A rocky first few weeks

Obama sputters out of the gate -- but don't fear yet. Plus: Buxom foodies, frocks for the ages, and the eternal appeal of Mary McCarthy and Justin Timberlake.

By Camille Paglia

Published February 11, 2009 11:40AM (EST)

Money by the barrelful, by the truckload. Mountains of money, heaped like gassy pyramids in the national dump. Scrounging packs of politicos, snapping, snarling and sending green bills flying sky-high as they root through the tangled mass with ragged claws. The stale hot air filled with cries of rage, the gnashing of teeth and dark prophecies of doom.

Yes, this grotesque scene, like a claustrophobic circle in Dante's "Inferno," was what the U.S. government has looked like for the past two weeks as it fights on over Barack Obama's stimulus package -- a mammoth, chaotic grab bag of treasures, toys and gimcracks. Could popular opinion of our feckless Congress sink any lower? You betcha!

Why in the cosmos would the new administration, smoothly sailing out of Obama's classy inauguration, repeat the embarrassing blunders of Bill Clinton's first term? By foolishly promising a complete overhaul of healthcare within 100 days (and by putting his secretive, ill-prepared wife in charge of it), Clinton made himself look naive and incompetent and set healthcare reform back for more than 15 years.

President Obama was ill-served by his advisors (shall we thump that checkered piñata, Rahm Emanuel?), who evidently did not help him to produce a strong, focused, coherent bill that he could have explained and defended to the nation before it was set upon by partisan wolves. To defer to the House of Representatives and let the bill be thrown together by cacophonous mob rule made the president seem passive and behind the curve.

Most mainstream American voters are undoubtedly suffering from economist fatigue these days. This one calls for tax cuts; that one condemns them. One says we're wasting hundreds of billions of dollars; the other claims that sum falls pathetically short. A plague on all their houses! Surely common sense would dictate that when Congress is doling out fat dollops of taxpayers' money, due time should be delegated for sober consideration and debate. The administration's coercive rush toward instant action, accompanied by apocalyptic pronouncements of imminent catastrophe, has put its own credibility on the line.

But aside from the stimulus muddle, Obama has been off to a good start. True, I was disappointed with the infestation of the new appointments list by Clinton retreads and slippery tax-dodgers. Nevertheless, I was very impressed by Obama's relaxed, natural authority with military officers on Inauguration Day, in contrast to the early Bill Clinton's palpable unease and exaggerated posturing. I applauded the signal Obama sent to the world by starting the closure of the Guantánamo detention center. Contrary to the rote claims of conservative talk radio, there is as yet no public evidence that every individual being held at Guantánamo is a proven "terrorist"-- whom we would all agree should be severely punished. That is the entire point of a rational process of indictment and trial. If Guantánamo became a symbol of un-American repression, it is the procrastinating, paralyzed Bush administration that should be blamed.

Speaking of talk radio (which I listen to constantly), I remain incredulous that any Democrat who professes liberal values would give a moment's thought to supporting a return of the Fairness Doctrine to muzzle conservative shows. (My latest manifesto on this subject appeared in my last column.) The failure of liberals to master the vibrant medium of talk radio remains puzzling. To reach the radio audience (whether the topic is sports, politics or car repair), a host must have populist instincts and use the robust common voice. Too many Democrats have become arrogant elitists, speaking down in snide, condescending tones toward tradition-minded middle Americans whom they stereotype as rubes and buffoons. But the bottom line is that government surveillance of the ideological content of talk radio is a shocking first step toward totalitarianism.

One of the nuggets I've gleaned from several radio sources is that Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who has been in the aggressive forefront of the campaign to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, is married to Tom Athans, who works extensively with left-wing radio organizations and was once the executive vice-president of Air America, the liberal radio syndicate that, despite massive publicity from major media, has failed miserably to win a national audience. Stabenow's outrageous conflict of interest has of course been largely ignored by the prestige press, which should have been demanding that she recuse herself from all political involvement with this issue.

