Monday, September 26, 2011

Stephen Colbert Delivers 1833 Smackdown

A quote attributed to Stephen Colbert has been making the rounds of the Interwebs lately, especially on Facebook.  It looks like this --

I give Colbert lots of props for the consistency of Christian principles.  If you recall, he testified before a Congressional panel on issues about rights for immigrants.  At the end of his remarks, he broke from his satire long enough to quote Jesus regarding compassion and fighting injustice: "Whatsoever you do for the least of these my brothers, you do also to me."  Colbert added that the migrant workers are "the least brothers," and therefore he felt the need to do what he could to help them.

However, two things struck me about this latest Colbert meme.

1. Colbert is in good company, as a wise man said much the same thing 178 years ago.

2. Colbert speaks to the mistaken assumption that the United States is a "Christian nation."

William Apess was a Pequot who became a Methodist minister and lived among the Mashpee Indians near Boston.  In his 1833 sermon titled "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man," Apess asks a white congregation how they can profess to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ but turn a blind eye to the injustices committed against American Indians in Massachusetts.  Many in the congregation were upset about injustices being committed against Southeastern Indian tribes, who were being removed to what would become Oklahoma, but none seemed to worry about the Mashpee, who were being arrested, abused, raped, and robbed in the congregation's own backyard.

He reminds the congegration that Jesus said nothing about race being important to salvation or for distinguishing to whom one should show compassion.  And yet many white churches did not admit people of color and did little to help those people of color being abused by the white population and government officials.

Apess says, "If you can find a spirit like Jesus Christ and his Apostles prevailing now in any of the white congregations, I should like to know it."

Oh, snap!

A few moments later he says, "Who are the children of God?  Perhaps you may say, none but white.  If so, the word of the Lord is not true."


I paraphrase his point for my students this way:  He gives the congregation a choice; either everything in the Bible is a lie, or they are hypocrites.  To say one is to commit blasphemy.  To say the other is to admit something about yourself most people would want to avoid. 

I teach this powerful and very modern-sounding sermon just about every semester.  I refer to it as Apess's "Dr. Phil Smackdown" to Massachusetts Christians.

I think Colbert makes an important distinction at the beginning of his comment.  He says, "IF the United States IS GOING TO BE a Christian nation...."  His statement seems to assume that the United States has not been a Christian nation before now.  And I agree.

Some people have responded to this Colbert quote by pointing out the separation of church and state.  Government-sponsored welfare programs cannot be justified on the basis of Christian beliefs.  Additionally, Christian charity is voluntary, but government assistance is financed through taxation, which is not voluntary. 

Colbert's remark also reminds me of how I often hear people make the claim the United States is a Christian nation.  This argument is often times made when discussing "the Founding Fathers" and their intentions.  This argument is often times made when people talk of legislating social or moral issues, especially when that issue runs counter to what they believe is permitted by the Bible (gay marriage, for instance).

I think Christianity is not about what you eat or drink.  It is not about your sexual partners.  It is about radical compassion.

Jesus said "by their fruits you shall know them," meaning that a person's true character is evident in his actions.  The Founding Fathers and Americans throughout history have talked a lot about God, but talk is cheap, and talking does not make a nation Christian.  Its actions do.  No one has pointed out to me those actions taken by the United States government that proves its Christian character. 

My Cherokee and Choctaw ancestors have the loss of their Southeastern homelands as evidence to the contrary.

I am not holding the United States to some unrealistic standard, though.  I think it is unrealistic to expect any nation to be truly Christian in its principles.  Nations tend to be built upon one group of people protecting their interests against the interests of other groups of people.  The United States built an empire, and since an empire is built by imposing one nation's will upon other nations, I do not see how one can build a truly Christian empire.

That "do unto others" thing keeps getting in the way .  If you let it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tux Me? No, Tux You! The Skinny Look Has Gone Too Far

Punk magazine, 1976
Skinny jeans made a comeback several years ago.  The young men on my campus in skinny jeans gave me flashbacks to my teens years when The Ramones were ripping up "Rock 'n' Roll High School."

I can understand skinny jeans then as part of a punk aesthetic.  I am too poor to afford jeans that fit.  Besides, I do not care to conform to society's expectations of good clothing and good grooming.

Skinny jeans were different from tight jeans.  Tight jeans could be used to feature the muscles of a man's legs or butt.  Cowboys (I grew up in Oklahoma) wore tight jeans, but not skinny jeans.  Skinnies were tapered and would not accommodate boots.  And the punk lifestyle did not allow much time at the gym nor on the mechanical bull.  Guys who wore skinnies had skinny legs.

John Travolta in Urban Cowboy (1980)
That seems to be true today, but the aesthetic seems different.  People spend a great deal of money on skinny jeans, so they are not a clear signifier of poverty.  And I have seen the young men fuss with them, getting them pulled exactly right and getting all of the seams lined up just so; so they are not a clear signifier of an anti-aesthetic.

The jeans are so tight that adjustments may be difficult, though important to ensure certain delicate body parts are not damaged.

