Who Will Speak for Jesse?

As you’ve probably noticed, the tabloids are really in a lather at the moment over the “tragedy” that has befallen Sandra Bullock.  No sooner has she won her first and probably only Oscar, there follows the devastating revelation that her quirky “real-not-Hollywood” marriage is in collapse.  Her husband, D-list grease monkey Jesse James, apparently hasn’t been able to keep his screwdriver in the toolbox, leading to an affair with a meta-skank that goes by the name Michelle “Bombshell” McGee.

I know the desire-police have a certain script we should follow here.  Feel bad for the millionaire, Oscar-winning actress because her low-life husband is a cad and a cheat; that somehow Bullock’s heartbreak is that much more profound because she is beautiful, rich, and talented--and conversely, that James is that much more an idiot because he doesn’t realize what a supreme “catch” (and/or “meal ticket”) he has squandered away in Bullock.   

But will no one speak for the cause of true love?  Is no one on the side of those crazy kids, Jesse and Bombshell?  Sandra Bullock will be fine.  She’ll remarry a more responsible entertainment lawyer or Cedar Sinai surgeon or some other less camera-conscious beau and continue living a life of comfort and opportunity in her fabulous Hollywood domicile.  She has an Oscar, an agent, and endless opportunities.  If people want to feel bad about a garden-variety divorce story, why not spend some time chatting with the waitress at your local Denny’s who, even though she just won the coveted “employee of the month” award for keeping the sneeze-guard clean on the salad bar, must now face a world in which her husband has skipped town with that floozy from the Sonic Burger across the Interstate, taking with them the truck and next month’s rent money.  That’s a tragedy.

As for Jesse and Bombshell, how could one look at this couple and not believe higher forces have intervened to bring them together?  Have you ever seen two people more profoundly suited to one another?  I’ll admit, I haven’t followed Mr. James’ career all that closely.  From what I understand, he shares the name of a famous American outlaw and has demonstrated some proficiency at repairing motorized bicycles on television.  But from what I have seen of him, even I can imagine the glorious day when he first met “Bombshell” and thought, “Holy shit…that’s me, but with huge tits!  I am so totally fuckin’ in love!” 

Bombshell, meanwhile, seems completely in line with both Jesse’s habitus and media strategy.   Jesse James has risen to a certain amount of visibility by performing an easily recognizable form of American masculinity-- the tat-dude who compensates (or compliments) his apparent low-cult origins (real or feigned) by projecting a sexualized form of white-trash élanI am the dude, for real, that Bruce Springsteen used to sing about. I'm both "on fire" and capable of killing you with a well-thrown wrench. “Bombshell,” meanwhile, is the feminine equivalent--amplified a bit for purposes of eye-catching excess.  Matching Jesse James’ "don't screw with me swagger," she is the tat-chick who repels any and all attempts to demean or skankify her by projecting a “if-I’m-such-a-trashy-low-down-freakish-skank-then-why-are-you-still-checkin’-me-out-in-my-bikini-and-platform heels” type of confidence.  In short, they are the ying and yang of that entire L.A. Ink milieu that has somehow been able to embrace Meth culture without all the meth, that can ride Harleys while still maintaining a good health plan, that can eat gourmet Mac ‘n’ Cheese casseroles prepared on a $10,000 Viking stove by that Guy Fieri dude and still call it "down home" cooking (Fieri, of course, shares their vision of capitalizing on the cultural legacy of the nation’s hardscrabbled white underclass).

Bombshell even once posed in Nazi gear, hitting the libidinal panic button buried in the deepest recesses of the very race/class formation she and Jesse now “quote” with such marketable success.  Many believe the Sex Pistols and assorted other punks were the first to take up the Swastika as a signifier of unassimilated class resentment, but in fact American biker gangs adopted Hitler-wear much, much earlier (all the way back to the founding of the first biker clubs right after WWII, embracing the symbols of the enemy they had just helped defeat in the European theater).  But unlike those idiots in MSNBC prison who carve swastikas in their foreheads and thus render themselves pariahs for life among the non-insane, Bombshell simply took up the sartorial trappings of the Gestapo for a day, allowing her to move on and indulge other degenerate male fantasies later on (in another photo, she can be seen sexin' up a coffin).  That’s a smart business model, one I’m sure the James clan can appreciate.  Not only has she found a way into Jesse’s heart and possibly his corporate portfolio, she’s earned that reality show wherein she drives around L.A. in some custom hot-rod to appear at media events promoting the reality show wherein she drives around L.A. in a hot-rod promoting her show.  At the very least, she deserves a cameo officiating a good round of hair-pullin’ and bitch slappin’ on The Bad Girls Club.

You have to wonder how this story would play if Bullock had dumped James for a more tastefully appropriate partner, perhaps a relatively respected novelist or an international furniture designer of some kind. Sure, there would have been some sympathy for Jesse as the poor uncouth lout who couldn’t hold on to America’s middle-class sweetheart, but for the most part, I bet people would have understood…She had to move on because Jesse, bless his heart, just didn’t quite belong in her world.  But when destiny brings basic cable's "Wild One" and this aspiring “Trophy Girl” together (it’s true, look at her mid-section, just above the crown), a nation is scandalized.  But what happened to romance?  To destiny? To the heart wanting what the skeezy heart wants? 

No doubt about it--cheating on Sandra  Bullock and getting a divorce is very likely a stupid move on James' part.  He and Bombshell could well become the King and Queen of E!--or they might instead have a future shooting up in dirty bathrooms as they make a series of humiliating personal appearances at auto-detailing shops across the country.  But the important thing is they're going to roll the dice and double-down on their shared love of quotational lifestyling.

Me, I wish them only the best.  I think with enough love, support, and encouragement, they stand an excellent chance of being the first couple ever to give birth to a tattooed baby.  And I would watch that show—probably with much keener interest than any past or future Sandra Bullock movie. 

Your Telephone and How It (Used) to Work

The future of telephony, as conveyed in a series of black and white sketches from 1962 in the book Your Telephone and How it Works.

