Monthly Archives: November 2014

May the Fraud Be With You

Now that the next Star Wars movie is coming into focus as Star Wars. Episode VII: The Fan Base Gets Monetized, here’s an appropriate excerpt from my new essay collection, Let the Devil Speak:

“As this book goes to press, the Church of Star Wars has grown to encompass old and new testaments comprising the original three films – Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi – and the three prequels: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. The original gospels are available in differing forms, or Special Editions, with contradictory details on crucial questions of doctrine: e.g., Did Han Solo or Greedo the bounty hunter take the first shot? Did Luke Skywalker give a girlie-man scream as he tumbled down that airshaft, or did he maintain samurai silence? And there is a separate galaxy’s worth of apocrypha in the form of video games, fan fiction, novelizations, an animated series (The Clone Wars), and scores of ‘expanded universe’ novels, many of them at least equal and in some cases superior to the six canonical works.

     “Fortunately, Bill Moyers had the sense to put away the incense and return to valuable journalism and punditry. But, to borrow a phrase from the Firesign Theatre, there’s a seeker born every minute, and after a gap of several years, with only the re-release of the six films in yet another format to stir the congregants, Moyers was succeeded by Camille Paglia, the Auntie Mame of academe, who mercifully eased up on the Campbell references – the better to trowel up her own brand of high-toned gabble.

     “Paglia, a self-styled provocateur who lurches after contrarian arguments the way a shyster chases ambulances, proclaimed Lucas ‘the greatest artist of our age’ in her 2012 book Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. Having used the book’s introduction to deplore the distracting effect of video games on youth, Paglia celebrated the climactic light-saber duel at the end of Revenge of the Sith, itself little more than a protracted video game battle, with none of the storytelling value of the confrontation in The Empire Strikes Back. (Though Obi-Wan’s big line in the heat of battle – ‘Only a Sith lord speaks in absolutes!’ – showed Lucas’ ear for dialogue had lost none of its cauliflower bloom.) But Paglia was just getting warmed up. ‘No one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas,’ she proclaimed, then went on to hail the ‘Incredible Cross Sections’ books (diagrams of the various spaceships and accessories cramming every frame of the series) in terms that would have had Joseph Campbell himself fleeing to the magic grove:

    The precise draftsmanship, mastery of perspective, and glorification of engineering in these superbly produced books have not been seen since modernist abstraction swept away the great tradition of architectural drawings of the neoclassic Beaux Arts school. In genre, the Cross-Sections books are anatomies, analogous to Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, with their medical dissections, botanical studies, and military designs for artillery, catapults, tanks, and then-impossible submarines and flying machines.          

      “The ‘Incredible Cross Sections’ books are indeed lovely productions that induce long periods of staring and musing, especially when they diagram the R.M.S. Titanic and the human body – i.e., real things – but if Camille Paglia can look at these toy-marketing tie-ins and see Leonardo’s notebooks, I’d love to have her free-associate her way through some IKEA assembly instructions.”

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Resentments of Things Past

This is another excerpt from “He May Be a Fool But He’s Our Fool: Lester Maddox, Randy Newman, and the American Culture Wars,” from my new collection Let the Devil Speak:

  The tune has varied little over the decades. Whether it’s Spiro Agnew snarling about effete intellectual snobs or Dan Quayle chirping about “the cultural elite,” the message is that the world is being run into the ground by elitists who look down on hardworking Americans while opening the gates to barbaric gays/ blacks/ immigrants/ Islamists, or any other boogieman of the moment. Sometimes the speaker makes the mistake of being too frank in public, as happened when Rev. Jerry Falwell went on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club broadcast a mere two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and announced, with smoke from incinerated humans and buildings still thick in the air over southern Manhattan, that the attacks reflected God’s anger at “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays, and the lesbians.” But even when it fails to win elections, culture war rhetoric serves the purpose of shoring up the hardcore supporters – the base. In that case, failure is almost preferable to success. It keeps the base unified and, above all, angry. Resentment is the cheap fuel that keeps the culture wars running, and like most cheap fuels it generates an appalling amount of pollutants.  

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The Cockroach and the Governor

This is another excerpt from “He May Be a Fool But He’s Our Fool: Lester Maddox, Randy Newman, and the American Culture Wars,” from my new collection Let the Devil Speak:

     Those with a deep knowledge of pop culture and the civil rights era will remember Lester Maddox as the Atlanta restaurateur who race-baited his way to the governorship of Georgia, and who did in fact appear on a December 1970 broadcast of The Dick Cavett Show. (The description of Nebraska-born Cavett, a museum-quality specimen of the mid-twentieth-century WASP, as “a smart-ass New York Jew” immediately announces the unreliability of this particular narrator.) Though Maddox got the bulk of that night’s airtime, the show opened with a brief appearance by an entomologist from the Museum of Natural History, who displayed samples from the museum’s insect collection – most memorably, a hissing cockroach. For anyone who had seen the photo of Maddox and his son chasing an African-American man out of their Atlanta restaurant, threatening him with a pick handle and a pistol every step of the way, it was an appropriate lead-in.

 

 

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What the Devil Said

This is an excerpt from “He May Be a Fool But He’s Our Fool: Lester Maddox, Randy Newman, and the American Culture Wars,” from my new collection Let the Devil Speak:

     Great devil speeches crop up in the most unexpected places, and can dominate the stories in which they appear. Mention the film The Third Man and likely the first thing you’ll think of is black market profiteer Harry Lime’s discourse on how the bloody reign of the Borgias produced the innovations of the Renaissance, while the peace and prosperity of Switzerland produced nothing grander than the cuckoo clock. (It was actually invented in Germany, but nobody wants to interrupt Harry Lime when he’s on a roll.) In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Serpent invites Eve to bite into the forbidden fruit by asking her why a just and loving god would want to deny his creations full knowledge of the world he has created for them: “Why but to keep ye low and ignorant.” Bite into the forbidden fruit, Satan promises, and “ye shall be as Gods/ Knowing both Good and Evil as they know.” Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” soliloquy in The Merchant of Venice may well be the ultimate devil speech. Shakespeare’s audience would have heard it as the self-justifying rant of a villain, but its sentiments have upended that role so completely that for a modern audience it is Antonio, not Shylock, who comes off as the villain.

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