Monday, January 23, 2006

The 'Brokeback' effect

To get a true fix on the battleground where the culture wars are being played out today, you don’t have to go any further than your friendly neighborhood multiplex. Ang Lee’s deceptively understated but emotionally resonant “Brokeback Mountain” has taken point in what James Dobson, the two Pats (Robertson and Buchanan) and the other presumptive generals of what they would surely call “the culture wars.”

But Lee’s film has caught them off guard if not flat-out by surprise; there’s a sense that as “Brokeback” gathers momemtum in the drive toward the Oscars, more than a few of them the usual rock-ribbed conservatives now frantically leafing through their strategy playbooks looking for a way out of a dilemma of identity. Since its release, conservatives have gone out of their way to keep the film, a story of two cowboys and the romantic relationship developing between them – on the margins of respectability and acceptabililty. The right wing is in full cry right now, for at least two reasons:

The first is because of the film’s unexpected penetration into American life. The conservatives had no doubt already conceded some of the cultural high ground to the film’s reception in some quarters. They’d forgone the usual suspect audiences for “Brokeback Mountain,” the coastal cultural centers like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and other liberal enclaves the conservatives have already written off as the charnel houses of Satan.

What has to rankle the conservatives is the way in which “Brokeback Mountain” has broken through, trickled down and burrowed into the broader American consciousness, and done so with a deft touch and lightning speed. It’s broken out of the isolated audiences of the cognoscenti ¬– generally the film scholars and critics and fans on either coast – and burst into the American heartland, become something that people all over America are talking about, whether they’ve seen the film or not.

A host of critics from other publications across the country have come up with hosannahs of their own, independent of whatever the major papers thought. And “Brokeback” generated its popular attention by having the towering nerve to successfully assail the celebrated cowboy esthetic, the foundational Marlboro Man archetype that is one of the country’s most iconic and deeply-held self-images.

That’s buzz that no studio can buy, and no right-wing position paper or appearance on "Meet The Press" can counteract. “Brokeback Mountain” is the film this year with the kind of ineffable buzz that defies conventional marketing schemes (even as it thrives on them) and confounds the political strategy of division and accusation. “Brokeback Mountain” is the New – not just the new (as in that which is so-and-so’s new film or an old and recognizable gem just released on CD or paperback) but something that truly refracts the familiar light of our everyday assumptions, our national mythology, in a way that reveals us to ourselves – and the conservatives aren’t equipped right now to deal with the New.

This leads to the second way in which the conservatives have been effectively outflanked: Because of its relatively broad appeal at different levels, including the box office, “Brokeback’s” success undercuts any right-wing claim that such a film demonstrates fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the studios. The fact that such a successful film has been financed, marketed and distributed by a major studio whose parent is accountable to investors and shareholders is a plain indicator of the studios’ willingness to paint outside the usual comfortable creative lines – and to do it to great effect on the bottom line.

“Brokeback’s” success sends the clear signal that, contrary to many assumptions, the creative forces that made the film have a better sense of the public mood, a better more accurate track of the American psyche, than the conservatives who rail, profane and fight tooth & nail against both the expression of the life experiences in “Brokeback” and the real-life experiences themselves.

In this little pitched battle for public opinion, at least, the conservatives are thus denied the high grounds of American iconography, populist sentiment, and any hope of winning arguments about a company’s fiduciary responsibility by adhering to “American values.”

Truth is, “Brokeback Mountain” has blindsided the conservative politicians like it hit the rest of us. The way in which the film has witnessed its steadily increasing audience is problematic to those who would frustrate creation of a national community as indifferent to sexual orientation as it tries to be to race and gender.

Sometimes in the culture, a profound shift happens. And sometimes when that seismic shift happens, it’s not because of a Titanic Moment. Sometimes, it’s smaller. It’s often quieter, less big-sky bombastic than the advertisement campaign mounted to promote it.

It can be the kind of motion picture in which the actors are the best special effects, as great actors usually are. It can be a story of two lonely wounded people striving to survive and thrive in a brittle and indifferent world, people very like us in a world very like our own. And in its understatement, that story can shake the rafters of the national complacency, and rattle the walls of our understanding of what it means to be a human being.
Image credit: Focus Features

Thursday, January 19, 2006

History repeating

Walter Leland Cronkite Jr., 89 years young, has graciously offered to pinch-hit as anchor on the “CBS Evening News,” should they come calling in their endless hunt for a permanent anchor. Bob Schieffer’s been doing admirably well in the position pro tem, and the Tiffany folks have been drooling after Katie Couric for months; we’ll see where that goes.

