Saturday, August 29, 2015

A New Installment Concerning 1970s Cinema Aesthetics Part Two: A Love Letter to The Last Detail

The Last Detail is a film that was created in 1974 and reflects a time in filmmaking art where the heavier cameras would be placed in the thick of real experience, in this case documenting the actual locations in which the figures would have travelled were they in life rather than in art. We are forced to witness the not always pleasant physical institutions that were created to contain large numbers of people: military bases, city train stations and bus terminals, drab diners and banal bars, public bathrooms, cheap sandwhich and pretzel stands, skating rinks, whorehouses housed in the greater Boston area, student/hippie apartments, the cheapest motel - with barely functional cots for beds, and finally, a woodsy park area in the snowy cold Winter, with no people except the three principals - all three of whom seem ill clad for such Winter, shivering in their military issue pea coats and open necked sailor’s uniforms. All of these environments are photographed in the most direct fashion possible, head on, so as to emphasize the brutalist designs of the era. This is a utilitarian and austere presentation, with just enough light needed to make everything out and no more, and the full force of the characters’ behaviors - their souls really - exposed to take center and stand out in relief. 
(note the environments such as bar and streets locations)

Were the picture done today, even if the same locations were used, the cameras would be as light as is possible and everything would shake just a bit -  the vogue now for practically a couple of decades - and quite possibly we wouldn’t get the same feel for either character or environment. Films today actually get too close (for my taste) to the figures and move around them and into them, whether it is the work of the Dardenne Brothers or last year's Whiplash, and this strategy of excessive closeness, whatever its virtues,  (and make no mistake: the Dardenne Brothers are fine filmmakers but there is still room for criticism vis a vis the issues I am raising which are general and technological rather than individual) is a strategy that enables us to make emotional attachments without really seeing fully what is front of us. There is an attempt to go directly inside without the consideration of the overall frame. It is a kind of advocacy or special pleading masked as observational documentary. 

I have called 1970s cinema (and this includes both mainstream so-called commercial productions and independent or so-called avant-garde productions) a cinema that tries to stay free from conceptions. Direct expressions of the actors’ emotions and direct presentation of the environments in which they move always comes first. People do things and we have to be faced with them. We might be amused, horrified, entertained, but we will have to live through things as they are presented to us without the sweeping summaries and conceptualized condensations that have come into all of the arts of the past thirty odd years. If the characters are what we could call today sexist, or immature or macho, and perhaps they are, they are in a way that is true to the selves represented, without the safety of having theories or conclusions about it. There is a palpable humanity present. One way people often have of describing this is naturalism and authenticity etc. but those are the wrong way of talking about this because the effect I am trying to describe is found in both the most fantastic and artificial of contents as well as the most "realistic". We need a way of talking about this aesthetic that accounts for this constancy across the spectrum.

 Hal Ashby, Michael Chapman, Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Otis Young and the rest LOVE their people and their ugly, florescent lit locations and want us to give them a fair hearing, as a form of witness. It is one of the reasons for "Badass" Buddusky’s unrestrained joy in performing for us and performing to get the young, green and perhaps slow Randy Quaid to accept and learn from Nicholson's performance, to be truly alive and present to the moment. 1970s film tells the audience that we and the world matters: it doesn’t want to explain and analyze. It wants to present it all to us and we are along for the ride or not. If we go on the ride we will leave behind our judgements and assumptions and learn to find the world interesting as it is, in itself.

It is interesting to compare Robert Altman in this regard. Robert Altman is absolutely merciless in his criticism of many things in society yet his absolute fidelity to what he chooses to photograph works agains his own intelligent skepticism and the joy of the human comedy as a sight of wonder and fascination is the final criteria rather than any melioristic ambitions or theoretical explanations. The love of observation is there in Altman as it is in the far more generous and forgiving Hal Ashby. Curiosity is at a premium. It was as if the filmmakers were discovering the world for the first time, even given the long history that preceded them, so great was their commitment to the stylistic practice I am trying to describe here.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Aesthetics of 1970s Cinema

It has been quite a while, too long in my book since I have written on 1970s aesthetics. In so doing I should like to restate and reflect upon my two categories of condensation and immersion. In the culture of the 1970s, otherwise ordinary, middle class people began to explore most intensely and with an ethic of thoroughness all sorts of aspects of heretofore unexamined daily life. This could take the form of expressive therapies.

