"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
As I file this column, the polls are still open in the New Hampshire primary. I’m rooting for Bill Bradley to upset Al Gore and, if not, for Bradley to continue and extend his campaign nationwide. Why should we Democrats be stuck with the glib, slippery, Clinton-contaminated Gore?
On the other hand, Gore is by any standard massively prepared, in command of detail and in knowledge of the federal apparatus, to assume the presidency. That can scarcely be said of the wet-behind-the-ears Gov. George W. Bush, whom the Republican establishment, misreading popular sentiment, foolishly anointed as their candidate of choice. Sen. Bob Dole, party bosses saw, was too old and dried out as he embarrassingly blew the 1996 election to a smart-mouthed hotshot incumbent.
But ironically the 2000 race would be a search for Honest Abe “authenticity,” not slick glamour. Any number of experienced, mature, even paunchy and balding Republicans — like Michigan’s lively Gov. John Engler — would have been a much more formidable threat to the preening, epicene Gore in the national election.
And so the United States will probably be stuck with a fumbling and unseasoned if likable second-generation Bush in the White House, since it’s hard to see how Gore can survive the widespread disgust, even in his own party, with the shabby Clinton legacy of lies and hijinks.
Many Salon readers have questioned my implacable opposition to Sen. John McCain, whom I have distrusted since I first became aware of him during the 1998 impeachment crisis. David Brannan, for example, protests:
You underestimate John McCain. He is the only Republican candidate who has resisted the siren song of the Christian Coalition that has been the downfall of the last two Republican runs for the White House. He deserves some credit for this, at least.
Similarly, J.M. Latino writes:
I cannot understand your apparent revulsion toward Senator McCain. It seems to me that your reaction is entirely visceral, as I recall your comments amounting to no more than you did not like his eyes and you describe him as creepy. To the contrary I find him genuine and feel that he carries gravitas which the other candidates lack. Though I will probably end up voting for him if he is nominated, Bush merely seems to be a Republican version of Clinton, though perhaps less intelligent (or maybe less cunning is a better description). Bradley seems unfocused and I would not vote for the hysterically dangerous Gore under any circumstances.
Yes, it’s quite true that my reaction to McCain is “visceral” — an excellent word to describe pure animal instinct. In this geopolitical era when rapid response is crucial for breaking crises, character is everything for an American leader. McCain has yet to convince me that he is more than a clumsy huckster of pompously self-aggrandizing bromides.
The journalists who pack into McCain’s office or train car and are regaled by his snappy shtick from the papal red-leather chair have made a major misjudgment about presidential potential. Schmoozing just won’t cut it when push comes to shove on the international stage. Week after week, the microscopic TV camera has exposed McCain as a hostile loner and brittle manipulator simmering with chaotic impulses.
Salon reader Lisa Roberts seconds my view:
I was relieved to see you call Sen. John McCain “creepy.” About a year ago, I caught my first glimpse of McCain on some sycophantic press show and experienced a wave of evilness wash over me in response to some pantomime of his. What a strange reaction to a “war hero.” I never felt this way before, nor can I explain it, and can only say that I felt a little like Christopher Walken in “The Dead Zone” when he shakes the hand of future presidential candidate Martin Sheen!
What is it about McCain that intuitively does not sit right with me? My husband had a similarly suspicious reaction to the man, and we now half-jokingly speculate that perhaps we’re witnessing some sort of “Manchurian Candidate” scenario.
I appreciate your evocation of “intuition,” Ms. Roberts — a gift crucial not just to the arts, but to every human endeavor from careers to personal relationships. Intuition desperately needs nurturing in an age of reason when science and technology are booming. As a teacher still animated by 1960s ideals, I am always struggling to find ways to encourage students to develop their intuition and to trust it. In short, I agree with your hunch about McCain, whose media-fueled political momentum will eventually run down.
I feel sorry for Steve Forbes, a perennial Republican also-ran. Forbes has always come across as a decent, intelligent man with bred-in-the-bone business skills, but he foolishly limited himself to tax issues for many years instead of enlarging his issue base. Foreign policy — George W. Bush’s weakness — is central presidential terrain that Forbes avoided for too long.
And it isn’t Forbes’ physical appearance that doomed him (he has imposing stature and posture); it’s his painful lack of grace and dynamism. A few simple lessons in speech and gesture (as well as new eyeglasses) might have done wonders. But Forbes’ reedy voice and blocky immobility may betray a fundamental lack of flexibility, spontaneity and creativity that voters — yes — intuited.
