Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wayne or Eastwood? Why Do Culture Elitists Love One and Despise the Other?

At some point, the natural laws of the cosmos dictated that John Wayne and Clint Eastwood could never appear in a movie together.  Indeed they seemed to come from two separate universes entirely to rival each other in heroics without either seeming to acknowledge the other.

Generations grew up seeing Wayne and Eastwood as archetypes of the American man, both here and abroad.  Cultural elitists originally hated both of them as ultramasculine formula characters repeating in movie after movie.  Only now has Eastwood been grudgingly acknowledged, like Johnny Cash in music, as an authentic expression of American art.  Partly because Eastwood's characters, like Cash's actual life, have all too human flaws that they eventually overcome.  And this, despite a world around them that seems hopelessly degenerate.

Eastwood's characters were usually realists who accepted the bleakness of the world around them, but did not give up on their own duty.  In The Outlaw Josie Wales, that duty was simple avenging the raid of rogue Union guerrillas who destroyed his home and family, then tricked his Confederate unit into marching into a massacre.  In his most recent masterpiece, Gran Torino, his character befriends and defends honest Asian immigrants from the seemingly inescapable doom of violence plagued modern Detroit.

The men he portrayed could do terrible things, even though always working toward some form of good. In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, he abandons a protagonist to what he assumes will be a fairly horrible and slow death in the desert.  Tuco Ramirez, however, survives and inflicts similar torment on Eastwood's unnamed character.  

Elitist culture accepts Clint Eastwood's anti-hero, but despises the John Wayne idealist. Upon examination, one has to wonder why.

John Wayne represents idealism and optimism in most of his movies.  Although hardly a Democrat, he personified the kind of spirit underlying the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman presidencies.  

Wayne's movies featured powerful women, much more often than Eastwood's.  In Big Jake, he has to cooperate with his estranged wife, played by Maureen O'Hara.  His best film by far, The Shootist, puts him opposite of a strong willed Lauren Bacall.  Bacall's character runs a boarding house and initially fears the influence of a gunfighter on her son.  The Sons of Katie Elder successfully makes a powerful and almost controlling figure out of the main characters' dead mother.  Probably the toughest female that a Wayne character had to confront was Mattie Ross in True Grit. Wayne plays Rooster Cogburn who is employed by the teenaged Mattie to gain revenge for the murder of her father.

Also, Wayne's films took care to portray both Mexicans and Indians as complex characters instead of two dimensional caricatures, at least relative to other films of the time.  Wayne had great respect for both cultures.  

One of the strong connecting themes running through many of Wayne's movies is a strong aversion to bullying and an almost unfailing duty to protect and build up the underdog.  Another one of Wayne's greatest films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, posits him opposite James Stewart.  Wayne's roughneck frontiersman teaches, protects, and cajoles Stewart's cultivated eastern character into adapting to the reality of the Wild West.  Liberty Valance, one of the most odious characters ever put on film, makes Stewart's character a target of intimidation.  With Wayne's help, Stewart's character not only overcomes Valance, but brings civil society to the territory.

That is a microcosm of most John Wayne movies.  In his realm the world, if not good at the time, has the potential to be.  Wayne's characters take on the hard duty of bringing that world into being.  Usually, Wayne himself loses out in some way.  In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he loses his love.  In The Shootist, he loses his life.  

Wayne's movie world has strong women, respects other cultures, and sees evil as something that can be ultimately defeated.  In Eastwood movies the world is inherently evil, but man's duty is to try to do good anyway.  

Again, culture elitists finally accept Eastwood's greatness as both an actor and a cultural figure.  Not yet, John Wayne.  

One way to measure the greatness of an actor is to watch him perform with other greats.  John Wayne was a towering cultural figure, but could he act?  Alongside the greatest performers of his time, including Stewart, Bacall, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, and many others, Wayne dominated the screen.  Even in smaller roles, his screen presence was masterful alongside some of the best actors in the past hundred years.  

In many movies, admittedly, he played John Wayne, just as Eastwood brought variations of the same on screen persona to many films.  Both actors, however, played roles that exhibited tremendous depth.  Gran Torino and The Shootist showed the range of each man.  And both brought unforgettable characters to the screen, such as Rooster Cogburn and The Man With No Name.

