broader aims: “This is not just a wedding, however; it is also a sociopolitical statement, for the groom is a handsome black man, scion of a family that is far more conventional and bourgeois than the bride's family, and especially the bride's sister, Kym.”

Multiculturalism has long served as PC whipping boy: the ivory tower fascists imposing a relativistic norm on an unwitting populace. However, not all academics have supported the multicultural ideal. For example, Lisa Lowe views the emergence of multiculturalism as the ultimate dodge, focusing only on the future and present, ignoring the past inequalities and grievances that have shaped current conditions. “The nation proposes American culture as a the key site for the resolution of inequalities and stratifications that cannot be resolved on the political terrain of representative democracy,” Lowe writes, “then that culture performs that reconciliation by naturalizing a universality that exempts the ‘non-American’ from its history of development or admits the ‘non-American’ only through a ‘multiculturalism’ that aestheticizes ethnic differences as if they could be separated from history.” (9)

Rachel’s family certainly knows a thing or two about aestheticizing difference. This bunch of upper-middle class white northeasterners go to great lengths to demonstrate their broad-mindedness and cultural sophistication at the wedding, by stocking it with borrowed gestures from other people’s cultures. Diversity is converted into a consumer good – something to be shopped for, and, at most, put on and taken off like an article of clothing. With their Brazilian dances and pseudo-Buddhist costumes, one wonders if dashikis and a Bollywood dance number could not be far behind. Do these liberal white people have no traditions of their own?

The showy “diversity” of the weekend’s events actually underlines the racial divide within the wedding. As critics have noted, the film had little time to explore any tension between the two families because the bride's side was in a state of perpetual meltdown – but the black characters were also total ciphers. Sidney and his family were like wallpaper. They appear to be kind, patient people, but they have virtually no role in the film except to serve as the backdrop for the white family’s explosive psychodrama. Rachel, Kym and their brood barely seem to notice that the other characters are there, so consumed are they in their own narcissistic score-keeping and resentment.

Ironically, the family's upper class, liberal, forward-thinking ways could not make up for their own profoundly damaged psyches. Rachel and Kym’s mother has been a reclusive alcoholic ever since the tragedy that shattered their family years earlier. She appeared to be uncomfortable attending the wedding; perhaps she resented the others for their happiness, or perhaps she felt like they didn't really want her there, since she blames herself (and they blame her) for an accident that claimed the life of a young family member long ago.

What happened to the white boomers, as represented by Rachel’s parents? They drank and did drugs, got into world music, searched for self actualization, and neglected their children. They also got down with the brown, as the music and fashion at their daughter’s wedding indicate. But all that hippie-dippy love and compassion and open-mindedness didn't extend to trying to understand and forgive their daughter Kym for her destructive behavior.

In this light, does the America that Demme constructs in Rachel Getting Married represent a more progressive, diverse society, or does it simply paper over historical fissures and grievances that continue to affect our conceptions of race, culture, family, tradition, and so forth? This is not to say that social groups should hold tightly to anger or historical resentments; rather, we all need to be attentive to such histories as we struggle for greater social, political, and economic integration. As the old and, yes, triumphantly lame G.I. Joe PSA’s used to announce, “Knowing is half the battle.” One might frame this more intellectually, pointing to Emile Durkheim’s observation: if one wants to escape psychological and social prisons, one must know he or she is in one.

This brings us to a point of friction between the two authors of this piece. What was the filmmaker’s intent? Did Demme want the audience to envision a utopian multicultural future, or is his wandering, Dogme-like gaze meant to reveal the foibles and hypocrisy of liberal upper middle class America’s fetish for the “other”? Does Rachel’s family participate in what amounts to little more than modern American Orientalism, akin to Said’s nineteenth century version?