As for Gary Bauer — good heavens, what a walking embryo! It’s no wonder he has so fanatical a preoccupation with the unborn. I find Bauer’s bulging eyes and pubescent smirk profoundly disquieting, alternately reminding me of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and of the pre-Stonewall stereotype of the “pansy” or effeminate gay man. Hence Bauer’s anti-gay stridency suggests some strange psychic turbulence.
Whatever Bauer’s peculiarities and hypocrisies, however, he did not deserve the vicious stunt played on his campaign headquarters by gay writer Dan Savage, who boasts in Salon that he smeared his own saliva over doorknobs and telephones in an attempt to spread the flu. I agree with the outraged letter-writers who pointed out that the likely victims of this act would have been the innocent janitorial staff — the authentic proletarians who are of course invisible to elitist liberals blinded by their sanctimonious sense of moral superiority.
Furious Salon reader Alex Skovan writes to this column:
Flu is not necessarily a small matter. It can be very serious — for small children, sometimes even fatal. If someone on Bauer’s staff loses an infant to flu in the next month, should this evil little cocksucker Dan Savage be charged with murder?
Of course it doesn’t come as any surprise that a rabid left-wing faggot-fundamentalist would be capable of doing such a thing. I remember well the story of Kimberly Bergalis, the young woman who was murdered by her gay dentist. He didn’t use flu of course — he used the HIV virus. Maybe that will be what Mr. Savage tries next? After all he would be justified wouldn’t he? I mean, anybody who doesn’t agree with Mr. Savage on gay marriage deserves to die, don’t they?
I don’t really hate gays — but I do find their sameness of dress, sameness of manner and sameness of thought rather creepy. And I have always felt that there is a certain sniveling viciousness to them. The image of Dan Savage: sneaking around Bauer’s campaign headquarters sucking on doorknobs, like a horny twelve year old boy sneaking into the laundry hamper to whack off with mommy’s dirty panties.
Howard Stern once wrote that gay men were really little boys who didn’t want to grow up. Instead of forming relationships with women they just wanted to spend their whole lives hanging around with the boys. So what do you think, Camille?
As an open lesbian, first of all, I must dispute your point that gays look, dress and sound alike. The ones that grate on you (as on me) are the clones, the clubby leftist lemmings with their manufactured attitudes and cheap sneers. Yes, that crew sure does think alike — from the queer theory claques in academe to the preening hysterics of the ever-declining alternative press.
While your epithets will surely anger many readers, I want to remind them that words, however offensive, cannot compare in seriousness with the actual acts and malicious motivation in this case. And you have a perfect right to focus on the physicalities of gay sex since Savage himself gratuitously inserted his own oral cavity and secretions into the public discourse.
As for Howard Stern’s speculations about the origins of male homosexuality, they are in line with old guard Freudian theory about homosexuality as arrested development. That line of inquiry has been shut down by the American psychiatric establishment, which has been hog-tied since the 1970s by p.c. special interests. I’m happy that homosexuality is no longer classified as a disorder, but there was a practical wisdom in the Freudian model that needs to be recovered and updated.
The Savage episode is disastrous for the cause of gay rights in this country since it exposes the bizarre mix of infantilism and fascism in the most extreme gay activism. Savage’s sociopathic behavior was a shocking affront not only to basic ethics but to the professional standards of journalism. If I were the editors in charge, I’d fire Savage, issue a public apology to Bauer’s campaign, and make restitution of some kind — perhaps by a donation to a health-related charity.
Elsewhere on the political front, the Clinton administration, with its eyes on the upcoming elections, has made a mess out of the Elian Gonzalez issue. The hapless 6-year-old boy rescued from the sea should have been returned to his father in Cuba immediately after the ruling to that effect by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Women agents, backed up by federal and local authorities, should have removed the boy from enforced captivity in his relatives’ home.
The Clinton administration’s cowardly inaction has grievously inflamed an international incident beyond all proportion. How revolting to watch Attorney General Janet Reno hide behind the skirts of the boy’s Cuban grandmothers, who were imported to whip up popular sentiment for his return. Reno (who was originally promoted to the new President Clinton by Hillary’s scapegrace brother) is a continuing embarrassment whose serious health problems alone should long ago have warranted her resignation.
The reputation of Florida’s Cuban community has suffered in this controversy. Salon reader Frank Aguilera sends a baroque fantasia titled “those crazy Cubans in Miami,” which I excerpt:
Anyone who thinks that this thing is about this little boy is misguided. It is just an exiled group’s frustrated thrashing, a tantrum of impotence, like an aging spinster in front of a mirror who knows her day is almost past. Her friend tells her to get a cat, but the thought of being the cat lady of Florida depresses her. She wishes she was married to a democracy.
