Thursday, January 22, 2009

"BE BLACK, BABY" AND THE SOCIAL RELEVANCE OF BRIAN DE PALMA'S HI, MOM!

Last night I took in a screening of an old 35mm print of Brian DePalma's excellent 1970 comedy-cum-WTF?!? movie Hi, Mom!. Before the show, our emcee prefaced it with a shaky disclaimer of "if you're offended by anything in this film, just remember what era it's from". He also admitted feeling a tad uneasy knowing that "this was the movie we were showing on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated". Having seen Hi, Mom! before, I immediately knew what our timid host was referring to, and that was the (in)famous "Be Black, Baby" sequence that practically takes over the second half of the film.

But what our host completely misunderstood, was that "Be Black, Baby", and the entirety of Hi, Mom!, makes for the most ideal type of viewing on a day when a black man was sworn into our nation's highest office. Because even though we just elected our first African-American president - and probably because of that - our culture has become more gun shy and eggshell aware than ever before. The elephant in the room that is "race" has been shrunk and is now hanging around the neck of every American daring to engage in a discussion of social politics.

Once again, in taking a step toward "political progress", what's sadly come along with that is an underbelly of weak-kneed cultural distress and a hesitation over open discussions.

Fortunately, we still have a handful of visionaries like Brian DePalma around that just don't care what the gatekeepers think. For the better or worse of the output, DePalma's body of work has garnered him a variety of labels, including "misogynist", "sadist", "racist", "conservative", "liberal", "homophobe", "anti-American", "plagiarist", "hack", and "asshole". But what makes DePalma unique, is that for each of those negatively intended descriptors, an admirer of his will argue the flipside: "feminist", "culturally-sensitive", "liberal", "conservative", "gay-friendly", etc.

One final label that occasionally pops up - admittedly not as frequently as it used to - is "the American Godard". Most will attribute that to the way DePalma shares a keen eye for colorful pop-tastic imagery a la the French genius, but what often gets omitted is that both directors share a sly artistic maneuverability that prevents them from being pigeonholed into a single paradigm.

Hi, Mom! is about Jon Rubin (a perfect Robert DeNiro), a white American male just back from Viet Nam, and ready to fulfill his ambitions as a filmmaker. But first, Jon must pay his dues, and so he takes a job as a low rent adult filmmaker. Working in an underground industry affords Jon the exposure to walks-of-life he's yet to experience. One of those is a radical leftist street theater, and this is how he ultimately becomes involved with the interactive anger play, Be Black, Baby.

But let's back up for a sec...

In between the comedic, satirical story of Jon Rubin, DePalma interjects segments of a fictional made-for-TV documentary called The Black Experience. It's a four part series airing on a public-television spoof of a network called N.I.T. (National Intellectual Television). We see black & white boho radicals confronting regulars on the street with a question of, "Do you know what it's like to be black?". This seriously filmed segment-within-a-movie reaches a quick-witted and uncomfortably hilarious peak when one of the black female radicals asks that question of a non-English speaking Asian man. His authentic-looking reaction to the question is loaded with more meaning than a director could ever ask from a trained actor.

The troupe of radicals ultimately aims to make the public realize the answer to the question themselves by organizing a play called Be Black, Baby, where audience members shuffle through the "physical experience" of being a black person. In a guided tour through a project building, white audience members are painted-up in black face, forced to eat pigs feet & collard greens, harassed, sexually humiliated, beaten by cops, and called "nigg*r" about 200 times.

Suddenly... the play is over, and the audience is shoved out onto the street, happily free, smiling and applauding like a gang of Manhattan socialites collectively appreciating an exhibit at MOMA. With fresh blood and degradation hanging off their faces, these stereotypical limousine liberals condescend to enlightenment, and cultural transformation. The sight of the theater players congratulating the bunch post-performance adds a level of absurdity to go around. These aren't truth seekers, just arrogant, post-graduate approval seekers.

This element of misguided intention is expressed brilliantly when DePalma shows the moment Jon eyes a poster for Be Black, Baby and decides to audition:







The final scene in Hi, Mom! brings us back to Jon Rubin, who, overnight, has gone from leftist urban guerrilla to hawkish right-wing bigot. DePalma is showing the fine line that exists between these two ideological fringes of extremism. As a good friend often says to me, when you move too far along either end of the political spectrum, eventually you may find yourself around onto the other side.

After ripping through a slur-filled rant to a news reporter, Jon looks at the screen and says "Hi, Mom!". Freeze shot, the end. And what a timely image for a post-Election '08 American audience to take in in this age where the cult of personality is raging like I've never seen it before.

