News and Features
Impeachment trials have notably lacked drama or even importance. Often, they have been an anticlimax to the convulsive events that precipitated them. Andrew Johnson's trial extended over several months and was a tepid sideshow to the profound political and legal struggles that marked Reconstruction. The British Parliament considered Warren Hastings's fate sporadically for eight years after he was impeached for his mismanagement of India policies, a subject heatedly debated for decades. The constitutional stakes sometimes appear high, but impeachment is essentially a quasi-legal extension of politics.
The impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton followed form. Here was a proceeding whose remarkable moments seem in retrospect to be Robert Byrd's bombastic oratory, Arlen Specter's idiosyncratic attempt to import Scottish law by rendering a verdict of "Not Proven," Henry Hyde's ongoing fits of pique toward the Senate and misguided media speculations about "concessions" and "compromise" after one of the House managers of the proceeding, Lindsey Graham, lightened up and said "reasonable people can disagree." Most senators even followed a script for their questions, asking ones planted by the lawyers or the leadership. The affair had all the spontaneity of a Pointillist painting.
Jeffrey Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy and Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President treat impeachment briefly as a mere coda to earlier stories of alleged presidential wrongdoing. Both books recognize that the interesting and important political story centered on the assault against Clinton, which had gathered momentum after his election in 1992. That story was unscripted and owed more to accident and inadvertence than to design. The President and his wife were accused, among other things, of crooked land deals, suspected insider commodity trading, drug-running and complicity in the murder of a presidential-assistant-cum-alleged-paramour, Vincent Foster. Finally, we had the National Dirty Joke. The Toobin and Conason/Lyons books essentially tell the same story, and tell it rather well.
Peter Baker, a Washington Post reporter, set out to write "an authoritative and straightforward history" of the impeachment and trial. This subject pales by contrast to the earlier story, for it has little drama, mystery or subtlety. Baker is apparently determined to give us everything he accumulated in his reporter's notebook. His details are numbing; we have an abundance of trivia, rumor and anecdote, leaving him (and us) short on analysis and insight. But publishing publicity departments love this stuff. Press releases for the book emphasize the President's request to attorney David Kendall to tell Hillary that "something had obviously gone on" between her husband and Monica Lewinsky. It was the "longest walk" of Kendall's life, but he "laid the foundation" for Clinton to tell his wife. Certainly Clinton's modus operandi was nothing new or startling.
Typically, such books rest upon the usual unnamed sources. "I wish I could name them all," Baker writes. But it is not difficult to dope out his sources, and their obvious, self-fulfilling purposes. Representative Asa Hutchinson, one of the House managers, talked with Baker at length. Baker apparently found him the most interesting of the prosecutors (Hutchinson could mute his sanctimoniousness and stick to the legal issues), or at least the one most willing to speak. Baker can tell you at length what Hutchinson was thinking and what motivated him. Needless to say, Hutchinson comes off better than his colleagues.
Baker seems to have chronicled the recollections of every participant and weighted them equally. We hear about the origins of Joe Lieberman's famous speech, from its inception on the laptop to the incremental additions made before delivery. We are reminded of that very forgettable, very carefully planted rumor that Bob Woodward would report a second Clinton affair, with another intern. Remember Larry King panting over that one?
We learn that Senator Strom Thurmond flirted like a silly old man with the President's female lawyers. Baker finds a few themes and uses them repeatedly. Thus, the Democrats would consistently expose Republican partisanship and "win by losing." Then we had the "don't irritate Byrd" strategy, meaning that the Democrats decided to pander to their silly old man.
Baker even reveals how Washington really works. At one point, Representative Robert Livingston, on the verge of gaining the speakership, apparently decided to scuttle the case, but his chief aide--an unsung Beltway hero--persuaded him that Tom DeLay's secret room of evidence would prove the President was a rapist. "So what you're saying," Livingston said to the aide, "is we have to impeach the bastard?" Comes the breathless answer from the aide, eager to be immortalized: "Yes, I'm saying we have to impeach the bastard." Finally, Baker performs a useful service by identifying Lisa Myers of NBC as a "key player." And here we thought she was a working journalist.
Baker implicitly acknowledges the widely held notion that Tom DeLay steamrollered the House impeachment process. DeLay made mincemeat out of Peter King, the New York conservative who tried to form a bloc of Republicans opposed to impeachment. Finally, despairing, King informed Clinton, "There are people in my party who just hate you." Livingston's staff described DeLay as "the godfather." He made Livingston, he threatened him and he unmade him. But Baker leaves DeLay in the shadows, with no explanation of the sources of his power or how he held the House in his sway.
David Schippers, chief investigative counsel for the impeachment inquiry, Chicago Democrat (of a sort) and Hyde's fellow Knight of the Catholic Church's Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, has given us a book as comical and over the top as himself. Remember: This is the man who called up fifteen generations of fighting Americans from their graves to judge the House Judiciary Committee's action. His ready audience, which has shot the book to near the top of the bestseller list, gets plenty of red meat. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report is treated as gospel; never mind that Starr acknowledged that without Monica Lewinsky's falling into his lap, he had no other case against the President.
Schippers's thesis is simple, and in part quite right: The Senate Republicans had no intention of seriously trying the case and sold out their House counterparts. Unfortunately, he explains this with scathing denunciations of "compromise" and "bipartisanship," when in fact a significant number of Senate Republicans simply did not believe that Schippers's case amounted to high crimes and misdemeanors, or that the President deserved to be thrown out of office.
The Senate treated the House charges with disdain, often bordering on contempt, much to the managers' dismay and scorn. The senators even refused to provide partisan cover for the managers when they failed to mount a majority in favor of either of the two articles of impeachment. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose Appropriations Committee chairmanship gave him enormous clout and who is no stranger to partisan battles, offered the most revealing insight into senatorial minds. Stevens voted to acquit Clinton on the perjury charge but voted him guilty on the obstruction count--the latter a mere "courtesy" to the managers. Stevens had no illusions. The world remained a dangerous place, and he forcefully said he would not vote to remove the President if he knew his vote would be decisive to the outcome. With remarkable candor, he said that Clinton had "not brought that level of danger to the nation which...is necessary to justify such an action." Stevens correctly gauged the national mood; this trial simply was not serious.
Stevens had hinted at this from the outset, infuriating Schippers. Yet Schippers was, inadvertently, right about bipartisanship. Current wisdom has it that the Clinton trial was a bitter, partisan affair and, as such, was doomed to failure. But just as bipartisanship worked to bring down Richard Nixon a quarter-century earlier, it may well have tarred and discredited Clinton's accusers. The Senate certainly had its share of Clinton-haters. Trent Lott in 1974 had rejected impeachment as unthinkable; he had no trouble, however, applying it to Clinton. The usual suspects--Phil Gramm, Robert Bennett, Rick Santorum et al.--followed in lockstep. But Republican defections denied the impeachers any semblance of respectability and gave Clinton some measure of satisfaction.
There was no chance of removing the President once he had the support of his fellow Democrats. At that point, Republicans faced a choice: They could maintain party orthodoxy and vote for Clinton's removal, or they could freely vote to hold the bar high enough to reject his removal from office. Enough Republicans were persuaded that the President did not merit extreme sanction--and they exposed the whole affair as a meaningless, vindictive exercise.
Impeachment and removal belonged, then, to the Bob Barr set within the Republican Party. Most Republicans preferred resignation; impeachment proved to be a grasping, last-ditch effort to humiliate Clinton. Resignation would not only satisfy the hatred for him but provide payback for the Nixon affair a quarter-century earlier. When Livingston dramatically announced his own resignation (after it was publicly revealed that he'd also had an affair), he called upon the President to do the same. "Sir, you have done great damage to this nation.... I say that you have the power to terminate that damage and heal the wounds that you have created. You, sir, may resign from your post," Livingston pleaded.