Many years passed, and she never found her prince and never regained her manor. Now old and bitter, she gets fewer and fewer visitors at her house. She finds less sympathy from her neighbors or even a willing ear to catch her rants. To her the world has become full of adulterers. “Adulterer,” she yells, with the desperation of the isolated and unheard. She picks emotional and ill-judged battles. “I won’t let that bastard win them all,” she says, while in Havana in front of a camera crew surrounded by little children waving flags he states, “That woman is crazy.”
That’s the Elian Gonzalez custody battle.
Thank you, Mr. Aguilera, for that mythopoetic flight in the surrealist style of Latin American fiction. The Cuban exiles of South Florida have unfortunately too often come across on national TV in this incident as irrational and even corrupt. Damage control is urgently called for.
Two new additions to our Liberal Media Bias department. When all nine justices of the Supreme Court — representing the prestigious third branch of the U.S. government — did not attend President Clinton’s State of the Union address last week, I was shocked and incredulous. Surely, given Clinton’s tortuous legal history over the past several years, the question of a humiliating boycott by the justices needed at least a modicum of investigation.
But no: Hours before the speech, the CBS evening news said absolutely nothing about the justices’ announced absence. The NBC news mentioned it without comment. The next day, the New York Times reported it without speculation or commentary. Is this Aristophanes’ Cloud-Cuckoo-Land? Wake up, folks! Even the feeble, trembling pope gets where he needs to be at show time.
Second example: When Michael Skakel, Ethel Skakel Kennedy’s nephew, was arrested on Jan. 19 for the 25-year-old murder of Martha Moxley, his 15-year-old neighbor in Greenwich, Conn., the networks reported the facts without dwelling on the connection to the Kennedys or alluding to widespread allegations that Kennedy influence had obstructed the original investigation.
I thought nothing of the American reportage until I was flicking channels while lying in bed and saw the late BBC “World News,” whose reporters had aggressively pursued Sen. Ted Kennedy that day for comment. There he was, caught in dramatic shadows by the BBC’s camera lights as he fled with measured haste down a Capitol Hill corridor and mumbled blandly over his shoulder about the “tragedy” of it all.
Epiphany: Our liberal, New York/Washington-based media would never in a million years put Liberal Godfather Ted Kennedy on the spot about his clan’s bad behavior, to whose lurid history he himself has contributed so much. (Mary Jo Kopechne, you are not forgotten.) Thank you, BBC, for your revelation about the invisible operations of our own media.
Full disclosure: I am a registered Democrat who is determined to return my party to the proletarian principles of the Franklin D. Roosevelt era. I despise the arrogance and duplicity of the current superstructure of the Democratic Party, but I equally reject the narrow and exclusionary assumptions of the Republican Party, which seem out of touch with the global, multicultural 21st century. I’m a progressive, capitalist libertarian. Chew on that!
As Hillary Rodham Clinton’s announcement of her senatorial candidacy looms, this column has some unfinished business with her. Media reviews of her Jan. 12 appearance on CBS’s David Letterman show were amazingly lockstep. Hillary was uniformly pronounced “charming” and “relaxed,” while only the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser, to my knowledge, had the honesty to call her “stiff.”
Was no one else sickened by the spectacle of the first lady of the United States unctuously kissing a TV host and flattering his fey bandleader with phony invitations to come on down the road and drop in at her new digs? Did no one else notice the frozen, artificial, Dresden-doll smile plastered on Hillary’s face throughout? — which of course photo editors made sure was never seen in the optimally perfect, semi-profile stills published in the major print media.
Was no one else disturbed by the tone-deaf rhythms in Hillary’s lumpish, humorless recitation of the “Top Ten” list written for her by the Letterman staff? There one heard unmistakable evidence of Hillary’s years of disdainful removal from the contemporary currents of American life. But no, the world was told the next morning that her appearance was a tour de force that somehow stilled all doubts about her candidacy. And of course the major media made no effort to investigate reports that Letterman producers used the threat of the Secret Service to forestall booing or catcalls from the audience.
When 36 hours later Letterman was rushed into heart surgery for a quintuple-bypass operation, the first thing that popped into my mind was Theresa Russell’s steely line to Debra Winger in that superb film “Black Widow” (1987): “She mates, and then she kills.” My second thought was “Malocchio!” — meaning Hillary has the evil eye, that bane of the ancient and modern Mediterranean world. Yes, yes, I know Letterman’s check-up was pre-arranged and his heart condition chronic, but it’s still a hell of a coincidence that emergency hospitalization followed one touch of the red queen’s lips.
