Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Most White Privilege-Evoking Song of All Time?

antonius antonius ut mihi

Probably not, but I heard it, or the more uptempo recorded version of it, on the radio the other day and it made me think of it, and I don't remember any other song having that precise effect on me. It does seem to have everything the most socially advanced people truly hate packed into one four minute sequence. And if these same people think white privilege is obnoxious and an obstacle to civilizational advancement now, I guess they can be glad they weren't around in the 40s, because they were really kicking it back then.

I also associate the song with this movie, The Harvey Girls, which I have not seen apart from a few clips on the internet but which in general seems to be a celebratory film about white people pouring almost giddily into the American west and carrying all of the most vulgar aspects of their civilization with them whole hog, oblivious to any idea of respect for nature or the effects on the indigenous population as we would understand those things. The Harvey Girls themselves of course were waitresses in the chain of Harvey restaurants that sprung up along the railroads specially chosen for (and, it might be noted, fondly remembered for over a hundred years later) their whiteness, attractiveness, and feminine pleasantness, the contemplation of the latter two of which is offensive to a whole other host of modern sensibilities. The privilege on display here is most remarkable for its purity. These people really seem innocent of any idea (or at least unconcern about the significance of such ideas, if anyone had them), that they are depicting and celebrating all kinds of things that large numbers of later and more evolved people would consider to be morally, as well as aesthetically, repugnant. The assumptions about the social order, the nature of men and women, the universality of the worldview and peculiar desires of white middle Americans with total unconsciousness of that of anyone else having existence in any kind of serious manner strike us--even me--as almost brazen, insouciant. It's hard to imagine anyone today being able to believably project themselves in quite this extreme manner, at least no one I would ever be likely to encounter.

On the other hand popular culture does project some uncomfortably unconscious, and I suppose heavily 'white' assumptions, in other ways, a lot of which are connected with wealth or other attitudes towards food, health, technology, professionalism, and those kinds of things that a certain segment of the population has gone in for heavily over the last twenty years or so. I don't really relate to these people at all however, and it is almost certainly why I never like any modern movies or books (the Breadloaf conference was full of this over-wealthy, rather languid crowd when I went there too), because they are populated with characters and are written by authors whose mindsets are not recognizable to me in any way.

The white privilege meme seems to be coming up more even in my sheltered life. It think in its current incarnation, being a target of antagonism and disdain, rather than respect and aspiration, it is a wiser move for people like myself, and my children, to embrace it if people insist upon its being an issue rather than to devote ourselves to mitigating its effects. But I am out of time to elaborate more on this now. I probably won't be back until after the new year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Very Brief Christmas Greeting

Weak Christmas posting this year. I find in recent years that I'm kind of crabby at Christmas time. I shouldn't be, and certain I feel very sentimental about Christmas in many ways, but I am nonetheless kind of constantly grouchy throughout the holidays. Still, let young people and grandparents carry the banner for Christmas spirit, it's asking a lot of middle-aged guys. Maybe if we could get to go to parties like this again.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Three Movies From the Seventies

The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978)

Three-hour plus Italian epic about peasants circa 1900 in the sweeping, novelistic style that was popular from 1975-82 or so, especially in Europe, but was also visible in things like Acopalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Kagemusha and other films of the period that took it for granted that there existed a critical mass of moviegoers who would go to the theater, and sit through long, dense, meticulously detailed serious movies, especially if they were the work of important directors. I suspect that this is actually very good, but I was unable to get into it at this particular time. My mind kept drifting away from whatever was going on in the movie to focus on my own personal existential crises. But I will try it again someday. It verily is about the extremely humble and limited lives of rural peasants, I believe in the northern part of Italy, in a period probably within the lifetimes of the director's parents, their childhoods at least, a life that most Italians by the 1970s had, with evidently mixed feelings however, ceased to lead. I was not struck on this initial viewing with what was most important about it.

