Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
I am amazed at the easy pass you still give the Obama administration. You continue to excuse his blunders and misses as the result of a lack of experience and bad advisors.
Many of Obama’s policies have been a scary continuation of the worst ideas of the last year of the Bush administration, while undoing some of the few things they got right.
You have been hitting that note about the need to shake up his staff for quite a while. Yet isn’t it true that people tend to surround themselves with like minds? You said recently that “I am hopeful that he will rid himself soon of these simplistic anti-American clichés.” Has it occurred to you that maybe that is just who he is and the people he surrounds himself with are just a reflection of himself?
I see Obama and his presidency as the crowning of the ideas of that northeastern liberal aristocracy you so much criticize. He appears to me as a cliché of all their pathologies, and yet you seem infatuated with him. You continually praise his speech and demeanor while to me it seems like a mask for his lack of substance. I find him to be a man of an oversized ego, with a messianic complex and a cult-like following, which would not be so scary if he didn’t wear the media as his own personal lap dog.
As a person born and raised in Latin America who studies history as a hobby, I can’t help but see President Obama as the closest thing we have had in this country to the long line of populist leaders who have been the scourge of Latin America for decades and sent many of us here into exile. He is not a Chavez-like figure who uses vulgarity and threats as a weapon but a more sophisticated version of a young Peron.
Yes, ever since week one of the Obama administration, I have been doggedly calling for heads to roll. As months of crass ineptitude drag on, however, the blacklist of those who should be tagged for the guillotine gets longer and longer. The most recent fiasco, of course, was sending the president of the United States on a humiliating fool’s errand to beg for the Olympics as a Chicago boondoggle. I cheered when splendiferous Rio de Janeiro rightfully got the gig.
You are correct to argue that the cluster of appointees around a person in power reflects his or her belief system and modus operandi. However, it is a mark of leadership to recognize the need for professional evolution beyond an old comfort zone. Obama is approaching a turning point which will define his political future, if he has one. He is surrounded by some mighty small potatoes who need shoveling into the dumpster. The petty provincials need to go, and far more sophisticated and world-savvy analysts must urgently be brought on board.
Opponents of Obama are perplexed by the disconnect in polling between Americans’ rejection of Obama’s policies and his personal popularity. Count me among those who are very critical of many of Obama’s actions or evasions but who continue to like him and to believe in his potential as a world leader. It’s true he has accomplished nothing thus far and did not remotely deserve the Nobel Peace Prize, a gift carrying a terrible curse. The Nobel should have been the crown of Obama’s career and not the butt of jokes. Yet the award has tangible significance insofar as Obama has endorsed the humanistic (if unrealistic) dream of a world without nuclear weapons. The lion may never lie down with the lamb, but politics will always be mired in seething, selfish squalor unless idealistic leaders appeal to our higher nature.
Hey, I’m a soldier and have been one for 30 years. My son is a soldier too. I have been deployed to the Iraqi theater, and my son is deployed to the Afghani theater. These are my credentials.
I understand your opposition to Iraq and Afghanistan in an intellectual sense, but I probably am tribal, too, and can’t understand it in an emotional sense. Here is my take from one who has been there and has someone I love still there. I agree the stated reasons we went to Iraq were in error, but the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan have one redeeming feature. The people we are fighting are tribal. All the nuts and haters are flocking to Iraq and Afghanistan to throw us out and kill us. That is excellent, and here is why.
If you look at the terrorist attacks against American target statistics for the 10 years before the Iraq “incursion” and then look at the statistics since, you will find a significant drop. I believe this is because all the crazies are attacking us in Iraq and Afghan, along with the disruptions we are causing their planning cells. While I personally dislike being shot at and targeted for high explosives (from personal experience), I much prefer that to people targeting my family at home. Here’s why. In the field I have weapons and support. When the other guy comes along, he is neither trained, equipped nor supported as well as I. In the majority of cases, he dies, not me. Look at the comparative death rates in the attacks in those prior ten years and now. We are killing more of them now than they are of us. In the field, we are prepared; in a terrorist attack, we are not.
Anything that reduces that is good, in my opinion.
By the way, I personally think fighting and killing are a waste of energy and treasure, but I am not going to stand aside while some other idiot who doesn’t believe as I do goes around killing my people.