The Buffalo, N.Y., radio host who caused a huge stir the following week by asking Hillary about her rumored affair with Vincent Foster was blunderingly inept, since what Hillary does need to be pursued about is not her undoubtedly uninteresting romantic past but her trail of professional disasters — of which her confidant Foster’s still-unexplained ritual hara-kiri, following flaming administration screw-ups with Travelgate and Waco, was a prime example.
Rod Dreher’s litany in the Jan. 25 New York Post had a refreshing, hard-edged sanity. “When are you going to apologize to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy?” he rhetorically asked Hillary, as he pointed out that Monica Lewinsky’s soiled dress “ultimately proved nearly everything the president’s alleged enemies charged.”
“What about Filegate?” Dreher went on. “Sworn testimony” about the 900 private FBI files illicitly obtained by the White House suggests that “the first lady played a key role in ordering the Nixonian violation of privacy”: “Hillary wants her privacy respected, yet there’s reason to believe she cared nothing for the privacy of her presumed political adversaries.”
And then there’s the subpoenaed billing records for the Madison Guaranty Trust that “mysteriously disappeared” and resurfaced at a legally opportune moment two years later in a room off Hillary’s White House study. Of Hillary’s demand to be “judged on my own merits,” Dreher said, “Well, what has she done in public life that didn’t depend on her husband’s power and place?” Not only did she stand by her man “as he harassed or carried on with other women,” but she “defended him as his henchmen then tried to destroy those women’s reputations when they dared to speak out.” Well put!
Salon reader Tom Ivancie contributes this remarkable letter:
It was recently reported that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife Cherie was busted for fare dodging on the London tube. She said she was running late for work and didn’t have enough fare in her pocket, so she sneaked aboard. When reporters caught wind, she described the whole experience as embarrassing.
Think about it for a moment: the wife of the British Prime Minister is taking public transportation to work as a lawyer! What’s more she is pregnant with her fourth child! Contrast this to Hillary the Duchess, as you call her: a woman who has never succeeded in any job glides around in limousines and is surrounded by a deep protective layer of aides and Secret Service agents.
Camille, while I know you are no fan of Tony Blair, I would love to see you do a comparison and contrast of these two women. In my view, Cherie, a practicing Roman Catholic, is the true proto-feminist. She also appears to have a humility and grace you don’t find in public figures and celebrities anymore. I find it intriguing that she has a successful career, a very sweet almost self-effacing public demeanor, and an obvious sex life with her powerful husband in contrast to our cold and arrogant First Lady.
There’s nothing I can add, Mr. Ivancie, to your splendid comparison, which I’m sure will fascinate Salon readers across the political spectrum. James M. Downs writes from Los Angeles:
I’d just love to hear your opinion on Hillary Clinton’s nauseating tale about how shaking Martin Luther King’s hand changed her life, and how Dr. King inspired Hillary to “a life of public service.” I don’t know what annoys me more, Hillary’s shamelessly parasitic venture into Al Sharpton’s HQ, wherein an anti-Semitic speech warmed up the
audience, or the fact that I am still waiting for this alleged “public service.” From everything I’ve seen from Hillary’s résumé, she’s performed about as much public service as Marie Antoinette.
Hillary’s frosty, distant demeanor reminds me of the Northern abolitionists of the 19th century — all for equal rights, but God forbid she actually had to be near all those black people when they are freed. I mean, can you actually see Queen Hillary mingling with blacks if a TV camera weren’t around?
And this notion of public service is laughable. HRC advanced her career on her husband’s coattails and has never been elected to public office in her life. Her idea of public service seems to be making a fortune off of land deals and throwing spoils to her Arkansas cronies (as in the travel office scandal).
Yes, Mr. Downs, the media gave Hillary a free pass on her pious Martin Luther King Day claim that King’s handshake transformed her as a teenager. The most obvious riposte was to ask why, then, did Hillary energetically campaign afterward for archconservative Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race? Doesn’t it look like King’s impact was to drive her away from African-Americans and their concerns?
And let’s not forget Hillary’s arrogant rudeness on the platform at her Wellesley College commencement to an eminent African-American, Republican Sen. Edward Brooke, who deserved better as the invited, honored guest.