But if dear Uncle Walter never plays another down of anchor-chair football, his greatest service in the era After Cronkite may be what he said recently, in a case of (possibly) history repeating itself.

Speaking at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena Calif., and responding to a question about American involvement in Iraq, Cronkite said, boldly, plainly, “it’s my belief that we should get out now.”

It was a reiteration of something he said in 2004, when he criticized the invasion of Iraq the year before, saying that the American people were no safer from terrorism because of the invasion. Now, in post-Katrina America, Cronkite brilliantly established a linkage between the first disaster and the second one, still playing itself out in New Orleans.

“We had an opportunity to say to the world and Iraqis after the hurricane disaster that Mother Nature has not treated us well and we find ourselves missing the amount of money it takes to help these poor people out of their homeless situation and rebuild some of our most important cities in the United States. Therefore, we are going to have to bring our troops home.”

You can quibble with his rationale for using a natural catastrophe at home as a way of extricating the nation from the manmade debacle of elective war. But there’s no escaping the connection of the nation’s sad response to Katrina and the money and manpower in Iraq lost to recovery efforts in Louisiana. And there’s no way around the historical parallels of this recent statement with one he made on Feb. 27, 1968, in the heat and height of the Vietnam War.

That night, at the end of a documentary made after a visit to Vietnam during the January Tet offensive, Cronkite said on the air that the war was unwinnable and that U.S. forces should get out. From the bully pulpit of a network anchor’s chair, Cronkite said the emperor was naked and accelerated the tide of public opinion against the war. That great unraveling took another five years, but Cronkite’s statement – a departure from journalism’s storied objectivity – made it plain that the end of public support, if not the conflict itself, was very much in sight.

In today’s multichannel crazyquilt of television news, it’s hard to imagine someone with that kind of avuncular gravitas, that kind of moral authority stepping forward and saying the same thing. Cronkite is one of the last living holdovers from the era when three broadcast networks dominated the airwaves, from a time when the national attention span was more focused.

But there’s no spin the administration can put on this case of history repeating. Cronkite’s statement in 1968 was a journalistic seismograph warning of the social earthquake to come. We may not be so subject to persuasion today, in 2006, but Cronkite’s more recent assessment weds us to the wisdom of his earlier one -- "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds” -- and to another warning, that sobriquet by George Santayana …

You know the one ... about being doomed to repeat the lessons you didn’t learn the first time.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

While you were shopping

Happy new year. We made it. While you were shopping the after-Christmas sales and snoring off the last of the champagne, a Nobel-winning economist came up with the bill the United States can expect to pay for the war in Iraq. You think you've got a big post-holiday bill? Try $2 trillion.

Two trillion dollars. More money than God and Oprah combined can lay claim to. But that's the projection of the long-term costs, direct and indirect, for the Iraq conflict, according to a study released Jan. 9 by Columbia and Harvard universities. The study, written by Columbia economist Joseph E. Stiglitz -- a Nobel economics laureate in 2001 -- and Harvard lecturer Linda Bilmes included disability payments for the 16,000 U.S. soldiers wounded in the war, Reuters reported.

The study assessed a variety of ways such costs would trickle down to the average American, including higher health-care costs, the loss to the national economy from wounded veterans who can't contribute as productively, and a rise in the price of oil prices. The study concluded about 20 percent of the $25-a-barrel gain in oil prices since the war started in March 2003 was directly attributable to the war itself.

This begins to explain some of the White House talk of late about accelerating troop rotation out of Iraq; there are periodic briefings meant to establish an informal expectation of troops coming home sooner rather than later, a significant number almost certainly heading back before the November elections. Much depends, we're told, on the ability of Iraqi police and troops to fill the vacuum left by the American part of the coalition, which functionally means the coalition itself.

With the U.S. economy more than sputtering back to life -- consider the market closing above 11,000 two days running to start the year -- the exit strategy for U.S. troops from Iraq will be motivated as much by economic forces in play as by the prevailing military exigencies on the ground.

While you were shopping, the United States government got handed a bill it can't comfortably begin to pay. It's likely to be a boon for at least part of the economy; as the cost seeps down into your wallet and mine, the Credit Counselors' Full Employment Act is a shoo-in to sail through Congress, with no questions asked.
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