Resignation had seemed a viable possibility months earlier, in the immediate wake of the Lewinsky revelations. Clinton's real moment of danger came when Democrats, many of whom dislike him, briefly flirted with the idea of abandoning him. But that effort ended for several reasons, not the least of which turned out to be polls showing public apathy or outright support for Clinton. Democrats decided to resist Republican attempts to force out the President, by resignation or later by impeachment. Even as the Senate went through the last-minute ritual of its vote, Phil Gramm said that a leader with honor "would fall on your own sword." But Gramm had (for him) a startling revelation: Richard Nixon had a sense of shame; Clinton had the hide of an elephant.
For Tom DeLay and his cohorts, who had known removal was unlikely but turned to impeachment to embarrass the President and tarnish his legacy, irony abounds. Not for the first or last time did Republicans underestimate Clinton; and not for the last time was he so blessed by his enemies. Prosperity and other Democrats proved indispensable allies.
There are no heroes in this tale, no redeeming moral or social virtue to offer in rendering American history. It is a smarmy story of petty politics, propelled by out-of-control media coverage. The constant theme is that the perpetrators remained wholly disconnected from that amorphous thing we call "the people." We are neither puritans nor prudes--probably the real subject here was infidelity, and that is a subject too many have had to contend with firsthand, or have preferred not to. In the end, the American people saved Bill Clinton--almost in spite of him.
After Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial, regret quickly took hold and impeachment was discredited for more than a century. Watergate and Nixon revived it in 1974. Now, our choices seem plain. Either impeachment will be used readily as a partisan weapon or it will become moribund once again. Neither result is healthy for the American constitutional system.
Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy and Conason and Lyons's The Hunting of the President knew the real story lay prior to impeachment.
NO MIRTH IN THE BALANCE
"Al Gore distills in his single person the disrepair of liberalism in America today, and almost every unalluring feature of the Democratic Party. He did not attain this distinction by accident but by sedulous study from the cradle forward." Thus unambiguously do Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn and frequent collaborator Jeffrey St. Clair stake out the terrain in opening their brief against the Vice President. Political handbook rather than full-blown biography, it effectively paints Gore as a walking sandwich board for Democratic Leadership Council values, tapped for higher office because Bill and Hillary saw in him "a kindred soul in political philosophy, hewing to the pro-corporate, anti-union positions...which together they had founded and nurtured." From his family connections to Occidental Petroleum to his education partly under Martin Peretz (from Peretz's pulpit at Harvard, not The New Republic), Gore's background is shown with no mirth in the balance but his "propensity to boast excessively" demonstrated at every turn. The authors, wearing their hearts on their pens, chronicle Gore's role in fighting against graphic rock lyrics but for NAFTA, his boardroom brand of environmentalism, his evolution from "centrist realism" to (stretcher alert) "pragmatic progressivism." He's "never been a political Boy Scout," they write. On their honor.
On Veterans Day, November 11, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will appear on the Mall at a spot between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to break ground for the long-delayed World War II Memorial. The grandiose, triumphal design of the memorial has been criticized widely on aesthetic grounds--it reminds many of the work of Albert Speer, Hitler's favorite architect. But there's a bigger problem: The memorial will break up the country's most important site for protest demonstrations.
This is where 250,000 people gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. This is where half a million people gathered for the Vietnam Moratorium demonstration in 1969 to sing "Give Peace a Chance." This is where the AIDS quilt--the 40,000-plus panels covering the equivalent of sixteen football fields that commemorates people who have died from AIDS--has been displayed regularly since 1987. This is where the Million Man March met in 1995, the Promise Keepers gathered in 1997 and the Million Mom March against gun violence rallied this past May.
The memorial will occupy 7.4 acres. In that space a private organization headed by Bob Dole plans to build a granite plaza that will include two triumphal arches, each as high as a four-story building, and fifty-six marble columns, each seventeen feet tall and decorated with bronze funeral wreaths and huge eagle sculptures.
Stopping the plan now won't be easy. Originally, the American Battle Monuments Commission selected a site near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But J. Carter Brown, the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, objected that it was "unacceptable" to "tuck [the memorial] away in the woods." The commission approved the Mall plan in late September, in a 7-to-5 vote.
Defenders of the plan argue that the site and design selection process have taken longer than World War II itself and that the memorial should be built now, before all the veterans are dead. But memorials like this are not built for the participants in the events that are commemorated. Memorials are supposed to help posterity remember and honor its forebears. The Lincoln Memorial wasn't even begun until 1914, half a century after Lincoln's death.
Babbitt has the power to overrule the commission, but that's unlikely, given the Clinton Administration's eagerness to please veterans. An organization called the National Coalition to Save Our Mall (www.savethemall.org) mounted a legal challenge in early October based on a historic-preservation argument. The suit refers to a 1986 law establishing criteria for decisions made by the Secretary of the Interior and other agencies, among them the requirement that plans for new historical monuments must "protect, to the maximum extent practicable, open space and existing public use." Open space for public use--where Americans can gather by the hundreds of thousands to address their government--is precisely what this monstrosity will destroy.
The high point of liberal faith that the color line might be permanently breached may have been the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From a participant's perspective it is difficult to forget the sea of 200,000 black and white demonstrators behind the figures of Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph and other prominent civil rights leaders, arms confidently linked, marching toward an egalitarian future. In the wake of Southern freedom rides and lunch-counter sit-ins to break the racial barriers to public accommodations (while early Northern urban insurgencies began protesting economic oppression), in quick succession Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. By 1965 many were convinced that the long-deferred dream of equality and justice was at hand. But as it turned out, the movement was not equal to its dream. The decade that began with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision against school segregation, and ended with Congressional enactment of legislation that seemed to fulfill the betrayed promise of the Civil War and Reconstruction turned out to be the last great outpouring of racial unity in the twentieth century. The reassertion of the racial divide became the story of the next thirty-five years. Even as antipoverty programs, affirmative action and war-fueled prosperity helped expand the black middle class, housing and school segregation worsened, and, because of the deindustrialization of most major cities, black and Latino unemployment became intractable. In the wake of the misery of many black ghettos we have seen the return of racial thinking, especially eugenics, that hated doctrine developed at the apex of the British Empire by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, among others. Far from earlier belief--shared by scientists, human rights advocates and many political leaders--that there is only one human species, race has made a roaring comeback on the left as much as the right. Moreover, on both sides of the ideological divide science has been mobilized to reassert the legitimacy of race as a "natural" division within the species, not only in the United States but also in other advanced industrial societies.
Paul Gilroy, whose Black Atlantic broke through the nation-specific context of race politics, has written a powerful, albeit minoritarian defense of the position that racial thinking--not just racism--is a key obstacle to human freedom (an aspiration, he sadly notes, that has virtually disappeared from political discourse). In his analysis of the origins and uses of racial thinking Gilroy spares from his critique neither black pride nor black separatism, let alone racism's most virulent forms, fascism and colonialism. He argues, provocatively, for an alternative to antihumanist identity politics that would veer toward defining community as a geographical as much as a racial concept, what he calls "planetary humanism." He also propounds an unabashed cosmopolitanism to replace nationalism as a solution to racial oppression. The result is that he has offered one of the most impressive refutations of race as an anthropological concept since the publication of Ashley Montagu's Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race more than fifty years ago. But where the older work rode the crest of a wave of early postwar antiracial thinking propelled by the general recognition that the crimes of Hitlerism were a consequence of racial populism, Gilroy's attempted revival comes at a time when identity politics, with its ideology of separatism, seems to have displaced forms of universal humanism. Communitarianism, which holds that people have the right to circle the wagons around their territory and impose their group's values on strangers, has reached all corners of political discourse, including the White House. In these times the frequently invoked slogans of human rights enjoy only strategic currency.
Gilroy traces racial thinking to three major sources: First, "raciology," discredited in its blatant, authoritarian manifestation, lives on in the guise of pseudoscientific claims that the black body has biologically rooted attributes of superior strength, beauty and endurance; second, the various movements to counter oppression by affirming racial solidarity on the basis of a separate black identity; and third, colonialism and slavery's systematic deracination of the black self and its consequent denial that blacks should be considered part of universal humanity, which has occasionally but spectacularly given rise to genocidal activities in the name of racial purity.