Nanci Weber sends a query from Wappingers Falls, N.Y., about Hillary’s exploitation of government resources and the Secret Service in her senatorial campaign, which has already reportedly snarled expressway traffic near her new house in busy Westchester County:
I’m wondering why the American press hasn’t picked up on the fact that Her Majesty is fleecing the poor taxpayers for the actual cost of this “escapade”? There’s no shortage of talking heads on every cable channel, so why “hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil”? It’s unbelievable that none of them even touch this issue except for those who get caught in traffic jams and mention it in passing. Are they afraid they might not be invited to the next dinner at the White House?
Do we need Hillary? No. Do we want Hillary? No. How do we get RID of Hillary? Ah, that’s another question.
Witty fusillades have arrived aplenty apropos the Clintons. Stephen Wood writes from Maple Valley, Wash.:
Juxtapose the Kosovo bombings with the Lewinsky mess, and you’ll register the emergence of a common theme: impersonal, risk-free, artificially distanced action. Sex, if you will, without penetration. At last, the “Clinton legacy” about which nostalgic boomer journalists have so incessantly harped.
Lillie Wade notes that Mad magazine’s January 2000 issue sums up “Clinton’s presidency in a nutshell” when it says that Monica Lewinsky’s book “exploits her short-lived affair with the Commander in Briefs.” Wade declares, “If ‘Commander in Briefs’ isn’t a culmination of Clinton’s second term, I don’t know what is!”
Charlie Holst asks:
Am I the only one who sees the irony in Monica’s Jenny Craig ad? “I tried every imaginable diet …” What on earth were the copywriters thinking when they wrote that line? Had they forgotten about the most famous item in Miss Lewinsky’s diet … the presidential willie?
David Phelan offers two striking art historical analogies:
Gore’s profile — the way the nose erupts into the forehead, coupled with his stiff bullying — reminds me of Giovanni Pisano’s figures (not to be confused with his father, Nicola, nor with Andrea). Think of the Herod panels. Hillary Clinton’s public, phony face reminds me of Cindy Sherman’s early photographs. Conclusively seeking a pose.
And finally here’s a vivid bulletin from Japan. Salon reader Steven D. Tripp of the Center for Language Research at the University of Aizu writes:
Last night I was watching a TV program about the Cultural Revolution and they had a longish clip of Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, in her younger days. Believe it or not, she looked like Hillary! Not just her face, but her expressions, her mannerisms, and her body language. I’m not making this up! See if one of your students can’t dig up this TV program. You’ll be amazed.
Thanks, Prof. Tripp. We’ll all leave this week’s Hillary saga with visions of Madame Mao dancing in our heads!
On another polarizing national controversy, gun control, Tim Hartin sends this riveting meditation from Mount Horeb, Wis.:
Gun controllers often betray a superstitious, animistic fear of guns. Guns are not regarded as inanimate objects; rather, guns are often spoken of (and thus presumably viewed) as if they are independent actors or agents of evil.
Gun controllers very rarely have any direct experience or background with guns. They tend to come from upper class, urban households where guns were not present, and many have never held or shot a gun.
Gun controllers espouse a society in which citizens are defenseless and totally reliant on a centralized patriarchy (namely, the cops) for security, a situation curiously reminiscent of early childhood.
In particular, movement feminists are hard-core gun controllers, even though a gun is the ultimate equalizer for a woman physically threatened by a man, and is in fact her only hope for real security. One would think a movement feminist would be in favor of universal female gun ownership, yet they push for just the opposite.
Gun controllers cannot acknowledge the good that guns do, through self-defense and the legitimate pastimes of sport, hunting, collecting, but instead focus obsessively on the relative handful of traumatic incidents featuring guns.
Gun controllers seem to have a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature, believing that ordinary people are either too stupid or too malicious to be trusted with guns, that the mere presence of a gun will cause people to escalate an argument into a firefight.
I agree with your analysis, Mr. Hartin. Even though I have no interest in guns (swords have fascinated me from childhood), my uncles who served in the military and the National Guard have always owned and collected guns for hunting. The shrill mania about guns emanating from white middle-class liberals seems peculiarly off base to me.
While loopholes in the gun trade do need to be closed (it was far too easy for the Columbine butchers to buy guns at a trade show), it’s not law-abiding gun owners who are the problem. Other social pathologies have produced American violence — such as the absence or weakness of fathers or the economic disintegration of the inner cities aggravated by the huge profits (thanks to misguided anti-drug government policies) in drug trafficking.
The Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees the people’s “right to keep and bear arms.” Many have argued that this protection applies only to state-sponsored militias, but I disagree. Totalitarian government excesses will always be a threat — as was shown by the outrageous use of government tanks to smash down buildings at David Koresh’s ranch at Waco in 1993.
My fellow Democrats have been needlessly disrespectful to citizens’ basic needs to provide for their own protection in authentic emergencies such as insurrection, natural catastrophe or famine. We’re far from immune to such crises, which history shows recur again and again.
Now on to education. The protest by my sister Lenora about the destruction of Smith College’s distinguished art history survey course inspired a letter to this column from Ellen Herr, a Bryn Mawr graduate now in law school at Catholic University Columbus:
I too was deprived of an art history survey course. I attended Bryn Mawr College from 1993 to 1997 and looked forward in my freshman year to the next year when I’d have space in my schedule to take the great Art History 101, a survey course using the H.W. Janson “History of Art” book — the tome used in probably every art survey course ever taught.
However, much to my great disappointment, the next year, the 100-level art history courses had been rearranged into topical classes that covered only bits and pieces. How was I to choose? Well, I eventually took Italian Renaissance painting and modern architecture, but that leaves so much out!
Luckily I’m a smart girl and like reading on my own, but I’m still saddened that my liberal arts curiosity was thwarted by the balkanization of the art history department. And don’t think it hasn’t spread to other parts of the curriculum.
My blood boils, Ms. Herr, at the way the humanities have been gutted even at Bryn Mawr, with its illustrious tradition of art historical study. Of course one can imagine the p.c. deliberations that led to the end of Art History 101: Janson has too little art by women or non-whites, so let’s just throw his grand historical perspective out the window. “Greatness,” of course, no longer exists in the arts; it’s just a spiteful conspiracy by the white male in-group. When I sent your troubling letter to Lenora, here’s what she replied:
I was interested to see that Bryn Mawr led the way in the demise of the art history survey course. I just can’t believe how stupid the whole thing is — not just “fixin’ somethin’ that ain’t broke” — this is “breakin’ somethin’ that was precious.”
Really, how are they ever going to repair the break in the scholastic tradition, if no one is given the chance to appreciate or even understand the concept of true erudition? It may be irreparable, just like the damage done to America’s cities by “urban renewal” which wiped out buildings that can never be made the same way again. Especially with the concurrent rush to “technologize” everything — libraries throwing out card catalogues, undoing the unified efforts of years of librarians’ toil, and discarding “out of date” books to make way for more “diversity” — having no clue as to what they throw out because no one ever taught them how to evaluate quality.
That’s why I think the idea of the Historic Preservation movement is apt: people realized with architecture that the losses were final. People don’t have any clue how fragile our knowledge base really is.
On the role that campus feminism and chi-chi leftist cultural studies have played in all this, here are two testimonies. Scott Cohen describes his disillusion with a Shakespeare course:
In my college courses at the University of Florida, I eagerly signed up for an upper-level course in the Bard, only to discover that the professor was “teaching” from a New
Historicism/”feminist” perspective. All the surging energy of Shakespeare’s works suddenly became banal, political tripe. The analysis of “The Taming of the Shrew” was the nadir of the class.
Yes, Mr. Cohen, when Shakespeare’s plays are simplistically reduced to race, class and gender (the tedious mantra of the baby-boom mediocrities who occupy the loftiest, most highly paid professorships in American academe), students are denied the education in creative imagination that they deserve and that their hard-working parents thought they were paying for. Matthew Hatch submits a parallel tale from graduate school:
I escaped Duke University with an M.A. in German literature — I know I don’t have to explain to you why I had to flee! Suffice to say I was sick of being the only person to question why we were reading post-modern feminist theory in a class on German linguistics, and knew that there was no way in hell any literature department in the country would give me a job.
I now work as a computer technician, because during my grad student years I was fortunate enough to become computer-literate using my Macintosh to write music (the only thing that kept me sane in those years). I wish I could find some way to use my background in literature and history to make a living, but haven’t had any luck, other than a few articles/commentaries written for local “alternative” newspapers (which paid for, at most, a haircut).
I would like to ask for your opinion on one thing, which used to get me in a lot of trouble. I often found myself forced to defend the West by pointing out that, despite all our flaws and the lengths to which we still must go, it was the “Dead White Guys” who came up with the notion of individual freedom of expression and intellectual liberty.
It was always rather a joy to ask rabid feminists (mind you, I consider myself a feminist, and find myself in constant arguments with my young female friends who shudder at the term, trying to explain to them something of the history of women’s struggles with male bullshit throughout history) whether they would rather find themselves in the Middle East or Asia, to which I usually got blank, hostile stares.