Forest Park, GA
Thank you very much for your family’s selfless service to our nation. U.S. forces, with international cooperation, have concretely succeeded in major disruption of jihadist communications and training camps. But I remain skeptical of the “flypaper” theory of terrorism, which alleges that bad guys around the world have flocked to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight the U.S. incursions. Exactly what evidence is there of such a migration of outsiders? This viewpoint underestimates the degree of active indigenous resistance to the American presence, including among citizens who might not otherwise be politically engaged or attracted to Muslim extremism.
Because of my own family’s service (in the U.S. Army, Navy, and Massachusetts and New York National Guard), I am a strong supporter of the military and do believe that there are just wars. However, I want the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and I oppose the costly maintenance of U.S. military bases all over the world. Let Europe, for example, pay the price of its own defense and stop leeching off of us. Except for naval and air exercises, our military should be stationed on American soil, where service men and women can lead normal lives in close proximity to family and friends. With advanced satellite technology that can read the street number on a house, why are we still locked to outmoded theories of warfare predicated on the cumbersome transport of battalions and materiel?
American policy seems to be wed to a perpetual state of war. Why? History shows that the world will always be in flux or turmoil, with different peoples competing for visibility and power. The U.S. cannot fix the fate of every nation. In many long-embattled regions, there are internal processes at work that simply must play themselves out. We are overextended abroad and committing financial suicide at home. The escalating national debt is our enemy within. Fanatical jihadism will continue to be a tactical problem, but its attacks, however devastating, will always be sporadic and local. Jihadism cannot destroy the U.S. But our own reckless politicians, spending us into oblivion and servitude to China, can.
I was a liberal graduate student in the 1980s. I am now a conservative Navy veteran, small-business owner, wife of an active duty officer who has been to Iraq four times (and will deploy again next year) and a concerned mother of two small children.
As a registered Independent, I am very concerned about where our country is headed. I am now a “right-wing terrorist” and have attended multiple Tea Parties. I host an active political Facebook page (“Pensacola Teaparty”). This is the first time in my 44 years that I have been involved in politics.
On both the domestic and foreign policy fronts, I am scared to death about where our country is going. My husband is the first to raise his hand to volunteer for a mission when duty calls (he’s a Navy SEAL and physician), but I am increasingly concerned over the lack of strategy in our current war efforts.
I am sickened to see our Constitution being trampled on day after day. I am disgusted with the corruption and dirty politics being played on both sides of the aisle. I am infuriated that our elected officials arrogantly refuse to listen to We the People, no matter how many genuinely concerned citizens peacefully congregate at town halls or on the streets of Washington, D.C.
So much of the population is ill-served by the mainstream media’s “coverage” of events. Like you, I listen to talk radio every single day (I am now a photographer and work from home). This isn’t about liberal versus conservative. It’s not about Democrat versus Republican. It’s about right versus wrong. It’s about liberty versus tyranny (thank you, Mark Levin!).
I and scores of other “Mommy Patriots” are genuinely frightened for the future of our children, and we are rallying to save our great nation. Our country needs people who are not afraid to speak the truth!
I have been deeply impressed by the citizen outrage that spilled out into town hall meetings this year. And I remain shocked at the priggish derision of the mainstream media (locked in their urban enclaves) toward those events. This was a moving spectacle of grassroots American democracy in action. Aggrieved voters have a perfect right to shout at their incompetent and irresponsible representatives. American citizens are under no duty whatever to sit in reverent silence to be fed propaganda and half-truths. It is bizarre that liberals who celebrate the unruly demonstrations of our youth would malign or impugn the motivation of today’s protestors with opposing views.
The mainstream media’s failure to honestly cover last month’s mass demonstration in Washington, D.C. was a disgrace. The focus on anti-Obama placards (which were no worse than the rabid anti-LBJ, anti-Reagan or anti-Bush placards of leftist protests), combined with the grotesque attempt to equate criticism of Obama with racism, simply illustrated why the old guard TV networks and major urban daily newspapers are slowly dying. Only a simpleton would believe what they say.
