Blood-and-guts politics

Old-guard feminists caterwaul for Hillary, while the "weird old coot" rattles right-wing radio. Plus: Balancing the climate debate, real "Teeth," and Suzanne Pleshette, RIP.

Published February 13, 2008 11:38AM (EST)

Disemboweling is evidently the theme du jour. As the political wars rage in this amazingly acrimonious primary season, the skin has been ripped off the establishment in both parties, and their guts have been exposed. We're seeing the pulsing inner workings of partisan ideology as never before.

On the Republican side, conservatives marshaled by leading radio hosts have hotly rebelled against the onrushing nomination of Sen. John McCain, who has been vilified for years for his slippery positions and his schmoozing with liberals. On the Democratic side, rank-and-file party members have been shocked to discover that there is a ruling elite of 800 superdelegates, who have the power to crown the presidential nominee and who can be easily swayed or corrupted by lobbying.

The old-guard feminist establishment has also rushed out of cold storage to embrace Hillary Clinton via tremulous manifestoes of gal power that have startlingly exposed the sentimental slackness of thought that made Gloria Steinem and company wear out their welcome in the first place. Hillary's gonads must be sending out sci-fi rays that paralyze the paleo-feminist mind -- because her career, attached to her husband's flapping coattails, has sure been heavy on striking pious attitudes but ultra-light on concrete achievements.

The angst and fury boiling on talk radio, from both hosts and callers, have been truly operatic in drama and intensity. It's been a riveting spectator sport. But this eruption would come as no surprise to longtime listeners. What the mainstream press has failed to realize is that nationally syndicated hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, have always drawn a very firm distinction between their views and those of the party establishment in Washington. They have consistently maintained, and supported it in detail, that they are conservatives first and Republicans second. They have fiercely denounced the party when it has strayed from conservative principles. McCain, who has co-sponsored liberal legislation and courted and flattered Beltway journalists, has been a longtime target.

This disarray among Republicans, which may depress voter turnout or even spawn a protest splinter party, offers a fantastic opening to Democrats, if the party can only seize it. The galvanizing energy aroused by Barack Obama's thrilling coast-to-coast victories gives Democrats a clear shot at regaining the White House. However, the three-faced Hillary, that queen of triangulation, would be a nice big gift to Republicans, who are itching to romp all over the Clintons' 20-volume encyclopedia of tawdry scandals.

John McCain's courage under torture during the Vietnam War deserves everyone's gratitude and respect. But as a national candidate, the stumpy, uptight McCain is a lemon. Oy, that weaselly voice and those dated locutions and stilted intonations. Who needs a weird old coot with a short fuse in the White House? This isn't a smart game plan for the war on terror.

Meanwhile, when will someone turn a punishing spotlight on the rampant abuse of absentee ballots in this and prior elections? The press was reporting before the California primary last week that there were up to 2 million absentee ballots. They presumably added to Hillary's margin in that state, because they were completed and mailed before Obama's late surge. But there needs to be far more stringent control of this questionable practice, which can be manipulated by aggressive party operatives trolling through working-class or immigrant neighborhoods.

On the climate-change front, Denis Dutton, founder of the superb Arts & Letters Daily Web site, has created a new site, Climate Debate Daily, as a forum for both sides in the ferocious controversy over global warming. The site's lucid dual format is exactly what has been needed to shed scholarly light on this heavily politicized battle, which has been very difficult to follow for everyone but fanatical true believers. Climate change, whether man-made or (as I think) natural, will remain a vital issue for decades simply because it is shaping or coercing government policy worldwide.

I was shocked to read of the recent death of Suzanne Pleshette, one of the most intelligent and underutilized actresses in Hollywood. Like the equally fierce and articulate Jessica Walters, Pleshette never quite found her niche in an industry geared to conventional female personae.

Because Pleshette died over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, the first bulletins on major online news sites, clearly being manned by 25-year-old greenhorns in the absence of senior staff, made reference only to the death of an unnamed actress who had played a "TV wife." I didn't even bother looking at first. A day later, however, as the impact hit (and vacationing cognoscenti clearly squawked), Pleshette's name was blazoned in every headline.

Pleshette loomed large in my book for the British Film Institute on Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," where she plays a darkly lovelorn schoolteacher, Annie Hayworth, who gets cut down by a flock of crows in chaotic Bodega Bay, Calif. Pleshette's deft parry and thrust, punctuated by cigarettes, with the coolly composed Tippi Hedren, is a model of virtuoso screen acting. For the book, I used a full-page on-set candid photo of Pleshette with the caption, "Annie Hayworth may be dead, but Suzanne Pleshette lives!" She'll certainly live forever for me. Here's a fan Web site ("More than Emily Hartley") devoted to wonderfully elegant Pleshette pix, including European magazine covers.