76 comments:

Marilyn said...

Wow, Fox, this is one of your very finest essay, though you're likely to take a lot of flak for it. I think Brian de Palma is a highly underappreciated director (who, incidentally, seems to have a thing for porn films - was he in the business at all?). I really think he can do anything. I think it would be an interesting exercise to watch this together with Bamboozled, which I consider almost a total misfire.

Fox said...

Thanks Marilyn!

Yes, a paired screening with Bamboozled would be great. I haven't seen that movie since it first came out on video, but I remember disliking it. I couldn't exactly articulate why without seeing it again. I should do that with a lot of Spike Lee's movies in fact, b/c I often voice opinions on them, but I feel so many years separated from them right now.

And man do I ever agree with you on DePalma being underappreciated. Maybe it's more of the younger generation (which I consider myself a part of...) that grew up just knowing his films post-The Untouchables, but I feel that their is a blind spot among younger film lovers when it comes to him. I don't mean to diminish his later work at all, b/c I enjoy quite a lot of it, and would defend many of them (Raising Cain, Carlito's Way, Snake Eyes, Casualties of War). And I feel comfortable saying that Femme Fatale is a damn near perfect film.

As far as a porn background, I will research that, but I'm pretty sure DePalma went straight from school into regular low-budget/indie filmmaking... and the rest is history. He kinda went the slower success route of Coppola and the path he took from Dementia 13 to The Godfather instead of the near instant success of Spielberg and Lucas. And, actually, I think that let him experiment a bit more. Actually (again), I think he still wants to experiment, but he also wants to work with big money so some of his product comes out looking conflicted.

DePalma DOES love filming women (half-naked, naked, or clothed) and he's made no secret of that. I don't know if it's online, but there is a fascinating interview between him and a female reporter that's in a book of his interviews. The interview is done during the time of Body Double and it's really charged and interesting (it brings up accusations of DePalma's "misogyny"). I'll look for it for ya!

Marilyn said...

Oh, I thought the drill through the woman was what prompted the misogynist charge - something I absolutely love, btw.

Fox said...

No, you're very correct Marilyn. The drill through the woman is in Body Double.

I love hearing your thoughts in a DePalma discussion, b/c, for whatever reason, many of his fans seem to be male. But you've always had your own unique take on feminist views so I would only expect something refreshing from you.

Marilyn said...

Thanks, Fox. Yes, I knew that was from Body Double but it seemed your comment meant that they had more general problems with him.

I think De Palma has a great sense for genre and ways to subvert it. You're right that he's experimental, but he has such a joy about it. It's like he finds something new people are doing and says, "I'd like to try that!" I called the action in the porn studio one of the best music video I've seen.

It's impossible to take Body Double very seriously, and certainly he makes much more fun of the men than the women. It's all about male fantasy, and good God, can't we have our fantasy lives at the movies? What are they there for?

I recently saw The Black Dahlia and, honestly, it's really stitch! He takes actors who look about as hard-boiled as a raw egg and puts them through a kind of dress-up noir. It's similar to Bugsy Malone. What a hoot!

Fox said...

Marilyn-

You've nailed some good stuff here...

It's like he finds something new people are doing and says, "I'd like to try that!"

That's kind of what I say when people accuse him of being nothing but a Hitchcock thief. I mean, obviously he loves Hitchcock (Body Double is like Vertigo fu*king Rear Window... ha, there is opportunity for a good joke there!), but he takes it further. Yes, Dressed To Kill plays off of Psycho, but I think DePalma uses the camera to express the duality in Michael Caine's character much better than Hitchcock does with Perkins. (btw... that's not to diminish the camera work in Psycho, which I think is brilliant.) Oh and, um, I've never seen another director make Angie Dickinson so goddamn sexy!

I called the action in the porn studio one of the best music video I've seen.

Right on! That sequence is just amazing. It takes you into another place like "Be Black, Baby" does in Hi, Mom!.

It's impossible to take Body Double very seriously, and certainly he makes much more fun of the men than the women. It's all about male fantasy, and good God, can't we have our fantasy lives at the movies? What are they there for?

That's part of the problem, I think, that some people have when trying to connect with DePalma. He's a very physical director. Meaning, if you don't care much for cinematic flash, then you may feel isolated b/c sometimes his "stories" aren't much in and of themselves. I mean, you could turn the sound off in Snake Eyes and I would still be riveted.