Operator comically overwhelmed by proliferation of telephone numbers in the near future, rendered here as snake-like cords seeking to drive her insane.

"Tapping is Faster Than Turning:"  AT&T laying the groundwork for new feature destined to elicit needless complaints from those still attached to the rotary phone.

The often promised, barely realized "videophone," seen here connecting two people who live far apart as signified by differing configurations of pointy buildings in the background.

In the future, computer punch-cards will be inserted into everything, including your telephone, maybe even you.

Seemingly innocuous illustration of the forthcoming miracle of electronic paging, oblivious to the coming reorganization of the economy around the drug trade and belying the impending transformation of the world into an electronic hellscape of compulsory availability.

Indecent Angel (1962)

Field and Stream?  American Hunter?  Meth Enthusiast Monthly?   

The above actually illustrates a crucial scene from “Indecent Angel,” a tale for men appearing in the January 1962 issue of mr. (an early and ultimately unsuccessful rival of Playboy billed as a magazine “for men of distinction”). Also included in this issue:  a racy centerfold, a story about a guy who can’t quit staring at a buxom blond on his bus route nor suppress the ensuing erections, an expose on our “crazy liquor laws,” and a rather oddball advice column titled “How to Enjoy a Hotel” (rule #1: if you want “company” for the evening, bring your own). 

But “Indecent Angel” is the real eye-stopper, the image that gets the magazine off the rack and discretely into a grocery bag.  What could possibly motivate this scene of Dionysian abandon wherein “two happier people never botched a butchering job in a more satisfying way than Zack and Marty?” 

Playboy established its reputation, not just with nudie pics, but also through “quality” fiction and timely journalism.  mr., on the other hand, seems to have had access to slightly less accomplished talent—but that’s a good thing, because “Indecent Angel” provides insight into certain corridors of the male mind circa 1962 that better fiction might obscure with its style, technique, and good taste.

“It’s funny how hair black at the roots and blond on the ends can begin to look attractive to a man after he’s been snowed in with it for several days,” observes Zack in introducing his story.  The black roots belong to Marty, who has been unable to access a new bottle of peroxide because she and Zack find themselves trapped by a raging snowstorm in a remote mountain cabin.   Zack showed up at the cabin three months earlier to visit Marty and her husband Mel—his best friend since high school.  But with the first big snowfall of winter, Mel died in a freak avalanche.  Three weeks later, the harsh weather continues to prevent Zack and Marty from hiking down the mountain and back to civilization.  Mel, we presume, is still buried under the snow and will be till April. This confronts Zack with a twofold dilemma: 1). escalating sexual tension; and 2). a declining meat supply.

But Zack is a gentleman, and Mel was his best friend.  If the human race is to survive into spring, it looks like it’s up to Marty to get things going.  As Zack observes, “Marty was a practical woman with realistic desires, and I guess she figured Mel was just about as dead after three weeks as he’d ever be.  Besides, she was bored, lonely, and perhaps a little scared, and I was there.  As day slowly followed endless day, I could see an awareness of me as a man gradually creep into her eyes, and even into the body-conscious way she moved about the two-roomed cabin.” 

Zack resists, however, not just out of some sense of loyalty to his old friend Mel, but also because he is engaged to a city girl named Joan, even though he suspects she is “stampeding him to the altar.”  The whole trip out to Mel and Marty’s avalanche emporium was meant to give him time to sort out his feelings about this impending marriage.  So, with “body-conscious” Marty continuing to undulate around the fireplace every night taunting him with her sexy black roots, Zack must displace his libidinal energy into reading, wood-chopping, and drinking lots of coffee from a tin cup. 

One day Zack and Marty make snow angels.  Mel never would, laments Marty, so it means a lot when Zack is willing to lay down in the snow with her and give the story a title.  You see, she’s “indecent” because she confronts Zack with constant sexual temptation, but an “angel” because…well, because here she makes an “angel” in the snow.  It gives the story a poetic touch, making the tale more than merely a lustful chronicle of two horn-dogs with cabin fever.   

One night Marty brings up the sexual tension between them most directly.  “Just like that—right out of the blue!” exclaims Zack to himself. “Damn women anyhow, they don’t deserve a man’s protection or consideration—not even when they’re the widow of your best friend.  They ought to get exactly what they ask for—no quarter given.  If I was half the man she seemed to think I was, I’d get on with it!”  But Zack resists the temptation to “get on with it,” saying he still can’t bring himself to “make a pass” at his best friend’s wife—even if Mel is now permanently one with the permafrost.   Either out of her need for “protection,” “consideration,” or “getting on with it,” Marty starts crying.  But Zack refuses comforting her because he knows where it will lead.  Instead he resolves to hike back to town as soon as the weather clears up; or failing that, to find some more meat.

“I had to find meat!” he says of the following morning, seeing that the weather isn’t any better.  And so he sets off with a rifle to look for food.

There follows a long description of the erotics of deer hunting.  Zack is, as he puts it, a good “city hunter,” meaning he’s a crack-shot with a rifle but knows little to nothing about actually tracking, bagging, and dressing game.  Happily he stumbles upon a small herd eating grass that is somehow still available through all the snow they can’t walk through to get back to town.  Three shots and a young buck is down.  Whirling around, he clips a bonus doe for back-up sex-cabin meat.  “By the time I had lugged the buck’s carcass up a tree and draped it with both hearts and livers inside, over a limb, my clothes looked like I was made up to play Bloody Mary.  But I had never felt so completely alive, so every inch a man before in my entire life.”
Shooting--dragging--blood--livers--draping--exuberant manliness: I think we all know where this is leading.  Marty runs out of the cabin laughing and dancing to hug him to the point where “she was almost as bloody as I was.”  And then they giddily butcher the deer together, knowing all that it portends.  As captured in the extraordinary illustration above, what they lack in field-dressing technique they more than make up for in enthusiasm during this orgy of meat-lust. 

Sure enough, that night “two big man-sized steaks” are sizzling in the skillet, and Zack looks at Marty with new eyes.  “She might be little, and sometimes pretty womanish,” he considers, “but this afternoon looking at me across a bloody hunting knife and making a cold nasty job seem like fun, she’d been the answer to just about everything any man could want in a woman.”  