Superb evisceration of the Democrats. I, too, have indelible memories of the risky, ecstatic mysticism of the late ’60s (trivialized by younger baby boomers who turned hallucinogens into party drugs) and often wonder where that mystery depth dimension went.
But there is a sense in which that spirituality was only another affluence-subsidized consumer good, the Davy Crockett coonskin cap of our adolescence. And I’m afraid what our generation meant by “freedom” turned out to be little more than the freedom from responsibility and commitment and the freedom to get it on. Adolescent demands.
That’s not fair, I realize. Breaking out of rigidified, oppressive notions about race, authority, women and nature was a true and very American liberation. Too bad those insights have now rigidified into new pieties that are as codified, unimaginative and oppressive as those they overthrew.
What you have described is the Orc-Urizen cycle, a pattern identified by the great Romantic poet and visionary artist William Blake after the French revolution. Blake saw every radical impulse toward freedom eventually ossifying and turning back on itself in a new oppression and tyranny. You are quite right to detect adolescent naiveté in many demands of white middle-class young people in the 1960s. We had been overprotected by our parents, who had suffered Depression and war for most of their lives and were determined to give us something better. Unfortunately, the result of this well-intended paternalism was a cultural banality and stifling conformism that the ’60s tried to destroy by any means necessary. But it is still puzzling why that dissident generation so enamored of freedom would have drifted toward today’s speech codes, thought control and ideological intolerance.
The purpose of this message is to express my outrage at the frequent criticism of Sarah Palin for having gone to five schools before she graduated from the University of Idaho. What many of her critics fail to understand, or smugly disdain, is the reason she attended several schools. Sarah’s parents told their four children that they could not afford to pay their way through college, and if any of them wanted to go on to college, they must figure a way to pay for it on their own.
It is a towering credit to Sarah Palin’s ambition, courage and will to persevere that she acquired college credit hours when and where she had the opportunity and could pay for them and had the drive and guts to earn her B.A. Although a degree from the University of Idaho may not impress someone who attended an Ivy League school, having the title the University of Idaho on her sheepskin is certainly more elegant than, say, Southwest Wyoming State Teachers College.
Those whose parents paid their way through school evidently don’t appreciate what extra effort it took Sarah to acquire her B.A. But I do, because hailing from Galena, Kansas, the only Kansas town mentioned in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” I know what it’s like to grow up poor, at least poor in relative terms.
It’s common for working-class youngsters who manage to go on to college to go to one school, as did I, for their first couple of years. In many cases, a kid will live at home while going to a nearby college. It irks me that smug, spoiled brats have the gall to criticize Sarah Palin for going to several colleges, because she didn’t flunk out of those schools — she was scratching and clawing to grab credit hours when she could.
Although I graduated from the University of Kansas very near, if not at the very bottom, of my class, I remain proud of the degree I earned, because it enabled me to wiggle my way out of the lower working-class. I busted my fanny to make it through school, working as a busboy at a tavern and as a waiter in a sorority house. But first I went to school at a small state college, Kansas State Teachers College at Pittsburg, near my hometown, before transferring to the University of Kansas to earn my B.A. from a school with a better reputation than KSTC’s.
My father was the youngest of ten children born to a farm family and probably never had a penny which he hadn’t earned by his hard labor. He chose to lease and operate a gas station in Galena, Kansas, until he’d earned enough to purchase the station from the oil company. Operating a gas station was his vocation for more than 40 years. In all those years, I knew him to take only one weekend vacation, when he and my mother drove to St. Louis to watch a Cardinals game.
Colorado Springs, CO
Thank you very much for your personal testimony. I too have been repulsed by the elitist insults flung at Sarah Palin in the massive, coordinated media effort to destroy her. Hence I have been thoroughly enjoying the way that Palin, despite all the dirt thrown at her by liberal journalists and bloggers, keeps bouncing back as if unscathed. No sooner did the gloating harpies of the Northeastern media think they had torn her to shreds than she exploded into number one on Amazon.com with a memoir that hadn’t even been printed yet! With each one of these amusing triumphs, Palin is solidifying her status as a bona fide American cultural heroine.