Both men's body of work, overall, represented a different view of the world and humanity in general.  It's high time that cultural elitists got off their high horse and recognize that both men made great contributions to American film and culture.

Addendum.  Totally irrelevant, but it is worth mentioning that Richard Pryor and John Wayne both desperately wanted to play Bart and Jim respectively in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. This is one time where it would have been worth it to make the same movie twice with different casts.  Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder cannot be beaten in these roles, but the idea of seeing John Wayne partnering with Richard Pryor is the most amazingly surreal thought.  Both had larger than life presence in their own ways, which was likely why Brooks went with the more subtle, but still talented Little and Wilder.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dan Aykroyd, the Free Market, and Saturday Night Live

Hollywood deserves its bad rap for endless left wing sermonizing, but not everyone should be wedged into the same box.  Some major stars have put together a body of work that reaffirms the values of individual work in the private sector.

I don't know Dan Aykroyd's politics and really do not care to research them.  They do not really matter.  Time and time again Aykroyd has played important roles in work that affirms a free market, perhaps a fully libertarian, message. It's possible too that the unique role that Saturday Night Live plays in the careers of performers like Dan Aykoyd may have helped to inspire a slew of movies that rely on traditional free market values.

At the very beginning of his career, Aykroyd teamed up with John Belushi to create one of film's most memorable partnerships.  Their love of music inspired the creation of the "Blues Brothers."  This started out as a nightclub act, moved onto television's Saturday Night Live, then became one of the most expensive films ever made at that point.

The Blues Brothers portrays Jake and Elwood Blues efforts to save their childhood home, a Roman Catholic orphanage.  It faces an insurmountable tax debt from Cook County and the Blues brothers resolve to pay it off and save the orphanage.  To do it, they put together a business plan.  Reform their old band.  Earn enough money to help the nuns.  Entrepreneurship saves the day, regardless of the extra legal hijinx necessary to save the day.  Underlying the story is the stock placed in the underlying goodness of Jake and Elwood, taught to them by the nuns.

Aykroyd's best work might be his collaboration with another Saturday Night Live star, Eddie Murphy.  Their 1983 film Trading Places casts Aykroyd as Louis Winthorp III, a trader working for a classic example of established crony capitalism, the firm of Duke and Duke.  Randolph and Mortimer Duke, the brothers who own the firm, form a wager.  They bet over whether or not a homeless man could be trained to do as good of a job as the culturally cultivated, Ivy League educated Winthorp.

The Dukes engineer the complete ouster of Winthorp from his society.  He loses everything and has to rely on a prostitute, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, for help just to survive. Eddie Murphy's character, Billy Ray Valentine, uses his street smarts to figure out the ins and out of commodities trading.  Winthorp becomes desperate and broken, criminal and suicidal.

The plot turns when Valentine figures out the plot.  Winthorp and Valentine come up with a scheme to enrich themselves and the butler and prostitute who help them while at the same time landing the Dukes in complete privation.

The best part of Trading Places? At the end, no one makes a false sounding sermon about learning that there are things more important than money.  The four conspirators take their riches to the Caribbean and live the good life.  The very last line of the movie comes as Valentine and Winthorp yell between yacht and sandy white beach. "Looking good Billy Ray!"  "Feeling good, Louis!"  Murphy shortly thereafter stars in his own movie extolling starting at the bottom and working your way up combined with a healthy dose of respect for small business in Coming to America.

In Ghostbusters, Aykroyd is part of a team of academics turned businessmen who tackle New York City's supernatural epidemic.  Their main human foe?  The Environmental Protection Agency, who meddles with their operation and almost causes the Apocalypse.

Aykroyd later teamed with Chris Farley and David Spade, again the Saturday Night Live connection, to give the 1990s film Tommy Boy some star power.  Farley played a character who in modern slang would be called a "bro."  No responsibilities except rugby and doing the minimum to get through school.  Tommy Boy does not rely on the same tired father son tension that infuses almost every other such relationship in film or television.  The love that Tommy and his father share is deep and unconditional and underscores every aspect of the film.  It is also the element that makes Tommy Boy superior to all of Farley's other work.