According to Gilroy, the persistence of raciology is partly attributable to the growing cultural importance of visual thinking, which increasingly influences our conceptions of truth. The dominance of image over writing has had a profound influence over what we take as reliable knowledge. Photography, film and television have altered how we understand the world. Despite overwhelming scientific theory and practice maintaining that there are no fundamental biological differences, physically or intellectually, within the human species, Gilroy contends, the manipulated images of advertising and other artifacts of consumer society apparently belie these judgments. Citing Spike Lee's alliance with a leading advertising agency, DDB Needham, to promote a bland version of multicultural blackness as an example of how raciology has walked through the back door of commercialized black identity, Gilroy accuses some leading black cultural figures of complicity with a crass version of market capitalism to advance their own interests.
Gilroy begins by marshaling evidence, culled from the scientific and technological revolutions of molecular biology and computer science, to support his contention that the concept of essential racial difference has lost its scientific basis even as attempts are made, by means of pseudobiological arguments, to support the view that humanity is divided by inherent, natural differences. "There is no raw, untrained perception dwelling in the body," nor, he believes, is there an inherent black physical superiority. Citing advances in medical imaging that reveal the body on a "nanoscale," he argues that the human body is increasingly understood by science as code and information and, echoing Frantz Fanon, one of his major interlocutors, should not be "epidermalized." In other words, we are not defined by skin color or intrinsic biological traits but by the "patterned interaction" between human organisms and the ecosystem within which we live and develop.
Against Race reserves some of its harshest gibes for identity politics and its companion, "multicultural blackness." Gilroy's criticism ranges from the fairly well-traveled issue of how consumerism shapes identity to how identity may lead to genocide. One of his milder illustrations is that in a society in which the marketplace assumes pride of place, the "car you drive, the clothes you wear" and other items of consumption define who we are. We are identical with our visible signs. But this is only a preliminary consideration to the far more frightening geopolitical tendency to link identity to warring constituencies who sometimes try to exterminate one another, such as Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. To underline the horror of the conflation of physical appearance and national identity, Gilroy gives an example of the large-scale killing of Tutsis because their identity card marked them, "or they did not have their card with them...and were therefore unable to prove they were not a Tutsi." Some were killed because soldiers believed "they were too tall" to be Hutu. In calling this an example of the history of "unspeakable barbarity," Gilroy remarks on "how the notion of fixed identity operates easily on both sides of the chasm that usually divides scholarly writing from the disorderly world of political conflicts." He notes that scholarship is often unable to go beyond what it perceives as primal difference, just as political actors seem incapable of seeing the Other as anything but evil.
Contrasting the music of Bob Marley, whom he takes, virtually without reservation, as an authentic black voice for universal human freedom, with hip-hop, especially in its recent incarnations, as a misogynous, cynical and exploitative product of Tin Pan Alley, Gilroy enters the vociferous debate about black popular culture. He chides critics who perpetuate the myth derived from hip-hop's earlier character as a local and rebellious musical expression and who insist that, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, hip-hop is "marginal" and oppositional to mainstream culture. For Gilroy the leading figures of the genre, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and others, rode to their popularity on some of the more regressive masculinist sentiments even as they retain rebellious images in the guise of glorifying the figure of the gangsta. These views are not likely to endear Gilroy to those who find hope in the fragments of social critique that remain in the music. I believe he overstates the case. For all of its commercial uses, "avant-garde" hip-hop remains quite subversive to the dominant theme of the American Celebration.
This leads to perhaps the most controversial sections of the book: Gilroy's attempt to demonstrate the link between the fascist politics of racial identity and black nationalism, especially the views of Marcus Garvey, who in the 1920s and early 1930s organized and led a mass Back to Africa movement that attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.
Reflecting recent scholarship, Gilroy denies that fascism was a singular, exceptional event limited to the time of Hitler and Mussolini. Instead, he connects its appearance in the interwar period--and persistence after the defeats of the German and Italian armies and the collapse of their governments--to the history of colonialism and to the contradictions between the universalistic, humanistic claims of Enlightenment culture and the militarism that marked its sordid record of conquest.
Invoking the bloody history of Western imperialism's subordination of colonial peoples in the name of civilizing the "barbarians," Gilroy makes the explicit connection to Hitler, whose rise to power was not merely a reflection of German resentment at its humiliation by the Allies and the legacy of colonialism. Germany's drive for European and African conquest was based on Hitler's doctrine of racial purity and superiority. More than a dictator, he was an impressive ideologue whose ideas attracted substantial support among Germans and have had enduring influence in the emergence of contemporary ultrarightist movements, some of which, like those in France and Italy, have won considerable popular following. The core of fascism is biological essentialism manifested in the marriage of racial identity with nationalism, ideas that won the admiration of Garvey and some other black nationalists. Moreover, like many nationalisms, Garvey's was anti-Semitic, and Gilroy shows that he admired Hitler.
Not that Gilroy equates black separatism with fascism. But he places considerable weight on the deracination of the Jews by fascism as the major modern form of racism and as a precursor to the calumnies that followed their extermination. His point is that the Holocaust and the Rwanda tragedy--indeed, all genocidal acts grounded in racial purity and racial separatism--contain the potential for unspeakable barbarity because they entail the denial of the Other's claim to humanity. Once the Other has been endowed with essential qualities that may be coded as subhuman--or evil--there may be no question of observing its fundamental rights. Thus, for Gilroy, black anti-Semitism is not only wrong, it is self-defeating.
In promulgating his viewpoint Gilroy relies on the authority of three thinkers who, as it turned out, vainly fought for the notion of human liberation: Frantz Fanon, the West Indian psychoanalyst who decried all attempts to link humans to their skin color and never tired of reminding the metropolis of its obligation to live up to the promise of the Enlightenment; Martin Luther King Jr., who, despite the violence and humiliation suffered by American blacks, insisted that the task of the civil rights movement was to secure entrance into American society but who also recognized toward the end of his life that rights are not enough and integration into an unjust society is not desirable. King became the principal tribune of the indivisibility of freedom and, in its pursuit, lost his life while participating in one of the monumental struggles of the Southern labor movement. The last thinker, Richard Wright, is Gilroy's model of a cosmopolitan intellectual who removed himself to France rather than bear witness to the disintegration of the promise of freedom in his own country. Wright is the exemplar of the intellectual exile, yet he remained rooted to the problems and pain of blacks in his native land. Disdaining what he called "tribalism," Wright used his celebrity to make a spirited case that the newly independent African states should embark, despite all, on the road to modernity.
Gilroy's reach is dazzling, his analysis acute and insightful, but in the end he recognizes that, lacking a political constituency for his planetary humanism, his ideas remain not a program but a utopian hope. Significantly, in the last chapter he invokes Theodor Adorno, who, in his years in California, made shrewd but ungenerous commentary on various aspects of US popular culture. Gilroy's sharp criticisms of black elites--especially the middle class, who, even as they distance themselves from the black working class have embraced a mixture of black separatism and assimilation into the dominant market culture--do not lead him to consider global class politics as a practical way to achieve the cosmopolitan movement he would create, any more than Adorno could see beyond the "the totally administered society" he abhorred. At the end of the day, Against Race remains the brilliant jeremiad of an out-of-step intellectual whose main weapon is criticism. There are few who do it better.
Since Spike Lee begins his new picture, Bamboozled, by giving a dictionary definition of satire, the least a reviewer can do is to open with a proper critical definition. Strictly speaking, Bamboozled is a Menippean satire; and because I'm unqualified to describe that form, I will defer to Northrop Frye. A few lines from his Anatomy of Criticism:
The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus...differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.
Frye's catalogue of Menippean personages will serve nicely as a roll call for the characters in Bamboozled. "Rapacious and incompetent professional men"--those would be Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a full-throatedly boorish program executive at the CNS television network, and his underling Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the network's only African-American staff writer. The story's "virtuosi" are a pair of starving, scuffling street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who at first want nothing more than a chance to do their act and get paid. In them, Delacroix sees a vehicle for escaping his job, while at the same time exacting revenge on Dunwitty for endless slights and slurs.