Getting at Demme’s intentions remains fraught with difficulty. The director purposely made the father of the bride a record producer in order to provide an explanation for the participant’s stumbling diversity and a soundtrack without a soundtrack. As Demme said in a 2008 interview:

I thought, ‘If we make their father a music industry executive, then maybe, if I was him, I would have Sister Carol East come over from Brooklyn and perform live.’ He would have to do something like that. And Robyn Hitchcock, he would fly Robyn Hitchcock in. So I knew that we could use as much of that stuff as suited the movie. I also thought that a great way to deliver the joy and euphoria that should and hopefully would come from a beautiful ceremony would be through dance, and dancing to live music and responding to live music is that much more exciting than a deejay spinning and stuff. And I’m forgetting the fact that Jenny [Lumet] had written in that, for no apparent reason, suddenly there’d be a Brazilian samba band there. So this was just pushing that envelope as far as seemed reasonable.
So does sheer musical exuberance explain Demme’s intent, or is it something else? Demme seems to believe in Rachel’s wedding as a tableaux of a harmonious, beautiful mélange of colors and cultures – the same aim that Rachel and Sidney may have hoped for when planning the ceremony. That being said, it remains hard not to see the film’s main characters as much more than self-involved consumers who, much like Demme himself, use culture as a fashionable backdrop for their own interpersonal struggles.

RR and AC

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Zombieland: JB Jackson and the Abandonment of Detroit

Photo by Clement Lime

One of the favorite tropes of the American zombie movie is the spookily empty parking lot – where it should have been filled with bustling shoppers, it is instead populated only by loose shopping carts and rolling refuse. It evokes the classic ghost town of the West, a skeletal place passed by on the ever-expanding edge of American progress. Americans always push ahead, from the Appalachians to the Pacific, from Alaska to NASA to nanospace. Only a nuclear war or a brain-putrefying virus could lead to there being less, rather than more.

After 9/11, many New Yorkers were surprised to see that the threat of terrorism did little to dent the city’s go-go real estate market. A friend commented to me that only a collapse of the world financial system could deter the relentless rise of prices in Manhattan. That outcome seemed remote and unlikely in 2003; and while the crash of 2008 did its damnedest to test out this hypothesis, New York has certainly not turned it into a ghost town. It is a place with higher taxes, fewer social services, a more miserly attitude toward the poor and the sick – but it has not been laid to waste.

Detroit, on the other hand, has. As the auto industry teetered toward the conclusion of his decades-long, slow-motion collapse, and the housing market shriveled, people have fled the city. Once a metropolis of two million, it now has fewer than half as many residents. 33% lived in poverty in 2007, before the recession gripped the country as a whole and sent Detroit reeling even further. Today, it is estimated that 35% of the city’s area is unoccupied.

With abandoned homes dominating whole city blocks, local leaders have attempted to “downsize” this sprawling city of 140 miles. They want to move the few remaining households out of otherwise empty neighborhoods in order to reduce crime and the cost of city services. Homes in these swaths of territory will be razed to the ground, replaced with trees and open space – a network of greenways criss-crossing the city. Downsizing of workers has led to downsizing of people, of space itself.

Photo by Bob Jagendorf

The self-taught geographer J.B. Jackson would have looked on this situation with great curiosity. Fifty-four years ago he wrote of the abandonment of rural America and its small towns, under the pressure of agricultural mechanization. The farm population dwindled; young men and women left the family farms and country crossings of the Plains for college and never came back. “Americans have long been familiar with the sight of deserted farmsteads on country roads: barns and houses sagging, fields choked by a second growth of trees, lanes overgrown,” Jackson wrote in 1966. “These have become part of our rural picturesqueness.”

Jackson wondered what this process of abandonment would look like, once it moved on from the quaint “green acres” of American imagination:
It will undoubtedly take us time to get used to these and other indications of a population decline; we think of America as forever booming and expanding. It is true that we are no longer disturbed by the abandoned one-room school or the crossroads General Merchandise; but how will we take the abandoned, more or less modern high school with monster gymnasium? The abandoned drive-in movie theater with rows of empty stanchions emerging from the weeds? The abandoned shopping center?
Jackson’s concern for dilapidated drive-ins and big boxes seems dated now, as we have all grown accustomed to seeing hulking K-marts left for dead. There is even some evidence that drive-ins are making something of a comeback, in an ironic twist of history.

But Jackson foresaw that the urban, suburban, and exurban landscapes were no more immune to abandonment than the countryside. This is why the zombie movie has fascinated us so much since the 1950s – not just the specter of mindless, conformist consumers materialized as brain-hungry hordes, but the vision of emptiness in the land of plenty. In Detroit, we are getting to see what a gutted suburb or industrial district looks like – one that, so far, looks unlikely to be recolonized by artists and punks, as now-hip neighborhoods in Manhattan once were.