One probable reason for why I had trouble getting into the movie (besides the fact that I am too exhausted in the evening anymore to really concentrate on anything) is that I watched it on a faded VHS copy in which the indoor and nighttime scenes especially were so dark that I imagined they could not have been thus on a good print. Netflix doesn't have it. In truth, they don't have a lot of what I want these days. Here is my current list of 'Saved Titles: Availability Unknown' with that service:

1. Alice Adams
2. Follow the Fleet
3. Giant
4. Giant: Bonus Material
5. Odd Man Out
6. Separate Tables
7. Soldier of Orange
8. Stella Dallas
9. Harold Lloyd Collection, Vol 1: Disc 1
10. Man With the Golden Arm
11. The Tree of the Wooden Clogs
12. Three Brothers

Obviously I have found old VHS tapes for a few of these and watched them, but it seems like that ought to be an unnecessary hassle, especially as none of the movies in the above group are obscure in the least, and all of them, except maybe The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, have easily recognizable stars. I guess I imagined Netflix as bascially a subscription library that would have anything that has ever been released on DVD readily available. Actually, of course it is an ambitious, scheming, 21st century internet business that wants to make billions of dollars, and that apparently doesn't involve investing in enough copies of Odd Man Out to make people like me happy. I have read that they are making fewer DVDs available because they want to phase out the mail order part of their business, which costs them a lot of money, and push everybody onto streaming. I don't have my television set up to receive streaming, which probably isn't that hard, but it seems like it might be a minor pain in the neck at the very least. And then it isn't clear that the things I want to see are even going to be available anyway.

Silver Streak (1976)

Sometimes a pointedly humorous book or other entertainment causes me to ask myself, what is that I want from a comedy anyway? The truly successful comedy in any art is a rare achievement. The work that is not primarily intended as comic but is punctuated with frequent humor or wit is often better received and gives more pleasure. The straight comedy, it seems to me, comes laden with an expectation that is usually impossible to live up to. Long form works especially depend on certain jokes, or persons, or situations, being so conceived as to maintain their ability to amuse throughout the length of the story, and feeding off of and into other jokes.

Silver Streak is not altogether unsuccessful--there are a few modest laughs in it, the premise and characters give it at all times the potential that something very funny might happen, and it has some sociological interest as a relic of its time--but in the end I didn't get enough fun out of it to be satisfied. I did make a few mental notes re certain things that struck me:

I was always under the impression that the early to mid 70s were the nadir of passenger rail travel in the United States, the last of the dinosaur private companies going out of business at the beginning of the decade and the early years of Amtrak which followed being universally mocked as a disaster, so that making a movie about a train trip at this time was akin to making one now about people who read physical books and newspapers or something like that.

Gene Wilder is an odd leading man. It is not merely his hair, though that probably does influence me a little, but the way he moves and his expressions, he does not give off the air of a guy really inhabiting a character or carrying a movie. Often it seems as if his mind is remaining archly aloof from the film while he physically moves through and mouths his part. This kind of thing was appreciated at the time. By the time I became conscious of the movie landscape, around 1980, Wilder was still a big name though most of his big roles were behind him by then and his star was, however imperceptible it probably was even to him, going into decline.

Very 1976 how Gene Wilder manages to get laid by a complete stranger within an hour of getting on the train; which turned out to be extra fortunate, because all of the mayhem that broke out on the train immediately after the successful consummation of this tryst would probably have forestalled it if they had waited a second hour. Maybe it would be a good thing if the crime rate really went back up again after all.

Jill Clayburgh. To paraphrase Ben Jonson, she was evidently not for all time but for an age, that age being approximately from 1975-1980. She was always a name from my childhood, but I had never seen her before. She reminds me of somebody's mother--the mother who is not really very nice and is in fact judgmental and a bit of a snob.

The Conversation (1974)

Interesting movie in terms of visuals and sounds, which depict pretty well what the sensory impression of existing in America in 1974 felt like (this was the first year that I have any real memory of at all). The fact that it was made at all is a testament that it was also at the peak of the power of the more humanistic and art-focused New Hollywood movement, the snuffing out of which, we are told, would begin in earnest in the following year with the colossal success of Jaws. But in '74 things still appeared to be solidly moving in the less bombastic and more subtly alert direction of which this movie is a good illustration.

There are a lot of the kinds of little artistic touches in this that elude most filmmakers but please the viewer and keep drawing him back into the story, especially in the first half. The choice of jazz music works very well here, and also calls back the popular pastime of sitting in a room playing longform records out loud, which I don't think is something people do much any more. The old reel to reel tape machines and the other for the time sophisticated recording equipment possess a kind of mesmerizing beauty--maybe this did not strike people as so in the 1970s. Most of the characters in this wear eyeglasses, and by the standards of the present these glasses are almost gaudy ornaments on the face--again, this may be a happy coincidence with the fashion of the time, but I found I was frequently drawn to contemplate the fact and nature of this eyewear. The party at the shop after the surveillance convention with its instant bar of hard liquor bottles and the seedy, quietly desperate quality of the guests and conversation, also strikes me as reminiscent of its time. These things all work well. That said, the actual plot itself, while well-written and quite clever even, I don't find as compelling. The narrative, for me, does not go hand in hand with what else is interesting in the movie.