Do you think there is any merit to my position that there is a linear progression evident in history, that we are infinitely better off now than in the past, particularly in regard to women’s place in society, despite all the problems which remain to be solved, and that most of this progress has been made in the Western world?
Yes, indeed, Mr. Hatch, this is precisely the controversial position I have taken since I parachuted onto the scene 10 years ago. The concepts of individualism and civil rights are Western, and thus it is Dead White European Males who began the process that led to modern feminism.
But don’t expect historical or political sophistication from American humanities departments, which lurched 25 years ago into the quagmire of European poststructuralism. “Theory” was and is a pretentious cop-out, a lazy evasion of true learning by B-minus minds who have brownnosed their way into A-plus jobs. The flight from the teaching profession of honest, clear-minded people like you has gone on for years and will prove devastating to American education.
There is a dispute among readers about our discussion of American ethnicity and regionalism. T. Wallace states that the standard radio broadcaster’s accent was modeled not on that of the Mid-Atlantic states but on “the English spoken in the mid-Midwest — from St. Louis.” Ryan Shaun Baker writes from Providence, R.I., however, that early broadcasters “chose the accent local to Omaha, Neb., as one that was unusually comprehensible nationwide, after the failure of the Manhattan accent for those purposes.”
I am reminded that our most successful late-night talk-show hosts, such as Johnny Carson, have tended to be from the Midwest. The accents and rhythms of the Heartland must have a nostalgically reassuring effect on the American audience, as at-home viewers drift off to sleep.
Before launching into our pop segment, let me add to the general applause over the slam-bang finale of Super Bowl XXXIV. I had two favorite moments in post-season play. In the first, as Washington Redskins running back Brian Mitchell, opening the second half of the Jan. 15 game that eliminated his team, hightailed it down the sideline for a record 100-yard kickoff-return touchdown, he flattened Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Martin Gramatica with a smashing straight arm — the canonical Heisman Trophy move that I adore but that is now regrettably rare.
In the second, St. Louis Rams linebacker Mike Jones, with seconds left in the Super Bowl, stopped Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson cold on the 1-yard line with a splendid, spiral, leg-wrap tackle that in stately replay was pure poetry in motion. TV commentators and online producers focus far too much on offense at the expense of defense. If the National Football League wants to expand and educate its audience, it should demand that the intricacies and virtuosity of defensive play get equal air time.
Two weeks ago, Kate Winslet made a sensational appearance via satellite from New York on Wally Kennedy’s “Philly After Midnight” show on WPVI, the local ABC affiliate. She was so vibrant, charming, mischievous, and overwhelmingly dominant. And she showed about 30 mercurial facial expressions in the space of five minutes. Winslet’s warm joie de vivre and healthy, ample-fleshed sensuality remind me of Betty Grable’s in a film like “Diamond Horseshoe” (1945), occasionally broadcast by the American Movie Channel.
Readers of this column know I am on a relentless guerrilla mission to dog that simpy Hollywood insider Helen Hunt forever for the Oscar she stole from Winslet two years ago — one of the great injustices in the checkered history of the Academy Awards. Not until Hunt tucks that Oscar into its own first-class seat on British Airways bound for Heathrow will I be satisfied and call off my baying, frothing hounds.
Speaking of great busts (Kate’s, of course, not flat-iron Helen’s), kudos to Maxim for its sensational February cover photo of Kim Smith ripely popping out of a wet bikini. Sweet Venus, did that give me a mood boost as I staggered into the local Wawa after digging out my snow-clogged driveway. Softcore porn lives again in the convenience stores! Gloria Steinem, eat lint.
Worst magazine cover of the new millennium has to be that bathetic hippie tribute engineered by Melissa Etheridge for the Feb. 3 Rolling Stone, where musician David Crosby (for decades a tragic addict) is unveiled as the biological father of her adopted child. What a callous piece of commercial calculation: Etheridge kept her secret until no one gave a damn anymore and until, coincidentally, her CD sales were off the boil. She now joins Kathie Lee Gifford in the Using One’s Kids as Stage Props department.
I tried, oh, how I tried to watch the Jan. 16 season premiere of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” but I just couldn’t stand it and kept switching back and forth to the frolicsome “Gidget” (1959) on the Turner Classic Movies channel. Apparently, there are huge numbers of people in this country who believe that Italian-Americans look and act like apes or mental and moral defectives and, moreover, that top awards should go to ham actors who depict them as such.