Not only are DePalma's films fun, but you can tell he's having fun filming them. Also, I think he truly tries to make the viewer aware of the medium they are watching. This is cinema, and I want you to know how that separates it from the other art forms. I love that!

Your comment about The Black Dhalia is hilarious. I actually thought that Josh Hartnett was good, but the "raw egg" description perfectly fits Scarlett Johannson in that movie. I mean, what is she doing?!? She looks like she's nineteen years old! And what an awkward perfromance! Still, I'll totally watch that film again someday!

Jonathan Lapper said...

I'm not very taken with de Palma unfortunately. Unfortunate for me I guess because now you will both be against me. I find him pretty uh... oh, nevermind. I don't want to get all contrary but really, I don't think he's very good at all. I find his movies ... oh screw it I'll be positive instead. I liked Blow Out very much and neither of you has mentioned that and it has the whole porn thing going on. I thought it was very good. For the most part.

Boy what a non-committal comment that was.

PIPER said...

Fox,

Great post. I have this DVD in my collection and I have yet to watch it. Your post has inspired me to get off my ass.

While reading this, I too thought of Bamboozled. I really enjoyed the movie until the little dolls started coming to life. Without seeing Hi Mom, I can just deduct that there are people that see the irony and those that don't. The fact that Jon ends up a radical bigot means he missed the point. Not unlike the white executive in Bamboozled who seemed to enjoy the fact that he could say Nigg@r freely because he was married to a black woman. But I have yet to see it, so I will hold from there.

And allow me to swing in here and get in on this DePalma love-fest. But for more of his earlier work. Phantom Of The Paradise, Dressed To Kill, Body Double, Sisters, Carrie and to me his true masterpiece, Blow Out.

Like Marilyn said, DePalma has always had a flare for Porn. Mostly because he just likes controversy of any kind.

Before DePalma made Body Double, he was so upset with the reaction to Scarface that he said he was going to make his next movie about the Porn industry - almost as an act of defiance or a desire to grab more attention. In his screenings, it is said that he watches the audience instead of watching the film.

My ding on DePalma recently is that he seems to have lost his way. He has lost his signature and instead just tries to garner attention through controversy - as we saw with Redacted. And what the hell on Femme Fatale, Fox. That was a mess.

But thanks for the write-up. I've got that DePalma fire again and I can't wait to watch Hi, Mom.

PIPER said...

Oh, and now that I have read Lapper's comment, I'm against him. Don't expect me to come a knockin on the Cinema Styles' door for at least 24 hours.

Jonathan Lapper said...

But I liked Blow Out. Just because I don't like the rest of his obvious, derivative, ham-handed, adolescent, pedestrian crap doesn't mean you should be against me. I liked Blow Out. Let's just talk about that one single movie.

PIPER said...

Okay, maybe Lapper is okay. He liked Blow Out, but just didn't like all of DePalma's other obvious, derivative, ham-handed, adolescent, pedestrian crap. So he's okay.

Hey, wait a minute...

Fox said...

HAHA... Jonathan! Don't you know by now that we don't hate here? We welcome the poo-poo'ers. It enhances the conversation.

So lay into him, my man, lay into him! Unless Mr. DePalma happens to show up on here today I'm sure you won't face any fierce blowback.

On the other hand, I've heard that Piper is a very fierce blower, so... maybe you'll get lucky.

Jonathan Lapper said...

And you know, Mr Piper, I even linked to you, and Fox, in my Oscar post today as bloggers whose opinions I trusted so cut me some slack.

And I've also heard Pat can blow with the best of them. That's the kind of rep you earn, so Pat should be proud.

Fox said...

Piper-

Thanks!

But Femme Fatale is genius and you know it. Let's fight about it in Lapper's backyard with some barbed-wire, a ladder, and a picnic table!

Phanton of the Paradise is probably my personal favorite of his. (Well, maybe... I should really be careful before saying something like that). As I mentioned above, I just have so much "fun" when I watch that movie. And I mean, dude, the rockstar at the end is named Beef!

And as far as the Be Black, Baby sequence, I think it goes beyond the irony, b/c it's a really complicated sequence (I still struggle with what I think is going on in total with it, and I've seen it thrice!). Part of it is obviously DePalma poking fun at various levels of intelligentsia, but it also evolves into a frightening experience that makes handheld verite horror like Cloverfield and [REC] seem like child's play. Really, I would recommend everyone watch the sequence just to experience it. You may hate it, but it undeniably will have an impact on you and play with your emotions.

Fox said...