Later by the fire, Marty suggests that with the additional meat and a few other provisions still in the pantry, they might just be able to make it all the way to spring. Then she mentions
having “six cans of peaches,” which finally drives Zack over the edge—the “single straw that broke the camel’s back.”  The idea of spending the entire winter screwing while gorging on venison and peaches is more than any man can be expected to resist. Sorry Mel.

"She knew it, too, for she fished around on her plate and finally came up with a small round bone shaped like a ring.  Picking up she proceeded to chew away all the excess meat in a very unladylike manner.  Then, her eyes soft and just a little scared, she deliberately held it out to me, at the same time extending her left hand--ring finger foremost.
"Go ahead," her lips barely moved. "Say--say as many of the right words as you can remember--if it'll make you feel any better."

And that seals it--a common-law cabin marriage consecrated in deer blood and peach juice.  Quite romantic, actually.  It's surprising this tale didn't end up in True Love Stories instead. 

Whitney Biennial Trend Index (2010)

Where the hell is Hot Tub Time Machine?  Why would a studio spend millions upon millions of dollars whipping the nation into Hot Tub Time Machine fever only to have their marketing campaign peak a week early?  I somewhat had a notion to see this a month ago.  After Liz Lemon actually did go see it last Thursday on 30-Rock, I felt even more validated in indulging some corporately-sanctioned bad taste.  Craig Robinson's revelation, "It must be some kind of hot tub time machine," is the type of self-aware high-concept poesis you almost feel obligated to reward---especially given that the device itself is apparently triggered by the submersion and possible drowning of a squirrel.

Friday, March 19:  ready to go, ready to lay my money down.......Sorry, doesn't open until March 26.  Too bad, nameless executives, by next Friday I will be in line to see another movie about going back in time to the moment I still wanted to see Hot Tub Time Machine. 

Unable to access HTTM, I went to the Whitney Biennial instead (at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May).  Below is my report on various rising and falling trends in the world of contemporary art, as based on an afternoon tour of the 2010 Biennial (and in comparison with the 2008, 2006, and 2004 exhibits). Please note, certain artworks may figure in more than one category. Also note, I have no official qualifications in art criticism, so the following observations should not be taken as a foundation for any future investments in economic, cultural, or symbolic capital.


<<     (decreasing presence)
>>     (increasing presence)
**     (holding steady)
Ø      (apparently absent this year)

(**)  Videos with people yelling at you

(>>)  Drywall/2x4s/Sawdust

(<<)  Rube Goldberg, MFA
(>>)  Videos featuring images of American consumerism made sinister through the use of red filters and brooding industrial music
(**)  "Look what I found!"

(**)  Array of seemingly random objects meticulously arranged to simulate spontaneous, unstudied entropy

(**)  Installations requiring you to follow a chain of text/images around all four walls of room

(>>)  Gruesome photography of "real world" meant to remind you that elite art unfolds in a rarefied parallel universe of impenetrable coding

(ø)  Alan Funt, MFA

(<<)  Artist or serial killer?

(**)  Americans = fat, stupid, war-mongering, badly-dressed, etc.

(**)  Old photographs gathered, assembled, and sequenced to cover gallery wall

(<<)  Room-sized boxes inviting your participation

(<<)  "Is that still part of the exhibit?"/"Did someone accidentally break that?"/"Why didn't s/he finish this piece?"

(**)  Filthy-looking textiles 

(Ø)  Drawings done in the style of an 8-year-old under psychiatric care for sexual abuse

(>>) Spinning holographic JFK heads

(**)  Detached housing as marker of continuing post-war social alienation

(>>)  Modern dance photographed/filmed more or less frontally

(**)  Things considered as or within a grid

(**)  Videos with narration read slowly in signature detached "art" voice

(<<)  Dual side-by-side film/video projection of images that sometimes sync-up but mostly do not

(<<)  Explicit invocations of Freud, et al.

(ø)  Recontextualized pornography

(<<)  References to American popular culture (excluding Michael Jackson)

(>>)  Michael Jackson invoked as emblematic of something

(>>)  Flowers...pretty, pretty flowers

(<<)  Small objects displayed in glass case as cryptic curios

(>>) Physically/mentally/emotionally traumatized individuals as subject matter

(**)  1 canvas, 1 color, new texture

(**)  "Let's fuck shit up!   And film it!"

Best of show: “Detroit” by Ari Marcopoulos.  Video of two teenage boys manipulating feedback through a rack of guitar pedals/fx boxes, reveling in the sheer joy of creating a shifting wall of awesome noise.  Let me be the first to nominate them as the curators for the 2012 biennial.

Gaga Hoo-Haa Defies the Penal System

There seems to be a great deal of controversy of late as to whether or not fashion-horse Lady Gaga does or does not possess a penis, so much so that the clothesplate has taken on the issue most explicitly in her new music video for "Telephone."  When first we meet Ms. Gaga, two rather stern-looking guards are escorting her to a cell in lady jail.  As per protocol in women's prison, they throw her roughly on her bunk and strip off all of her clothes.  Locked-in, a feral Gaga leaps onto the prison bars to reveal 1). a surprisingly tasteful homage to the late Wendy O. Williams as the pioneer of black electrical tape nipplewear, and 2). Lady Gaga's disputed hoo-haa.  As the guards walk away, one is heard to say, "I told you she didn't have a dick," to which the other replies (somewhat inexplicably, as we appear to be on the set of Chained Heat), "too bad!"

Case closed, right?  Well not really.  Said hoo-haa has been digitally scrambled, so who knows what is really going on behind those perplexing pixels.  I don't know if an uncensored version of this video exists, but even if it did, it's not like that would resolve the issue either.  Given current configurations of desire and digitality, no "proof of pussy" is to be trusted.  And really, it's not even a matter of hi-tech digital chicanery.  As any burlesque star knows, a few more inches of electrical tape could sustain this illusion for even the most discerning eye.

