I love the Huffington Post. I've loved reading it, and now I get to post on it. Some truly original political thinking is presented here, then promptly discussed and dissected by a broad spectrum of readers. Two of my posts, "Dick Cheney's Lesbian Daughter," and "The Suicidebaums and the Self-hating Jews," got some great feedback, negative and positive, from those who comment on the blog.
Some comments were from fans of the radio show I contribute to. For about eight years I've contributed commentary to a current affairs program out of Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, called "This Is Hell." My segment on it is called "The Moment of Truth." "This Is Hell" is unique among progressive radio talk shows, thanks to the jaundiced eye of its host, Chuck Mertz. (Actually, jaundice is one of the few ailments he hasn't suffered from recently.) The show is podcast, and its archives and the excellent website for the show are at www.thisishell.net.
Back to The Moment of Truth: I am aware of the arrogance of the moniker. I chose it in response to the, at the time, ubiquitous Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, who thank goodness, no thanks to Katie Couric, are less visible and much less relevant these days.
Anyhow, below is this week's MOT. The reason I'm introducing my essay this way is because it was written in response to a post here on the Huffpost blog, which I could simply have posted a comment on, but which I felt deserved more fleshed-out treatment. I also wished to disclaim that I don't mean any disrespect to Professor Suber... well, yes I do, but only regarding what he wrote, and I look forward to reading his future posts. His heart, I'm sure, is in the right place. He looks like a real nice guy in his little tiny photo.
(A note on format: The Moment of Truth opens with an idiosyncratic, sometimes idiotic, epithet about itself, a different one every week. Like, "Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the Headless Horseman's hat." Or, "Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the blindness that, paradoxically, improves your vision." I cannot defend it, it's just something I do.)
Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thing you had always needed which was right under your very nose - that is, you'd assumed it was, but it wasn't actually, when you finally got around to looking under there for it; and so the hunt for it turned out to be quite difficult, but in the end was totally worthwhile.
I'm always interested in the comforting myths societies make up about themselves, and how those who buy deeply into those myths will disfigure reality in order to validate them.
Howard Suber has taught at UCLA film school for forty years. But he hasn't just taught, he's also learned. That's the mark of a great teacher, or one who started out dumb. Suber learned something about stories: great drama is about individuals, he avers in a recent essay on the Huffington Post.
Suber believes individualism is the hallmark of Hollywood movies. He also asserts that those who think, as a rule, that Hollywood movies aren't so hot feel threatened by the wonderful American power of individualism. And Suber proves that, if anything is hardly facile or simplistic at all, it's the argument that what makes Hollywood movies popular around the world is their celebration of such power.
On his way to making his argument, Suber offers a list of plays most often cited, by folks he chats with, as memorable. The list is an anecdotal vertebra in the backbone of his argument, and boy does he have a point. Damned if he can't indicate with ease the individual invoked in the title of each: Medea, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, etc. - they're all about individuals. Again this goes toward demonstrating that if anything is more truly American than even Shakespeare or Euripides, it's individualism.
"Medea" is indeed a celebration of the individual. It has inspired many spurned demigoddesses to butcher their children, rather than suffer in silence the way spurned demigoddesses did under fascism and communism. And who can forget the performance of that great American, Maria Callas, in the zany Hollywood movie version directed by Midwestern-farm-boy Peir Paolo Pasolini? Didn't he play Opie on the Andy Griffith Show?
And what young man can fail to be inspired by the decisive, heroic Hamlet? Especially as played by Mel Gibson? My favorite part is where he blows up Rosencrantz and Gildenstern with their own petard - although, as they're the only Jewish characters in the play, I have to wonder in retrospect if Mel was just in it for the anti-Semitism. Did the cops who busted him for DUI even think to search the vehicle for a petard? Still, you gotta admit, "To be or not to be" is pretty weak compared to the updated Mel Gibson version: "Die motherfuckers!!" - punctuated by machine-gun fire.
By far the greatest example on Suber's list of American individualism in drama, and one written by an American at that, has got to be "Death of a Salesman." "Death of a Salesman" is a classic rags-to-riches story. Little Willy Loman, orphaned on the shores of Africa, is raised by apes and, thanks to his American ingenuity, eventually becomes their king. He quickly outgrows his smelly kingdom and goes to America to seek his fortune in the big city. By the end, through the strength of his individualistic attitude, self-reliance, ability to traverse vast forests using only vines, and moxie, he achieves the American dream of becoming an English lord.
I'm sorry. My wife tells me I've mixed up the Willy Loman story with an entirely different tale. Apparently, Loman is crushed by the unseen hand of capitalism, goes insane, and commits suicide. But...well ... no one dast deny Willy Loman is an individual!