Among authors and cultural producers of all kinds - from lowly television directors to an Ingmar Bergman or an Andrei Tarkovsky, from Neil Simon to Sam Shepard - this took the form of a rigorous examination of certain themes of existence with a heightened sense of urgency. One of the ways I describe this is immersion: a preference for the experiential moment over a linear game plan or deadline.  Over and over again, in all sorts of ways, in 1970s films the creation of representation is given over to such moments. That they seem to stick out in an audience's mind is seen as a value rather than an excess.  This is in large part an extension of philosophic romanticism more generally, which means it has roots in the 19th century and also in American radicalism, particularly the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau, the first feminist and civl rights leaders, the poets, the jazz musicians, the folk and rock musicians and many more.

One of the reasons why so many road pictures were made is that they are by nature episodic and inherently critical of the classical Aristotelianism that is one part of what I mean by "condensation." Think about Two Lane Blacktop, Five Easy Pieces, Ed Pincus' Diary, Jon Jost's Last Chants For A Slow Dance, Barbara Loden's Wanda, Vanishing Point, Peckinpah's Convoy, Corvette Summer, The Last Detail. Now on this list are high art, practically avant-garde pictures, lowbrow mainstream fare, and pictures in between. I don't want to make the claim that in this rather disparate group of pictures there are not classical things that happen to characters i.e. that there are not conflicts that are resolved in some way.  Scenes do appear for reasons of linear development and all the pictures listed have an overall structural integrity.

Yet - and this is crucial - in each and every single case there is the sense that such linear development is secondary to the moments. This is the episodic nature of the material. One of the things an episodic style can do is to create a sense of observational distance. We have to face change in and over time in such a way that we are forced to deal with difference. There is not the comfort of the unity supplied by stasis in location. By breaking from one scene or episode to another we are forced to relate to what we experience as a moment. This is quite similar to literature in which description is carried to fullest expression. This is in Proust of course who was the master of such prose style, but in a more modest and popularized form you even see it in John Updike who was greatly influenced by Proust. The complicated syntax of Henry James is yet another example. By heightening the syntax with the sort of subordinate clauses you get in Henry James, a real disruption of ordinary ways of representing human psychology occurs. The reader has to yield to the sentences on the page and make meaning with them. Henry James is an immensely immersive writer. He is also a disliked by many readers for this very reason.

Lets talk of immersion for a moment. It is sometimes best to use a very populist, almost "commercial" example. There is no better example of this than Paul Mazursky's film Harry and Tonto.
It is an interesting picture because it violates about every textbook rule of classical cinema storytelling. Story seems to surrender to episode. Harry meets colorful character after colorful character, various family members, drifters, hitchhikers. gurus, health food fanatics, hookers, even an old girlfriend who know appears to have a serious case of dementia and is in a nursing home. But what is the point of all of these meetings? We learn more about Harry, I suppose, and we get a real time capsule and documents of the times of the 1970s but mainly we feel various things about these episodes, our emotions accumulate and eventually the picture ends. The experience of the picture is not the result of a condensation that "telegraphs" us into a point not even an overall point about what aging is or isn't - one of the ostensible themes of the picture!

Now one of the things that is really interesting about this picture, and I'm going to go and say something quite radical here, is that the net effect and result of this picture seems to me so much more deeply valuable, affecting, humane, meaningful, than all of the perfectly plotted, high stakes, much more psychologically intricate and subtle, high publicized and critically praised pictures of the past thirty years. Indeed it is as if all of the rigor of, say The Matrix, Inception, The Usual Suspects etc., feels almost juvenile in their cleverness when compared with the sheer momentary focus on the "regular folks" we meet in a picture like Harry and Tonto.  

When I use the term immersion I mean that the material of the moment, for example in a shot, is the main focus of interest rather than a scene or a shot existing for another.

When I use condensation I mean that the material generated by the editing of shots and/or a forward momentum of linear action is the main focus of interest. Of course you can have both and neither is inherently more valuable than the other. In the 1970s immersion is exploited and explored for the maximum stylistic effects such a mode can achieve. It is also important to clarify that it is not a question of a character driven or narrative driven presentation. Many character driven pictures are completely condensed in style (most current biopics are completely condensed in fact. The one exception I can think of is Saint Laurent which is so utterly immersive it feels like it was made in the 1970s).

Or take Melvin And Howard by Jonathan Demme, which seems far more interested in all of Melvin Dummar's escapades as a working man, his problems in his relationships with his ex wife, the details of the town in which he lives and works etc. than in the dramatic suspense of whether he will get the monetary gift from Howard Hughes which is the starting point for the entire picture. (The opening scene with Jason Robards as Howard Hughes and Paul LeMat is itself an example of an archetypal 1970s episode, where the frank, emotional interaction of the actors becomes the entire point. "Real" and Natural" are the usual ways of describing it but I think immersion gets at this better because it avoids the value laden confusion that comes with the talk of being realistic, and as I have said before none of it is realistic).