On the surface (which in this case appears to be everything), the "Telephone" video certainly seems like an earnest plea to shore up Gaga's biological claims to femaleness. She enlists fellow popster and undisputed uber-femme Beyoncé to co-star, commandeers a pink pick-up truck dubbed "The Pussy Wagon" (courtesy QT), and punctuates the 9-minute opus by emblazoning a Venus symbol over the closing shot.  In this respect, the video appears to be a bid for this generation's "Sisters are Doing It for Themselves," only with higher levels of cleavage, more vacant staring, and a string of gratuitous movie references. 

But the question here is not whether or not Lady Gaga is actually a lady, or a drag queen, or a hermaphrodite, or any of the other memes her corporate enterprise might plant out there for us to think we have discovered, but rather, why are we so easily suckered into playing this game over and over again, as if each one of these new gender panics were somehow spontaneous and "authentic?"  Does Gaga really want us to think--with absolute certainty--that she is in fact a "female?"  Is this really in her best professional interest?  Of course not.  Everyone compares Gaga to Madonna, but the more relevant model here is Marilyn Manson.  And look what happened to his career once Jennifer Tilly broke his heart and revealed him to be no more than a little boy jilted before the junior high school prom.  He was much more fearsome when he wore the white plastic neuter suit and drove putatively straight guys crazy for reasons they probably could not fully articulate even to themselves.  Having any kind of identity nailed down for Lady Gaga only closes down future marketing opportunities.  

This should be obvious in Gaga's use of the women-in-prison film (WIP) as a vehicle for making a faux-definitive statement as to her alleged genital status.  Ever since Ladies They Talk About (1933), wherein a devastating Barbara Stanwyck cruises through prison as both subject and object of desire, smoking cigarettes and beatin' down them bitches that needs beatin', the WIP genre has been one of the precious few popular forms where sex and gender could be so explicitly disarticulated.  The genre's continuing relevance over some 80 odd years now is a testament to just how many sexual imaginaries the premise can accommodate.  So it is a perfect forum for Gaga to continue cultivating her sizable gay constituency while also speaking to whatever remnants of grrrl power still exist out there for any additional mp3 downloads. 

In the old Madonna days, we would have called this "polysemic."  But at this point in pop history, who exactly still finds Gaga and Beyoncé's unending parade of snatch jokes indecipherable?  The entire thing is "coded" to the point that its only effect is to revel in its state of coded-ness (which of course dissolves any pretense of a code in the first place).  In other words, the video seems to postulate a "naive"/gender-normative viewer who no longer exists, peering-in from an "outside" that long ago collapsed into the vernacular of camp.

Even though Gaga appears somewhat perturbed every time these body rumors are brought up, she couldn't possibly want this speculation to simply vanish.  Her business model is obviously to become the Cher of the millennial generation, a quest that will require a continuing amplification of the too much and an ongoing hesitation as to who she really is.   But, even if Gaga is the least bit "sincere" (whatever that might mean in the context of this video) in this proclamation of "pussy power"--hoping to keep at least one foot in a mythically "straight" teenster pop market somehow untouched by the lexicon of camp and drag--I hope her audience continues to entertain the fantasy that she might have a penis, for no other reason than that would be a more interesting world to live in. Plus, rather than allow pop stars to continue orchestrating their own bids for polysemic proliferation across the marketplace, isn't it about time audiences resisted these campaigns of calculated ambiguity and manufactured controversy by taking back control over this process?  If pop stars don't entertain our fantasy structures, why have them around in the first place?  So, no matter how hard she may grind her cooch against cell bars, or even if she streams her ob/gyn appointments live on-line, I for one will continue disavowing whatever it is I have or haven't seen in order to write my own fictions around her.  Is Lady Gaga a man or a woman?  How boring is that?  From now on, I will maintain against any and all proffered evidence that she is in fact the reincarnation of Lillian Gish and a harbinger of a coming ascendancy for the Mormon faith--and I vow to read all of her videos/songs through this prism for as long as we both shall live. 

(My thanks to Olivia Mascheroni for bringing this masterpiece to my attention). 

"One Adam-12, Please Respond, Radical Black Filmmaking in Progress"

All fair-minded people would have to agree that Jack Webb's Dragnet was the most explicitly right-wing show ever to air on U.S. television, at least until Jack Bauer started tying people to chairs in Fox's 24.   Interestingly, both brushes with fascism typically center on the looming destruction of Los Angeles; 24 with its recurring bio-nuclear apocalypses, and Dragnet with its scourge of hippie parents smoking pot while their children drown in bathtubs.

Dragnet is a classic, waiting there for each subsequent generation to marvel at just how freaked out "the Man" was about the encroachment of various forms of social, cultural, and racial difference in the late 1960s.  Less known and certainly less appreciated is Webb's spin-off series, Adam-12, which ran a rather surprising seven seasons on NBC between 1968 and 1975.  While Dragnet followed detectives Friday and Gannon on individual cases each week, Adam-12 concentrated on the diverse challenges facing two beat cops patrolling LA all day in their eponymous squad-car.  Each episode typically involved an "A-crime" punctuated by a series of one-scene minor skirmishes, most of which reflected Webb's apparently bottomless contempt for the American public (the basic message of both Dragnets and Adam-12 is that the public to be "served and protected" by the LAPD is really not worthy of either--most "regular" people in these series are basically whiny idiots).

Having finished his search for Kerouac Kicks on Route 66, Martin Milner here played Malloy, the slightly older cop who is well-seasoned but never jaded.   Kent McCord, meanwhile, played the younger cop Reed with such understated restraint that he actually seemed like a guy who just wandered onto the Universal lot and happened to sit down next to Milner in the prop car.

While not quite so explicitly conservative in its politics, Adam-12 still has a whiff of the right-wing paranoia so beloved in Dragnet.  Whereas the single-case structure of Dragnet allowed Webb to consider how horrifying some new subcultural threat was for 22 full minutes of sustained dismissal, Adam-12 had to be more succinct in its random encounters with symbolically dysfunctional citizens.  Still, few episodes went  by without Reed and Malloy busting some malcontent on the town square set at Universal studios--a reluctant demonstration of just how patient a democratic society must be with its various "underclasses" and "deviants."