Just because I don't like the rest of his obvious, derivative, ham-handed, adolescent, pedestrian crap doesn't mean you should be against me.

That's my Jonathan!! :o)

Fox said...

And you know, Mr Piper, I even linked to you, and Fox, in my Oscar post today as bloggers whose opinions I trusted so cut me some slack.

That's true, Piper. And as of 32 comments your perspective on things has yet to be shared.

In fact, anyone reading this should get their Oscar frustations out at Cinema Styles today. Fun discussions going on. Current topic: Mickey Rourke's weirdo msutache.

bill r. said...

I'm ambivalent about De Palma. I, too, like Blow Out, I think Spacek and Laurie (and in her own way Nancy Allen) save Carrie, I rewatched Dressed to Kill a few weeks ago and was surprised at how much more I liked it than why I firs saw it, I think Sisters is interesting, when I was 12 The Untouchables was my favorite movie, I didn't think Mission to Mars was that bad...but I loathe Scarface, I think Michael J. Fox is close to the only good thing about Casualties of War, Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale are kinda boring, The Black Dahlia was a total botch, Body Double is a waste (of who? Craig Wasson??), Mission Impossible is junk, and I think his hypocrisy during the whole Redacted controversy was appalling. Also, Bonfire of the Vanities. But on the other hand, The Fury.

So you can understand my dilemma.

PIPER said...

Bill,

If I may make a suggestion.

Your sarcasm will be much more hard-hitting if you use an ellipses in the proper place.

Allow me to demonstrate.

You said: I think Sisters is interesting, when I was 12

I suggest: I think Sisters is interesting... when I was 12.

There. I think you'll agree my way is much better. I hate for you sarcasm to be glossed over.

bill r. said...

No, when I was 12 The Untouchables was my favorite movie. I still think Sisters is interesting. What I need was a bunch of semi-colons...unless you were joking, which I now suspect you were. Oh well.

Fox said...

Bill-

The Fury! I love The Fury. Kirk Douglas in that movie makes me want to bone fish.

I agree with you on Mission To Mars. It's dorky, but kinda fun. And plus, who doesn't like floating M&M sequences with Van Hagar playing in the background?!?

Um, you're just wrong on Femme Fatale. You just are. HEY! .. STOP! ... don't even try to debate it... ZIP IT!

I kinda see what you mean about Scarface and Casualties, and I haven't seen Redacted yet. I sorta don't want to.

Piper-

Bill meant "When I was 12, The Untouchables was my favorite movie". Looks like you got punk'd Piper!

PIPER said...

Okay, alright. I read it wrong. Jeez.

Sorry Bill. Go about your way. My apologies.

Femme Fatale sucks.

And I just recently rewatched The Fury and found it a complete mess, much to my dismay.

Oh yeah, and Femme Fatale sucks. Except for the lesbo scene.

bill r. said...

I haven't seen Redacted either, nor do I want to, but Dennis at SLIFR had a whole post about the uproar surrounding it, and from what I know about it, De Palma came off as a thoughtless, hypocritical dick.

I do like The Fury. It's insane, but in a good way. John Cassavetes explodes in it.

Femme Fatale is just a trainwreck, apart from, as Piper correctly noted, the lesbian scene. I admit to wanting to see it again (not just that scene, the whole movie), due to opinions like yours (you're not alone) but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

And I think I can narrow down what I like in Casualities of War even more: the best thing about that movie is the shovel scene.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I thought The Fury was a mess too. The Untouchables is still pretty good but nothing I really like. For me, it's still pretty much Blow Out and that's it. Otherwise, to avoid typing all of it out, I pretty much agree with Bill on all of it. Especially Scarface. God, I hate that piece of shit!

Oh wait. I meant to say, Scarface was my favorite movie... when I was really stupid! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

See, the joke is, I was never really stupid, so it was never my favorite movie, so when I said that thing with the... oh forget it.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I hate Sean Penn. Just wanted to throw that out there.

Jonathan Lapper said...

His name should be Sean Prick.

Fox said...

Bill-

Yeah, I was really bummed out about DePalma's fits surrounding Redacted.

One, his PR for it seemed kind of stunt-y when he started working the movie-studio-is-suppressing-free-speech nonsense angle.

Two, anti-war movies are fine (and expected in our time), but from what I've heard - and from trusted friends who happen to agree with DePalma on the overall scope of the Iraq War - Redacted comes off as very anti-military/anti-soldier and, supposedly, in a very shitty way as well.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Or Sean Pent-Up Asshole.

Fox said...