"Enthusiasts" are the American people, God bless them, who fall in love with the variety show that Delacroix dreams up. Manray, now called Mantan, and Womack, renamed Sleep 'n' Eat, become the stars of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety program set in an Alabama watermelon patch, featuring a full cast of coons, Toms, mammies, pickaninnies and chain-gang prisoners. To Delacroix's horror, viewers do not rise up in fury against this spectacle. Instead, they adopt blackface as the nation's latest fad.
"Cranks"--these are the members of a would-be-revolutionary hip-hop collective called the Mau Maus, led by a man who has named himself Big Blak African (Mos Def). The Mau Maus conform to the most noxious stereotypes--they're unlettered, inarticulate, unemployed, slovenly and very fond of malt liquor--so of course they declare war on the minstrel show for perpetuating such images.
"Parvenus"--a term that applies to most of the major characters. Once the minstrel show turns into a huge success, misbehavior becomes general. "Pedant"--that would be Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix's young assistant and his uneasy but ineffective conscience. She's the one who insists that if Manray and Womack are to wear blackface, they must use authentic burnt cork. She's also the one who protests against the show by collecting hundreds of antique coon figures, with which she fills Delacroix's office and home. To these, Spike Lee adds a collection of his own, appending to the movie an entire gallery's worth of film clips of Toms, mammies, pickaninnies, etc. In such a manner, writes Frye, does the Menippean satirist demonstrate exuberance, "piling up an enormous mass of erudition about his theme."
Finally, we have the category of "bigots." It's enough to say that this is a Spike Lee movie.
And now, having anatomized Bamboozled, I must pass on to the tougher question: How good a Menippean satire is it? Or, to phrase the question more precisely: How does the movie play? To answer, I'd better begin again, starting this time with the bizarre figure of Delacroix.
Who is this man with the shaved head and pencil mustache, who keeps his voice locked in his sinus cavities and speaks English as if he'd learned it from 78 rpm records? (I mean, who is he other than another brilliant characterization by Damon Wayans?) We know that Delacroix is the narrator of Bamboozled and the instigator of its plot. We also discover, fairly quickly, that he's a postmodern, post-civil rights, post-affirmative action type, who calls himself a Negro and takes pride in dressing like Duke Ellington on a Savile Row spree. But behind all his preening and posing--pinching the air while he talks, pretending to believe that his co-workers respect him--who the hell is Delacroix?
Two aspects of his life--his apartment decor and the script for his TV show--combine to answer for him. The lavish apartment is located in a Manhattan tower, right behind the face of a giant clock. It's the perfect home for a man who, as they say, doesn't know what time it is. As for the TV show: One of the minstrel routines it revives is a doubletalk bit, spoken by a man whose family ties are so complicated that he seems to be his own grandfather. Says the minstrel, who might as well be speaking for Delacroix, "I don't know who I is!"
He's not the only one. The Mau Maus, too, live in a riot of self-misapprehension. Lee shows them in constant, jostling, purposeless motion; you get the impression of a many-headed, many-limbed being stuffed into a single baggy sweatshirt. "Know what I mean? Know what I'm sayin'?" they sputter at one another, without anyone's actually having said anything. They, too, seem to be echoed by the minstrels in an old routine--the one where two buddies converse unintelligibly because they never bother to complete a sentence.
Of course, the characters not of African descent have their own deficit of self-knowledge. Michael Rapaport, who has developed a specialty in playing big but sweet-natured imbeciles, here brings out a more bullying side of himself, making Dunwitty into a loud, tall, sputtering fount of vulgarities. "Yo! I'm the only black in this room!" he shouts at the grimly self-controlled Delacroix, before launching into a supposedly genial chant of "Nigger nigger nigger nigger!" But because of the privilege that comes with his pale skin, Dunwitty gets to enjoy his ignorance. The film's African characters suffer for theirs--and, in the end, make each other suffer.
This is hardly the first time that Lee has looked coldly at the popular culture of denigration (another word to look up in the dictionary), seeing in it a source of confusion and misery. His treatment of the subject has ranged from the rhetorical (in Malcolm X) to the intimately dramatic (in Crooklyn). But he's never before made this problem the main focus of a film--and when you think about it, you may realize that for all his coruscating wit, he's never before made a full-blown satire, either.
So how does Bamboozled play as a movie? I will cite, in descending order of merit, the performances, which are vivid; the themes, which are coherently developed (despite what you might have heard); the settings, which are reasonably varied but not strong in themselves (except for that clock tower); the videography, which is undistinguished; and the pacing and editing, which might have been improved had Lee emulated those minstrel routines he's revived.
The movie's dirty secret, which Lee has the courage to reveal, is that those bits really can be funny. You might expect to enjoy Bamboozled when Savion Glover gets to dance--how could a movie go wrong with him?--but the big surprise is to see how Tommy Davidson, as Womack, works those corny old jokes. Never in my life did I expect to hear an actor call out that legendary punch line, "Ain't nobody here but us chickens!" Is the moment humiliating for Womack? You bet. Did I laugh? You would, too.
Spike Lee has applied his erudition to this American tradition and discovered not just how it wounds but also how it entertains. With the intellectual acuity of the Menippean satirist, he's shown that the entertainment is the wound--the louder the laughter, the worse the damage. It's understandable, then, that he would want to drive home the lesson by strategically killing the fun for his own audience. I can imagine the gesture's being made swiftly, so that your throat would be slit in midlaugh. But Lee seems to lack the resolve for such savagery. Past a certain point in Bamboozled, when he might have declared a grand refusal, he instead falls into a semi-puritanical sulk, leaving the movie to clunk and clatter along. This is the satire of the passive-aggressive personality: someone who withdraws into a show of indifference, as if we should apologize to him and beg for a livelier picture.
I think of the sign that Delacroix places on top of his television set, to spur himself on in his work. Feed the Idiot Box, it says. How little regard the man must have for himself, when he feels such contempt for his job and his audience! Do I detect a touch of self-portraiture in Lee's picture of this fellow satirist? Would Bamboozled have been a better movie had Lee believed that we--and he--were worthy of it?
Short Take: Moviegoers who are willing to risk having their hearts warmed might take a look at Billy Elliot. Directed by Stephen Daldry from a script by Lee Hall, it's an amiable example of the working-class-uplift picture--the uplift, in this case, involving the ability of a coal miner's son to execute a grand jeté.
In Durham, England, in 1984, young Billy sneaks off from his boxing class to study ballet with Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Bad enough that he's the only lad, amid all those tutus. Worse still, his father's union is in the process of being crushed by Mrs. Thatcher, so the 50 pence he misappropriates each week can be ill afforded. His dad (Gary Lewis) wants him to spend that money on learning to fight his way through a hard world--not on leaping about like a poofter.
I might have enjoyed Billy Elliot a bit more if the film hadn't insisted so often that Billy is not, I mean not, repeat not a poofter, just because he loves to dance. All right, back off. It also might have been useful to address the mineworkers' strike substantially, rather than use it as mere background, and to have made Billy's ultimate triumph something less of a foregone conclusion. Then again, Jamie Bell, who plays Billy, is a marvel. The kid knows how to dance; what's more, he knows how to pretend to dance less well than he really can, which is amazing in such a young actor. Let him and the character he plays have their triumph. It's harmless enough--and I'm pleased to say it's accomplished through public financing.
You may find reading Akhil Sharma's debut novel akin to having your head held underwater. Attendant with feelings of a relentless, choking panic, though, will be an almost preternatural awareness of the details suffusing the experience.
In Sharma's An Obedient Father, a stunning work that is both personal and political, you hear a man say, "Misery often makes me want to look away from the present and leads me to nostalgia." The misery of the present is born out of the political trials of India in the early eighties. The escape that the narrator wishes for is driven by yearning for a rural past: "As I swallowed my heart medicine in the blue dark of the common room, I imagined walking through Beri's sugarcane fields and sitting beneath a mango tree. I wanted to be a child again, with the future a wide, still river in the afternoon." What makes this nostalgia for an unsullied past both poignant and problematic is that it is the desire of a man who cannot escape the memory of the newspapers soaking up the blood beneath his daughter's thighs each night after he has raped her.