Like so many series of that era, Adam-12 also spawned a few novelizations (as well as a comic book, toys, lunchboxes, etc).  Having just read Dead on Arrival (apparently the second book in the series, published in 1972), I was surprised to discover that the right-wing propaganda of the Webbiverse permeates its print incarnations as well.  Like a typical episode the of the TV series, Dead on Arrival follows Reed and Malloy around L.A. on a variety of cases.  One recurring flare-up in the city involves an imaginary neighborhood called Acropolis Beach:

Acropolis Beach was one of those marvelously misnamed communities in Los Angeles whose designation had absolutely nothing to do with either its appearance or its atmosphere.  It was too close to the airport to be considered desirable, in spite of its seaside location, but the neat frame houses were for the most part well kept, the streets clean, and the store fronts had the look of modest prosperity.  Not too many years ago Acropolis Beach had been a slum, half-abandoned to the thunder of jets overhead, but now, without the aid of a single acronymous government agency, it presented tangible proof that people who wanted to live decently and were willing to work toward that end could achieve it on their own.  The fact that most of the residents of Acropolis Beach were black made it all the more interesting, at least to Rollie McDade.

This is all code language, of course, implicitly pitting a middle-class African-American community that succeeds without government intervention against the various welfare cheats, radicals, and rioters populating the conservative imagination of black L.A (i.e. Watts).  Acropolis Beach is a testament to free-market bootstrappism, and author Chris Stratton carefully emphasizes that the community here is a bit "older" than other districts of the city.  And the secret to the community's success: "Jobs...Not big jobs or important ones, but jobs."

Rollie McDade is a young African-American filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about Acropolis Beach, and so he first secures the approval of "Mr. Smith," owner of the local drugstore and unofficial "mayor" of the community.  Smith has no problem with McDade filming a documentary in the neighborhood as long as he 1). gets the appropriate permits; and 2). promises to "tell the truth" about the community.  The first stipulation obviously involves little more than a trip to City Hall.  The second becomes the source of friction that keeps drawing Reed and Malloy back to the area.  After his meeting with the mayor, McDade returns to his film crew waiting outside.  Just to be safe, he tells everyone to rip out the title page of the shooting script: Acropolis Beach: The Worm in Eden's Apple. 

So, we now know that McDade--like all young punks with a film camera in the early 1970s--comes with his own agenda (vaguely "leftist," but really more "assholist" in nature).  His cohorts include a young blonde girl with "aggressively faded blue jeans," a white dude who--despite the warm L.A. weather--is wearing a "goatskin vest" and "wide-bottomed corduroys," and the project's African-American cameraman, Gary, who sports a mustache, goatee, and a "cynical smile."  From previous Webb-lore, we know from their clothes alone that these idealistic yet misguided young idiots wouldn't know the "real-world" if it bit them on their patchouli-soaked rear-ends.

McDade isn't content to simply record Acropolis Beach "as it is," and so he begins staging events to create crisis in the community, to cultivate that "worm" in Eden's Apple.   First someone vandalizes a prized pink-flamingo yard ornament. This constitutes perhaps the one charming detail in this otherwise loathsome propaganda--the idea that the vandalization of a lone pink-flamingo anywhere in Los Angeles would constitute a crisis worthy of police intervention.  But Reed and Malloy dutifully take the call, and lo and behold, who is there filming the "crisis" but McDade.

But the centerpiece of this story happens 50 or so pages later.  Once again there is trouble in Acropolis Beach, and once again our cops light up the cherries and cruise on over.  This time McDade is filming a scene with his black cameraman and white blue-jean girl making out on the beach.  And the local community is not happy.  The officers try to diffuse the situation, but:

Malloy had already seen the movement in the knot of black youths, the surge toward the blanket.  There were six or seven of them, maybe more, and there was no way to tell if any of them were carrying weapons.  Malloy touched the butt of his pistol, hesitated, then stepped forward with his night-stick held in front of him. He wished, fleetingly, that he had "advised" headquarters that assistance was required, but it was too late for that now.

Eventually Malloy gets filmmaker McDade and mayor Smith alone to work out the situation. As it turns out, the interracial love scene on the beach is just "bait''--the real purpose is to draw the crowd and take still photographs of its angry reaction.  "Still pictures?  In a movie?"  asks the bewildered Malloy. McDade schools him on avant-garde documentary practice, circa 1972:

Sure!  Picture it, man. Stills inserted into the footage, uptight crowd in the background while we're filming a little salt-and-pepper love scene.  Like it happens here too, don't forget that. Anyway, maybe I'll use a split screen in the final print.  See what I mean? 
Malloy saw that McDade meant trouble.

Next come the inevitable "Uncle Tom" accusation, another favorite device in the Webbiverse.  While the older mayor of the community "doesn't deny that mixed raced dating" takes place in Acropolis Beach, he nevertheless describes the town as "a bit old-fashioned" and "conservative, in the original sense, you might say." Or as Gary the cameraman puts it, "Toms."  This elicits the typical compensatory speech from Mayor Smith about how his young son, a lawyer, is currently defending "a group of radicals, black and white, who are on trial for arson and murder."  He believes in their cause, adds the mayor,  but not their methods.  "Call me a Tom, young fellow, and you declare your bigotry,"  he says to Gary the goateed camera-cynic.

Webb and his minions loved this strategy, as it appears repeatedly in Dragnet, Adam-12, and (again, to my surprise) apparently even in the novelizations written for teenage boys.  Here it is in a nutshell: Address certain high-profile accusations of antagonism between LA's African-American population and the city's civil authority (usually the police, but in this case an "unofficial" mayor) by transforming that energy into a matter of bigotry within the African-American community itself.   Here it is "black youth" who cannot abide interracial mingling on the beach (even if it is clearly only staged for a film), and it is the cynical artschool African-Americans who cannot understand just what a victory Acropolis Beach represents for the larger community.