Yes, the snobbery about Palin’s five colleges is especially distasteful, given the Democratic party’s supposed allegiance to populism. Judging by the increasingly limited cultural and factual knowledge of graduates of elite schools whom one encounters working in the media, blue-chip sheepskins aren’t worth the parchment they’re printed on these days. Young people forced through the ruthlessly competitive college admissions rat race have the independence and creativity pinched right out of them. Proof? Where are the major young American artists, writers, critics or movie-makers of the past 20 years? The most adventurous and enterprising minds have gone into high tech. We’re in a horrendous cultural vacuum because our status-besotted education industry is geared toward producing not original thinkers but docile creatures of the system.
Your opposition to hate crimes legislation makes some intuitive sense and is not uncommon. But my understanding is that it’s contradictory to some of the foundational ideas of U.S. law.
Would you also erase the traditional distinctions between the various degrees of murder, and between murder and manslaughter? The exact parsing varies by state, but some sort of stratification of killings by heinousness seems to be nearly universal. A murder committed for financial gain is worse than a murder committed in the heat of passion, and either is worse than an unintended killing. In these broad instances, the exact details of the crime are likely to differ, but that is coincidental. It’s easy enough to come up with thought experiments in which the only variation lies in motivation or mental state.
You are understandably reluctant to turn the analysis of a defendant’s private thoughts over to government functionaries, but that doesn’t mean that mental state can simply be disregarded. Somebody has to make a determination of motive. (Sadly, novelists and sibyls are rarely on hand to fill this role in court.) Would you really want sentences for murder to be assigned without reference to motive?
Hate crimes are not newly invented crimes. They’re just garden-variety crimes for which racial or ethnic antipathy is acknowledged as a potential motivation and as an aggravating factor; that is, a factor that causes the crime to be considered more serious than it otherwise might be. Many other aggravating factors are defined in existing law: profit motive, planning or premeditation, targeting of specific groups (police officers, judges, public officials, mail carriers), commission of the crime in the context of the planning or execution of a second crime and so on.
The real question is: Are these motivations common enough and pernicious enough that they merit special mention? If you had written that judges and juries already have wide enough latitude to make use of their intuitive appraisal of a crime’s seriousness, I wouldn’t be arguing. But you seem to be stating rather explicitly that no consideration should be given to mental state in any legal context. Really?
Thank you for your very cogent and stimulating rebuttal. In rejecting the category of hate crimes, I never meant to imply that I also object to classifying degrees of murder. However, the latter gradations are exculpatory, making the blunt instrument of ancient law more nuanced and flexible. I would question the relevance of this issue to hate crimes, which in my view impose a rigid conceptual frame derived from social engineering onto the legal process.
You raise an excellent point about harsher penalties on the books for assaults on police officers. However, I have never understood the reasoning informing those statutes, which seem to endow the lives of police officers with more value than those of ordinary citizens. There is certainly a social benefit in protecting police officers, who put their lives on the line every time they make a random traffic stop. Yet I see no parallelism here with the lives of gays in the U.S. Exactly what sacrifices have gays qua gays made for the nation to deserve protected status? Harassment of or violence against citizens for any reason should not be tolerated, whatever the motive.
There are a thousand elusive complications to any clash in public spaces like schools, bars or the street. For example, there was a horrifying recent incident in Philadelphia, where a melee in a bar among drunken white guys ended up with the beating and kicking to death of one of them outside the Phillies’ baseball stadium. Nothing but stupidity and deranged egotism was at fault in this atrocity. But if any one of the participants happened to have been gay or black, the p.c. vultures would have swooped in and turned the entire thing into a breast-beating cause célèbre — even if homophobia or racism played no role whatever in the events.
Hate crimes legislation, in my view, simply cushions people in their own subgroups and gives them a damaging sense of false entitlement. The world will always be a very dangerous place where anyone can cross paths with a psychopath. The human mind is home territory for Edgar Allan Poe’s “imp of the perverse.” Here’s another example from the Philadelphia police blotter: Last year, five African-American youths, just for the fun of it, sucker-punched a passing white man in the Center City subway concourse in the middle of the day. A manager at Starbuck’s who was on his way to work, he died from an asthmatic attack triggered by the assault. Surely he had been targeted because of his race. Why, then, was it not denounced as a hate crime? Why did those amoral marauders get a free pass in the hate crimes sweepstakes? The historical injustices suffered by enslaved Africans should not give infinite latitude to depraved individuals.