I'm surprised Suber omits from his list two important plays: The great Shakespearean tragedy "Romeo and Juliet," and its mirror-image comedy, "The Odd Couple." Sure, they're both about couples, but what's a couple? Two individuals! They're the exceptions that prove the rule. Or something.
I think Suber's main point, though, to be serious, is slightly more complex: American movies, unlike foreign ones, champion individualism, not just individuals, and that's why they're so popular in... wherever. You know. All over the world. I mean, look at Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's loathsome paean to conformity and group-think, "The Seven Samurai." Compare that to a classic American Western like, say, "The Magnificent Seven," which is about seven individuals being individual and triumphing. Or "The Sound of Music," about a family of individuals, each singing his or her own solo, without a thought to blending in harmony - in the end, of course, Julie Andrews triumphs over them and their whining neediness and sings about the virtues of the free market from atop a pile of their bloody corpses; "Star Wars," about a ragtag band of individual friends who triumph against an Empire by staying separate, alienated, each in his or her own gated community, and not helping each other at all, not even by car-pooling; a war classic like "The Dirty Dozen," about twelve individuals who defeat a statewide recycling referendum; or "Fellowship of the Ring," in which a fellowship of individuals, through the sheer selfishness of each one, does something or other with a ring - ONE ring! They even call it "the one ring" - which, of course, only one of them can wear at a time. It's individualism at its finest. Show me a ring that can be worn by a whole communist country, or even a democratic socialist one. That would be a hula hoop at best, at worst a kind of henge. Perhaps a stone henge. Perhaps a barbed wire henge. Either way, it would suck as a movie.
Suber avoids discussing the growing popularity of Bollywood, whether by accident or design. Something you'll notice about popular Bollywood movies is that the protagonists are usually a lot wealthier than your average denizen of Asia and Africa, the two continents where Indian movies are most popular. And let's be reasonable, who wants to be reminded of one's poverty after having scraped together enough change from between the couch cushions and in the goat dung for a movie ticket?
Something American movies also have, and in spades, is displays of wealth. The children are well fed, the heroes drive fast cars and live in tall buildings with indoor plumbing, the women are flawlessly beautiful - even the ugly ones. No one has malaria.
What do the protagonists of Hollywood and Bollywood movies have in common with, say, Hamlet or Medea? I mean besides being individuals? Aristocracy. Royalty, even. The adventures of heroes and kings have always been what entertainment is about. In Hollywood and Bollywood, the characters often become rich or famous, or attain some other equally laudable goal, like getting the girl or winning the derby, but the movie stars themselves are the real royalty, and they are, after all, the actual characters of the story in any movie showcasing any star power to speak of. Even the rank and file of the USA are certainly aristocrats compared to most of the world, so movies about them, the few that there are, also conform to this theory.
Sure, the ethos of the USA revolves around individual rights and freedoms, but its economy revolves even more tightly around celebrities, wealth, material luxuries, sexual status symbols, peer pressure, and lots of food.
But back to the not-at-all-facile idea that it's individualism Hollywood is selling, rather than consumerism: I think the idea holds water. It's kind of like a dribble glass in that way, the kind, when I was a kid, you could buy at a magic shop or order from the back of a comic book, that dribbles water from its etched design when one tips it to the lips. The imbiber begins to swallow the idea, only to find himself all wet.
That dribble glass, by the way, was such a great American idea that its knock-offs can now be found in magic and gag shops all over the world, even in Somalia, although Islamic lawmakers are trying to ban them. Why? Because the dribble glass, representing as it does the powerful idea of US individualism embodied in its movies, is a threat to Islamic theocracy. No sooner will an Islamic cleric dribble water on himself than he'll start to smolder and shrivel, crying, "I'm melting! I'm melting! Oh, what a world!"
I myself don't have a problem with Hollywood movies. I like explosions. I like monsters. I like mobsters. I like slow-motion, impossible martial arts. I like stories of vengeance. I like bank-robbery schemes. I like families getting drunk and telling each other the comically blunt truth. I like young people struggling against their violent, inner-city environment for some kind of redemption. I like space ships. I like youngsters running brothels out of their parents' homes. I like looking at well-built people of any gender, in whatever state of undress, although I could do without Billy Bob Thornton's ass, talented though he may be. I like stupid, shallow crap, and I like smart, slightly less shallow crap. And I'm even happier when Hollywood makes a movie that's actually good, even if it shows Billy Bob's ass... twice.
You know what else people like? The circus. And bread.
This has been the Moment of Truth...Good Day!