Tommy's father Big Tom Callahan, played by Brian Dennehy, dies suddenly, leaving Tommy in control of the family auto parts company.  Aykroyd plays Zalinsky, a hard bitten and remorseless auto parts magnate wants to buy the company just for the respected name and close all operations.  This would put the workers out of a job and hurt the town.  To save the business, Tommy teams up with Richard, played by David Spade.  On the road, Tommy learns about responsibility, hard work, and salesmanship.  At the end of the day, he makes the sales and convinces Zalinsky to back off of his plans.

Zalinsky's character is not a typical anti-capitalism portrayal of big business.  He is aggressive and hard nosed.  At the end, Tommy makes a hard won deal with Zalinsky that will profit both companies.  Zalinsky is not made to look like a capitalist devil.  The free market is the catalyst of a resolution that benefits everyone who deserves benefit.

Two other films show Aykroyd's libertarian streak, at least in filmography.  In Coneheads, Aykroyd plays an actual space alien who builds a business and raises a respectable middle class family, despite the constant threat of detection by Immigration and Naturalization Services agents.  Nothing But Trouble is a funny, but bizarre story about New York travelers falling into the trap of a corrupt, and possibly mutant, local New Jersey judge.  Again, government emerges as a villain (although coal companies get blamed for causing the whole mess.)

The Saturday Night Live alumni include quite a few conservatives and libertarians and that should surprise no one.  Some have moved onto political activism, others stay outside of politics.  But the show's unique use of talent might be conducive to giving its performers more individualist mind sets.  It takes performers who are nearly all struggling when signed on, an opportunity to work extremely hard and advance their careers.  Some connection may exist between that and, at the very least, a fairly large number of films that celebrate hard work, entrepreneurship, learning on the job, and other similar values.

One can't prove it, but it is an interesting point.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

No, There's No "White Trashing" of Television. Currently, Anyway

I respect the Weekly Standard's John Podhoretz and agree with him most of the time.  Not, however, on his recent critique of Hollywood's recent embrace of compelling stories set in places that seem odd to America's affluent metrodwellers.

American literary culture has a long tradition of local color writing.  Anne Royall's early 1800s writings of traveling through the Kanawha Valley of (at the time) Virginia and its surroundings reflect her vastly different background compared to the people that she meets and the scenery she encounters.  Sometimes Royall writes of the beautiful surroundings, other times she describes the impact of early salt making on the surrounding forest.

After the Civil War came a wave of local color.  In themselves, the stories and books by writers such as Mary Noailles Murfree (whose claim to knowledge was childhood vacations to Tennessee)  or John Fox Jr. did little harm.  They took stereotypes of hill people from time immemorial, dressed them up in the conflict between an idealized country and encroaching industrial civilization, then presented them as morality tales.  Sometimes the country taught the city, more often the city taught the country.  Rarely did they get it right, except for Rebecca Harding Davis (mother of famed war correspondent Richard Harding Davis) who actually lived in the valleys of Hampshire County, Virginia/West Virginia)

The harm came when people endeavored to "cure" the backcountry.  It was not so much the industrialists. They purchased the land at market value and offered cash jobs that allowed people to live better than subsistence or low level commercial farming.  There is a checkered record there, but not as bad as that of the government.

Government bureaucrats read the books and magazine stories and took them for fact.  They decided by the 1930s that farmers and mountain dwellers, for example, in Tennessee, no longer had rights to land.  To build national parks and experiment with hydroelectric social engineering, they drove men and women from land owned by their families since the 1700s. They made up a place called "Appalachia," poured hundreds of millions of dollars into it, but also applied a ruthless characterization to all who lived there.

Charles Kurault's CBS special "Christmas in Appalachia" did more damage than any work of fiction.  Using the credibility of "news," Kurault excised one hollow from one county in Kentucky and generalized the images as pervasive to thousands of square miles over several states.  Certainly those portrayed did live in poverty, but not unlike their brethren in the inner cities, the southern lowlands, the Midwest, the Rockies, or anywhere else.  Murfree, Fox, and their colleagues just wrote stories.  Kurault manufactured an image that, when wedded to the "CBS News" brand, made it a rallying cry for Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.

