Friday, November 21, 2008

A Mess of Pottage

Having recovered from a despairing disgust with Barack Obama's successful bid for the presidency, I turned my attention to some other matters one could say are cultural partners to that victory deserving of brief attention. While Obama assembles his administration, recruiting some leftover veterans of the Bill Clinton era and some other choice political Pharisees and mountebanks to fill various posts, the news media, which enjoys a larger viewership than newspapers have of readerships, continues to offer through their news desk anchors regurgitated items with patronizing and earnest disingenuousness in cadence with Entertainment Tonight-style segments such as NBC's Matt Lauer in Belize and ABC's Diane Sawyer on the "hot seat."

This is in addition to end-of-broadcast special reports on "making a difference" and "the American spirit," which focus on "giving back," "community service," and other episodes of dutiful selflessness.

All three major news channels, for example, have devoted at least five minutes to where Obama's two daughters will go to school in Washington -- a private school, of course, their parents justifiably wary of public schools, into which the president-elect wishes to pour even more billions-- and their rooms in the White House. Also, the news media waits breathlessly for the selection of the new White House dog, placing almost as much importance on that as on the composition of Obama's cabinet.

One can take only so much of this kind of pap before developing chronic nausea.

I recently finished reading Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) and will probably also read his Our Enemy, the State (1935). Nock tempered his admiration of the Founder when discussing the subject of universal public education, which Jefferson advocated. Nock did not believe, as Jefferson did, that education, compulsory or otherwise, necessarily improved one's intelligence or capacity for independent thought.

"I think...he [Jefferson] would have risked a wry smile at the spectacle of our colleges annually turning out whole battalions of bachelors in the liberal arts who could no more read their diplomas than they could decipher the Minoan linear script. He might also find something to amuse him in the appearance of eminent shysters, jobholders, politicians, and other unscholarly and unsavory characters, on parade in gowns and hoods of the honorary doctorate."*
Or addressing graduating classes on the value of selfless service to the community or the nation. However, not once in the Memoirs did I encounter a hint that Nock regarded man as a "being of volitional consciousness." He was one himself, but he seems to have overlooked the fact while implicitly denying most other individuals that defining attribute.

Nock rarely involved himself in any political movement of his time, choosing rather to remain a detached observer and commentator, and consequently superfluous.

"If all I had casually seen...was of the essence of politics, if it was part and parcel of carrying on the country's government, then obviously a decent person could find no place in politics, not even the place of an ordinary voter, for the forces of ignorance, brutality and indecency would outnumber him ten to one."
The recent presidential election would seem to confirm the truth of Nock's assertion; it matters not who would have won this round of politics, Obama or McCain, for each offered a different style of fascism or statism. But that is no excuse to simply resign one's self to the alleged inevitability of decline and destruction. This is what Nock did and it is what he recommended others do, asking his successors to address the "Remnant" and hope for the best.

I concluded that Nock was a kind of fastidious, Epicurean Robert Stadler, the scientific villain in Rand's Atlas Shrugged who wailed that since there was no reasoning with people one had to compromise one's principles and accept the status of being rational but irrelevant, and that since most people were ignorant, brutal and indecent, the sole way to deal with them was with force.

Nock did not advocate force to compel men to be rational, but neither was he a consistent exponent of the primacy and efficacy of reason, except among the cultivated and discriminating few (the "Remnant") whom he thought may or may not have any power or chance to effect cultural change for the better.

One saving grace of Nock was his agreement with Aristotle (and with Rand) that

"History...represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them as they might and ought to be; and therefore of the two, he adds, 'fiction is the more philosophical and the more highly serious.'"(Nock's own translation from the Greek from Aristotle's Poetics.)**
If he had lived long enough (he died in 1945), Nock might have observed the commercial successes of Rand's The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and their influence in the culture, and perhaps retracted his earlier dismissal of those novels' millions of readers as interchangeable "mass-men," the willing dupes and playthings of criminally-minded politicians.

Speaking of Aristotle's judgment of fiction and history, Stephen Adams in The Daily Telegraph, in a November 6th article, "Novels 'better at explaining world's problems than reports'," discussed that very subject without once mentioning Aristotle. The subject of his article is how fiction can better communicate ideas and the "real life" of people in or from the Third World.