Piper & Bill-

I just had sex with Isla Fisher, Naomi Watts, Carla Gugino, and Emma Stone, and they ALL said Femme Fatale was genius.

So, if you want my life, you better start falling in line.

Jonathan-

For what you just said about Sean Penn?? Well, I now want to have your babies. [NOTE: I know that sounds impossible, but remember how those two lesbians on Oprah figured it out? I think we can too!]

bill r. said...

I like Sean Penn because he has a good sense of humor about himself. Oh wait, no, I'm thinking of Bruce Campbell. I hate Sean Penn, too.

Who's Emma Stone?

I don't want to get into the whole Redacted thing again, but Fox, I agree, but I think it goes further and gets worse from there.

Jonathan Lapper said...

You know what else I don't like about Penn, aside from his general assholishness? His acting. He's constantly praised to the hilt but man can you see the wheels turning when he gives a performance. I never feel like I'm watching a character. I feel like I'm watching Sean Penn play somebody really, really hard.

"Okay everybody, stand back! I'm going to start acting now."

bill r. said...

I know what you mean, but sometimes I think he does a good job. I like him in Dead Man Walking, State of Grace and The Assassination of Richard Nixon, along with probably a few others.

Mystic River, on the other hand? No thanks.

Jonathan Lapper said...

No, I know he's not awful, it's just that his acting is a bit too telegraphed for the viewer to me.

I never saw The Assassination of Richard Nixon but I agree on the rest for the most part although he still felt a bit over the top in Dead Man Walking to me.

PIPER said...

Speaking of Bruce Campbell, I hear Piper over at Lazy Eye Theatre has done it again with a great post about Army Of Darkness.

Marilyn said...

Sean Penn is a good actor.

Femme Fatale is genius.

Sarah Silverman is a pig.

bill r. said...

Jonathan, to be honest, you'd probably find him over the top in ...Richard Nixon (my wife did), so you might not want to bother. But I thought he was kind of electric in that, to be honest, better than I'd seen him in years. It's one of those big performances that really worked for me. Add to this the fact that the film came out the same year as Mystic River, and I was able to say, "No, this is the Sean Penn performance deserving of accolades, not that one!"

bill r. said...

You people are all crazy, with your Femme Fatale love and whatnot.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Sean Penn is a good, but overrated, actor.

Femme Fatale I've never seen.

Sarah Silverman is a pig.

The Diary of the Dead is atrocious.

bill r. said...

I just thought of another Penn performance I like: The Thin Red Line. So maybe I like him as an actor, and it's only as a person that he repels me.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I definitely like him as an actor more than as a person. But how did you feel about the movie itself, The Thin Red Line?. I'll have to see it again one day, but for now, my memories of it aren't very good.

bill r. said...

I think it's deeply flawed, as well as being fascinating and beautiful and unlike any other war film I've ever seen. I can't blame anyone for not liking it, and I wasn't crazy about it the first time I saw it, but there is true brilliance in that film, off and on at least.

Fox said...

Sean Penn is a good actor.

Femme Fatale is genius.

Sarah Silverman is a pig.


If Marylin's comment was an oreo cookie, I would like out the middle, and throw the two cookies to the side... okay, I'd take a bite out of the Silverman cookie and then throw the rest away.

Marilyn said...

I think Sean Penn is rated about where he should be - you forget he gets demerits for winning the Oscar, which never goes to a really deserving person.

Rebecca Romijn is adorable in Femme Fatale. Yes, I know she's supposed to be really dangerous, but there's De Palma again, subverting the expected.

Fox said...

I feel like I'm watching Sean Penn play somebody really, really hard.

OK, I'll back away from the "really hard" jokes about Penn playing a gay man in Milk, but the above description is how I feel about Penn's performance in this movie.

He seems to be straining the whole time to makes us make sure that we know he's a straight man playing a gay man... if that makes sense. It is just too obvious all over his face and that annoys me.

Fox said...

Everything Marilyn keeps saying about DePalma and Femme Fatale is 100% correct (and scientifically proven), so I will just point Bill and Piper to her from now on.

Fox said...

I feel like I should be fair to Penn too, even though I agree with John that he is overrated, and agree with Genevieve/Trudy that I probably let my dislike of him as a person color my spitfire aimed at his acting. So... I liked Penn in the following films:

Fast Times...

Carlito's Way (conceded that this is a "BIG" performance, but I like it.)

The Game

Sweet and Lowdown (another "BIG" performance, but I like it.)