Indeed Demme goes out of his way to deemphasize the narrative thrust of the entire picture -  the question of the Hughes will - and instead focus on colorful details along the way: for example, the weird strip club where one stripper has an arm in a cast and happily chats with the other stripper next to her while they work (one of the strippers- the one with both working arms is Melvin's wife, played by Mary Steenburgen), that is, until Melvin shows up to interrupt her show.  Now in one sense the scene accomplishes the goal of dramatic conflict and forward momentum but you just know that Demme is much more interested in the club, the patrons, the fact one stripper has an arm in a cast, the texture of the whole thing, than in either psychology or plot as either of these are normally understood. There is even a comic Benny Hill type of episode where Dummar is the milkman and is being seduced by a woman at home, all the while accompanied by some kind of bass heavy background music that sounds a blend of bluegrass and disco  It seems there for the comic color of it. I seriously doubt that if the picture were done today such a montage would even be included, unless there were a narrative consequence to it.

Demme wants the human comedy (the aesthetic details) to override other considerations (the state of Dummar's marriage, whether stripping is right or wrong, considerations that would obsess other directors more "condensed" than Demme). A perfect example is the outrageously comic and over the top performance by Dabney Coleman who plays a judge, in a courtroom wherein he warns Dummar that if Dummar is not telling the truth "I will have your hide." The fact that the judge talks as he does and looks as he does, especially with the well known Coleman mustache, is the point, not the suspenseful meaning of the scene. (Will Dummar get in trouble? Will he get his money?) It is an opportunity for a comic detail. Dabney Coleman's warning/summation is accompanied by a 360 degree shot of this court, one of the most ugly 1970s courtrooms you will ever see, and Demme makes sure that we really have to witness this court and Dabney's colorful presentation in it.

I mean it is very different that most suspenseful courtroom scenes, it is an anti-courtroom scene, almost a parodic comment upon the whole notion of "courtroom drama", because Dabney Coleman's delivery and that court itself seem to upstage the narrative thrust of the whole picture. It as if Demme is more interested in the fact that a judge would talk in such a way in a courtroom than in the overall function of the scene in a linear sense.

Melvin Dummar himself is a remarkably limited and problematic character, and it is of course in the nature of 1970s aesthetics to consider such a character worthy of the utmost consideration, and Demme does everything he can to present him to us with a sense of love and observational detachment. Demme as a director has little or no interest in doing anything to him or with him, or having him grow or develop in ways those characters around him might prefer. Demme wants us merely to look at him and deal with him as he is. We learn that Melvin Dummar is a dreamer and bad with money, and that his wife is hurt and disappointed by this but it plays out in such an observational fashion. Nothing is telegraphed. Demme  spends an inordinate amount of time on a company party and a lot of time is spent documenting the garish and kitschy variety shows and contests of the period, in particular a game show. It is as if Demme, (and in this he is spiritually kin to Michael Ritchie, Robert Altman and John Cassevettes) seems to value documenting a time and a place rather than representing a traditional psychological narrative.

This is what I mean by momentary "color" overtaking some lasting conclusion. Now according to the rules of Demme's game we do have a really well written script, (by Bo Goldman) but the writing plays by different rules than the more condensed kind of script. The script is interested in the observation of particular people in a particular time rather than narrative complexity. It is also interesting to note that as the 1970s ended Demme changed his style into a more condensed one. Think of Silence Of The Lambs or Philadelphia which are emblems of condensation, all forward momentum and high stakes conflict from start to finish.  (Only in Rachel Getting Married does he use a more immersive style akin to what I have been describing as a 1970s mode. It feels very much like a 1970s movie set in our current moment).

The question of how to film a scene and how different directors have done so is one of the most important questions in any kind of cinema studies. This is so for a very good reason: the decisive criteria in deciphering, understanding, and ultimately evaluating any work of art is how the work of art feels to us in linear time, that is, as we experience it. I use feeling here in the widest sense to account for thoughts instigated, moods set and so on. I believe this experience trumps any kind of retroactive or analytic reconstruction of it at a later date.