Interactive political talk radio is a fabulous American genre (how I miss it when traveling abroad!), but there are other successful radio styles, as demonstrated daily by the BBC World Service, with its exquisitely produced you-are-there reports recorded in streets and cafés or on farms or tundras around the globe. The rich range of regional or class accents (from both inside and outside Great Britain) shown off by BBC commentators is mesmerizing in its own right.

Speaking of radio enchantment, it's happening in spades whenever British cuisine queen Nigella Lawson is interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition. I didn't pay much attention to Lawson's book and TV vogue, partly because I found her show's trendy fast editing too dizzy-making. But anyone who thinks Lawson's talents were mainly a function of her brunette mane and ample bust hasn't experienced her as a pure, disembodied radio voice. I'm on the record about the mediocrity of too much poetry these days (Elizabeth Alexander's mundane inauguration poem was all too typical). Well, English poetry is thriving in the subtle, mellifluous, adjective-laden culinary odes of Nigella Lawson (who has an Oxford degree in medieval and modern languages). After listening to her on my car radio on the way to work, I often arrive for my morning classes in an ecstatic haze. But hey, let's not dis that bust, which has gotten lusciously ample. Check out these recent London pix of Lawson as a merry dumpling barely contained by her midnight-blue velvet evening gown.

Another knockout in the fashion department was Kate Winslet at last month's Golden Globes banquet. When Winslet finally won a major award and went deliriously bossy at the mike, I was in seventh heaven. I knew exactly what Nancy Pelosi meant when she said that when ex-President Bush's helicopter took off from the Capitol three weeks ago, "It felt like a ten-pound anvil was lifted off my head." For 11 years, ever since Winslet was robbed of her Oscar for "Titanic," I've been grimly pursuing my vendetta against the provincial Hollywood establishment. I pray that Winslet's two wins at the Golden Globes finally portend a sleek gold statuette is in her immediate future.

The elegant, architectural, black satin strapless gown (by Yves Saint Laurent's Stefano Pilati) that Winslet wore at the Golden Globes ultimately descends from the voluptuous black sheath that Jean-Louis designed for Rita Hayworth's "Put the Blame on Mame" striptease in "Gilda." I had the great pleasure and privilege of being able to examine that magnificent piece of engineering up close and personal about 15 years ago, when the "Gilda" gown was on display in a collection of Hollywood artifacts at an Atlantic City casino. (Rita's proportions were unexpectedly petite.)

In a forthcoming book about Lana Turner, "Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of 'Imitation of Life,'" Sam Staggs delivers some fascinating background information about Jean-Louis' career. Born J.L. Berthault in Paris in 1907, he worked as a sketch artist in a house of couture. Arriving in New York in 1936, he became the head designer at Hattie Carnegie, where he created the blockbuster Carnegie suit, an iconic look for contemporary women. In 1943, Jean-Louis was hired by Columbia Pictures. Staggs says, "Eventually he dressed all the ladies of Hollywood, or close to it, onscreen and off."

Jean-Louis created 29 outfits for Lana in "Imitation of Life." He costumed Judy Holliday in "Born Yesterday"; Joan Crawford in "Queen Bee" and "Autumn Leaves"; Judy Garland in "A Star is Born"; Kim Novak in "Picnic"; Deborah Kerr in "From Here to Eternity"; Doris Day in "Pillow Talk"; and Vivien Leigh in "Ship of Fools." He also designed the gowns Loretta Young wore to whirl campily through the doorway every week on her famous TV show -- and then he and Young married. But here's the kicker: Jean-Louis worked for six months to produce the mature Marlene Dietrich's signature, flesh-colored chiffon sheath encrusted with bugle beads (she debuted it onstage in Las Vegas in 1953). And he dressed Marilyn Monroe in that incredible, near-transparent sheath, spangled with 6,000 beads, in which she breathily sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962. Monroe had to be sewn into her dress backstage. First lady Jackie Kennedy was a prudent no-show.