He quotes Dr. Dennis Rodgers of Manchester University's Brooks World Poverty Institute:

"Despite the regular flow of academic studies, expert reports, and policy position papers, it is arguably novelists who do as good a job -- if not a better one -- of representing and communicating the realities of international development....And fiction often reaches a much larger and diverse audience than academic work and may therefore be more influential in shaping public knowledge and understanding of development issues."
Adams cites three prize-winning novels written by Third World authors, Brick Lane, The Kite Runner, and The White Tiger, as instances of (naturalistic) fiction which, as far as one can determine, not so much have shaped public knowledge and understanding as complemented public policy and sanctioned diversity and multiculturalism.

While some Western academics are lauding fiction as a handmaiden of government social programs, Hollywood continues its bungee free-fall into unreality and fantasy. Bankrupt to the core, except when it has left-wing messages to convey, and unable or unwilling to depict real life heroes and real world conflicts, it has turned more and more to animation, comic books, and graphic novels for material to sustain box office revenues. As evidence of this trend, one website carries an article by Martin Anderson, "75 comics being made into films."

A goodly number of the stories are set in grim futures or in parallel universes, while many others feature magic or heroes with super powers. Only one of them looks promising, The Megas, scheduled for release in 2010.

"Megas postulates an alternative America where the founding fathers created an aristocracy instead of a democracy, and centers on a detective investigating the seedy underbelly of the American royal family."
The Founders created a rights-protecting republic, not a democracy, as practically everyone today believes they created; the terms, as I have often stressed elsewhere, are not synonymous. But the story line is similar to Robert Harris's novel Fatherland, in which Nazi Germany won World War Two, and a German police detective in the 1960's investigates the seedy underbelly of the Third Reich to learn that the Holocaust really happened. One can only suppose that the story idea's originator was inspired by the fact that many Americans wished to make George Washington a monarch.

All of these films are in some stage of production, but upon their release it is doubtful I will want to see a single one.

It is interesting how fiction -- or movies -- often apes reality. Many years ago I saw for the first time The Mouse that Roared (1959), little realizing at the time that the story line, in which a postage stamp-sized European country declares war on the U.S. for the sole purpose of being defeated and thus qualifying for massive injections of American monetary aid, took its inspiration from history. Is this not what happened in the 1950's, and has happened recently with Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, and other countries that hate America a little less because of our no-strings-attached aid and financial rescue programs? Peter Sellers in his triple roles in Mouse was at least amusing, while his real life counterparts are not.

Art emulated history before history was even made in John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a controversial political thriller based on Richard Condon's novel that pre-dated John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas the following year. Few films can match its production and esthetic qualities. Its level of intelligence and suspense is impossible to achieve in Hollywood today. (The recent remake of it is utter and politically correct rubbish.) The Manchurian Candidate demands one's full focus to appreciate a single scene or single line of dialogue, much as Howard Hawks' newspaper comedy, His Girl Friday, is a perfect, non-stop integration of dialogue and action requiring one's full, undivided attention.

Recently I revisited The Manchurian Candidate, and was struck by the performances of James Gregory, as Senator John Yerkes Iselin, and Angela Lansbury, as Mrs. Iselin. Gregory plays an addle-headed, buffoonish politician very reminiscent of President George W. Bush. He is putty in the hands of his power-seeking wife, who was too evocative of Hillary Clinton, and who schemes to put her husband in the White House by mostly foul means. She predicts that her husband, at the climax of his party's nomination convention, will rally "a nation of television viewers into a hysteria that will sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law look like anarchy...."

Perhaps we will have a foretaste of that, now that a demagogue has been swept up into the White House to work with a very simpatico Congress.

*Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Hallberg Publishing, 1994 edition, p. 264.
** Ibid. p. 161.

10 comments:

C. August said...

You give us a lot to think about, Ed. But the thing at the fore of my mind right now is that His Girl Friday is one of my top five favorite movies of all time. Just brilliant.

And for whatever reason, I have never seen the original Manchurian Candidate (though I did see the remake, which was not good at all). I think I'll be making a stop at the video store tonight on the way home.

