One recent evening, Jon Stewart pulled his George W. Bush imitation on The Daily Show after a "highlights" clip of the then-President speaking. Stewart hunches up when he imitates Bush and speaks in a nasal voice, spitting out cowboy catch words. That evening Stewart gave the usual Bush imitation, then said with an air of appalled realization, "I'm turning the greatest leaders of our country into cartoons."
Nowadays, our pundits are much more likely to be incisive and insightful on camera than many of our political or religious leaders. They're the points in contemporary American culture at which the intellectual aspect of American life and the public aspect of it seem most given to intersect. Stewart knows what he is doing, knows when he has just screwed up a comic delivery and gives himself flack for it -- half the time before the audience has even registered his slip-up. "The self-awareness is what keeps him real, sets him apart, makes him more intelligent," I expounded to my brother Marc between bites of falafel. There remains a critical (and I mean that in both senses of the word) part of Jon Stewart that is not part of the ostensible "act," a part of him scrutinizing himself from the sidelines. That part of him is never turned off, especially when what he has just done or said is highly controversial.
The Warriors, a 1979 film about a gang fighting its way home to Coney Island through a city infested with other gangs, is known for what director Walter Hill refers to as a "comic book sensibility." Hill comes clean in the recently released director's cut about the fact that he hadn't originally envisioned such a fantasyland tilt as the one that ended up giving the movie its mythic cult status. The studio pressured him into it when he wanted to make it more race-heavy. The 70s, even the late 70s, were not ready for that. "The film is almost only explicable in comic book terms," he says in the director's cut interview. "The studio kind of forced me into the comic book idea, I think, because it was about the only way I could make it all make sense to myself. You had to create a different kind of reality."
In an age like that of The Warriors, in a place like New York, my father's feisty demeanor, which stuck out like a sore thumb in the mellow, rural atmosphere in which our parents chose to raise us, begins to make a little more sense. It's not that the New York in the film is the one that existed then. That New York, the one crawling with gangs of baseball-uniformed mimes chasing down guys in leather vests in the underworld of the subway is constructed. But my father is the one who constructed it.
Marc and I like to wander the streets of SoHo looking at all the pretty, hip people. One night entering the Astor Place subway station I mentioned to him how funny it is that our shared childhood on a zebra and antelope farm, going to tiny schools best summarized as "hippie communes" by the east coast friends who ask about them, is not apparent to anyone else. We are also a little amazed that our father even briefly called New York City home. Our father is the one who bought the ranch we grew up on, who bought the zebra and antelope to avoid high living taxes on land zoned agricultural. He constructed the pastoral lifestyle we grew up living. And his New York was a hell a lot different from ours. He was there in the late 70s; his New York was dirtier, shadowier, much less safe. Whether that meant the New York in which he physically lived or the New York inside whose image he lived is another story, but the two are different.
Everyone, it seems, who participated in the making of The Warriors was then in their twenties or thirties and very good-looking. They are now middle-aged, and the interviews for the director's cut, in which interviewees are positioned in front of comic-book style cartoons of scenes from the movie while they talk, are a sort of unspoken exercise in "how old are they now?" As the editor of The Warriors, my father is among those interviewed. Among his circle of friends, my father was something of a legend. He was a hot-tempered and brilliant film editor. He did low budget projects like The Warriors. He didn't sell out. Then he up and put together this life outside of L.A. with zebras, of all fuckin' things.
Our dad sings to his dogs, and to the zebras when he throws them their daily bale of alfalfa over the fence. He makes up goofy words and nicknames for us, helps us with our taxes, arranges our plane flights home, keeps towers of books by his bed that we are afraid will one day fall and crush him in his sleep, and picks us up at the airport with a bottle of carbonated water, some pillows, and a latte all waiting in the car. He almost always has to get up at 4am or go to sleep at 1am in order to be there for me when my flight home lands. He's the man who cooks me waffles to celebrate my homecoming. He's also the man who punched a hole in the dining room wall during one of his fits of rage. No one knows that from looking at Marc and me in our wool coats as we enter the subway either. One of the things that is not funny about the funnies, Charles McGrath argues, is that artists turn to cartooning after generally miserable youths. I could call my youth miserable, or happy, and either would leave holes in the narrative -- something Stewart's comrade Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness", when it's politicians and oil companies doing the story-torquing.
In the age of American "truthiness," when memoirs that read like good fiction sell like hotcakes -- and Fox News, with its showy, video-game like clips introducing the day's news on Iraq, has successfully blurred the line between entertainment and war -- one wonders whether and where the line should be drawn. It's a postmodern problem. Truth is goopy. It stimulates debate in what I believe is a healthy way for artists and writers to be pushing the limits of what a genre can and cannot include; Art Spiegleman created a new way to comprehend the Holocaust by telling his father's survival story in the form of a comic book. I don't think I want the war in Iraq to be packaged for me with sensationalist, entertainment-based wrapping. I want a big, fat, dark line between images, drawn or digital, that make past warfare fathomable and those that make current warfare palatable.
In one of The Nation's forums, Jean Elshtain blamed the contemporary phenomenon of "therapeutic culture, with its celebration of a self that views the world solely through the prism of the self" for America's current perceived lack of intellect. In his article in The New Yorker on Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz, Jonathan Franzen mentions "B.C." artist Johnny Hart wringing "hundreds of gags from the friendship between a flightless bird and a long-suffering tortoise." There is something universal, something personally applicable, about comic strips that effectively convey the humor of gloom. You identify with the simply drawn tortoise. In other words, no matter what we're talking about, we're talking about you.
