January 28, 2016

Plot-Twist Politics

In 2016, the presidential election became electric. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have separately disrupted the fixed matchup of another Clinton and another Bush, and flat-footed, for now, the mainstream consensus about everything from who ...

In 2016, the presidential election became electric.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have separately disrupted the fixed matchup of another Clinton and another Bush, and flat-footed, for now, the mainstream consensus about everything from who can be elected and what they can’t say, to what Americans want from both their leaders and their political process.

The Iowa caucus is days away, and what was laughable in the springtime now looks entirely plausible. Meaning upsets, betrayals, collapses and mis-coronations — all of which works well as pure drama.

Frank-Rich

Frank Rich is the perfect person to watch this shaggy-dog primary as a theater piece. At The New York Times, Rich began as a theater critic, then grew into the paper’s leading columnist who saw a mix of policy and performance, news and entertainment.

Today he practices both, with a column at New York Magazine and as executive producer of Veep, HBO’s fictional sendup of the very real pettiness, over-packaging and obscurity of our politics.

There’s more than a few irresistible storylines so far in this reality show of a primary process (and it’s still early).

January 7, 2016

Our Postmodern Myth: “Star Wars” is Back

There’s a big old *spoiler alert* hanging over this whole radio show. You’ve been warned! We’re beginning 2016 by confronting what is already its biggest cultural phenomenon. The Force Awakens, the latest installment of Star Wars, on ...

There’s a big old *spoiler alert* hanging over this whole radio show. You’ve been warned!

We’re beginning 2016 by confronting what is already its biggest cultural phenomenon. The Force Awakens, the latest installment of Star Wars, on track to make $3 billion and more around the world.

What does it mean that this particular, high-capital story survives as a global dream? And maybe the most familiar alternate universe ever created outside a world religion: a Greek pantheon for the modern day?

Star Wars is full of paradoxes: it’s profoundly flat; imperial filmmaking in celebration of rebels and saboteurs; a forty-year-old hit that remains forever young. The essayist Chuck Klosterman proposes to nationalize Star Wars, turning the franchise into a lucrative public works project for the nation’s out-of-work actors, set dressers, and engineers. (It’s “the only thing America does that everybody likes.”) And our guest Amanda Palmer tells us it was a geek movie that never seemed that geeky, as well as a violent movie that never seemed that violent. In the end, George Lucas‘s creation must have approval numbers that popes and politicians could only dream of.

Why does Star Wars still mean so much to so many? With a group of our favorite people, we’re counting the ways (with special thanks to Eric Molinsky, host and producer of Imaginary Worlds, who did a five-part series on the cultural significance on the franchise — listen here):   

It’s a postmodern myth.

There’s a moment in the original Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, looks out at the horizon as dusty Tatooine’s two suns set.

There are no words, but John Williams’s score is working overtime, sounding the note of potential energy: a young person with gifts and a great destiny who’s still just wishing he were anywhere but here. Almost anyone can imagine himself standing on that bluff and watching the sun(s) go down.

Watch that scene (you have permission to find it corny!) But it’s also got the mystery of Star Wars’s eternal appeal packed into just 36 seconds: another orchestrated, saturated, uncanny image for all time, conjuring not just before — Achilles, Lancelot, and Dante — but after: Spider-Man, the X-Men, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and most recently, Rey, the Skywalker stand-in for the latest film.

It’s (almost) a silent film.

Speaking of which, George Lucas always put a lot of stock in the power of Star Wars‘s score and images to get along on their own. So in 1977, he anticipated the globalizing trend that’d hit Hollywood decades later — a move away from repartee and puns and into a world of spectacle and SFX. Watch Star Wars work like a silent film in the famous throne-room finale, in the last scene of the new movie, and in that “I am your father” confrontation:

It’s a theology for the post-religious — and a political shorthand.

Yes, there are thousands of people all over the world to check “Jedi Knight” on census forms just to scramble the religious picture of the 21st century. And “The Dark Side” has become a shorthand in politics to be embraced by Dick Cheney and shunned by Larry Lucchino, the outgoing Red Sox president who once labeled the Yankees “The Evil Empire.”