But the skinny look has conquered the rest of the men's fashion world.  Now the skinny look is in with trousers and shirts.  There are skinny blazers now.  And even skinny tuxedos.  You could see them at the Emmy Awards on Sunday night.

Adam Scott, 2011 Emmys
I do not see the aesthetic appeal of them.  Tight-fitting clothes can be attractive and sexy, depending upon the body beneath them.  But I think that requires the clothes to fit smoothly, to outline the shape of the body beneath the fabric.  Skinny tuxedos just bunch and bind.

Look at the pants on Parks & Recreation's Adam Scott.  They are so tight you could count the change in his pocket if his hand weren't in the way.  And not only are the pants legs too tight, they are too long.  They have gathered so much his legs look like bendy straws.

The worst of the night was possibly the tuxedo on Glee's Cory Monteith.  His tuxedo looked like it hurt him.  It looked like he had been extruded into it.  Did it explode when he sat down?  Or did the jacket merely break some of his ribs?

Skinny blazers and skinny tuxedos make grown men look like they are children again, dressed by their mothers for a great aunt's funeral.

Cory Monteith, 2011 Emmys
Now that I think of it, this could be part of the appeal.  There is another general aesthetic running through men's fashion.  We could call it a Peter Pan look.  The uncut, uncombed hair.  The facial hair that suggests no need to get up early in the morning and go to work.  Fashions that look more appropriate for a life spent slouching on the sofa than accomplishing... things.

Perhaps the skinny look is a way of appealing to a reluctance by the American male to grow up.

Or perhaps I am just old.

Hey, you kids!  Get off of my lawn!  And get a haircut!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Symbolic Indians vs. Smiling Indians

Classes have begun again at the university where I teach, and I asked students in my American Indian literature to talk about their impressions of American Indian cultures and the source of those impressions.  At least one person mentioned this famous public service announcement, which I vividly recall from the 1970s:

Famous Sicilian-American
It features an actor who is known widely as Iron Eyes Cody (1904-1999), but he was named Espera Oscar de Corti by his Sicilian immigrant parents.  That is, one of the most famous Indians of the 1970s was not an Indian. 

The students said such images helped produce their impression that American Indian cultures and mainstream America related to the natural world differently.  That led to an interesting discussion of how something true can be communicated through something false.

His presence on the screen was insulting to many American Indians, yet it wasn't surprising.  Cody was part of a long tradition of non-Indians appearing on the screen as Indians -- and taking work away from American Indian actors in the process.  Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, and even Audrey Hepburn have played American Indian characters.

The Unforgiven (1960)
I repeat.  Audrey Hepburn.  American Indian.

I played the commercial for my students and we agreed that however much we laugh at the commercial today, and however problematic is the casting of Cody, the commercial was effective.  Summoning the iconic image of the Indian as protector of nature was effective.  Showing a lone tear running down the face of the iconic stoic Indian was effective.

The student who is tempted to dismiss the commercial because it makes use of stereotypes is missing the interesting discussion about how icons and signs work.

In the real world, it does matter that Cody was not an American Indian because there was an American Indian actor quite capable of filling the role, and he had a family to feed and a career to build.

But within the world of the commercial's message and within the world of the dominant American culture that was communicating to itself with this commercial -- that is, the public service announcement was not targeting Indian Country -- the race of the person playing an American Indian did not matter.  His symbolic function overruled that.

It is like Rene Magritte's famous painting of a pipe, The Treachery of Images.  On it is emblazoned the message (in French) "This is not a pipe."  Of course it isn't.  It is a painting of a pipe.  Cody's PSA could be titled "This is not an Indian."  Of course it isn't.  It is a someone pretending to be an Indian.

Cody was playing the very familiar role in American culture of the Noble Savage.  In American culture, the Noble Savage's relationship to any actual living Indians is irrelevant.  He says more about the people using him to communicate than he does about American Indians -- as does mainstream America's inability to distinguish a real Indian from a fake one.

Understanding the symbolic/iconic function of Cody's stony face is not to say that such representations are OK.  They have real-world implications other than stealing work from American Indian actors.  The viewers of such representations are not aware that they are viewing signs and symbols; they think they are looking at real Indians and then expect Indians in the real world to behave in the same ways.

Two Strikes by Edward Curtis
As an antidote to Cody's stony face, I showed my students a wonderful short film, Smiling Indians.  It is made by two young men from Oklahoma, Ryan Red Corn (from the Osage Nation) and Sterlin Harjo (from the Creek Nation).

The film is ironically dedicated to Edward R. Curtis (1858-1952), a very famous American photographer who did much to create the whole tradition of the stoic Indian that made Cody's career possible.

The faces in Smiling Indians do NOT function so clearly as symbols or icons.  The faces are not participating in various narrative conventions of how American Indians relate to mainstream American culture.  They are images of Indian people being... people.

Human beings.  Not symbols.

Watch it and smile.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Badness of King George (Lucas)

Believe it or not, there was a time when people tried to defend George Lucas's storytelling abilities. 