This same logic pervades one of the more notorious episodes of Dragnet, wherein Friday and Gannon ask an African-American officer to help recruit more of the "ethnic types" to the LAPD.  At first the cop is on board, but then suddenly quits the force entirely because his own African-American neighbors keep demonstrating their intolerance by throwing rocks at his home.  Friday's solution to this dilemma?  "Move to a better neighborhood"--apparently one far away from all these angry racists.  You can almost see Friday/Webb's mind at work:  Why not consider Acropolis Beach--I hear wonderful things are happening there for those willing to work hard and play by the rules.

I say this book was "surprising" only because I didn't realize such explicit control over the politics of a story world would permeate all the way down into these novelizations.  But clearly, the story bible for Adam-12 not only explained the characters and typical plot structure, it also detailed the tone, sociological models, and political ideology that were to rule this universe as well.

Note: Additional research (i.e. going on the Web) reveals Adam-12 still has many fans even today, although this "cult" appears to focus most centrally on the series of vintage "muscle cars" driven by Malloy and Reed over show's 7-year run.

Additional Note: Someone is selling a copy of Adam-12: Dead on Arrival on eBay for $90 bucks.  This person is insane.  If you are patient, you should pay no more than $3-5 bucks for any TV novelization.

Thrilling Confessions (March 1964)

I recently found a few old detective and romance magazines from the 1950s and 60s, which are beautiful objects of contemplation for anyone with an interest in the history of LURID BEHAVIOR and HUMAN MISERY.  I will try to post some of the more striking images over the next few weeks.  Below are some of the spreads from Thrilling Confessions (March 1964). 

Give Me That Filet o' Fish Movie, Give Me That Film

Everyone laughed when ABC announced plans to program a sitcom based on the Geico “Caveman” commercials.  They laughed!  As if the idea of basing a TV show on a commercial was some new low in creative exhaustion and corporate cynicism, lower even than Life with Jim.  Which is a shame.  Cavemen shot 12 episodes.  Only six aired. And it really wasn’t all that bad.  Given a chance, it could have been The Munsters for the new millennium.  And it would have been a welcome break from all the shows about fat guys married to hot wives…like, for example, Life with Jim.

Even though Cavemen was a total failure, I’m hoping the entertainment industry does not completely abandon the idea of turning commercials into entertainment franchises.  In fact, I demand that someone with at least a modicum of creative competence get to work on the following film project as soon as contractually possible:  Give Me That Fish – a cable-friendly comedy based on the McDonald’s filet ‘o’ fish commercials. 

If you haven’t seen these spots, you should.  They are genius.  Here is the first: 

In the first installment, Fatty is not disturbed in the least that his novelty fish plaque, previously limited to singing only an abbreviated version of Al Green’s Take Me to the River, has suddenly achieved some form of uncanny sentience, perhaps from its years of inhaling gas fumes and fry grease.  Unlike Haley Osmond in A.I., however, the robotic fish has thankfully skipped over a tedious journey of existential discovery to cut right to the chase—quit oppressing me and my kind, Lardo.  Sayeth the fish:

Give me back that filet o fish, give me that fish
Give me back that filet o fish, give me that fish
What if it were you hanging up on this wall?
If it were you in that sandwich you wouldn’t be laughing at all

Not only is Fatty unconcerned by this development, he actually digs it—nodding his head in time with the fish’s hijacked Casio beats. 

But what does the fish want exactly?  First, he appears to advocate the liberation of all “trophy” fishes—those unfortunate aquatic creatures who have been captured, shellacked, and nailed to walls around the world.  Put yourself in my place, he implores his human captor.  But then, like all great orators, the fish quickly introduces a new theme in his bid to foster interspecies empathy.  Imagine if you can, he says, what it would be like to be breaded, fried, and eaten.   And implicit in the fish’s logic is an even more disturbing scenario---imagine what it would be like to be nailed to the wall and witness the ritualistic consumption of your own kind day after day—like for example if I ate your friend Skinny, who at this point arrives to return a power drill.

But even here the fish’s objective remains unclear.  Give me back that filet o fish, give me that fish.  To what end?  After all, this particular filet o' fish is already half-eaten, resting comfortably in the gut of the bearded one.  Does the fish seek some type of dignified return of the remains?  A ceremony of restitution and repatriation perhaps?

Or, horrifically, does the fish want the filet for himself?  Is this melodic sea creature in fact a necro-cannibal, looking to feast on the remains of his own species?

But the scene is more suggestive still in that this singing fish is in fact not a "fish" at all, but merely a hunk of plastic with a microchip brought to life by a couple of AA batteries.  Is it indeed the "fish" speaking for himself and his "kind," or has this trinket been possessed by some larger animistic spirit of the sea?

Then again, perhaps this singing fish drama is just a psychotic episode in the mind of the bearded one.  Perhaps the years of gas fumes and fry grease have cultivated, not plastic ensoulment, but a gateway to rampant hallucination.  But no.  When Skinny arrives with the drill, he obviously hears the fish’s lament as well.  Or does he?  Nothing is said after all.  Perhaps he is merely unsettled by the sight of his friend sitting alone in the garage, once again gorging himself with fast food, vacantly tapping his foot to the tinny sounds of “Take Me to the River.”  Their eyes meet briefly.  My friend has become so desperate and sad, thinks Skinny.  But Fatty only shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Eh, what can you do?  I’m still gonna eat this fish.”

While it is not entirely clear how uncanny comedy moves grease-pads for McDonalds, this version of the ad is certainly more effective than the original concept, which featured a cute little calf staring over a fence at a man eating a Big Mac.

Give me back that Big Mac, it's my dad
Give me back that Big Mac, it's my dad
What if it were you taking a ball-peen hammer to the head?
If it were your guts ground to chuck, I bet you’d see red!

That spot, as they say in the industry, was a little too “on the nose.”

A second installment in the series adds an element of J-horror to the storyline—the fish somehow acquiring, not only sentience, but the ability to dial a phone.  Fatty remains unimpressed, but Skinny does now appear fully engulfed in this nightmarish world as well.