The protagonist, Ram Karan, is a corrupt official in the Education Department in Delhi. He is a widower living with his newly widowed daughter, Anita, and his young granddaughter. Anita is the child he raped repeatedly twenty years earlier. Most of the book is in Karan's voice.
The experience of an intimacy so often violent, of being a witness to what is routinely hidden but is here plainly visible, is a result of the quality of the narrator's voice. Lucid and perverse, like the solipsistic narrator of Nabokov's Lolita, the confessions of Sharma's antihero are sharp, even empathetic, and loathsome. (Recall Nabokov's H.H.: "I had possessed her--and she never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not tampered with her fate by involving her image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.")
The social backdrop of the novel is also enriched by the tussle for the Delhi seat between a dying Congress Party and an emergent, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Karan is the money man, the bribe-collector, for one of the candidates in the parliamentary election. The petty political intrigues and their murderous fallouts provide a distraction from the less public drama that is played out inside the three-member Karan home.
It is to Sharma's great credit as a novelist that I was as often horrified by Karan's abuses and compulsive degradations as I was held captive by his pellucid dissection of shame that exposes a geography of self-delusion and national wrongdoing. There can be no doubt that Ram Karan is evil, but because he almost always is given voice, he also remains in some measure human.
This is the book's most disturbing feature but also its most powerful triumph. As a result, An Obedient Father poses a serious challenge to a reviewer who is tempted to take refuge in the easiest, moralizing dismissal of this unusual novel. There is reason to be dismayed by its brutality, and not everyone can savor its black humor; but it cannot be denied that the maddening narrative voice is as darkly hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky.
Sharma also pulls off the trick of showing that a collective political degradation is intertwined seamlessly with personal turpitude. Indira Gandhi's dictatorial "emergency," imposed twenty-five years ago, suspended civil rights and gave a free hand to an inner circle of politicos in Delhi. The emergency didn't tamper only with democratic institutions; its depredations made more base our responses to those weaker than we are. Sharma's novel bears the scars of that trauma and its aftermath on Karan, but also on his daughter: "Money would make everything negotiable.... The more years Indira Gandhi spent in office, the more my income grew, for more and more things fell under the government's aegis and we civil servants were the gatekeepers. I bought a toaster, a blender, a refrigerator, and a television. Anita went through higher secondary and into college. She grew up shy and easily panicked, but there was nothing that marked her as damaged."
If Kafka's K. located power in the distant castle, Sharma shows us mercilessly that such castles are our homes, so to speak, in our bedrooms. In fact, when you overhear Ram Karan's confessions about his political sins to his daughter each evening after the English news, you also realize that the political is a deflection from the interrogation of the personal. Karan understands this well: "I thought that providing her with something to rage about openly would be a way to keep us from the topic of what I had done to her."
Incest has enjoyed a popular run in Indian fiction recently. An Obedient Father is perhaps the novel that, some might say, Arundhati Roy had wanted to write when she wrote The God of Small Things. It is certainly the novel that Raj Kamal Jha came close to writing when in The Blue Bedspread he plumbed the dark ambiguities of abuse and incest. Sharma's novel is part of a brilliant coming of age in Indian fiction.
The dust jacket of the book informs us that its author is an investment banker who lives in Manhattan. He was born in India but grew up in Edison, New Jersey, studied at Princeton and later Stanford. He has won two O. Henry awards for his short fiction and worked as a scriptwriter for Steven Spielberg.What is most remarkable about this profile is not the youth (he's 29) or even the impressive array of accomplishments; rather, it is the fact that a writer who has lived most of his life outside India is able to write about life in Delhi with such sensitivity and flair. The brothels of Delhi's GB Road, the roads and shops of Kamla Nagar, the alleys of Old Delhi, in the changing light and temperature of the seasons, all come alive in this book's pages. Even the evocation of Karan's childhood in a village before India's independence is exact and intriguing:
I remembered that when my mother and I waited by the side of the road for a bus, I would tell my mother to move back, not because I was worried about her safety, but because this was one of the few ways I had to show my love.... Violence was common. Grown men used to rub kerosene on a bitch's nipples and watch it bite itself to death.
Does this sharpness of outline in the book, its confidence in its own voice and descriptions, put an end to the debate about the authenticity of Indian expatriate writers? An Obedient Father demonstrates that magical realism à la Salman Rushdie is not the indispensable tool of the Indian writer living abroad and, second, that unmagical realism à la Rohinton Mistry is insignificant if it does not scratch away at wounds that are covered over by the scabs of silence.
Unlike Rushdie and Mistry, both of whom have written about Indira Gandhi's emergency, Sharma produces nothing that could have been culled from the pages of a newspaper. Neither magical nor dull, his writing transgresses the borders of earlier, celebrated fictions, and he makes connections that are both vivid and dislocating: "Every night I had dreams of humiliation, of people catching me with Anita. When I saw a rooster picking at a pile of dung, I wondered what he was eating. Around this time I also began imagining sucking the penises of powerful men."
We learn early about Karan's death, but there is little consolation in this. The ironies of the victimizer becoming a victim, at the novel's end, are plainly discernible. Yet such ironies are overshadowed by the more gloomy evidence of damaged lives and their unsettled grief. And after Karan's death, I missed his eye for detail. I could not let go of the thought that of all the people in the room when Anita informs her extended family of what happened in her past, Karan is the only one who notices that everyone, in their desire to help, had ignored Anita's own desires. (Nabokov's H.H. was similarly cognizant of deeper absences: "I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.")
I tried to think again about one of Karan's earlier statements: "All the things that might mark me as unusual and explain what I did to Anita were present in other people." Did I not see the signs in my own life?
I was returning to college one summer from my hometown in Bihar, India. The train stopped at Aligarh. We were running late and it was hot outside. I looked up from my reading when an old man appeared and began to claim in a loud voice that he was Jawaharlal Nehru. The train began to move. There were many new passengers, daily commuters with their bags and their loads of merchandise. Some of them began joking with the old man. The Aligarh passengers, all men, settled down to a game of cards. They asked the old man a question or two and then teased him. Like many others in the compartment, I was amused by this teasing.
The old man, sensing that he was being mocked, shouted louder; one of the men slapped him from the upper berth and told him to be quiet. The old man was wearing a white cotton cap, as Nehru did in photographs. The cap had been knocked down. The old man picked it up and turned on the others with filthy abuses.
This was all the provocation the men needed. All down the narrow pathway between the berths, violent blows rained on the old man, who swore and spat viciously. His head began to bleed. One man gave his rubber slipper to the old man and asked him to use it to sweep the floor. "Do that, Jawaharlal," he said. When the old man tried to use the slipper to hit back, the man pulled his dhoti, leaving the old man naked from the waist down.
My fellow passengers, many of whom had been sitting till then, crowded around the old man and tore off his shirt. They kicked his genitals. Someone on a nearby berth asked that this be stopped, but this appeal had no effect.
There was a stink coming from the corner in which the old man had been pushed. As I said, it was very hot outside, and it was hot in the compartment too. I did not want to move. I thought of the old man when I got to my hostel and was preparing to sleep, but I don't think I've thought of him for any length of time ever again till I was reading An Obedient Father. That memory of derangement and violence was evoked by the book, no doubt, but also evoked was the claustrophobia of our closed lives, our bitterness and the collective nakedness ringing with abuse.
Poor Anthony Summers--he writes a 600-page book on Nixon based on massive and exhaustive research, including interviews with a thousand people and 120 pages of documentation--and all the media care about are the couple of pages he devotes to pill-popping and wife-beating. The same thing happened with his J. Edgar Hoover bio, which is remembered mostly for that unforgettable cross-dressing story.