Detroit even lags other cities in attracting the immigrant families that revitalized huge areas of Brooklyn, Queens and other urban areas in recent years, owing, of course, to the relative dearth of economic opportunities. Plans have been floated to try to draw immigrants to the city as a sort of Special Migration Zone, to boost its population, capital, tax base and so on. “I can’t help but think that with 165 million people around the world telling Gallup they’d like to permanently relocate to the United States that it would be possible to find 1.3 million people who’d be interested in permanently relocating to Detroit and bringing the city back up to its peak population level,” Matt Yglesias speculated last month. “Economic and governance opportunities in Detroit are poor by American standards (or even by Italian standards) but they’re great compared to what you’ll find in Haiti, Gaza, Myanmar, Chad, or Nicaragua.”

Such plans have not been seriously considered by sober men and women, although it would be interesting to consider giving the Palestinians Detroit since they’re never going to get Jerusalem. Realistically, the best Detroit officials hope for is a controlled burn: a new American experiment with retraction instead of expansion. The farmers and small townsfolk of the South and the Midwest have already had a go at this, as Jackson, Jack Temple Kirby, and other scholars have shown.

What Detroit really makes one consider is what the next round of ruins will look like. We are long used to hollowed-out barns, factories and warehouses. What will the landscape of the Information Age look like in its decrepit years? The modernist honeycombs of office parks and laboratories, the glass cubes of Apple stores – they will be discarded some day too.

Will they endure any better than the agricultural and industrial worlds that came before? Will they lie derelict, as monuments to the passing enthusiasms of a bygone era? Will the Glaxos and Wal-Marts be leveled and erased? Or will they be retrofitted for new uses unforeseen today, like the stones of a Roman village reused for the wall of a medieval town, or the mills and warehouses now being converted to apartment housing today? And how will Americans come to grips with a population and an economy that might stabilize or even shrink in the decades to come?


Further reading:

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America
Jack Temple Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960
Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo
Thomas J. Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Annals of Insanity, #237: No War in 1950!

This Los Angeles Times article, from New Year's Day 1950, makes a variety of optimistic predictions about the year to come, with just one slight mistake.

Like most top officials, [Vice President Alben] Barkley sees little likelihood of war during 1950. 'I think the odds are strongly against it,' he says. They're 1000 to one, reports the International Statistical Bureau.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Emigrating to All Points West: The Novelistic Complexity of Immigration

Whatever one thinks of President Obama’s recent comments on immigration policy, for the past two decades, the controversy over immigration has stalked American politics and popular culture. Driven by a marked need for labor, the post 1973 period witnessed a collapse of the “grand bargain” – frequently referred to as Fordism – established between employers and labor. While Mexican labor in the US, most notably represented by the Bracero Program (1942-1964, but soon followed by the Border Industrial Program) served to augment the nation’s laboring needs, the shift away form Fordism to neoliberal economic policies meant this migrating labor served to compete with American labor flows. The explosion of Mexican labor in the US belies this fact. For example, 1960 America claimed only 4 million Mexican American/Mexicans, by 1970 it had increased to 5.4 million, but by 1980, it nearly doubled to almost 9 million. The passage of the IRCA in 1986, continuing labor needs, and the early free trade agreement of NAFTA spurred increased immigration such that by early 2000s, over 30 million Mexican Americans and Mexicans resided in the US.

Over the past two decades, the passage of NAFTA drove millions of Mexicans North. In reality, NAFTA represented an extension of the BIP program, which resulted in demographic and income shifts within Mexico. Consequently, maquiladora’s on the northern Mexican border expanded, bringing with them labor (increasingly female as well, which Saskia Sassen has argued produces female workers who after several years of employment no longer fit into Mexican society while remaining outside of US conceptual borders as well.)