As you can see, these commercials already possess more depth, ambiguity, and possibility than 90% of the movies released today—which is why Give Me that Fish must be made into a full-length feature.  Here are the rules as I see them:

82 minutes.  PG rating.

Only the fish may speak.  ALL humans in the film must remain silent for the duration.

Through extremely creative visual language and a series of original songs delivered by the fish (preferably all in the same meter and melody as the original), we will gradually learn the real story behind these suggestive tableaus.  What DOES the fish want?  How did he reach self-awareness?  Why is Fatty so blasé in the presence of such an occult miracle?  Why did Skinny borrow the power drill?  Where did Fatty score that sweet El Camino?  Who exactly is singing the eerie back-up vocals for the fish? 

You may think I’m joking, but I assure you I am not.  Ask yourself this:  Two films open this weekend—She’s Out of My League and Give Me that Fish.  Is there any hesitation in your mind whatsoever as to which film at least has the potential to take popular filmmaking in a bold new direction?  So what if it's a gigantic product-placement for McDonalds?  It's not like She's Out of My League won't encourage even greater economic expansion in the fields of energy drinks, body sprays, and dick-joke writing.

Say it, say it with me now:  Give me that Filet o' Fish movie, give me that film

Oscar Wars: Past, Present, and Future

Somehow I actually saw 5 of the films nominated for Best Picture this year in the Oscars, which is a new personal record I think, considering this is typically the category that proves the most painful and insulting to anyone who once held great hope for the artistic potential of the cinema.  Yes, it’s become very predictable to complain about Oscar’s exceptionally dreadful taste in filmmaking, but consider some of the movies the Academy has deemed the epitome of artistic excellence over the past few years:  Crash (2005), Million Dollar Baby (2004), A Beautiful Mind (2001), American Beauty (1999), Titanic (1997), and The English Patient (1996).  Honestly, if I had 15 or so hours to spare, I’d rather prep for a colonoscopy than sit through this parade of humorless bombast again.     

I find the Oscars ceremony to be the one thing on television I simply cannot watch anymore, not even through the lens of camp, snark, or nihilistic irony.  Sure, it was kind of funny when Kramer vs. Kramer beat Apocalypse Now in 1979, but when Ordinary People beat Raging Bull the very next year, you had the sense that very dark days were ahead for the art of the motion picture.   And looking at the winners over the past thirty years, it has been a bit like the International Pastry Society awarding top prize to the same soggy twinkie over and over again (actually, this probably isn’t the correct analogy inasmuch as a “twinkie” implies a competent genre film with no higher ambition other than to spike your blood sugar for a couple of a hours.  Perhaps the more apt “winner” in this example would be a frozen Sara Lee cheesecake purportedly made from a “blue ribbon” recipe handed down from a Chef at Versailles, but which in fact is only a pan of lard and corn syrup injected with those Technicolor dyes manufactured alongside the New Jersey Turnpike).

I guess there is still a residual sort of sick humor to be had in watching the Inside Hollywood Entertainment Access Starf#@ker Tonight twits engaging in the usual red carpet blather, praising celebrities for their generous work on behalf of Haiti and then empathizing, in the same breath, about just how hard it must have been standing in front of a blue screen for four or five hours a day while P.A.’s wrangled their lattes and blackberries between takes.  But that type of humor is really only funny when both you and the world are for the most part dead inside.

So while typically avoiding the nominated films, more by intuition than design, I did happen to see this year’s big winner, The Hurt Locker.  First of all, how is it that Hollywood rather quietly gave us a military version of “A Christmas Carol” this year?  Along with the “ghost of warfare present” in The Hurt Locker, we have the “ghost of warfare past” in Inglorious Basterds and the “ghost of warfare future” in Avatar.   And while they may seem to be creatures of radically different genres, the war and history theme actually brings out some interesting points of contact in terms of the politics of style.   

Let’s start with the winner, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.  On Larry King of all places, I heard Bigelow promoting the meme that has come to define this project, especially as the bottom-feeding toadies working at the other studio marketing departments began stoking the anticipated backlash campaign against the film.  Bigelow maintained the goal of the movie was to avoid the “politics” of the Iraq war and simply tell the story of the incredible work done by these brave soldiers.  The Hurt Locker thus opts for the current style of “non-style” characterizing contemporary films that do not want to appear as though they have been dramatized (i.e. picking up scenes in the middle of action or movement, as if a documentarian just raced in with the camera; using moments of “poor” cinematography as a means of restricting narration; the copious use of high-angle extreme long shots to set or reiterate narrative space, in this case mimicking an institutional camera of some sort barred from closer access).  It’s not quite a pseudo-verite approach (like the vomit-launcher that is Cloverfield) in that Bigelow frequently locks down and even uses good old eyeline matches to maintain clarity within a scene   Of course the “art” of this style resides in its very invisibility—not so much in the classical Hollywood sense of smooth and seemingly sourceless narration—but in matching the look/pace/transitions of the diegesis to those media conventions already most familiar in “seeing” that world (and, alas, even here there is the obligatory running away from an explosion shot--although I guess this is the one film that actually deserves to have this particular blocking in the arsenal).  

As for there being no “politics” in The Hurt Locker, that’s quite another matter.  In Hollywood, of course, the absence of “politics” means Sean Penn doesn’t roll up in a Humvee to give a canned speech about “blood for oil.”  But meticulously creating a sense of non-style is obviously its own form of political intervention, inasmuch as one is promising the audience unfiltered access to the reality of modern warfare; or, as the film’s tagline puts it: “You'll Know When You're in It” (which obviously could have also been the tagline for Avatar). 

And then there’s that sad, pathetic, crippled cat hobbling across the streets of Baghdad.  Remember him?  Hopping around on three legs while holding aloft his little injured paw?  Later we see a bedraggled orange tabby prowling the perimeter of a garbage pile.  Sure, there are no politics in The Hurt Locker.  All I know is that any decent American wouldn’t let an adorable cat wander around injured like that.  I’d take him to the vet and make sure he found a good home.  What kind of culture lets sweet little cats live such desperate lives?!  Let them blow each other up, what do I care!