Podhoretz includes the show Justified among the offenders.  The problem with Justified is that the stories of corruption, abuse of power, and crime depicted in Harlan County pale in comparison to actual events that unfolded in Mingo County, West Virginia just an hour to the northeast. The writers take great care with the mountain characters.  Many are intelligent, educated, and complex, although some, like Dewey Crowe, are dumb as a box of rocks.  The way of the world is that some people, especially criminals, are actually pretty dumb, Dewey accurately represents that.

Unlike Kurault, Justified takes pains to note that a variety of types of people of different classes with different interests live in southeastern Kentucky.  And it did accurately depict the paradox of pride and resentfulness toward coal and the coal industry that permeates some of these communities.  Justified also stars one of the most aggressively outspoken conservatives in Hollywood, Nick Searcy.

Minor quibble.  Justified is obviously filmed in California.  The Golden State looks as little like Kentucky as it looked like Georgia when Dukes of Hazzard was filmed there.

The AMC program Walking Dead features one of the best characterizations of a "redneck" ever made.  Darryl is everything that redneck characters have never been.  Again, writers took pains to give this character a multitude of dimensions rarely seen in movies or television that are not themselves written by people from the area.

Unmentioned by Podhoretz, but interesting nonetheless, is Archer's Ray Gillette. The character Gillette is a gay intelligence agent who was an Olympic gold medal winner and graduated from Marshall University.  Someone grew up in Southern West Virginia, went to Marshall, and ended up writing for that show.  Nothing else can explain the funny yet respectful portrayals, as well as some near inside jokes referring to Marshall.

To someone who grew up in West Virginia, studied Appalachian history and culture in college, and has seen a lot of crap come and go, this is actually a golden era.  At no other time in living memory has television (if not Hollywood yet) come so close to accurate, respectful, and non exploitative characterizations.  These shows explore stories and issues without ridiculing or sermonizing on the positive values of the people who live there.  That takes dexterity and care.

So long as policymakers watch these shows and remember, as we tell our children, that these are just stories, it will be fine.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Pet Projects and Wasted Money: the Lunchtime Saga Continues

During the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt had an impasse with his Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. Ickes came to the president to argue against a hare brained scheme of the First Lady.  She wanted to build socialist commune style towns in the mountains of West Virginia.  There people would make traditional handcrafts, living off whatever pittance consumers decided to throw their way.  As Arthur Schlesinger wrote, the pragmatic Roosevelt assured Ickes that he knew it would not work. But, he needed to get Eleanor off of his back.

Arthurdale and Eleanor turned out, as predicted, to be wastes of taxpayer dollars.  The project of Michelle Obama, designed to force unappetizing meals into children while encouraging exercise, has as well.

According to the Washington Examiner, Obama cherry picked information from a Centers for Disease Control report.  She claimed that her program had caused a 43 percent drop in childhood obesity, which would have been a breathtaking change, were it true. The CDC report actually concluded that no appreciable change had taken place.

Schoolchildren often rejected the new mandated lunches.  Districts across the country reported higher levels of waste.  Meanwhile the 850 calorie limit imposed for a time left athletes, who need hundreds of calories more than the average student, underfed.

Had Obama merely stopped at encouraging more exercise, perhaps trying to find ways to get schools to allow more time for it, that would have helped.  But, being an Obama, she had to move into pointless social engineering which undermined the original goal.

First, Second Amendment Under Threat. Plus, More People Hurt By Obamacare

Stories from Obama's America . . .

Natalie deMacedo in American Spectator brings three stories that Harry Reid and the New York Times claim do not exist.  Real Americans who were caused hardship by Obamacare.

Melissa Quinn of Red Alert Politics reports that a US Marine veteran gun store owner in California refused ATF demands to turn over customer information lists.

Meanwhile, the Washington Examiner's Leijla Sarcevic explains that the United States has fallen below 50th on the world press freedom list.  Sarcevic reports that the federal government's ignoring of Freedom of Information Act laws are a major reason why.  So might also be illegal seizures of reporter notes.

It's been a tough few years for the Bill of Rights . . .