But The Arrogance of Power has historical significance. It shows definitively that during the last weeks of the 1968 election campaign--when Nixon was challenging Vice President Hubert Humphrey--Nixon secretly sabotaged peace talks that might have ended the war at that point. Nixon went on to win one of the closest elections in history, after which he kept the fighting going another five years, during which more than 20,000 Americans and perhaps a million Vietnamese were killed.
The general outlines of the situation were well-known at the time: On October 31, just a week before Election Day, Johnson ordered the bombing halt that the North Vietnamese had said was a prerequisite to their entering into peace talks. Nixon had been eight points ahead in the Gallup poll, but two days after the bombing halt, his lead had fallen to two points. One poll even had Humphrey pulling ahead of Nixon then.
But the talks did not begin, because two days after the bombing halt South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu refused to participate. He had good reasons to prefer a Nixon victory--Thieu's regime was kept alive only by Washington, and Humphrey had told him that prolonged US aid was "not in the cards." Observers at the time, and historians subsequently, have speculated about whether Nixon conveyed private assurances to Thieu in those crucial two days. Of course Nixon denied it, and LBJ's memoirs, published three years later, declared that he had "no reason to think" that Nixon "was himself involved in this maneuvering, but a few individuals active in his campaign were." Among historians, Stephen Ambrose has been the most explicit in making the case, along with Clark Clifford, Defense Secretary for LBJ at the time, in his 1991 memoirs.
But no one had the smoking gun--not until Summers. His chapter on Nixon's maneuver provides a fine example of historical detective work. The key messenger, he argues, was Anna Chennault--the Chinese-born widow of an American World War II hero, 43 years old at the time, a prominent Washington hostess and vice chairwoman of the Republican National Finance Committee and co-chairwoman of Women for Nixon-Agnew. She also had connections to Southeast Asian leaders like Chiang Kai-shek and Ferdinand Marcos, as well as those in Saigon. In interviews with Summers, she said she met with Nixon and his campaign manager (and future Attorney General), John Mitchell, who told her to inform Saigon that if Nixon won the election, South Vietnam would get "a better deal."
Meanwhile, President Johnson deployed the full resources of US intelligence to see whether Nixon was telling Thieu not to go to the peace talks. The CIA had a bug in Thieu's Saigon office, the National Security Agency was intercepting South Vietnamese diplomatic cables and the FBI had wiretaps and physical surveillance at the South Vietnamese Embassy.
It's certainly possible that Anna Chennault was exaggerating her historical importance when she told Summers (and hinted to others earlier) about her role. But here's where the smoking gun appears: Summers reproduces an FBI memo he obtained in 1999 under the Freedom of Information Act. It's dated November 2, and it reports on the results of a wiretap on the phone of the South Vietnamese ambassador: Chennault had contacted the ambassador and "advised him that she had received a message from her boss"--who was described in the memo as "not further identified." The message was "hold on, we are gonna win." Then follows the most tantalizing line: "She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico." With a little more work, Summers sealed his case: Spiro Agnew made a campaign stop in Albuquerque that day, and the times match. Summers points out that Agnew could not have taken such a crucial step without explicit instructions from Nixon himself.
Summers found that he was not the first to piece this evidence together: Deep in the LBJ Library he found an "eyes only" memo to LBJ showing that national security assistant Walt Rostow had used the same sources to come to the same conclusions. Outraged, Johnson shared Rostow's insight with candidate Humphrey, but they decided not to go public with it in the last days before the election. (They may not have thought the documentation convincing enough and worried that it was too late to have an effect, regardless.) After Election Day, they apparently believed it would be too disruptive of the US political system to reveal what they knew about how the new President had helped himself win.
Wisely, Summers does not argue that his evidence proves Nixon prolonged the war--although he points out that more than a third of all US casualties during the war occurred during Nixon's presidency--a total of 20,763 Americans killed. That was also the period when the most intense bombing occurred, resulting in the deaths of perhaps a million or more Vietnamese. Summers acknowledges that Thieu "very probably" would have balked at peace talks even without prodding from Nixon. However, he argues forcefully and persuasively that it was wrong for a private citizen to interfere with a major diplomatic peace effort for his own political advantage.
Nixon's actions just before the election prolonged the war in a different way: Thieu took credit for Nixon's victory. Thus when Nixon reversed course and tried to push Thieu to the peace table on the eve of the 1972 election, Thieu stalled at the critical moment, arguing that Nixon was in his debt.
The rest of the book amounts to a series of investigations into other suspected crimes or offenses of Nixon's. Here Summers is equally energetic in his research, but with uneven results. For perspective on Nixon's Vietnam policy, the best new analysis is not Summers but rather Jeffrey Kimball's prizewinning book Nixon's Vietnam War, which presents compelling evidence that up to 1971, Nixon and Kissinger believed the war was winnable. Summers's Watergate chapter doesn't add anything of significance to Stanley Kutler's work, and his effort to show that Nixon had a Swiss account linked to a criminal bank in the Bahamas isn't convincing.
The Alger Hiss case was Nixon's first foray into national politics, as a member of HUAC in 1948; it gets a thorough examination by Summers. John Dean, who reviewed the Summers book in the Chicago Tribune, found this section especially noteworthy. Dean occupies a small but significant place in Hiss history for reporting that White House aide Charles Colson remarked that Nixon had told him, "The typewriters are always the key. We built one in the Hiss case"--which, if true, meant Hiss was framed by the FBI, since the crucial physical evidence that he had been a spy came from documents typed on what the prosecution said was Hiss's typewriter. Summers devotes five pages to the forgery-by-typewriter theory; Dean concludes that Summers has "reopened the debate on whether Hiss was framed."
The book has also made news for its reports that Nixon was seen by a psychotherapist while he was President. However, the media excitement over this has missed the more significant story about a President's search for help. The men around Nixon, Summers shows, were alarmed by Nixon's mental condition, especially when he was deciding to invade Cambodia. After meeting with Nixon to discuss a possible invasion, Henry Kissinger told an aide, "Our peerless leader has flipped out." There were disturbing reports of Nixon drinking heavily during these days. And after a Pentagon briefing on the first day of the invasion, Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland commented obliquely that "the president's unbridled ebullience...required some adjustment to reality."
It was at this point that Nixon called Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, a psychotherapist who had treated him during the fifties. Nixon had read Hutschnecker's bestseller, The Will to Live, written for people "in the grips of acute conflict." Since Nixon had become President, Hutschnecker had seen him only once, and then to discuss Hutschnecker's views of crime and world peace. Hutschnecker's 1970 White House visit was kept secret, but when the two met, the doctor did not realize that Nixon was seeking treatment. So Hutschnecker started pitching his world peace plans, and Nixon abruptly dismissed him. The President knew he needed help--but didn't get it.
Two days later, with protests engulfing the country, Kissinger worried that the President was "on the edge of a nervous breakdown." This is the point at which the pill-popping story becomes significant. Jack Dreyfus, a Nixon friend and supporter (and founder of the Dreyfus mutual funds), had given Nixon a bottle of a thousand Dilantins--an anticonvulsant Dreyfus claimed helped overcome anxiety and depression. Dreyfus said he told Nixon they should be prescribed by a doctor, but Nixon replied, "To heck with the doctor."
Dilantin had been approved by the FDA, but for the treatment of epileptic seizures. Documented side effects include "slurred speech...mental confusion, dizziness, insomnia, transient nervousness." Instead of getting treatment from the one therapist he trusted, Nixon apparently took the Dilantin Dreyfus had given him. He later asked Dreyfus for--and received--another bottle of a thousand 100-milligram tablets.
Dilantin didn't help: Summers reports that concern about Nixon's mental state in 1974 led Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to order military units not to react to orders from the White House unless they were cleared with him or the Secretary of State.
Ever since Ronald Reagan showed how right-wing a Republican President could be, Nixon-haters have been reconsidering their position. Under Nixon the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA were created, Social Security payments went up and funding was increased for education, health and the arts. On the welfare issue, Nixon proposed a guaranteed annual family income--far to the left of all his successors, Democratic as well as Republican. And, of course, Nixon ended two decades of official hostility toward China and brought about détente with the Soviet Union. To understand why Nixon took these positions it would be necessary to look beyond Nixon himself to the larger social and political context of the late sixties and early seventies. Summers's narrow focus prevents this kind of broader understanding.