But there’s something a little deeper and more peculiar in the vague cosmology of “The Force” put forward in the movies: a balance between emotional attachments and inner peace, between individualism and teamwork, between self-interest and philanthropy, that speaks to the unique spiritual drift of the 20th-century consumer.

It’s a product of the depressed ‘70s — but it still works the same way.

Alan Andres reminds us that those first movies opened during American doldrum days, with bad news everywhere in the ether: the Fall of Saigon, Watergate, the fall of Skylab, the Church Committee, Chappaquiddick, and the Iran hostage crisis. The tone of sci-fi was suitably dark: Soylent Green is people! We were a rebel nation that had come to seem like an evil empire (until Reagan came along and declared that the Soviets were the real imperial enemy).

It may be true that, more than anything, George Lucas wanted to offer a generation of young Americans a different, optimistic story with a batch of good role models in tow. But still he had The Emperor — the bad guy of all Star Wars bad guys — sit in an oval-shaped throne room: Nixon, determined to crush the latest guerrilla uprising.

It’s militaristic.

Somehow, underneath the swashbuckling escapes and screwball dialogue, people forget that in Star Wars, the viewer really can’t root for anyone who doesn’t commit mass murder.

The Empire blows up Alderaan with a weapon known as the Death Star in order to quash organized resistance. But then the heroic Rebels blow up the planet-sized Death Star — along with, it is estimated (!), 843,342 souls in the crew and staff — to stick it to the Empire.

And that’s just a start! Tell us what Star Wars means to you (and may the Force be with you all in 2016)!

Podcast • September 30, 2008

The American Exception: Pop Culture Today

On the exceptional power of American culture, what first pops out of my own head is a moment about ten years ago, after narrating Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (1942) at the JFK Library in ...

On the exceptional power of American culture, what first pops out of my own head is a moment about ten years ago, after narrating Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (1942) at the JFK Library in Boston with the Indian conductor George Mathew — before George got his American green card.

The piece triggered a general rapture over Lincoln’s words (“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy…”) and Copland’s brilliant war-time adaptation of great American folk themes like “Springfield Mountain” and “Campdown Races.” Between final bows, George burst out to me, with tears in his eyes: “Chris… Chris… It makes you so proud to be an illegal alien!”

From Walt Whitman to Frank Sinatra to Spike Lee, we exult in an artistic American pop genius that moves and shakes both plain and fancy people all around the world. The jazz tours by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong from the Thirties to the Seventies, from London to Accra to Moscow to Tokyo, mark a sort of pinnacle for me. But in this Open Source series of conversations about “American Exceptionalism” today — here, here, and here — the question comes: what is the American sound, the American style, the American culture that we’re putting out there today?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Martha Bayles (36 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

Martha Bayles

The independent scholar and cultural omni-buff Martha Bayles went recently to the other ends of the telescope to see us through our exports as they arrive in India, China, Turkey, Indonesia and Egypt. There’s a book in the works, and a strong article on “popular culture” available in the oft-cited Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation. In our conversation, it’s unmistakable that Martha is not just a discriminating listener by training, but an enthusiast and a patriot by instinct. It’s equally clear that she’s distressed by the sound of the American “voice” out there these days:

I think what we project now through a lot of our entertainment is freedom in the sense of libertanism, it’s freedom in the sense of ‘I can do whatever I want and screw you.’ I’ve had people overseas actually say to me that that’s what they think American freedom means. That it’s the freedom of the sovereign kind of self, Orlando Patterson uses that term — the freedom of the master over the slave. It’s not a very pretty side of freedom. And we project this kind of freedom to do whatever the hell you want, unfettered by connections with other people, unfettered by ties to family or community, or any kind of ethical or moral restrictions — it’s a very radical idea of freedom, just as the will of the individual basically to satisfy his or her desires.

Martha Bayles of the blog Serious Popcorn and the book Hole in Our Soul, in conversation with Chris Lydon, August, 2008