This is is why surface can be so important. Everything from how characters look to how they talk to one another, to how much environment dominates or recedes, to the lighting and colors and so on is all we really have to go on. Just as Henry James' unusual syntax is ultimately most important about his writing since it is what we have to actually read on the page, so too is Paul Marzursky's and Jonathan Demme's use of certain types of characters (humble ones immersed in the quotidian, to name but one quality), and use of certain types of environments and locations (ones shared by a wide, cross section of humanity and reflecting the tastes and budgets one would find, usually reflecting institutional or mass produced criteria) of ultimate importance about their pictures because it is what we have to look at on the screen. It would behoove critics and historians to turn their attentions more to these concerns than the more speculative and theoretical approaches that often take us so far away from the page and screen. While context might help, might further be necessary, it is insufficient if we are taken away from the sensuous experience of the work of art itself, whatever it may be.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

An Interview With Andrew Hartman

As both wild eyed mystics and sober historians appear to agree, one of the only constant things is change. In recent decades, folks seem to be more interested in history than ever before. While in the opinion of the present author this "history mania", if that is the correct formulation, takes the often debased forms of cheap historical docudramas, fetishistic reenactments of this or that major historical event, pet revisionist theories, and pathographies replacing hagiographies, there is still a great need for the professional historian as "public intellectual".

The need is perhaps the greatest now: Americans struggle to make sense of some of the overwhelming changes that have remade the United States, especially since the revolutions of the 1960s and the battle over ideas that is often called "the culture Wars" of both the 1980s and 1990s.

The best example of such an historian I can think of is Andrew Hartman. He has written a new history of some of these changes: A War For The Soul Of America: A History Of The Culture Wars. Whether it is called the Left or Right, or Red State-Blue State polarization, "culture war" is not as new as we might initially think; neither is it as powerful a force now as it once was.

I had the good fortune to ask Professor Hartman, who teaches at Illinois State University, some questions about those decades, and about his must read new book, and politics and history in general.

Mitch Hampton (MH): As I prepared to discuss the many issues you raise in this marvelous work of American history I happened to gaze at this month’s Vanity Fair, and, looking inside, reluctantly passing the Sofia Vegara article, I come across a name straight out of your book: Dinesh DeSouza, who was evidently in some kind of financial legal trouble, even doing time. Also there is a piece on another Bloom - Harold - and his defense of a traditional artistic canon. Some of the issues raised are still with us. I understand that you conclude in the book that the “culture wars” are “history,” about a periodization involving something that occurred in the 80s and 90s, and therefore is in at least one sense past. What are your thoughts on the world the culture wars made, the legacy of those years? What strikes you as anachronistic and what strikes you as still relevant?

Andrew Hartman (AH): As you know the bulk of my book is about the years between the 1960s and 1990s and I like to think my historical argument for that period is well documented. I only step onto thin ice in my brief and intentionally provocative conclusion where I argue that my book gives the culture wars a history—because they are history. There are two ways to think about the culture wars as history. On the one hand to say the culture wars are history is merely an indication that it is due time that historians make sense of the cultural conflicts of the 80s and 90s as history, as something from the past that matters to our contemporary understanding of ourselves.

On the other hand to call the culture wars history is to say something about them being of a past world, not our world. And indeed I argue in my conclusion that the logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course. I will use two examples to illustrate this point.

First, religious conservatives are more hesitant to conflate their values with national values. Whereas Jerry Falwell argued throughout the 1980s and 1990s that homosexuality was not only a sin but an affront to the values that animated the nation—he spoke on behalf of America as he imagined it when he criticized the gay rights movement—few major conservative figures are inclined to do this today. Rather, religious conservatives have sought to create autonomous zones wherein they might live out their religious and cultural values free from intervention from a secular federal government. This is the underlying logic of Indiana’s recent attempt to create a zone of “religious freedom” that would allow private citizens to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Such separatism also undergirds the approach that many conservatives take to public schooling. Millions of them have abandoned the battlefield of educational and curricular politics in favor of sending their children to private Christian day schools or even more commonly they have taken to homeschooling their children. They may have dreams of retaking the national culture one day, but few people in the mainstream take such dreams seriously. The secular left largely won these culture wars.

Second, think about one of the major fronts in the culture wars: the struggle over the canon, or the university humanities curriculum. Those battles are now rather remarkable artifacts of a history that feels increasingly distant. Whether Stanford University ought to assign John Locke or the anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, a debate that played out on The Wall Street Journal editorial page in 1988, would be nonsensical in today’s neoliberal climate marked by budget cuts and other austerity measures. Now Locke and Fanon find themselves for the first time on the same side—and it’s looking more and more like the losing one. On the winning side? Well, to take but one example, Winning, General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s breezy management book, which is widely read in American business schools. Sadly, even the almighty Western canon, revised to reflect a multicultural society or not, seems feeble up against Winning and the cult of business. Conservative defenders of the humanities are voices in the wilderness. The philistines are on the march.