The sound of Wrecking Ball (Elektra), Emmylou Harris's 1995 album produced by former Brian Eno/Neville Brothers associate Daniel Lanois, drew me back toward her. But it was her fiercely energetic if unevenly recorded live disc, 1998's Spyboy (Eminent), and the tour that followed with her postpsychedelic power trio that made me want more for the first time since Harris started singing trios with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987. I went back and listened to Elite Hotel and Pieces of the Sky (Reprise) and Luxury Liner (Warner Bros.), her early country rock-outs with the Hot Band, which she mostly inherited from the late Gram Parsons (who'd mostly stolen it from Elvis Presley). And even 1972's GP and 1973's Grievous Angel (both Reprise), the two albums on which she duetted with Parsons. Parsons, of course, is the man who turned the Byrds (and subsequently all of Los Angeles) toward what became country-rock, founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, partied (and co-wrote songs) with the Rolling Stones, elevated Harris to national attention and in 1973 was found dead (of coroner-ruled "natural causes") in a motel in Joshua Tree, California. Friends stole his body and burned it in the Joshua Tree National Monument.
How rock and roll can you get? Parsons, never widely famous, became a cult figure. Harris went on to conquer Nashville, continuing the vector Parsons had sketched in his crossover country lilts like "Hickory Wind," "Wheels" and "Sin City" ("On the 31st floor/A gold-plated door/Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain"), all of which became minor classics. She went deep into it, performing at the Ryman Auditorium and so on. Her pretty, soulful, folky voice with the surprisingly resilient country-meets-blues cri de coeur got under my skin less as it settled into Nashville's more predictable contours. I was waiting for the shakeup, for the rock in country-rock to re-emerge and maybe even, with luck, take over.
That's what happened on Wrecking Ball and Spyboy. Fired first by Lanois's Eno-inspired wall-of-sound approach, then by her interracial power trio (guitar whiz Buddy Miller, bass monster Daryl Johnson, agile drummer Brady Blade), Harris didn't so much tear up her country roots as reinfuse them with another set of musical ideas. It was the sound of a perceptual door opening.
And now there's Harris's first studio disc since Wrecking Ball, this time via arty Nonesuch Records, home of the sleeper hit Buena Vista Social Club. Yeah, there may be ironic hay to be made by somebody (not me) out of the fact that Nonesuch has made its bucks as the trendy yuppie label of the eighties and nineties, marketing leather-and-lace Eurotrash hits like the Gypsy Kings. The label's stock in trade is (justly) its critically ratified, near-automatic intellectual heft and its consequent ability to target boomers who scan the Sunday Times each week for what to absorb.
They could do a lot worse than Harris's Red Dirt Girl, most of which--rarely, for her--she wrote herself.
It's a cliché that most people in America want someone else's life. Ever since the Gold Rush was augmented by Hollywood and John Steinbeck's Depression, California has been the golden wet dream for Americans' imaginings of new identities, the place where you could retool yourself and ditch the nasty nagging past you might someday have to answer for--or to.
Yet Harris has been a kind of bellwether of pop music's directions partly because she's so rooted in her past; she's aware of where changes of direction are likely to blow in from. When she started singing with Parsons, country and rock hated each other; over the past decade, as her boomer generation has settled comfortably into middle age, country stars have sounded like the Eagles, who were glossing pages from Parsons's book. Before the current refashionability of bluegrass and that already gone moment of alt-country, Harris was there. On Red Dirt Girl, she connects the dots between the sixties, Springsteen and the post-Hendrix production style that Lanois has refined.
You could argue that Red Dirt Girl updates Hendrix by way of electronica, but with a (relatively) conservative ear cocked backward, for the boomer audience's sake. The entire album is a potpourri of styles, somehow overstuffed and lavish and rippling with suggestive overtones even when it's spare. On the title track, for instance, wisps of overdriven guitar leak almost discreetly into the corners of the soundstage, a sympathetic echo of successive dislocations in the lyrics. Multiple basses rumble and snort through "I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now," reflecting the disoriented but overwhelming focus shaping the singer's emotions. Every cut finds sounds spurting, drifting, poking or sizzling into the deeply textured stereo image, with unexpected and sometimes unsettling results: bits of shock, humor, recognition. Repeatedly, jigs and reels, the staples of Appalachian-descended country, get bushwacked and overlaid or saturated with fuzz and wah-wah washes and distant, jangly electric piano and guitars--of course, always guitars, of every aural hue and cry.
The guitar, rock and roll's conceptual anchor, is the symbol that links Harris and Springsteen. Consider her in-concert staple, "Born to Run": Not Springsteen's song, it takes an angle on male-female relationships that puts the woman in the rock-and-roll driver's seat. In fact, the title track of Red Dirt Girl is a very Boss-like tale of doppelgängers, one of whom gets stuck in the old hometown:
Nobody knows when she started her skid
She was only 27 and she had five kids
Coulda been the whiskey, coulda been the pills
Coulda been the dreams she was tryin' to kill
But there won't be a mention in the News of The World
About the life and the death of a Red Dirt Girl
Who never got any further across the line than Meridian.
Like Springsteen and Tom Waits, Harris often imagines the characters in her songs as people (or aspects of herself) she's left behind. But in contrast to America's standard-issue California dreamin', she doesn't want to erase her past or disappear beneath each new persona. Which is one of several reasons Gram Parsons hovers, never far, from her music.
"Michelangelo," the CD's second cut, is yet another in a long line of Harris tunes that invoke his ghost, the tragic figure of the flawed genius surrounded by his past choices, via a melody that could have come out of Leonard Cohen and a spare but textured aural background speckled with rumbling bass and acoustic guitar strums and jet-stream wisps of overdriven feedback. "Tragedy" sets its tensions between industrial drumming, a clutch of guitars (including a floating pedal steel) and Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa on backup Everly-Brothers-go-rhythm-and-blues-flavored vocals after the Boss-ish opening: "Some say it's destiny/Whether triumph or tragedy/But I believe we cast our nets out on the sea/And nothing we gather comes for free."
That sense of responsibility is why Harris doesn't erase history, no matter how she may recast it in literary or imaginative terms. ("Bang the Drum Slowly," a eulogy for her father co-written with Guy Clark, is unabashedly sentimental and biblical, for instance, with an e-bow winding through it like a church organ.) It's also why, along with the likes of Springsteen and Waits, she has struggled with the theme of redemption time after time, whether singing refurbished old hymns in her soaring vibrato or switching to more profane journeys taken from her own and others' searching. Understanding, guilt, salvation and love are bound together in lines like these from "The Pearl": "Like falling stars from the universe we are hurled/Down through the long loneliness of the world/Until we behold the pain become the pearl."
It's a story older than that of Piers Plowman, but it may seem quaint in a day when the word "character" has been vastly reduced in meaning, when the world seems like a welter of wannabe victims lining up for a camera shot. The process of living leaves us scarred, as it did Michelangelo, but that's the price. Cameos come relatively cheap. On the other hand, there's always the twilight solace of Prozac Nation.
Startlingly produced by Malcolm Burn (who engineered and mixed Wrecking Ball), featuring a dozen or so musicians (also including Dave Matthews and Jill Cunniff), Red Dirt Girl is roughly two-thirds dynamite, one-third breathing space. Sonically, it never stops pushing into those post-Hendrix wah-wah soundscapes, including telephone rings and background conversations, tunes starting with the whirr of a tape machine being turned on--a deliberate carelessness of sonic references from outside the soundstage that paradoxically underscore that stage's fierce integrity. Conceptually, the album does what the best country music (which it only vaguely is) has always done: tells us stories about where we come from and warns us to look twice about where we're going.