I say the law should be blind to race, gender and sexual orientation, just as it claims to be blind to wealth and power. There should be no specially protected groups of any kind, except for children, the severely disabled and the elderly, whose physical frailty demands society’s care.
I’d appreciate hearing your views on the various reactions to Roman Polanski’s fate. What seems lacking is open acknowledgment that a country’s great artists do — and, in rare cases, should — receive special treatment. As in the case of Jean Genet, whom the French government released from prison simply for being a genius, Polanski should, for the greater good, be allowed to continue his work.
Is this moral relativism? I don’t think so. The primary goal of a country’s laws should be to protect and foster its citizens. In this case, Polanski is no danger to anyone, and the victim simply wants to move on. Prosecutors must decide which cases are in the public’s best interest to pursue (no mention yet of the money and resources that could have been better spent here), so appeals to justice ring false. And besides, if given the choice between a great new Polanski movie and another media circus, which would you rather watch?
When I first heard that Roman Polanski had been arrested in Switzerland, I thought it was absurd because of his advanced age as well as the gravity of other issues facing this war-torn world. It seemed like a publicity stunt by Los Angeles authorities with too much time on their hands. However, on reflection, I soon concluded that Polanski, whatever his artistic achievements, has no right to claim exemption from the law’s demands. He is not a political refugee but a proud sybarite who has flaunted his tastes and conquests. If you live like the Marquis de Sade (one of the principal influences on my first book, “Sexual Personae”), then you should be willing to be imprisoned like Sade.
Polanski’s low-budget, bleakly black and white “Knife in the Water” (1962) was the first foreign film I saw in my very first week of college in 1964. It made a stunning impact on me and completed my liberation from the perky tyrannies of the ubiquitous Doris Day, who ruled mainstream U.S. culture like a basilisk. “Repulsion” (1965), another low-budget tour de force, retains its power as a surrealist nightmare starring the delectable Catherine Deneuve as a psychotic manicurist marooned in London. The occult “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) is superb story-telling with a sardonic twist; Polanski got sensational performances out of both Ruth Gordon and Mia Farrow. I have constantly recommended “Chinatown” (1974) to my students as a brilliant example of a moody, issues-oriented film noir in color — with three more top-notch performances (Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston). I have little interest in Polanski’s later films.
Despite this distinguished body of work, however, could anyone seriously argue that Polanski’s contributions to U.S. culture are so weighty that he deserves suspension of our laws for drugging and seducing a 13-year-old girl — even if it occurred during the hedonistic 1970s? Jean Genet, in contrast, was pardoned by France because of his cultural achievements in radically extending and subverting French language and literature (following Gide and Proust). Polanski’s work will retain the esteem of film historians and stay in rotation on Turner Classic Movies, but that’s a sliver of the population. Most Americans reading news stories about the Polanski case didn’t know who the hell he is. Why should they?
Subject: Mind-numbing French professor
I am perhaps the only airplane mechanic who also has a B.A. degree in French literature. I’m interested in obtaining a master’s degree in French and have searched websites of my local universities for more information about various programs. I came across this professor’s home page at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Rice has a great reputation, and but what kind of nonsense is this? Here are his areas of interest:
How do we articulate what we have learned in recent decades from a “cultural constructionism” of subjectivity and literary canons with aesthetic ecstasy (both the “old” and the “new” aestheticism)? Deleuze’s and Derrida’s notions of a “dissolved cogito” and “non-egological” consciousness in the context of aesthetic ecstasy. More generally, in what might life “after the subject” consist? A reevaluation of both the continuities and apparent standoff between phenomenology — Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Michel Henry — and poststructuralism. I.e., possible revisionary versions of the dominant account of French thought from existentialism to the present. For example, were the French poststructuralists really ever the “constructionists” (still less the “cultural” constructionists) they have been claimed to be? Distinguishing between constructionism’s lasting contributions and its simultaneous unwitting complicity with the domination of all life-forms by global capitalism.
I have no idea what he is talking about. What does this say about modern scholarship? Or am I just a dumb blue collar guy?