In this context, T.C Boyle’s novel Tortilla Curtain attempts to recast the twentieth’s century conclusion in Steinbeckian terms. However, unlike Steinbeck’s “okies” who established a sense of community in the work camps, Boyle’s Mexican migrants struggle, attempting to live off the urban landscape of Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon. Neoliberalilsm’s power to dissolve even the bonds of migrants proves overwhelming. There are no itinerant preachers with the initials of J.C. no Tom Joads fighting for the poor. No instead, Boyle provides a vision of downward brutality as those at the bottom victimize one another to get marginally ahead. Candido and America Rincon provide Boyle with his migrant characters. Candido’s survival techniques lay not in the mutualista tradition of America’s immigrant communities, but an atomized individualism “In times of extremity, his father said, when you’re lost or hungry or in danger, ponte pared, make like a wall. That is you present a solid unbreachable surface, you show nothing, neither fear nor despair, and you protect the inner fortress yourself from all comers.” Moreover, one need only look to the names of Boyle’s Mexican protagonists Candido and America for further proof. Candido, like his enlightenment namesake, encounters set back after set back , endeavoring on with diminished returns, while America, Candido’s young pregnant teenage wife, endures harsh work conditions and rape at the hands of fellow migrants, illustrating the demons of twentieth century migration. New York Times reviewer Scott Spencer dutifully acknowledged one of the novel’s strengths, “Mr. Boyle is convincing, and even stirring, in his telling of Candido and America's story, bringing to it an agitprop artist's perspective on both society's injustices and the cold implacability of the privileged classes, as well as a Brechtian vision of how those cast to the bottom of society blindly victimize one another.” This idea of downward victimization finds expression through migrants themselves as Candido first objects to his wife’s attempts at securing work, “He considered that scenario – his wife, a barefoot girl from the country who didn’t know a thing about the world, out here among all those lowlifes who’d do anything for a buck – or a woman – and he didn’t like it. He knew them. Street bums who couldn’t keep their hands in their pockets, sweaty campesinos from Guerro and Chiapas who’d grown up abusing their livestock, indios from Guatemala and Honduras: coochie-coochie and hey baby then the kissing noises.” (27)

Though Tortilla Curtain’s publication followed closely on the heels of NAFTA’s passage, it successfully illustrates many of its results. For example, if NAFTA increased trade between Mexico and the US, it also increased Mexican immigration, both internally to Mexico’s northern states and externally to the United States. However, NAFTA’s construction rested on logic that ignored obvious developments. Patricia Fernandez Kelly and Douglass Massey point this out in 2007 for the Journal Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in an article entitled “Borders for Whom?” “In sum, the narrow interests of financial, industrial, and policy elites on both sides of the border did less for workers in either country than for the consolidation of a new and powerful binational class of professionals, investors, managers, and politicians. The stated objectives of NAFTA—economic development in Mexico and balanced growth throughout North America—were from the outset opposite those actually implemented, which served narrow economic and political interests rather than the welfare of ordinary Mexicans or Americans.” (106) The increased border regulation failed to reduce the number of migrants while encouraging those who reached to the US to stay longer. If Mexican US labor migration long proved cyclical, the increasingly strict border “control” encouraged “undocumented” settlement within the US, which in turn contributed to social and economic frictions that emerged in the late 1990s and 2000s, so clearly present in Tortilla Curtain. Candido and America make no mention of this, instead, suffering the privation of such labor flows.

Boyle contrasts these characters with the upper middle class couple of Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, who care a great deal more about their dogs than Mexicans. Kyra sees no problem in berating strangers for keeping their dogs in cars with the window closed but exhibits almost no sympathy for migrants. For example, when patronizing a local 7-11 type convenience store, that also seems to be a local site for picking up undocumented day laborers, Kyra views the migrant workers suspiciously, enacting a psycho sexual drama in her head, “all the men stared at her, some boldly, some furtively. If this were Tijuana they’d be grabbing for her, making lewd comments, jeering and whistling, but here they didn’t dare, here they wanted to be conspicuous only to the right people, the people who needed cheap labor for the day, the afternoon, the hour. She imagined them trading apocryphal stories of the beautiful gringa who selected the best built man for a special kind of work, and tried to keep a neutral look on her face.” (158) As already noted, Candido, himself a migrant labor, harbored similar views of his fellow undocumented workers, while America suffered sexual violations at the hands of two such individuals. One might suggest Boyle brushes quite broadly with this theme, perhaps too broadly.