Anonymous said...

Good that you highlighted The Manchurian Candidate. Lansbury, an unjustly underrated actress, deserved an Oscar for her revealing the soul of a power luster. All the cast deserved honorable mention for their thoughtful and intense performances. The dialog has romantic elements, as does the movie- and I love the ending. I think you once said, Ed, they remake these excellent movies as fake trash, to try to eclipse the grandeur and truth revealed in the original movies. I think you're right.

Thanks to the individuals who invented and perfected the internet and all the digital technology that we now enjoy, the truth can be viewed by any who care to see it.

Roxanne A.

Marnee said...

I have often referred to Hillary Clinton as Lady MacBeth.

muahahaha

Marnee said...

I have to concur with Roxanne on Lansbury -- and absolutely perfect bone chilling performance.

Rob said...

DO see the original Manchurian Candidate! Especially if you get a chance to see it on the big screen! IT IS brilliant! DO NOT judge it by the remake!

Park said...

I disagree with the characterization of "His Girl Friday" as a good movie. I agree that it requires more attention than the average modern action movie to understand it, but that attention can only lead to the conclusion that it's a sub-par movie. None of the characters are heroic, and the basic choice the heroine makes is to pursue meaningless, goal-less action instead of a slightly less meaningless life of inaction as a housewife. The alternative leading man, the male reporter/love interest, displays no virtues, no moral sense of life; basically, he has no moral stature worthy of the heroine's worship (or anyone's, for that matter). The entire point of the movie comes down to a worship of arbitrary, meaningless action; the fact that the actors probably had to work harder than usual in order to keep the pace and plot sychronized and coherent does not rescue the movie from the fact that the plot is not worth synching up with. And besides, the hectic speech was not perfect; there are several parts where the actress dropped the beat worse than a Beastie Boy. In conclusion, technical skill does not make a bad plot into a good movie.

Dan Holway said...

"...it's a sub-par movie. None of the characters are heroic, and the basic choice the heroine makes is to pursue meaningless, goal-less action..."

C'mon, Park, it's a comedy fer cryin' out loud. You really need to see moral exemplars in a film like His Girl Friday? The dialog sparkles and leaves the viewer laughing and almost breathless as he tries to take it all in. It's not meant to portray 'life as it ought to be' with admirable heroes and a epic plot. It's just meant to be a brainy laughfest, and as such, it succeeds admirably. Considering your complaints, I am honestly drawing a blank when I try to imagine any comedies that you might enjoy.

Katrina said...

I'm with Park. I can't enjoy a comedy when the characters are blatantly despicable, unless of course the movie is about them being punished for their wrongs. How can you laugh at a woman convincing a murderer that it isn't his fault that he used a gun to kill a man because, after all, the purpose of a gun is to kill? How can you laugh when the murderer subsequently escapes and endangers the life and honor of an innocent woman? How can you laugh when reporters hide a murderer from justice in order to fabricate a story? When a man lies to get a woman in bed with him (this is essentially what Cary Grant does through the entire film)? I cannot.

As to dialog, I saw no sparkles. I doubt it's possible to argue about this: a thing either strikes you as clever or it doesn't. Personally, especially after so much hype about the wit of His Girl Friday, I found it entirely disappointing. The actors certainly seem to think they are being very clever, but what actually comes out of their mouths is not. I also agree with Park that there are moments where the comedic timing is grossly off.

I think I will watch it once more, because I really want to understand why it appeals to so many of the people I respect. Were Park and I watching the same movie? Perhaps we will just have to agree to disagree on this one.

malcontent said...

I too would like to know what comedies Park and Katrina like...For one thing, as Ayn Rand said, you laugh at the metaphysically unimportant. Can you imagine The Fountainhead being a comedy?

Not only is it just wonderfully fast-paced and clever, but I love that Hildy thinks she wants to become a typical wife, but she cannot give up her work. She's only really happy, in spite of her protestations, when she's engaged in productive work.

Anonymous said...

Because so much has been said about "His Girl Friday," I am planning a posting on comedy. It is ironic, however, that much of the response has concerned the movies I happened to have mentioned, and not the "pottage" (for which many Americans are willing to sell their birthright!)

Ed Cline