For Harris never forgets for long our only inevitable destination--which is one big reason you might call this music for grown-ups. Sure, it's boomer music, so there's inevitably some nostalgia, but in Harris's capable, determined, ironic hands, the disc raises more questions than it settles neatly down to bed. And you can hum nearly all of it through the jabs at the job and downers from your parents and/or kids and adrenaline rushes of joy and outbreaks of road rage and those late, ominously clear and sparkling nights when everyone else is finally out cold and you're rhapsodically wishing you had a telescope.
Harris is on tour now. Don't miss her.
It offers a blatant apologia for economic inequality--but few question the faith.
Now that Karyn Kusama's much-heralded Girlfight has opened, I figure it's time to catch up with the 1999 releases and review On the Ropes. And since I've been so slow to write about this documentary, which has long since vanished from theaters, the first thing to say is that you shouldn't hesitate to watch it on video. That's how On the Ropes was shot, by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen: with a handheld Sony, which the filmmakers carried through the streets and courtrooms of Brooklyn and into the New Bed-Stuy Gym, where a deeply impressive man named Harry Keitt was devoting himself to training amateur boxers.
The second thing you should know about On the Ropes is that these boxers were not living the easy life. One of them in particular, a young woman named Tyrene Manson, was destroyed right in front of Burstein and Morgen's camera, not by a ring opponent but by the police and the court system. Since Manson is real--whereas the young Brooklyn boxer who is the heroine of Girlfight springs from Kusama's imagination--let me explain the case in some detail.
Manson, a tough and wiry piece of work, was training at the time for the Golden Gloves, and going at it with extraordinary good cheer, considering her less-than-ideal circumstances. When not sparring or doing roadwork, she was busy caring for two young nieces, since her crackhead uncle couldn't be bothered. Unfortunately, Manson had no place to live except in this same uncle's house. Credible evidence suggested that she'd been trying to relocate herself and the girls; but there she was when the cops broke in. As expected, they found illegal drugs lying about, along with any number of Uncle Randy's friends and colleagues. And so, on the grounds that she'd been breathing the same air as these people, Tyrene Manson was arrested for possession with intent to sell. A few shufflings of paper by a court-appointed lawyer, a grunt or two from the judge, and off she went to prison, on the very day she'd been scheduled to fight in the Golden Gloves. Watch On the Ropes and see it happen.
It's certainly possible for fiction to convey the horror of such a situation--the messiness, the outrage, even the element of self-undoing. (Much to Manson's detriment, the controlled aggression she used in the ring became flailing belligerence in court.) For an example, I turn to the opening chapters of Tolstoy's Resurrection. But I don't think of Girlfight, a well-acted and well-directed feature with a screenplay written on tissue paper. Dab your eyes with it, if you will; but blow your nose with caution.
The one substantial element of Girlfight is its lead actress, newcomer Michelle Rodriguez, who grabs your attention and holds it from the minute she comes onscreen. She's first seen in an effective dolly shot, as she leans against a locker in a busy high school corridor. As the other kids go by, crossing left and right, the camera pulls closer and closer to the immobile Rodriguez, whose head is lowered but whose attitude is plain to read in the combat fatigues she's wearing. At last, when she's in close-up, she lifts her face and glares straight into the camera, her eyes steady and dangerous beneath the parapet of her brow. The expression is reminiscent of the young Muhammad Ali; and the framing of the shot, from chin to forehead, brings out the resemblance between one pretty, round-faced, pouty-lipped fighter and another.
Rodriguez is here to play Diana Guzman, a young woman who's about to be kicked out of school for throwing too many punches at her classmates. Chronically enraged by her beer-guzzling father, chronically furious at the world's flouncy women, Diana doesn't need the Board of Regents curriculum. What she wants is a school for her anger--and she finds one at last when an errand takes her to a local gym, where Hector (Jaime Tirelli) trains young men to box. Will he train her? Ten dollars an hour, growls the stubbled, straw-hatted Hector, with a gruffness that will grow avuncular over the next 90 minutes, just as surely as Diana's talents will prove to be natural.
The liveliest moments that follow are those in which you see Diana training. Kusama has a sure instinct in these scenes for camera placement and editing--in that sense, she's a natural--and she knows she's got two great subjects in the craft of boxing and Rodriguez, whose every movement seems powered from the pit of her stomach. When Rodriguez is called upon to get gooey with a fellow boxer (Santiago Douglas), she's convincing; but she's fascinating when she bobs and weaves, works the speed bag, practices her combinations or walks into the room with an insolent roll to her left.
All this makes Girlfight a thoroughly watchable picture, right up till the closing shot, in which Diana, who is taking comfort in an embrace, is photographed so the calluses stand out on her knuckles. A nice touch; I just wish the screenplay had a few calluses of its own.
I didn't expect Kusama to make Hector as sorrowful, patient and determined as Harry Keitt, the trainer in On the Ropes; I didn't think she'd make Diana as compelling and doomed as Tyrene Manson. But does a boxing picture--especially one that's focused on a woman--really need to tie itself up in a pink bow? All of the viewer's presumed wishes are fulfilled: Diana gets to be a warrior, her brother Tiny gets to be an artist, the brutal father gets his comeuppance and the sensitive hunk gets to prove himself a better kind of man. Had Kusama done any more to flatter a liberal audience, Girlfight would have ended with a November victory rally for Nader.
I wish Kusama well; with a lot of toughening, she might be a contender. But on my scorecard, I give the decision to On the Ropes. Reality wins every round.
And now, for a different kind of girlfight:
Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman have so much fun with their roles in The Contender, a new inside-the-Beltway movie, that I sometimes imagined I was having a good time, too. Bridges, playing President Jackson Evans, uses his biggest, most blustering manner to give the character the sort of person-to-person skills for which Lyndon Johnson was famous. When dashing another politician's career hopes, President Evans signals his indifference by idly lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke rings. When staging a sensitive meeting, held in the White House bowling alley, he tests his guests' mettle by giving his shoes a sniff. Such is the liberal Democratic hero of The Contender. The conservative Republican villain is Representative Shelly Runyon of Illinois--in Oldman's interpretation, a small, nervous, owl-eyed man with a sparse fringe of curly hair. Runyon looks like a desiccated Roberto Benigni, talks in hiccups and grins like Fred Leuchter, the engineer of execution machinery who was the focus of Errol Morris's Mr. Death.
But as it happens, neither of the big guys is meant to carry The Contender. That unhappy task falls to Joan Allen, in the role of Laine Hanson: a Democratic (formerly Republican) senator from Ohio who has been nominated to replace the recently deceased Vice President. Runyon, catching a whiff of affirmative action in this nomination, commandeers the confirmation hearings, vowing to do everything possible to stop Hanson. Everything, in this case, includes an Internet-launched smear campaign, accusing the nominee of having courted popularity in college by accepting the sexual advances of an entire fraternity. When shown the photos, Joan Allen compresses her lips and says she won't dignify these accusations with a response. And that's the end of the fun, for her. Allen spends the rest of the picture with her spine frozen and her mouth locked in frostbite.
A strange torture for the filmmaker to impose--to constrain the lead actress's every move, while letting the men run free--when the ostensible purpose of The Contender is to advocate greater career opportunities for women. But then, muddle-headedness seems to be the very method of this picture. The smallest exchange of dialogue yields confusion. (According to one of Runyon's aides, "We have to gut the bitch in the belly." Where else would you gut her? In the foot?) The longest speeches may cause headache, dizziness and fatigue, and should not be listened to while operating heavy machinery. There are two of these doozies--one apiece for Hanson and Evans--each accompanied by a swell of patriotic music; and if you can make sense of the political program they announce, in ringing Capra-corn fashion, then you might be the right therapist for Al Gore's multiple-personality disorder.
Of course, the grandest muddle of all is the premise. First The Contender tries to whip up some topical interest by evoking the richly pornographic impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Then the movie asserts that Laine Hanson's ordeal is unique, because sexual smears aren't used against men.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you can gut a woman in the foot.
The Contender was written and directed by Rod Lurie, who used to be a film critic. I don't know what this means to you; but for me, it's a lesson in humility.
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