One final “political” statement: positing that the engine of war runs on a high-octane mix of adrenaline and testosterone is hardly a neutral observation (and given Bigelow’s work in Point Break and Strange Days, perhaps she is the first auteur of the bloodstream).  The film might have done more here to implicate our need to experience a Wargasm, safe in the theater or on the couch watching CNN.  After all, seeing Sgt. James back stateside buying cereal, cleaning out wet gutters, and making small-talk with the wife, who doesn’t want him back on the first plane to Baghdad?  And shouldn't we be made to feel somewhat creepy for that? 

As for the "ghost of warfare past," we have Inglorious Basterds, and as one would expect, it is the most explicitly self-conscious about the relationship between film and battle, maybe even a little too self-conscious.  Before seeing the film, I read a number of critics perplexed as to whether or not this was Tarantino’s “masterpiece.”  Maybe I’m a bit old fashioned, but it seems to me if critics are still in search of a masterpiece high, they should know it when they see/feel it.  If you shoot-up top-grade heroin, you shouldn’t have to stop and wonder if it might actually only be chopped up dog tranquilizers.  

Masterpiece fishing aside, Inglorious Basterds activates the same basic enigma at the heart of all of Tarantino’s work so far: is this a playfully disruptive genre hybrid (aka "mash-up"), or is it two or three exquisitely crafted interrogation scenes surrounded by a series of narrative dead-ends and gratuitous stylistic flourishes?  Hugo Stiglitz, for example.  The psycho Nazi-hating Nazi appears at first to rate his own freeze-frame/title card overlay and quick back-story montage, only to then virtually disappear until his completely functionless death at mid-picture.  Is Stiglitz (and “the Bear Jew,” etc.) an attempt to bait the Dirty Dozen hook only to subvert the formula by quickly abandoning any ongoing investment in the ragtag unit in favor of the doubled A-line rendez-vous at the Nazi-nitrate BBQ?  Or did Tarantino just lose interest in this character/device?  Or, in another possibility, is there perhaps another 20 minutes of Stiglitz on the cutting room floor?  Not that “unity” is or should be a concern in Tarantino’s work, but still, the digressive marginalia framing the otherwise conventional construction of the film’s key scenes returns us to one of the most haunting questions of contemporary cinematic poetics:  Why are the three segments in Pulp Fiction presented out of order?  No, really, why? 

On Tarantino’s side, there is the wonderfully daft and seemingly deliberate strategy of having two “caper” plots that never really run into one another, as well as the inspired choice of resurrecting the haunting theme from the otherwise wholly disposable 1983 remake of Cat People as this film’s obligatory jukebox reference.  Which again gets us to the heart of the QT aesthetic.  Shosanna puts on make-up as David Bowie sings “See these eyes so green…” in a story that is indeed about “putting out the fire” (of Nazism) with the “gasoline” of cinema (or at least its old nitrate prints).  Is this a brilliant recognition that all historical signification ultimately dissolves into a pastiche of relativistic quotations; or is it instead the kind of unexamined kitsch skewered so perfectly in the YouTube cult for “literal videos?”  I used to think we were heading toward some sort of resolution of this divide in Tarantino’s career—but by now it should be clear that this is how all of the films will be, forever and always.

Cinephiles can certainly appreciate the fantasy of film culture defeating the Nazi menace, although I guess such an approach risks elevating the crimes against UFA over those of the Holocaust (using genocide as an excuse to remake I Spit on Your Grave is a pretty dicey move, especially when you can't tell if Shosanna is mad because the Nazis killed her family or because they forced her to show Leni Riefenstahl movies).  On the ethics of history front, I guess the jury will be out until I read my first undergraduate term paper claiming Hitler was shot up like a bad wedding cake during the Paris premiere of Nation’s Pride (and this isn’t a far-fetched scenario, having once witnessed a student claim World War II began when Germany bombed the Japanese at Pearl Harbor!).  At that particular moment, I will be happy just to give up and let Cameron, Bay, and an army of Disney Imagineers supervise our collective cultural memory until the melting ice caps flood the last remaining ProTools station. 

Oh yeah, Cameron…the "ghost of warfare future," Avatar.  I’ve already thought about the blue people as much as I can stand this year, so I’ll keep this short.  If Bigelow’s war ghost is phantom objectivity and Tarantino’s specter is an aesthetic that can not leave behind the mortal coil of 90s postmodernity, Cameon’s Avatar gives us that promised future world where warfare and filmmaking no longer really involve humans at all, both becoming virtual enterprises that, even though they burn through mountains of very real money, ultimately happen in an elsewhere that is only intermittently compelling.  

But lest we think the “posthuman” era has really begun, consider what may well have been the most riveting story line involving the Oscars this year, on or off the screen: the “war” between Bigelow and Cameron as rival directors and divorcees.  The Huffington Post, currently our most reliable index as to the concerns of the Floridean creative class, ran innumerable stories leading up to the Oscars fantasizing about Bigelow’s anticipated humiliation of her Ex (including a “real time” update during the ceremony alerting us that Bigelow’s party had been given better seats than Cameron).   Here was a drama people could really relate to: the "little film that could" vs. Cameron’s Icarus-like intervention into the global economy; dumpee vs. dumper, man vs. woman, etc.  In the end, this is perhaps Hollywood’s most important function today, generating celebrities as “avatars,” not in some ridiculous paint-box parable about imperialism, but on the much more “real” stage of our still monkey-like emotional range.  Or as Huffpo relayed it in a headline more stinging than "Saigon Falls:" 

Longsuffering Jacko

These images are from the book, Spirit-Controlled Temperament (1966) by Tim LaHaye.  The book combines Christian scripture with the still popular idea that there are four fundamental personality types: sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholy, and choleric (or as they are known here, Sparky, Flip, Maestro, and Rocky).

At bottom is the single annotation in the entire book, appearing under the subcategory "longsuffering" in a chapter detailing the qualities of the "Spirit-filled Man."  This comment looks to have been inspired by the infamous Martin Bashir interview of Michael Jackson that aired in February of 2003.