It should also be noted that the pre-filmed, choppily edited skits on The Daily Show, which are chock-full of silly graphics and sounds, resemble comic strips.
Public intellectuals bemoan that Americans today gravitate towards a "happy consensus", but I see no happy consensus being reached; I just see debate that is stronger than ever simplified and sensationalized by the media. Admittedly, I am a Daily Show fan; I get my political news from just such a simplifying machine. The intellectuals in America were never who got the most press, or if they did get press, it was not because of their intellect alone. America: I think sometimes of presidents. I think of Marilyn Monroe, Walt Whitman, O.J. Simpson, Jon Stewart.
As long as we're hoping names like Donatich will sweep the country with sheer eggheaded force, we will be disappointed -- not because intellectuals aren't smart, or because Americans don't hunger for intellectual richness, but because that conversation doesn't include enough. It's actually quite the postmodern dilemma. There must be something about the purely intellectual framework that does not cut it. Americans are in love with Marylin's beauty, as inadvisable as that may be. Whitman seems as interested in sexual intercourse with the world as he is in intellectual intercourse. It is not pure intellectuality that stimulates American debate or defines American identity. It never has been.
Plus, we just see more of Jon Stewart and Marilyn. We are a public persuaded and enchanted by images. If we want intellectuality to survive, it needs to be accessible through -- or at least link up with the public system of images doing so much to define contemporary American culture. This is where The Daily Show is doing work Donatich isn't. Relevance at this point is inextricably linked to the ever-expanding informational network we have at our fingertips. What are the implications for self-identity in the face of a public like the one we've got? What sorts of meanings are we coming up with as individuals to incorporate the ever-changing, image-based realities of our day? What do we do with the fact that the most accessible "public" space is now intangible? The internet is a series of interfaces, a series of images, infinitely reproducible and malleable, but it's what we turn to with regularity, enough for the word "google" to be a common verb, for information we trust as truth, as proof. We must see something of ourselves in the internet for it to become as pervasive as it has become, for us to be as hooked as we are. It's our new town square: the most public space we've got.
In the elegant email my father sent me filled with his recollections of editing The Warriors, he concluded with a memory of disagreeing with the producer. "It was only later that I realized that, for Walter, I had passed a test. In his world, character is defined by action. When two adversaries are eye-to-eye, the one who stares longest and hardest till the other blinks wins that round. So he had deliberately not come to my aid in order to see how I would do against Larry. I felt I had been acting out some scene from the movie itself. 'I want to be warlord...' 'All right, make your move...'"
Perhaps not every editor starts seeing his life according to the narrative of the film he edits, but human culture and human individuals do tend to make sense of life through story. My father's sense of self, how he understood his own negotiation through the events of his life, slipped into that of a character in the story he was telling. The membrane was permeable -- goopy, even.
Most stories are another version of an original, the way The Warriors is based on a book inspired by a story of warring factions in Athens and Sparta. This story is a version of the one we all live: the original story wherein we realize that our parents, their lives, their stories, are inaccessible to us: unimaginable, foreign terrain. It's never as simple as we'd like it to be. My father walking the streets after a long day in The Warriors' cutting room on summer nights in Soho, in his fedora, when hairy chests were still in style. The world he lived in and the other world he lived in, surrounded all night with real New York grime and all day with images of nighttime New York grime that he cobbled together to make a story. He was young, childless, still dating the hot agents and doing the requisite cocaine. It was July; his face probably dripped with sweat. I imagine him squinting at the television screen, constructing with those images of fiery young guys a story that resembled in some ways a comic book and in some ways his own reckless existence.
A recent perfect March day on the ranch. Sun shone all over the yellow mustard blossoms. Dogs milled around near the barbecue, where Dad and his editor friends sat in a rare get-together. The occasion was Dad's sixtieth birthday. The aging editors eyed each other, their red wine. There too were their wives; each man had a good long marriage and grown children. "Weren't we going to make it big?" asked Casey. "At least one of us was supposed to make it big. Make money," said Baylis. The men, gray hair, sharp eyes, turned in unison to look meaningfully at my father. "Don't look at me!" Dad said, the pepper tree glinting with sun behind him, red meat sizzling under his knife. Everyone laughed.
I wonder now about the system of image multiplicity, about how some of the most effective portrayals of Bush come not through footage of the former President himself but through parodies of him, about the truth we discover in something when there are multiple layers between ourselves and it, and its caricatures are what seem truest. About artistic endeavors that look to childhood, the source of private wounds, for a solution to the proliferation of representation plaguing our world at the dawn of a new century. And so, like every child and every writer, I think of my father -- and the proliferation of images at his fingertips. I am aware that in doing so I am constructing a narrative with images, necessarily creating what might be termed a caricature of him. My beloved Dad, long before I showed up: David. In one of those loose-fitting white shirts, hunched over the screen, his curls still long and brown.
In my father's email recounting those hot months in New York: "It's hard for me to separate the film from my experience working on it. Though I was in my thirties, that long summer had the fervor and change in it that one associates with one's twenties -- crazy, recklessly out-of-control, where one is testing one's limits. I had the good fortune to land on my feet. But how do you describe the world about you when you yourself are changing so fast? How can you differentiate the two?"