I Am Sam (thought he gave the mentally challenged role a different edge than say Dustin Hoffman did)

I think I also might have liked him in Colors, We're No Angels, and Casualties of War, but it's been too long for me to say.

Marilyn said...

My favorite Penn films are Racing with the Moon, Hurlyburly, 21 Grams, and Fast Times. Up at the Villa was a lousy movie, but he was good in it. I admire the fact that he provided a voice in Persepolis.

Fox said...

I still need to see Persepolis. I was fascinated by the the story of Marjane Satrapi when her film was making the festival circuit and feeling the pressure from some of the Asian festivals (I think it was banned from the Thai film festival or something, and Iran, of course, was cranky about it...).

Anyways, I found her to be a really brave person, and feel kind of ashamed that I haven't taken the time to watch her movie yet.

PIPER said...

Dammit Fox!

Did you just say you liked I Am Sam?

Fox said...

Piper-

Hold up, hold up!! I said I thought Penn was good in I Am Sam, not that I Am Sam was good.

PIPER said...

You love it. I'm telling everyone.

Jason Bellamy said...

Because even though we just elected our first African-American president - and probably because of that - our culture has become more gun shy and eggshell aware than ever before. The elephant in the room that is "race" has been shrunk and is now hanging around the neck of every American daring to engage in a discussion of social politics.

Once again, in taking a step toward "political progress", what's sadly come along with that is an underbelly of weak-kneed cultural distress and a hesitation over open discussions.


Sorry to be the asshole who doesn't jump in on the Sarah Silverman stuff and instead, you know, talks about the post, but ...

Fox, I'm not sure I agree with you on the above. But then I'm not sure I understand your argument.

I understand the last sentence as a stand-alone. But I read the paragraph before to mean that race is less of a dividing factor than before ("shrunk") and consequently we can't talk about it. And that seems a little apples-and-oranges-y to me, if not contradictory.

If I'm at least mostly following ... You wouldn't be the first person to argue that we've become too closeted in our attempts to be politcally correct. You're arguing about race as Bill Maher constantly argues about religion: that we're too scared to talk about it plainly and openly.

Sticking with race: I suppose that's true to some point. But, if so, when was the 'enlightened' period? When was the point where we could talk about race more openly and honestly than today? Because if you contend that DePalma's film is commentary, well, what's "Tropic Thunder"? If the argument is that DePalma's film is bolder than "Tropic Thunder," I'd argue that, yes, that's probably true. But might that also say something about "Hi, Mom!" -- just like the "I'm only saying gook, not nigger" component of "Gran Torino" says something about it? If "Hi, Mom!" is out of fashion now, maybe that's a good thing. My hunch is that 30 years from now we'll look at "Gran Torino" differently, too.

Anyway, sure, perhaps people bite their tongues too much and don't say the truth about what they feel. And perhaps that keeps us from having conversations that need to be had. But I wouldn't say that we were having better conversations in the 70s when people could still stay anti-black things with impunity. That wasn't discussion, which is two-way. That was just one-way emoting. Follow me?

Are we a gun-shy culture when it comes to race? In many respects. Are we more gun-shy "because" of Obama's election? I can't say I see that. Thems me thoughts.

Thanks, as always, for the thought provoking post.

(P.S. "The Thin Red Line" ... one of the best films of the past 20 years. But that's another topic.)

PIPER said...

Jason,

For what it's worth this is how I took it. Yes it's true that Obama has been elected our 44th President and on a National scale that says volumes. And even though 1.5 Million gathered to watch the inauguration, I still can't talk to my friend about it because we differ on Obama getting elected. Is it race? Could be. I never hear that. What I hear is lots of Fox News crap like he's a socialist and was he even born in this country. But to me it's all window-dressing for a deeper issue. One that people don't want to talk about. Maybe it's there, maybe it's not. Maybe we're making it something it's not. I honestly don't know.

But I do know that as a dinner table society or a cocktail party society, we do not discuss things that were once considered healthy topics of discussion that reflected intelligence or enlightenment. Of course that being Religion, Politics, Gay Marriage, Abortion, etc. etc. It's sad really. Unlike you Jason who appreciates debate and "thought-provoking" ideas, most of society has shut down. There's black and there's white. No gray areas allowed.

And if I may, Sarah Silverman is a Pig. But a hot Pig. Kinda.

Fox said...

Hey Jason-

Thanks for jumping in...

You're confusion is likely my problem. I will often write things in a sprint and not go back to make sure that all my points totally make sense. (does THAT even make sense?!?)