I despise “The Sopranos” (except for spunky actress Edie Falco). Sociologically, the show is 30 years out of date. I repeat my charge: “The Sopranos” is a racist caricature that allows urban critics and the mainstream audience to explore their antagonism and ambivalence not toward Italians (since we barely impinge on the power structure) but toward African-Americans, who are treated with euphemistic caution by the establishment press and networks. “The Sopranos” is the new O.J. Simpson trial — bread and circuses for consumers of bestial stereotypes.
Roland Wyler writes from London with an encomium to Sigourney Weaver after her appearance in my last column. Hailing her as “an absolute goddess,” Wyler says that while recently reading the “Secret History” of Procopius (a courtier of the sixth century Byzantine emperor Justinian) he became convinced that “Miss Weaver would be excellent as the cruel Empress Theodora, should a film ever be made about her.”
I certainly agree, Mr. Wyler, since I myself have been enjoying John Julius Norwich’s “A Short History of Byzantium” with its dense account of century after century of intrigue and slaughter. Formidable actresses like Weaver do need a larger scope for their talents in these banal Hollywood days of cutesy-pie chicks and layabout morose drips.
My first encounter with Theodora was in college via Alphonse Mucha’s widely sold poster of Sarah Bernhardt in costume for what must have been Watts Phillips’ 19th century play, “Theodora, Actress and Empress.” There already was an oratorio called “Theodora” by George Frideric Handel. I’ve never seen the 1954 Italian film “Theodora, Slave Empress,” with Irene Papas. AMC, please track it down for us! The time is right for lurid spectacles about decadent queens.
Sxren Frellesen writes from Copenhagen to join my admiration for Hayley Mills:
“The Parent Trap” is one of the most wonderful films ever. I have enjoyed it several times on laserdisc with one of my gay friends. Why do gay people have such great taste? “The Killing of Sister George” is fantastic too. I know of very few fellow male heteros with whom I can enjoy “The Women,” “Mrs. Miniver,” “Soap Dish,” “How to Succeed in Business,” “Pillow Talk” or “That Darn Cat.”
The best part of the laserdisc is that it includes the original copy for the film: “What could be better than one Hayley Mills? How about two?” I long for a world where two Hayley Millses made the public tick. These days it seems to be a bad Bruce Willis toupi. You made me want to see the film again — just to hear the scoutmaster tell the girls that they look like a “crackerjack” bunch of girls and then get soaked by a punchbowl.
You raise an interesting question, Mr. Frellesen, about the intense symbiosis of many gay men with old movies — a phenomenon that has never been fully explained to my satisfaction. Lesbians (present company excepted) rarely have this kind of obsessive, encyclopedic, yet mystic focus on the metamorphosing sexual personae of film. Gay men have been my sole priest-like partners in this avocation, which takes us to another world often more vivid than real life.
David Perez writes from Los Angeles to ask my opinion of “Chinatown,” which he just saw in its 25-year anniversary edition, including interviews with writer Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski.
I am happy to say that “Chinatown” (1974) is one of my favorite films. What entrancing evocation of mood, period and locale! What gritty, charismatic performances! But how sad to contemplate the decline of general-release moviemaking since then.
As I said last June at the National Film Theatre in London, Polanski’s wonderful “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), as well as “Chinatown,” gave great promise of a brilliant fusion of new European and old Hollywood styles. But all of culture, for reasons we are still sorting out, went to hell in a handcart in the 1970s. The 1960s renaissance never reached maturity. And the next generation of young artists was poisoned by political correctness, poststructuralism and postmodernism — which is, of course, a whole other story.
Thanks to J. Arons for letting me know that “Walk This Way,” Aerosmith’s recent musical autobiography, reveals that lead singer Steven Tyler is a fan of mine — which I suspected when he sent a giant bouquet of exotic flowers to my office at the University of the Arts five years ago. The female staff, needless to say, was electrified!
Final news item: My partner Alison Maddex vied with Madonna’s record by having two different photographs of her published by the New York Times within four days (on Jan. 18 and 21) in articles about her and Daniel Gluck’s Museum of Sex project on Manhattan’s lower Fifth Avenue. The Times pieces were then slothfully pirated by the Jan. 31 New Yorker for a wiftily inaccurate feature in Talk of the Town.
Postscript: On Feb. 17, I will be giving the Second Annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture at Fordham University, co-sponsored by the Canadian Consulate. My subject: “The North American Intellectual Tradition.” The lecture will be at McNally Amphitheatre, 140 W. 62nd St., New York, at 6:30 p.m.
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)