Who ya gonna call?
He withstood the criticism fairly well, until cracks in his narrative armor began to appear with Return of the Jedi.  The highly merchandisable cuteness of the Ewoks and the wretched sentimentality of the "family photograph" at the conclusion -- when ghosts of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Darth Vader appear with Luke and company --  foreshadowed things such as Jar-Jar Binks.

What the duck?
Sure, there was his involvement with the Indiana Jones series.  But when people wanted to talk about Lucas as if he possessed undiluted genius, I had a standard response to them: "Always remember three words: Howard. The. Duck."

I waited nearly 20 years between the release of Return of the Jedi and A New Hope, only to be horribly and bitterly disappointed in the crapulence Lucas threw at us and was somehow proud of.  I then began to think perhaps Howard the Duck was the norm and the first Star Wars movies were the exception.

Now it seems Lucas was not satisfied ruining my expectations for the Star Wars prequels.  He now wants to ruin the originals.

Still lame.
Back in 2004, in the re-release of Return of the Jedi, Lucas replaced the original image of Sebastian Shaw, the actor who played Darth Vader during the brief moment when we saw beneath his mask, with Hayden Christensen, who played Annikin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

I don't really care about that.  That doesn't make that cinematic moment less groan-worthy than it already was.  I say that Lucas is determined to ruin his legacy because, in the latest Blu-Ray release of Return of the Jedi, he is injecting groan-worthiness where it had not existed before.  (Link to story about changes.)

In a key scene, Luke is saved and Darth Vader turns against the Dark Side -- he stops the Emperor from Tazering Luke with the Force and tosses him down the funhole of a Death Star.  In the original scene, Darth does all of this silently.  In the "improved" version he says "Noooo!"  Twice.

I understand the problem Lucas might have felt he was addressing.  There is a lot of emotion going on in Darth Vader's mind in this scene and he makes some key decisions.  But the character's face is hidden behind his famous mask.  Giving Darth dialog, however inarticulate and unconvincing it might be, would communicate to the audience what he was thinking and feeling.

But there is no problem for Lucas to solve here.  We do not need any verbal assistance to make up for a lack of facial cues from Darth Vader.  His actions tell us what he is feeling.  Tossing one's boss into a pit of blue fire is not very ambiguous.  But that wasn't enough for Lucas, the Master of Obviousness.

Seeing this revised scene made me think about the peculiar convention of the wordless close-up.  Most films have at least some of them.  The shots rely upon crucial information being communicated through the close-up of an actor's face, which focuses the viewer's attention on the emotions taking place within the character.  Even when that face is relatively expressionless, the audience can be trusted to understand what is happening beneath the calm surface.  This is partly through the dialog and action that surrounds the close-up, but it also is through the audience's training.  We have been taught how to understand such film conventions by watching thousands of hours of film and television.

The Searchers (1956)
A famous example would be a scene with John Wayne in The Searchers.  After his character, Ethan, and others have determined that they have been lured away from the settlements by the Comanche and that all of their families are in great danger, the posse races back to save them.  But Ethan knows their horses cannot make the hard ride.  Racing back will kill their mounts, which will keep them from saving the families AND leave them without horses.

He is left behind and wipes down his tired horse.  Across his still somewhat stoic face we see the concern and fear for what might be happening to his brother's family.  No dialog.  No scenes of mayhem.  No overwrought expressions.  Some of his frustration is evident in the way he wipes down the horse.  He is helpless and he hates that.

In film studies we talk about "reading" images.  But with many wordless close-ups, we are not really reading the face of the actor -- at least not reading it separate from the dialog and actions that have come immediately before or that will follow.  We must admit that a face without dialog can sometimes be ambiguous.  But if the elements surrounding the close-up are clear, the viewer is not so much reading the face in the close-up as he/she is projecting expected feelings onto that character -- or what they would be feeling themselves.  In a sense, the face can be like an empty space that the viewer fills in.

My evidence for this is Team America: World Police, a film with no actual faces, only puppets.  This movie has close-ups and reaction shots of puppets.  Some of them are rigged to have expressions, but many times the faces do not change during the shot.  The emotions are conveyed through actions and dialog.  However, in some scenes we are given reaction shots from puppets who are showing no reaction and who have no dialog or actions for cues of their emotions.  But the audience, I believe, understands what is going through the character's mind.  The close-up functions as a time not for the audience to "read" the face and decipher its meaning, since there is nothing there to read on the surface.  Instead, the audience uses the time of the close-up to register or sense more deeply the emotions and thoughts of the character they are projecting there.

In this scene from Team America, the leader of the agents tries to recruit Gary Johnston to join them.  The scene includes reaction shots of Gary during the pitch, but, of course, his face never changes.  Yet somehow the audience understands what he is thinking and understands when he declines the offer.

If you think about it, what is Darth Vader but a large puppet?  If we can understand Trey Parker and Matt Stone's marionettes, then we do not need George Lucas's help to understand one of the world's most iconic villains in his moment of redemption.