Continuing with the movie theme, I was disappointed with the satirically belittling tone taken by the Guardian's obituary of British actor Edmund Purdom, who died at the age of 84 last month in Rome. Purdom's reserved but intense performance as a doctor in ancient Thebes in Michael Curtiz' 1954 film, "The Egyptian," was absolutely extraordinary. The melodious and sometimes heartbreaking intelligence with which he delivered his lines set a high-water mark for sword-and-sandal epics. With his reflectiveness and burning interiority, Purdom could and should have played leading roles in films about major writers or artists.

Despite its weak Nefertiti, "The Egyptian" remains one of my favorite films, not least because of its haunting score by Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann. Here are two clips that showcase the music: first, the titles and then a cruel exchange where the naive young doctor falls under the seductive spell of a glamorous Babylonian courtesan, played by Bella Darvi -- a scene that had a huge influence on my lurid theory of the femme fatale in my first book, "Sexual Personae." It was only while fact-checking for this column that I learned that Bella Darvi had a life like a Hollywood screenplay: Born in Poland and imprisoned by the Nazis, she was discovered by producer Darryl F. Zanuck while she was sitting at a sidewalk café on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Zanuck left his wife for Darvi but then left Darvi when she turned out to be a lesbian! After years of extravagant gambling and affairs with wealthy playboys like Aly Khan, Darvi committed suicide by gassing herself in Monte Carlo. Whew!

Erotic revelations took me similarly by surprise when I recently read Frances Kiernan's massive study, "Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy," published in 2000. Although I of course knew that McCarthy was bold and enterprising, I had no idea of the extent of her sexual adventures. She was truly a new woman of those radical decades of the 1920s and '30s, whose gender innovations were reversed by the cult of domesticity that settled like a gray cloud over the conformist period following World War Two. Kiernan produces testimony that for years the young McCarthy was having sex with a different man every day -- and sometimes several men in one day. Mind-boggling! Was she a gay man in disguise?

I nearly fell out of my chair when, on the next to last page, there I was with Katie Roiphe: Kiernan cites us as dissident feminist admirers of McCarthy. Yes, indeed, McCarthy was the very first role model I had as a woman writer. As a fractious adolescent in Syracuse, I discovered her nonfiction books in a secondhand bookstore. The black and white cover photo of the paperback of "Cast a Cold Eye" (I loved that title!) showed McCarthy confidently gazing across the Paris skyline under an overcast sky. It was only later that I encountered Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" (given to me in 1963 by a Belgian colleague of my father). What towering figures those two women were on the intellectual landscape. Where are their successors? I pity ambitious young women aspiring to be thinkers and writers today. What a morass of propaganda and expensive mal-education they must forge their way through.

Now for our pop finale. As I was recently jumping out of my car to grab a falafel sandwich in South Philadelphia, I stopped dead with one foot on the curb to listen to Justin Timberlake's voice coming over the radio. It was "Cry Me a River," a song that seems just as painfully evocative as it was at first release seven years ago, in the wake of Timberlake's romantic breakup with Britney Spears. In fact, the song has gained tragic power because of Spears' later psychological travails and humiliating career decline -- from which she may thankfully be emerging.

After I got home, I pulled up the video of "Cry Me A River" from trusty YouTube.com and was transfixed. Directed by Francis Lawrence and with a cameo by ace producer Timbaland, it's a mini-masterpiece of brooding Euro-decadence. Timberlake stalks a sinuous blonde Britney look-alike with tortured voyeurism, prancing through her moderne house with dreamy skateboarder moves. His revenge: implanting her TV with a sex clip of himself and a hired gamine skank. Despite the window-breaking violence and obsessive psychopathology of the part he plays, Timberlake, especially in tight close-up, is superb at conveying profound emotion. So artistic is this video that I was astounded to learn that the director grew up in Los Angeles. But wait: He was born in Vienna! Thus even though Francis Lawrence emigrated at age 3, he evidently carried the decadent gene of Vienna's glorious artistic past with him. I'm thinking Gustav Klimt, of course -- hallucinatory icons of imperious femme fatales embedded in gold.

My keynote lecture for last October's conference celebrating the centenary of Theodore Roethke at the University of Michigan has just been published in the Winter 2009 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. The title is "Natural Vision and Psychotic Mysticism in Theodore Roethke's Poetry."

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

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 askcamille@salon.com.

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