Wondering in Houston, John
Oh my lord, what a fly-flecked pile of horse manure! It’s hard to believe that such empty palaver is still being peddled by major universities in the U.S. And this guy has a Yale PhD! (When I got mine, it still meant one could write coherent English.) One can only pity the parents bankrupting themselves for their children to be “educated” by such chicanery.
My manifesto against post-structuralism (which squirted its toxins into the tiny open jaws of the American professoriate) was “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,” published in the spring 1991 issue of Arion and reprinted (78 pages long) in my first essay collection, “Sex, Art, and American Culture.” It caused an uproar at the time, but most sensible people, on campus and off, have slowly swung around to my way of thinking. But airless pockets of pollution clearly still remain.
I read “Sexual Personae” several years ago, right at the beginning of my career as a male soprano. I found it a fascinating and helpful companion to the odd, quasi-castrated role in which I found myself — in the eyes of the public and music administrators, at least — if not in the way I viewed myself.
A male soprano, incidentally, is not to be confused with a countertenor — you might as well conflate baritones and tenors into the same voice category. We sing the roles of heroes and lovers, tyrants and freaks — and occasionally over-the-top women. However, the feminist movement that is now making itself felt in opera is replacing theatrical verisimilitude with the arguably easier-on-the-ears voices of women.
Here is a brief intro to male soprano singing (running about four minutes). My primary goal is to interest you in this subset of artistic gender-bending. The piece I am performing is by Giacomo Carissimi, from the Roman Church around 1650. The popes had forbidden both opera and female singers in the Papal States, and that verbot gave rise to this form of operatic church music, sung almost exclusively by soprano castrati.
I may not need to say this, but I am not a castrato, merely a man who can, for some reason or other, still sing soprano.
Thank you so much for sending this link, which I am sure will be of the highest interest to culturally oriented Salon readers. Your singing is absolutely gorgeous! Why is there no profusion of videos of your performances in Europe and the U.S. on YouTube.com? I am hopeful that this surprising gap will soon be remedied.
In “Sexual Personae,” I wrote about Balzac’s strange story “Sarrasine,” where a French sculptor visiting Rome falls in love with a beautiful prima donna who turns out to be a castrato under the vengeful protection of a gay cardinal. (For those interested in this subject, I recommend Angus Heriot’s excellent 1956 study, “The Castrati in Opera.”) “Sarrasine” should obviously be made into a movie as should Théophile Gautier’s piquant transvestite adventure, “Mademoiselle de Maupin” (1835), which Greta Garbo wanted to star in but never did.
Turner Classic Movies recently showed a fantastic day-long series of Jean Seberg films. While probably known best for “Breathless” (1960), the TCM presentation showed, I think, that her true mastery is in “In the French Style” (1963) and “Lilith” (1964). I love the sophistication and silken glamour of “In the French Style,” but it’s “Lilith” that really wowed me.
I’m absolutely blown away by Seberg’s portrayal of Lilith Arthur, a sort of schizophrenic femme fatale, whose effortless, amoral manipulations bring death to at least one man and madness to another. The film suffers from too many long, boring shots of Warren Beatty’s dimensionless mug (he’s had the same expression on his face for 40 years!), but every moment Seberg is on screen is rich, evocative and disturbing. Seberg obviously knew she was playing not only a complicated woman of the 1960s but also a figure from mythology, dating back over 5,000 years. She rose magnificently to the occasion. I doubt that Sharon Stone studied Seberg’s Lilith for her role in “Basic Instinct,” but the characters seem made from the same stuff. And one wonders if Jessica Walter, who was also in “Lilith,” picked up a thing or two from Seberg on the set, because just a few years later, she’d explore similar territory as a deranged femme fatale in “Play Misty For Me” (1971.) I would suggest that Seberg as Lilith is one of the truly great, overlooked performances by a woman in film history.
My favorite Jean Seberg film is “Bonjour Tristesse,” where she plays Francoise Sagan’s dissolute ingenue cavorting around the Riviera. Here is a riveting, subtitled 1960 interview with a bitchy French journalist where Seberg is charmingly gracious and shows off her natural poise and charisma. I adore the way that, while speaking French with quick facility here, she aggressively maintains her flat Iowa accent! Seberg’s romantic travails and psychological decline were tragic: At the age of 41, she was found dead in her car in Paris, a presumed suicide due to the overdose levels of barbiturates found in her blood.