The disc came with multiple commentaries, including one by Francis Ford Coppola himself. I listened to about twenty minutes of it. I have not gotten into any commentaries in a while. The 70s guys will talk all about the film and what they are doing but I find it in their case more interesting to just watch the movie and find out what works for me on my own. The 70s are still near enough, to me anyway, that explanation is either overkill or pointless. You need to get to it on your own or it doesn't do you any good. Now going farther back in time, though maybe all the way to the 50s or even the 40s, I find a good commentary can be helpful, or at least enjoyable, because you are dealing with things that you are not directly connected to in time or sometimes place. But with newer things, if you don't understand them even somewhat intuitively, then they are not meant for you anyway I suspect.  

Good role in this for Harrison Ford. One gets the feeling too that the character he plays in this is what he is really like.

I remember as a child always thinking minor 70s icon Cindy Williams was *pretty* in her famous roles in "Laverne & Shirley" and American Graffiti, but as an adult (me) she too seems to possess some kind of generic 70s quality that I am kind of repelled by. Maybe it is that these people are all about the age of my mother and I must have seen them, or their type, on television a million times and identified them vaguely as some kind of alternative mother or mother-aged female figure and that is all playing into my response to them now. Who knows.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Very Brief Posting About Current Events

I spent nearly two weeks working on a post about Ferguson, et al, and my stance with regard to it, because I felt like I should acknowledge that I was aware of it and thought something about it, even if those thoughts were not as informed or coherent or had as much conviction as most commentators on the situation seemed to require.

I found that I was not really able to write in a natural and human tone about the matter. This was not because I was secretly sympathetic to the police. I have never thought much of the police, have always found there were too many of them and their presence too ubiquitous wherever I have lived in this country, in those places have always felt that their power to do harm far exceeded all of the supposedly wonderful things that were always attributed to them, and never understood the broad liking for them that seems to exist. Especially in New Hampshire it seems to me a far greater likelihood and cause of worry that I or one of my four sons will get caught up in the racket of the criminal justice system for some trifle or behavior that does not intuitively occur to one as being a crime than that any of us are as a matter of rule in imminent danger of being victimized in some particularly violent or horrific way but for modern police practices.

I have always had, compared to other people, a weak sense of morality, of almost anything being absolutely right or wrong, or good or bad, independent of my personal inclinations.  

While I am sympathetic with those who assert that the police are way too heavy handed in the use of lethal force, especially against black people, as in many controversies one is not always readily accepted by the partisans of either side as sharing their position unless he accepts and adheres without doubt or qualm to a number of correlating stances. And as I am much less certain about the absolute truth of some of these, I therefore cannot help but appear to be insufficiently incited by the more fervid advocates of social justice.

Many, many people in this world, including quite a lot who are quite fortunate and privileged in their lives and suffer little in the way of direct oppression, carry within them a store of righteous anger that never fails to impress me. Some of them brim with it just about all the time, while others who are usually jovial enough are able to call it up in a flash when occasion calls for it. In addition to all of the outrages they are angry about, many of these people are angry that other people are not angry in the way they are angry, which mass indifference or pusillanimity they see as a primary obstacle in effecting the changes they desire. Anger, like love, is of course an emotion, and in raw form it is as silly to demand another to spontaneously feel strong anger such as you feel as it is to demand that they feel love in the way that you would have them do so. I suppose the argument is that a moral system can, and ought to be, cultivated through education that is central to a person's waking consciousness, such that, unless he is utterly devoid of natural spirit (though this does seem to be the case with multitudes of modern people, especially Americans) he can be trained to muster up some degree of response or agitation to gross wrongs passing under his nose. It is true that most people, myself included, do not receive a moral education with anywhere near the degree of intensity needed to produce this reaction, however.

I also wonder, and this is purely a conjecture I am throwing out, whether the competitiveness of our society, and the increasing attitude that only the most serious and accomplished practitioners in any area of life really matter, is causing people with weaker levels of anger who are in the main sympathetic to an issue to doubt whether they in fact care anything about said issue, or any other, at all, and certainly whether their tepid sense of outrage could ever be of any use, since even the people who seem to experience all of life as an endless series of crimes against righteousness and possess an endless amount of fire for railing against it appear to be able to effect very little change such that their moral sense is ever satisfied for long, which ultimate satisfaction the non-crusader, doubtless mistakenly, assumes to be the purpose of employing this anger.