So to take the elephant in the room being "shrunk" thing, yeah, it does sound like I'm saying it's lessened, but what I meant to imply was that everyone now carries it with them wherever they go. It's not just in the room, it's aruond our necks, hanging over our heads, behind our eyes, etc.

More clearly, yes, I think race is even more touchy a subject now that Obama is president. That's not the President's fault, it's just the current climate. It feels, now, that people are more on their toes (see the teacher in Washington who wants to band To Kill A Mockingbird b/c of it's depiction of a black man) than leaning back.

I've never disagreed with Maher's conceit that we should be more open about religion. I've disagreed with the way he handles it. Maher's way of talking about religion is similar to the KKK talking about race.

But I think you may be missing my point about Hi, Mom!. (And again, I will concede that I may have done a not so swell job of laying it out...).

I'm not saying that it's so socially relevant today because it openly confronts race issues (which it does), but rather because it highlights both a soft-headed, submissive mentality (the audience members in Hi, Mom! who feel that going through the Be Black, Baby gauntlet grants them instant enlightenment the way many people feel an Obama election grants the country instant salvation) and militant-style discourse (the radicals that who put on the play and confront people on the streets with the notion that only their point-of-view is the just one) that is currently dominating our political culture.

Mind you, I don't mean to imply that the above is exclusive to a leftist/liberal ideologie, it's just the phase we're currently in, and what DePalma chose to target for this particular film. (Still, e makes it clear that Jon slides along the ideological scale, becoming a right-wing bigot in the end after commiting a terrorist attack).

Good thoughts... oh, and for the recod, I don't think it would make us a better society if people were more open with their bigotry (a la Walt in Gran Torino). That wasn't what I was trying to get at.

Fox said...

Piper said:

But I do know that as a dinner table society or a cocktail party society, we do not discuss things that were once considered healthy topics of discussion that reflected intelligence or enlightenment.

I'm glad Piper brought this up, b/c one thing that bothered me over the past eight years was when people would attribute a politically dumbed-down or politically less aware culture to the Bush administration. Really!?!

No matter which party is in office, if you try to engage your average citizen in a discussion of taxes (arguably the most important issue of our time), many of their eyes will glaze over. Ask ten Obama voters to name two proposed policy ideas of his that they like, and maybe 2 out of those 10 will give you an answer. Just to reiterate, the exact same thing is true of people who voted for McCain (I remember a local talk show host asking a McCain supporter this exact question, and he could only reply "er... um, Obama is a socialist!").

I think the problem today is that citizens don't know the ins-and-outs of the issues... and don't really care to (maybe the current economic climate will change that, maybe not). That's not President Obama's fault, Bush's fault, Clinton's fault etc. Now sure, all of them take advantage of it, but I don't blame either of them for our society being that way. Also, I'm not saying I'm so aware and tuned enough either. I'm just as guilty as the next guy for wanting to kick my feet up and take it easy rather than read section 14b of the latest bill proposal.

I mean, remember when Steve Forbes ran? The guy was probably was probably more economically astute than any candidate we've had then or since, yet people were like "zzzzzz..." b/c he didn't talk about social issues (ie to me, less important issues) enough.

Jason Bellamy said...

Piper & Fox: Good thoughts. Some replies ...

But I do know that as a dinner table society or a cocktail party society, we do not discuss things that were once considered healthy topics of discussion that reflected intelligence or enlightenment.

See, I'd disagree with that. When was the time that we used to have these conversations that we don't have now? Personally, I've never stopped having these conversations. And we're having a conversation right here right now. And you might say, yeah, but we're the exception to the rule. And I don't necessarily disagree. But going back to my original comments: when was the time the rule was different than it is now? Do we actually have evidence to suggest that a faction of society once talked openly and honestly about these issues but now doesn't? Don't get me wrong, we have a long way to go as a society. I just need someone to convince me there was a time in the past, say, 60 years (long before political correctness came into fashion) that there was a time we discussed these issues better than we do today.

As for race being a "touchy" subject -- more than ever. Well, sure. But, as you've clarified, I don't think Obama has anything to do with that. And, frankly, I think it's the evolution of sensitivity. To use Walt Kowalski as an example again, race isn't a touchy issue to him because he grew up in a time when the feelings of non-whites were irrelevant. But that doesn't mean that Walt's very open discussion of his feelings amounts to any kind of productive societal dialogue. (Which is not to imply you disagree.) Again, yeah, I wish we could talk about these things more openly. I do. But political correctness sometimes gets a bad rap. When it comes right down to it, political correctness is largely about things like whites having to think about whether it's propper to say stuff like "nappy headed hos." They didn't used to.