MH: As a moderate reading your book I find myself as frustrated with some of the Left as I am with the Right. It was particularly odd to see the Right resurrecting points of view that were the laughing stock of jokes in the early 60s like the movie Dr. Strangelove. Any thoughts on that?  

AH: There is no doubt that the culture wars had a polarizing effect. I would say that this was partly structural—increasingly the left and right had their own institutions and constituencies to speak to and on behalf and thus there was less of a felt need to convince the unconvinced, which is the logic underlying moderation. But polarization was also historically grounded in what I call the dialectic of sixties liberation. Pre-sixties American culture was stultifying to those who did not live within its norms, and as such the New Left movements against normative America seemed immoderate. In response, the forces of reaction framed their defense of the old order in equally intemperate terms. But I caution against nostalgia for moderation because rarely has American political and cultural history been defined by what we might call moderate rhetoric—the United States is not Canada! Second, the postwar age of consensus might only seem moderate in retrospect because the spectrum of political and cultural possibilities was so narrow.

MH: I was struck in reading this book at the philistinism and lack of culture to the whole lot of the Right in the 80s and 90s. It appears that the Left had the better minds and the better prose. Do you think some of the hostility could be a kind of unconscious jealousy at the intellectual powers of some for those figures? I can't imagine Lynne Cheney being unaffected by a basic realization that she just isn't as deep a thinker along the lines of a Fred Jameson or Joan Scott, for example. 
(Photo of notable historian Joan Scott)
(Photo of Fred Jameson, Notable Marxist critic)
AH: Actually, as I indicated above, conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s were more about “culture” than they are now. William Bennett, who served in the Reagan administration as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then as Secretary of Education, argued that every American should have an education grounded in the humanities, specifically, the Western Canon. He wanted all Americans to read Socrates and Shakespeare. Compare that to someone like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who apparently thinks an education based in the humanities is a luxury good that American taxpayers should not have to fund. Many conservative critics, those like Alan Bloom and Roger Kimball, were quite learned in a very classical way and I doubt they were motivated by intellectual insecurities about philistinism. In fact they likely believed their left-wing counterparts were the philistines for thinking the canon could be revised to include more recent works by women and minorities—works that conservatives believed had not stood the tests of time and tradition.

That said you are correct that, more generally, conservative culture warriors often appeared to be hostile to higher learning, especially if such learning threatened those values they held dear. It has perhaps been this way for a long time since universities have been the great engines of secularization since the late 19th century.

MH: In general you have an uncanny empathy and sympathy for all of the minds you cover in this book. You seem to get inside the minds of all the different interest groups and make their feelings and thoughts come alive for the reader, making this history book read like a novel. You also are able to focus on what was at stake for all of the principles and principals involved. Is this gift you have simply part of what it is to be an historian and where do you think this deft skill comes from in your own experience and in your scholarship? I'd imagine teaching a lot of conservative students, say, could be one experience that could strengthen that. Putting experience aside, you just might have this gift of empathy and it is a mysterious thing. Not all writers of history have it however.

AH: Well, thank you for the generous compliment! 

"Although I am on the left, and have always been on the left, I try my best to empathize with those whom I write about. Nothing bothers me more than the tendency among American historians, most of whom are on the left, to not take our illiberal or conservative or reactionary historical subjects seriously as thinking human beings whose ideas had a certain logic to them. Richard Hofstadter was a brilliant historian and gifted writer—I still love reading him—but his dismissal of conservatives as psychopaths will forever count against him. How did I learn how to become empathetic? I did grow up among a lot of conservatives, and continue to have a lot of conservative friends and students. But more important is historical imagination, which I take seriously. As historians we have to imagine worlds different from our own—worlds both utopian and dystopian; worlds as they were understood even by people we find disreputable."
(pictures above: historian Richard Hofstadter, author of Anti-Intellectualism In American Life and Age of Reform
MH: One of the things that struck me most about this story and made it a sad one for me (and again, this might be an effect of me being hopelessly, helplessly moderate) is how extreme and partisan those years were. It seems there were so few moderates. Everybody was always working for the team and have this loyalty to the team and the side, even if the team got out of hand or appeared to cross some kind of line. The Left seemed to be stuck in a kind of Marxist tradition - in a kind of anti-liberal or illiberalism, however new their ideas may have been and however critical they may have been of orthodox Marxism. The Right seemed completely unwilling to depart from the most patriotic and propagandistic mindset and unwilling to concede to the empirical discoveries that challenged an a priori American greatness and just kept digging in more. Certainly the Right wing continues to be quite extreme in tone and style.

