Monday, March 06, 2006


Watched the Oscars last eve, and while the show itself was so-so (usually is, though I liked Jon Stewart's non-Hollywood tone -- you could feel the cool audience chill through the screen), I still enjoy all the gaudy bullshit, phony smiles, and self-congratulatory mood. The whole production is so utterly absurd that getting angry about it or cynical toward it is wasted emotion. But what truly delights me is how depraved the Oscars must seem to solid Red Staters nationwide. It's a knee-jerk reflex, a happy negativity, I admit, yet the girl can't help it. Hollywood is the one area of modern American life that, more often than not, actually lives up to its sordid rep (unlike, say, the Dems being commies) -- that is, if you find films about queers, racism, and corporate crime beneath your contempt. Me, I revel in it.

Having been raised under rather conservative conditions, showbiz was one of my aesthetic life rafts (music especially: first Bowie and Elton John, then crashing through the glitter rain, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Devo, et al). I was lucky enough to become culturally aware in the midst of the early/mid-70s period of New Hollywood films -- both Godfathers, "The Conversation," "The Last Detail," "American Graffiti," "Chinatown," "Taxi Driver" . . . you know the list. These and other films inspired me while stuck in the rigid Midwest, and they told me that I wasn't alone in my creative thoughts. And after I saw "Annie Hall," I swore to myself that I would move to Manhattan and chase my dream, which I did about four and a half years later. So I have an extremely soft spot when it comes to the movies. I won't say that they saved my young life, but they did help to define it, and this gave me a much-needed framework in which to develop artistically.

I loved what James Wolcott posted last week about Hollywood being "out of touch" with Wholesome American Values, and agree with him completely (also, ditto what George Clooney said last night in his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor: "And finally, I would say that, you know, we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while. I think it's probably a good thing. We're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects. This Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be a part of this Academy. Proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch.") And while a "Brokeback Mountain" Best Picture win would've been nice, if only to stick it up the collective reactionary ass just a bit further, it'll soon be on full display at Blockbusters nationwide, softly calling to those repressed, fearful souls, "Rent me . . . buy me . . . watch me again and again . . ."

In Vanity Fair's current Hollywood issue (the one featuring Scarlett Johansson's pale Rubenesque figure on the cover), Peter Biskind, author of the highly-entertaining book about New Hollywood, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," looks into the making of "Reds," Warren Beatty's lush 1981 film about American communists John Reed and Louise Bryant, played by Beatty and Diane Keaton, respectively. It's your typical behind-the-scenes/"Where's the money gonna come from?" accounts, covering all the anxiety, in-fighting and egos that make up big Hollywood productions. A decent fluid read, and it stirred memories of how "Reds" affected me when I first saw it a quarter century ago. Back then, I was slowly emerging from my semi-apolitical shell, slightly liberal but lacking any real informative substance. Upon watching "Reds," however, I was stunned to learn that not only was there a vibrant American antiwar movement opposed to US entry into World War I, there once existed a bohemian/intellectual/artistic world that helped the early 20th century start to live up to its name. I'd never heard anything about this, and it certainly wasn't taught in my high school "history" classes. Excited by this fresh information, I went back to view "Reds" three more times in less than a month, noting all the names of those figures portrayed -- Emma Goldman, Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Big Bill Haywood of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (who, played by Dolph Sweet, tells a gathering of "unskilled" laborers, "And the war the IWW wants you to get into is not a war in Europe, but class war against the capitalists!") -- then going to the library and various bookstores to find what I could about them.

It was a true eye-opener; and within weeks I learned all about The Masses, the radical mag John Reed wrote for, as well as Woodrow Wilson's violations of civil liberties like the Palmer Raids and the Sedition Act (in school, Wilson was presented as a great freedom fighter -- imagine my surprise discovering otherwise), and a good number of other historical facts and ancedotes about the 1914-18 era. This of course got me thinking about other parts of American history that I thought I knew well, which sent me once again into the library and bookstores, a search that was substantially expanded less than a year later when I moved to New York and had access to info I never dreamed existed.

It was liberal Hollywood that pointed me in this direction and made me aware of real American history, and it continues to offer alternative, vital counterpoints to the larger mainstream discussion. That's a major reason why cultural reactionaries hate Hollywood so. In their fevered minds, the less you know about what's happened in America, the better American you are, which is why Good Americans are among some of the worst people you'll ever meet.