In terms of the depth of the Mossbacher marriage bond, Boyle lays out the ties that bind in their relationship, “They were both perfectionists, … they abhorred clutter. They were joggers, nonsmokers, social drinkers, and if not full blown vegetarians, people who were conscious of their intake of animal fats. Their memberships included the Sierra Club, Save the Children, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Democratic Party. They preferred the contemporary look to Early American or kitsch. In religious matters, they were agnostic.” (34) The ultimate white yuppie pairing, Delaney even writes for nature magazines, while Kyra works the punishing Los Angeles real estate market. Of course, Boyle’s characterization of the couple and their subsequent adventures (Spencer labeled them “unremarkable” at that) juxtaposed with those of Candido and America Rincon, reveal an obvious divide between the two couples, however, as Spencer argues, Boyle’s absolute contempt for the Mossbachers surges throughout the novel, leading the New York Times reviewer to suggest puzzlement at the author’s strategy, “Why are we being asked to follow the fates of characters for whom he clearly feels such contempt? Not surprisingly, this is ultimately off-putting.” Writes Spencer, “Perhaps Mr. Boyle has received too much praise for his zany sense of humor; in this book, that wit often seems merely a maddening volley of cheap shots. It's like living next door to a gun nut who spends all day and half the night shooting at beer bottles. “

The New York Times critic has a point. Delaney Mossbacher fancies himself a “liberal humanist”, which should be the first sign of the author’s contempt. Who would ever identify themselves as such after say the eighteenth century? It comes as no surprise when Delaney devolves into a nativist bent on driving the local Mexicans from his neighborhood. Inevitably the liberalness of the Mossbachers comes to represent the false openmindedness of Los Angeles’ “limosine liberals”, whom once their precious lifestyles become threatened, retreat into the same false cocoon of gated communities and ten foot walls.

One of the problems with Boyle’s vision is the dichotomy created between the Rincon’s and Mossbachers? What about long settled Mexican Americans? How do they view immigration and the subsequent laws passed to regulate it? It would seem that in the cacophonous diversity of Los Angeles, Mr. Boyle might have tried to add several touches of grey to the story. This is not to say the novel ignores nuance, but if fails to pursue it adequately. Like an Ayn Rand work, on some level, characters seem to represent archetypes rather than real people. Granted, the same might be said of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, a polemic that sometimes bruises the reader with its message.

In contrast, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian addresses an immigration flow less often discussed, that of Eastern Europeans to England, specifically Ukranians. More humorous than Tortilla Curtain, A Short History of Tractors also employs middle class protagonists, the sisters Vera and Nadezhda Mayevska, who though long feuding, unite in an attempt oust a recent familial interloper, their elderly father’s thirty something Ukranian wife ,Valentina. Long settled in the UK, the Mayevska’s emigrated 40 years earlier, away from the forced tragedies of communist rule. Vera and Nadezhda represent the very population Boyle ignores in Tortilla Curtain, yet their view of their father’s new bride remains harsh, “I catch the distinct synthetic whiff of New Russia.” (2) Nadezhda, ten years younger than her sister Vera, did not have to endure Soviet ruled Ukraine or the horrid labor camps that Stalin established for his own people. Consequently, her older sister and father’s political outlooks reflect such, as Vera exemplifies a steely eyed Darwinian philosophy, frequently mocking Nadezhda’s own more liberal leanings, “The Triumph of the human spirit?” Vera snorts. “My dear, that is charming but quite naïve! Let me tell you, the human spirit is mean and selfish; the only impulse is to preserve itself. Everything else is pure sentimentality.” (230).

Unsurprisingly, Valentina’s rapacious behavior, demanding the accoutrements of Western life, results in the feminist Nadezhda abandoning some of her own principles in an attempt to have the British authorities annul the marriage, shipping Valentina and her boy Stanislav back to the Ukraine, “Pappa, why should I give money for you to spend on this grasping deceitful painted ….” Bitch bitch, bitch! I think. But my feminist mouth won’t say it” (92). As a Washington Post reviewer points out, Valentina represents the stereotypical conception of Eastern European women, corrupted both by unrestrained capitalism and an almost amoral communist past, “'No car! No jewel! No clothes! (She pronounces it in two syllables -- cloth-es.) No cosmetic! No underclothes!' She yanks up her T-shirt top to display those ferocious breasts bursting like twin warheads out of an underwire, ribbon-strapped Lycra-panelled lace-trimmed green satin rocket launcher of a bra." (89) Again, the sexuality of immigrants emerges. However, here at least, Valentina had to ruin her reputation among the local Ukrainian community before she’s cast out. In Tortilla Curtain, no such community seems to exist meaning that while Boyle provides glimpses of Mexican American residents, no communal opinion (or even the debates within such groupings over the issue) visibly emerges. Furthermore, the role of immigrant sexuality emerges once again. If Boyle portrayed undocumented male Mexican migrants as aggressive sexual predators, Lewycka falls back on the equally gender specific Eastern European gold digger harlot whose entrance into the lives of the Mayevskj family, Nadezdha famously describes as akin to a “fluffy pink grenade.” (1)