I was very interested to read David Rieff's scathing remarks, quoted in a recent New York Times review of his new book, about Annie Leibovitz's final photographs of his mother, Susan Sontag: "carnival images of celebrity death" that "humiliated" Sontag posthumously. When the massive coffee-table book containing those photos was released in 2006, Leibovitz was given saturation star treatment by the media, including PBS, which should have known better. Although I was a longtime Sontag critic, I was appalled by the lack of protest against Leibovitz's blatant exploitation, which included Newsweek's splashing of Sontag's tarted-up corpse photo on its Web site.

Where were all the voices from the elite literati who had rushed to produce smarmy Sontag obituaries advertising their great intimacy with her (which too often consisted of seeing her preside at parties)? When I returned to Salon, after a five-year hiatus to write a book, I weighed in, but I continue to feel that this deplorable episode is symptomatic of a strange cultural vacuum in the U.S.

Speaking of Sontag, I recently viewed (via Netflix) Luis Buñuel's film "The Phantom of Liberty," which I hadn't seen since 1975, a year after it was made. To my great surprise, one amusingly surreal sequence features the seductively mysterious Italian actress Adriana Asti, playing a double role. I first saw Asti in Sontag's directorial debut, "Duet for Cannibals" (1969), which was filmed in Sweden. In 1973, when Sontag came to speak at Bennington College, where I was teaching, I privately praised Asti to her and was gratified by her warm and even libidinous response. (The general debacle of that visit is chronicled in my essay "Sontag, Bloody Sontag" in "Vamps & Tramps.")

I had no idea at the time that Sontag and Asti were an item (or that Asti was married to director Bernardo Bertolucci). According to Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock's biography, "Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon" (2000), Sontag called Asti "the love of her life" and directed her in a 1979 Italian stage production of Luigi Pirandello's "As You Desire Me," into which lesbian overtones were injected.

Buñuel put Asti on glorious full display in "The Phantom of Liberty." There's a phenomenal scene where, except for black net stockings, Asti is seated nude at a piano as she vigorously plays Brahms' "Rhapsody." What wit and aplomb! And one can admire that sleek, sensuous form from every angle. Sontag sure got the goods.

Another classic film I recently ordered from Netflix was "The Sorrow and the Pity" (1972), Marcel Ophuls' four-hour documentary about the Nazi occupation of France. It's an extraordinary compilation of wartime newsreels and interviews with surviving members of that generation. With its long, sober takes in grainy black-and-white, the film accumulates power as it goes, showing the compromises and accommodations made by a majority of French citizens to the Nazi presence. Veterans of the Resistance testify too, but the overall effect is unsettling and unsavory. "Paris was a fun and crazy place," recalls an ex-Nazi of those bygone days under the swastika flag. Meanwhile, as a witness relates, France had the only government in Europe that collaborated with the Nazis and passed laws even more racist than Germany's.

A quite different film that I've recently enjoyed re-seeing and studying is "Revenge of the Sith" (2005) from George Lucas' "Star Wars" saga. The climactic light-saber duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi on the volcano planet of Mustafar (with footage of actual explosions and lava flows at Mount Etna in Sicily) is nearly mystically sublime in the High Romantic sense. The convulsive, manly passion between the two tortured Jedi is hyper-sustained by John Williams' powerful music. Then there's Anakin's shocking mutilation and Wagnerian immolation, leading to the grisly Frankenstein surgery that turns him into Darth Vader and that is cross-cut with a parallel hospital sequence, as Anakin's wife, Padme, dies while giving birth to the twins Luke and Leia.

It's amazing how much primal emotion Lucas is able to generate from such scenes. The finale of "Sith," with an adoptive couple tenderly cradling the infant Luke (separated from his sister) as they stand before a brilliant sunset, is reminiscent of "Gone With the Wind," produced at a time when Hollywood could speak in universal emotions (rather than cheap irony) to a mass audience. I began wondering whether only epics, with their action and drama, can now get away with deep emotion -- as "Titanic" (1997) also did, thanks to Kate Winslet's brilliant performance, for which (I cannot miss any opportunity to bang this gong) she so richly deserved -- but did not win -- the Academy Award for best actress. My eternal motto: Helen Hunt, give back Kate Winslet's Oscar!

Mitchell Lichtenstein's film "Teeth," which he wrote and directed, premiered in late January after making a sensation at last year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won an award. It's a satirical feminist horror flick. The screenplay was inspired by remarks I made in class about the ancient myth of the vagina dentata ("toothed vagina") when Mitchell was my student at Bennington in the 1970s. I loved the film, which I found extremely amusing as well as impressively produced, from photography to sound (such as the eerie atmospherics of tribal drums). I wrote some special lines for the scene in which Dawn (superbly played by Jess Weixler) surfs the Web for information on her exotic anatomy. Audiences are routinely screaming and cheering at the film's colorful castrations.

Query: I am seeking help from Salon readers in identifying a pizza parlor in New York's Greenwich Village that I visited as a small child in the early to mid-1950s. It was presumably within a few blocks of 10th Street at Bleecker, where relatives by marriage ran a grocery store. The restaurant entrance might have been a few steps below street level. One thing is certain: a narrow entrance hallway lined with harlequin-patterned wallpaper -- Commedia dell'arte figures framed in diamond shapes, as on playing cards.

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.

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at

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