AH: Everyone in the culture wars does indeed take an illiberal approach, in tone if not in content, to political discourse. In part this is because the postwar consensus was grounded in a narrow, stripped-down version of liberalism such that when both the left and right attacked the center they attacked liberalism. An early right-wing culture warrior like William Buckley, Jr hated the postwar liberal consensus nearly as much as any given New Left activist, although Buckley hated the world that came after the sixties had shattered the consensus even more! (For a brilliant analysis of this I recommend Kevin Schultz’s great new book, Buckley and Mailer: The Brilliant Friendshipthat Shaped the Sixties.) That the right continues to take an extreme tone speaks to the fact that American culture has indeed changed in ways they find disagreeable.

MH: Could you say further on the issue of current capitalism and culture? Is a world where everybody watches Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite more congenial to economic equality? What is your opinion, if you have read it, of Benn Michaels’ The Trouble With Identity?

AH: You pose one of those classic chicken-egg questions: is a common culture a prerequisite of a society committed to some degree of economic equality? Indeed in my conclusion I pose similar such questions. Perhaps the conservatism of mid-twentieth-century American culture is what made possible the New Deal? Can we have cultural revolution and social democracy? It seems unlikely, which is a sad conclusion for me to make because I would like both and see both as necessary if justice is the goal. The New Deal and its concomitant culture (“Judeo-Christian America”) were hostile to the aspirations of millions of Americans: some women, gays and lesbians, racial minorities (especially African Americans). But on the other hand, growing economic inequality has undercut such aspirations with as much force as anything else. So, yes, I have read Benn Michaels and am sympathetic to the class-based analysis that identity politics empowers neoliberalism. But it’s not as simple as merely shutting down identity politics.

MH: Why do you think the neoconservatives turned so far to the Right?

AH: To understand the early neoconservatives (Kristol and Podhoretz of the late 1960s and early 1970s) I think it’s important to downplay their attitudes about the state and American foreign policy and instead to emphasize domestic political culture in relation to the many movements of the New Left. 

(Norman Podheretz, Irving Kristol)
The neocons had by then come to terms with the America of the liberal consensus. They really, really liked it, in large part because it had been so good to them and it made so much sense to them. It seemed like the ideal form of meritocracy that hard-working bright Jews from working-class backgrounds could thrive in. So when Black Power activists and feminists and others critiqued the American meritocratic consensus as a façade the neocons went further and further to the right in their defense of traditional American values. Eventually this played on the world scene as well but originally it was more about affirmative action and student unrest and crime and feminism.

MH: I know I wrote earlier that the intellectual quality was low in Right Wing writing as compared to the Left. One might consider these figures an exception. Yet even the neoconservatives seemed to fall into a kind of dumbing down. Were they simply desperate to appear populist and in touch with common folks? I mean if you compare some of these writers' early output it is quite intellectually challenging and then in the late 70s and 80s some of them end up writing sort of hokey hymns to America. I know this is my own opinion but was this trend another expression of the war model? Once the neoconservatives joined a particular team they had to pay on that team and make common cause with a Schlafly?

AH: I think you are right to spot a certain dumbed down quality to later neoconservative writings. They joined the larger conservative movement and became spokespeople for that movement, which was often crudely anti-intellectual. Even more than the devolution of any one writer, we can detect right-wing declension through the generations. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz were highly original thinkers. Their sons Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz often seem like party hacks. I mean Bill Kristol shilled for Sarah Palin! This speaks to something that needs further exploration: the decline of the conservative intellectual.

MH: What is your vision of intellectual history? What are its promises and special skills? Where do you see it going?

AH: My favorite history to read, research, and write about is Big Ideas. What were the major animating ideas that motivated people to do the things they did, especially in terms of political behavior. But the great thing about intellectual history right now is its capaciousness. It is vibrant in terms of close readings of philosophical discourse, in terms of the history of sensibilities, in terms of political culture, etc. Intellectual history is alive and well and this is never more evident than when I click on the Society for US Intellectual History (S-USIH) Blog or attend the annual S-USIH Conference (disclaimer: I’m actively involved in both endeavors). It’s a great time to be an intellectual historian! (Now if only there were good tenure-track jobs for all of the great intellectual historians I know.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More Childhood Memories From the 1970s: the mysteries of human character

My dad in 1977!