You draw some very intriguing parallels between “Lilith,” “Basic Instinct” (for which I did the DVD commentary) and “Play Misty for Me,” one of my all-time favorite films and the blatant inspiration for “Fatal Attraction.” Jessica Walter tears up the scenery in “Play Misty,” as she also did in the film version of Mary McCarthy’s “The Group.” It’s a scandal that Walter was underutilized in Hollywood, although she has made her presence felt in TV. In the glory days of the old studio system, roles for her would have been specially written into scripts. With her statuesque height and power of personality, she belongs to the swashbuckling line of Mary Astor and Alexis Smith.
Subject: All I ever needed to know I learned from Dynasty
While I browsed the shelves at the public library the other day, a pink-jacketed book caught my eye — “The Art of Living Well” by Joan Collins. I checked it out without haste. I have been fascinated by Ms. Collins’ charisma since her days as Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan on the nighttime soap “Dynasty,” which aired on ABC from 1981 to 1989. The book gives tips on exercise, diet, etiquette, etc., but the most interesting chapter is titled “Glamour and How to Achieve It.” It basically lists all of the tricks of the old Hollywood stars and gives some insight into why “Dynasty” was so engrossing and why Joan Collins’ character Alexis was the linchpin of the series.
I watched “Dynasty” religiously as a child, never missing a week. I have been rediscovering the series through Netflix rentals and marathon viewings. As an adult, the old Hollywood references that escaped me as a child are blatantly apparent — a revelation that now explains why my father was a weekly viewer along with my mother and myself.
“Dynasty” was sort of the last bastion of the old studio system before most of the people who actually lived that life passed on. Its two female leads, Joan Collins and her nemesis, the goody-two-shoes second wife Krystal Carrington, played by Linda Evans, were seen off screen looking very much like their television characters, dressing in the same wardrobe created by the show’s costume designer, Nolan Miller. No expense was spared for the costumes on “Dynasty” — the finest furs and fabrics were used, similar to the way the studio stars were costumed by the studios for all public appearances. Each character had several costume changes per episode. It is worth watching for the clothes and sets alone. These people are supposed to be rich and look it, so the real thing was used whenever needed, from Rolls Royces to Gucci luggage.
Watching those old episodes, one longs for the days when no expense was spared to bring quality television to the masses. Now we are stuck with humdrum reality shows that never give one a sense of fantasy or a dream but just give you constant bickering and childish name calling. People will argue that there are quality shows on HBO or Showtime, but these are pay services — they do not reach the masses of anyone just flicking on his or her TV set, and they still don’t hold a candle to “Dynasty.” I encourage everyone to take a second look at the series. Unfortunately, it is only available on DVD up to season four right now, but that should be enough to get you started. Wikipedia also has a great outline of the show and its characters. I would love to know your thoughts on the show and if you were ever a fan.
New York City
Am I a “Dynasty” fan? Be still, my beating heart! I have never recovered from the cancellation of “Dynasty.” In fact, daytime soap opera never recovered from “Dynasty,” period. The failure of daytime to realize that its primetime imitator had ramped up the glamour and melodrama to classic Hollywood proportions is one reason for the slow decline and extinction of soaps over the past 15 years.
Joan Collins had a tremendous cultural impact in “Dynasty” which has never been fully acknowledged. She instantly ended the drab, puritanical dress-for-success look that women had donned to enter the professions in the 1970s. Collins as Alexis Carrington Colby showed how an ambitious, hard-driving businesswoman could combine beauty and brains. She dressed to kill — and women followed suit, reclaiming their sexuality and female allure with flamboyant colors, fabrics, jewelry and high heels. Donna Mills in “Knots Landing” went one step further: As the cut-throat businesswoman Abby Ewing, she was no campy vamp in the glittery Euro-flash Collins style but a subtly purring American blonde whose wide, liquid eyes entranced and paralyzed her victims.
Let’s hope that your letter will inspire readers to lobby ABC to release “Dynasty” to cable so that a new generation can see how ravishingly sensuous and sweepingly entertaining TV can be!
Camille Paglia’s column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.
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.
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