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, like Tortilla Curtain, has its critics. Chicago Tribune critic Laura Ciolkowski argued that the book’s characters “never finally become three dimensional” and that such a rendering never provides the necessary lens from which to delve into the “the deeper, richer story of postwar Russia and the immigrant experience in the West that is at the heart of the Mayevskya family drama.” The Guardian’s Andrey Kurkov took an even more critical stance, “the novel is not so much written as constructed, and the same can be said of the characters. Just about everyone portrayed in it inspires the sympathy of the reader except the Ukrainians, legal and illegal. What we see are caricatures. Valentina's enormous breasts are mentioned dozens of times. Her bad taste in clothes (she has a passion for green satin underwear) and her dislike of cooking are exploited in the same way. She is more like a rubber doll than a real person. The old man is almost always seen in pyjamas or naked, as a symbol of the impotence of old age . . . Reading this novel gave me the impression that I had read a school textbook on Ukrainian history with one eye on an episode of Coronation Street.”

Granted, the parallels between the two examples of immigration do not line up neatly. The history of communism and the rise of the EU demonstrate numerous differences between the two examples. However, a cursory examination of news articles reveals a very similar dynamic. For example, an August 26, 2006 Economist article explains fears expressed by numerous EU members regarding Romanian and Bulgarian memberships ranging from lower wages to increased dependency by native born EU residents on the dole:

Although the macroeconomic impact of the newcomers appears benign, it has distributional consequences that are increasingly worrying Labour MPs. Almost four-fifths of the arrivals who have registered for work earn an hourly rate of between £4.50 ($8.50) and £6. By contrast, less than a fifth of the overall working population earn less than £6 an hour. John Denham, a former minister, says that the new arrivals have halved wages for builders in his Southampton constituency.

Both he and Frank Field, another influential Labour backbencher, also worry that the migrants will undermine attempts to get people off benefit and back to work. “If you have a choice between hiring someone who has been on incapacity benefit with a mental health problem for five years, or a young, fit Pole, who are you going to go for?” asks Mr Denham.” (Economist, August 24, 2006, “Second Thoughts”).

Other worries included nearly identical refrains heard frequently on American shores concerning the burdening of public sector: “Although few of the new workers have brought families with them so far, some local authorities are starting to complain about increased demands. In Slough, the council says that one of its primary schools has recently taken in 50 Polish children in a single term. And because the new migrants have spread out, rather than clustering in London and a couple of other big cities as previous waves have done, their effect is being felt all round the country.” (Economist, August 24, 2006, “Second Thoughts”) Like the United States, Britain opened its labor markets to newcomers more so than other EU members. In fact, Britain provided the only large market example.

Undoubtedly, Mexican-US immigration is not a replica of its Eastern European-EU counterpart, yet some similarities remain undeniable. The pressure of immigration can confound even the most liberal members of society; after all, it’s very easy for professors, graduate students, and professionals to extol its virtues. None of them compete with these emigrating labor forces. While Arizona’s recent laws have rightly sparked outrage and economic boycotts, there remains the sticky truth that some of immigration’s consequences can be harsh, especially for some of America’s most vulnerable workers. The same can be said for the EU. With the possibility of future Turkish membership (a Muslim nation of over 70 million in a political/economic entity that defines itself through a kind of secular Christianity), one might argue that Turkish labor flows represent a better analogy to the Mexico-America example. Perhaps, the combined efforts of Houston’s interfaith effort this past July 4th points to a more positive future as religious clergy across the city emphasized the need for America and Americans to reevaluate their problematic policies attitudes toward immigration. As Reverend James Bankston of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church implored his parishoners to reconsider their conception of U.S. immigration, he acknowledged that “Knowing how to live with neighbors in our world is never easy.” Indeed.


[Editor’s note- the author is ½ Ukrainian-Polish]

Thursday, July 1, 2010

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

This is not quite good enough to make it into our Annals of Insanity folder, but it's still pretty awesome. From a North Carolina newspaper in 1957:

Click here for a larger version. In an adjacent article, the improbably named Texas oilman Tom Slick announced a plan to search for the Abominable Snowman. Also, firemen from Leaksville went to douse a fire in nearby Spray. There has to be something funny about that.