I have been thinking about the word moderate and moderation, in reference to the title of my blog. I have also been thinking about writing down some more events from my childhood and adolescence.

It has been far too long - I believe a couple of years in fact - since I wrote in prose form concerning personal matters. There is so much from my childhood and adolescence to pick and, if possible, explore that there is always the question of what my "sensory system" (as one of the ways in which I describe my peculiar temperament) will recall out of the steaming flux.

One of my fondest memories of being with my father is the opportunity to ride around the city of Tampa in a wide bodied red Thunderbird convertible, with sort of bucket seats, a little shag on the floor and a white vinyl top. My favorite part of the convertible was the 8 TRACK and I would create my own mix tapes with music that obsessed me and which I tried in earnest to study and absorb. As one example of a mix tape, one would open with a Bach Bradenburg Concerto, continue with Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder, then a selection of Billy Cobham's Stratus album and finish with some solo piano of Bud Powell. The selections and order reflected my musical interests. And then there were the commercially preset releases of EARTH WIND AND FIRE, Chuck Mangione, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and Randy Newman.

 I even loved how the songs would be interrupted abruptly with that violating, screeching sound, because of some technological limitation that couldn't accommodate  pieces of music over a certain duration. Rather than being frustrated with this clearly awful design for music production or distribution, I would laugh about it for its very absurdity, though others around me would not laugh and usually just complain about it ruining the proper flow of the music. I think it is very possible that these ruinous interruptions, disrespectful of the musical artists, to say the least, had an unconscious influence on my own collage styled sense of nonlinear historical and musical time in my own compositions. I think I knew I had an odd sense of humor at this early stage of life.

These were some  unsurpassed happy moments from my childhood.

But there were things far less happy in my childhood and they do somehow connect with the T-BIRD. Another notable thing about the car was the curious man who sold it to my father.  This man was initially a colorful, or "flashy" character to me. He was a used car salesman and the price for this Thunderbird was as low as was possible in those days.

But when he was not working he would come over to the family house, sometimes unannounced and in a state of visible intoxication, swearing graphically and asking rude questions about political or religious matters. My mother always had a very kind way of setting him on his way, usually by calling his wife and asking for her to come get him, yet again.

Mr. Anderson was sort of a figure out of a Michael Ritchie movie. I am thinking of Bruce Dern's Big Bob Freelander character in SMILE. He even wore similar powder blue leisure styled dacron suits, but with wild Quiana prints all over the elephant collared shirts underneath the suits, and the gold chains. Unlike the Big Bob Freelander character, Anderson could be mean, perhaps even sinister.

The last thing I heard about this salesman Mr. Anderson was that he was so incensed and offended by a particular episode of the Phil Donahue Show that he took a semi-automatic rifle and shot out the t.v. set. Immediately after he called the local affiliate and complained that Phil Donahue was an unAmerican communist and that he considered an act of treason for any television station to bring such a host in to the rooms of ordinary and decent Americans.

Shortly after this incident his wife filed for divorce and both people left Tampa, leaving nothing but a For Sale Sign hanging over his used car lot. I really liked Mr. Anderson until I heard about him shooting up that t.v. set. From my point of view he was that flashy salesman who sold my father a really cool car, or something to that effect. It was in the light of new information that I had to reconsider who or what this man really was. This revisionist information was a kind of external sensation - involving destroyed televisions, abused wives, screaming and yelling and the like.

There was something simply wild about Anderson. His form of right-wing excess was and is so common in this country. It was around me all of the time and I grew so completely used to it. It was the most shocking thing in the world to come back East and meet people who were not rabid like that in their passions.  I had no idea there was this moderation because I saw so little of it. People who seemed urbane and laid back. It was not their Liberalism, if that is the correct formulation, that made them different. It was the fact that they did not make a federal case out of everything, or if if they did, it seemed under some kind of rational control. I craved that in my life, as a stay against the instability and volatility I encountered so often in Florida. Today when I read news about this or that extremist conservative movement or politician I am often reminded about these days. Perhaps I was seeing the birth of today's world.

A lot of understanding people really comes from aesthetic signs from the outside. This is what Oscar Wilde really meant when he said that it is only the superficial people who do not judge by appearances. Appearances might include modes of dress, eye movements. body language, speech of course, and patterns of outward behavior over a period of time.