The racial aspect of this police and prison culture, the effects of which are obviously multiplied many, many times in black communities, even acknowledging that the violent crime rate is many, many times higher in these communities, is the problem that it is seen as incumbent on white America especially to come to terms with and address. The tone taken in many of these declamations is that this persecution can stop, or be turned off, at anytime if white America decides it wants to do so, at no real cost to it, but that it obstinately refuses to take this just action. From the 'white' point of view, and I think it is pretty safe to say that there is such a thing in general that is distinct from the 'black' point of view, or the 'non-discriminating human in the abstract' point of view, is that the general tenor of life in poor black communities tends to be totally incompatible with--to the point of non-negotiability, in truth--the general tenor of white middle and upper class life (I say general tenor so that those who are comfortable in all places and with all people and with all lifestyles and do not even perceive that there are any differences between them understand that I know and am not talking about them). I do believe this is, all else aside, the main reason why even well-meaning white people cannot achieve more progress in resolving the racial disparities with regard to justice and law enforcement that I do think many of them really do want to see resolved. By incompatible here I mean that there are very few white people, and essentially none with any middle class pretensions, who can handle on a day to day basis the stress that the level of crime, social disorganization, low quality of schools, confrontation in routine interactions, etc, etc, that prevails in many poor black communities. The degree of integration on the part of the white middle class that progressives claim that they want and that we should be achieving will never happen until there can be serious assurance that these problems, whoever's fault they may be, are either resolved or can somehow be subjected to tight social control. Otherwise, I can't see how it is ever going to happen.

Most of the policemen I have had occasion to know in my life (I am, in part, from an Irish family in Philadelphia, and there are policemen among my extended relatives or their spouses or circle of friends) would be considered appallingly racist by anyone in the liberal arts intelligentsia. There is no way to sugarcoat it and it is not even particularly subtle, but describing the form it takes in such a way as to overcome that which the enlightened liberal imagination already has in its head is a little problematic. There is a belief that the kind of nice white people who hate racism and would never work as policemen are hopelessly naive and would have their (the police's) more 'realistic' attitudes towards the black community if they really knew the kinds of things that went on there. Outside of their families and people like themselves, they really don't care about the feelings or perceptions of other people towards them in the same way that sensitive people with high SAT scores who care about the environment and animals and so on do. While I don't think it is difficult for writers and so on to believe this, I think it is hard for them to grasp what it is like to approach life with this kind of mind at every instant of the day.

These policemen when they are sitting around the barbeque grill or in the stands at the little league game or whatever will once in a while go on about their training in firearms and how they could blow your or anybody else's head off from a distance of such and such yards and so on. I don't remember anyone explicitly expressing a desire to do this, whether to black people or anyone else, but some of them didn't seem to mind letting it be known on occasion that they had it in them to do so if circumstances required it.

A number of writers felt called upon in addressing the crisis to expostulate on the various deficiencies and moral vacuity of white people as a collective entity, or blot, I guess, on the face of the earth. Many of the more zealous of these commentators could not easily escape being fingered as belonging to the blot themselves. They doubtless appeal to a certain kind of reader, though I rarely find anything in them that I consider to be insightful as far as what is wrong with me, let alone all of the much smarter and better adjusted white people whom one assumes would be in a better position to effect change than I am. A reporter from the Guardian accused the whites of America of isolating themselves in their cars and crying to the Frozen soundtrack instead of dealing with the world exploding and rising up in a fury all around them (I hate it when they get personal like that). This is a familiar, and old, attack, that white Americans in particular are the world's perpetual sheltered and fragile children, as compared with the seriousness and maturity of, apparently, everybody else. I don't really see this as being true; I think that what is meant is that the white American middle class is always perceived as having more power, if it could rouse itself from its frivolous amusements, to affect political and social change, fight racial injustice, prevent the government from starting wars, throw the bankers and torturers in jail, prevent the establishment of for profit prisons, and so on, than maybe it really does, especially anymore. Outside of a few social issues, the public certainly seems to have lost any kind of moral force as far as being able to constrain the powerful from acting on the most outrageous impulses of greed and injustice and even cruelty. But it strikes me that people seem to be more aware of and upset about these things than they were in the past, it is just that their ability to protest and contend against them has become so feeble.