It takes an enormous amount of volatility in feeling, reaction, however you choose to label it and with whatever psychological jargon of the moment, to take a gun and shoot at your t.v. set. Lest you think this was the sole province of a macho male like Mr. Anderson, the girls and women I met in Tampa had a similar volatility, usually about different things and expressed in different styles. If you got any of the religious ones started on a subject dear to their heart: the evils of Abortion for example, (being a common one), you would get screamed at about the issue as if your very own survival depended on whether you believed whatever the party line was.

I remember in particular one woman ranting for an entire hour about the evils of a man who dared to be bare chested in public on the side of a road, and how this man was a symptom of all that was rotten and evil in America. This was during some kind of field trip in the de rigueur wide bodied Buick station wagon with that damned wood panelling on the side. Now the car moved so fast that I don't remember seeing the man at all but I had to hear about him and what he symbolized for the hour. And the woman doing the ranting was the Liberal person in town: she was the head of a high school drama department!

And as I have written about in these personal series before, the behavior of children in some of my Floridian milieu was simply anti-scocial. Or maybe simply a-social. I really couldn't say. One kid threw me overboard in a canoe, causing me to come near death from drowning, only to be rescued by one of the counselors.

Another kid would grab and grope at the intimate anatomy of any girl who happened to be in the vicinity, sometimes in the most vile and aggressive of fashions. He would cause pain and then laugh about it, exposing a mouth with a couple of missing teeth and the worst case of acne you'd ever see and then grab at the crotch of his LEVIS Toughskins. My one attempt to correct him - by essentially beating him up so that he would cease his predations, the only time I ever hit anybody - got me suspended!  Amazingly the school took his side. I did hurt the kid and he had to be taken home that day and well, it practically went to Juvenile Court, or so that was the threat.

I saw kids physically attack their own parents and teachers, throw tantrums of all kinds. Indecent exposure was common, and in a most public fashion, particular with a couple of kids who were severely mentally disturbed. (One myth or cultural assumption of the"free schools" at that time was that you should just throw all sorts of kids in one room together to teach them, under some notion of radical egalitarianism).

One time a man beat his own son in front of me and some neighborhood kids in his trailer park home and we would all sort of watch, only too happy that we were not his children and outside the scope of his wrath. Oddly we never thought to report it or intervene. There was talk that he was taken away by the city and locked up for a very long time and that trailer was vacated.

Coming home, the home of my own mother and father, was always a kind of shelter from the outside world, since my home seemed relatively calm and supportive by contrast. For these I am eternally grateful to my parents, yet I did realize  much later that my own parents had little in common and lived for thirty years in conditions of undiscussed and silent unhappiness in their marriage. And regularly the outside world would intrude and it was never pretty, from religiously fundamentalist relatives, people peddling miracle cures and snake oil of all kinds and many other things that I couldn't begin to five a coherent description but involved lots of matching jumpsuits or jogging suits and sales of dubious motivational self-help books for one cause or another, whether religious or secular.

From the earliest age I had no idea of or illusion about natural, human innocence or any notion of the kind. Human evil and untrustworthiness seemed as much integral to the human animal as any highly touted and advertised kindness.

And the fare at the movie theaters worked in harmony with how life appeared in "reality":

As a result, to this very day, I look askance at human emotion. I recognize that it is often more valuable than thinking, and it sets human souls and spirits upward unto the heights of joy. I could not be a musician or at least the kind that I am without my feelings. Yet emotion just as often sends people crashing downward in a manner that brings everybody in the surrounding environment down with them. I think that many people have the deepest need to impose their beliefs, in essence how they alone experience the world, unto others, utterly blind to the profound differences between us as if by the act of such imposition they will feel less alone or convert others to their system. Having unusual and nonconformist feelings I learned long ago to never hope for such things. Oh I will talk your ear off about my interests, passions, etc. but I don't ever really mean to impose or convert. If there is agreement or harmony I take that as a pleasant surprise or happy accident, in the fashionable formulation of the moment. I am reminded of the George Ramsay quote about which I learned from psychologist Steven Reiss:

"The same difference of feeling and dullness of imagination explain what has often been observed: that one half of mankind pass their lives in wondering at the pursuit of others. Not being able to feel or to fancy the pleasure derived from sources other than their own, they consider the rest of the world as little better than fools, who follow empty baubles. They hug themselves as the only wise, while in truth they are only narrow-minded."

It seems that if people remembered this more than they do the world would vastly improve overnight. It is all part of this myth of consensus, and "getting to yes" and all of that earnest cheerleading that infects everything from TED talks, to current science, to, hell, how we even understand works of art. But that takes us a little further afield for my current purposes and will have to wait for a more appropriate time and place.