So, sure, we can debate whether the firing of someone for saying that on the radio is the most productive thing for society. But the idea that someone should be held accountable for that kind of speech doesn't mean we're slipping backward as a society. It means we're moving forward. Likewise, Bill O'Reilly keeps going on about the "assualt on Christmas." But that's not true. We're just finally getting to the point where we're being honest about the fact that not everyone in this country is Christian. That's a furthering of the political discussion, even if it happens more through action than through dialogue.

One more point, because I could ramble on forever ...

one thing that bothered me over the past eight years was when people would attribute a politically dumbed-down or politically less aware culture to the Bush administration.

I agree with the notion that both sides exploit the stupidity, to put it bluntly, of the average American (and, yes, on some issues, I certainly qualify as a stupid American). But I would have to agree with the idea that the Bush administration made dumbed-down rhetoric an art form. Yeah, it's sad for society, and it had terrible consequences in many instances. But, hey, they played the political game and it got them two terms. I don't admire the ethics of it, but I can't argue with the effectiveness.

I always say that Republicans are better at politics than Democrats. A large part of that is the GOP's willingness, especially in recent years, to pound the same drum over and over. For example: After a while, it became know that there was no 9/11-Iraq link, but the Bush team just acted like they didn't hear that and kept implying that there was. And for a long, long time it worked. When Democrats are put in the same situation, they tend to backpedal and try to explain their way out of things. They try to justify. In the Bush administration there was no effort to justify, because they acted as if there was no possibility of error. Again, this is effective. I'm not saying that the Dems are morally or intellectually superior. Fuck, clearly they're not the latter, or else they would have figured out sooner how the Bush machine ate them up and spit them out.

Which is my long way around to saying this: Yes, I think Bush himself is not an intelligent fellow. But the dumbing-down of rhetoric was orchestrated by Karl Rove, who is brilliant.

Just my take.

PIPER said...

Fox,

I sort of agree with you.

To me Social issues are the most important and it's usually there that I take a stand because they are the closest thing to the constitution during every election. But maybe the reason why people can't debate politics or social issues is because politicians have put them front and center. They have made them divisive. And by putting them front and center, they have made it harder to talk about them casually. And sorry to say, most of that is on the Republican Party. More specifically Karl Rove.

Four years ago, Bush ran a campaign about Gay Marriage. Even further back his Dad ran a campaign about, my favorite, Family Values.

And that's not to say that the democrats are off the hook. They honestly don't trust people enough to do that right thing.

Politics in general are wrong in how they deal with things. And I would include the media in that blame as well. They don't cover what won't sell.

I personally like Ron Paul because he simplified the process. He made everything about the constitution. But the party process ignored him and so did the media and so he went away. It's bad. But this is more politics than Hi, Mom so I'll shut up now.

Fox said...

Jason & Piper-

I'm about to read both your comments again, and then reply, but wanted to just briefly respond to Piper's last remark:

But this is more politics than Hi, Mom so I'll shut up now.

If you don't want to get into politics, that's totally fine and I completely understand, but please don't feel that you have to back away from it.

Yeah, this is primarily a movie blog, but if the conversation veers into politics or baseball or corndogs, that is a-ok. I mean, this kind of post is intended to provoke those conversations in the first place, so it is definitely not out of place. It's kind of hard for me to write about movies without relating it back to society, culture, politics.

OK, just wanted to get that out... more, shorty...

Marilyn said...

What I've experienced regarding race relations and other hot potatoes is that the offended groups are the ones who want to control the terms of the discussion. I remember mentioning an incident at a local Italian restaurant that seemed clearly racist to me. I was with my Korean friend, and the valet kept passing us by to get the cars of other people; it seemed deliberate to me, and my friend has talked candidly with me about other racist experiences she has had in this country.

A Korean came online and blasted me for being patronizing, like Koreans can't take care of themselves or that whites are overly sensitive to the feelings of Koreans, apologizing continuously for perceived slights they may be suffering.

This sensitivity of and to white guilt makes it difficult to be honest and say, hey, we know a racist when we see one. It suddenly became wrong for me to speak on behalf of my foreign friend. Where do I get off flaunting my white guilt (which I don't have, btw)? People fail to make these distinctions, and conversation becomes stymied as a result.

Fox said...

Jason said:

But going back to my original comments: when was the time the rule was different than it is now? [ED: This is regarding discussions of "important" issues]

That's true. Defintely not in MY lifetime has there been a period where a stricter focus on important issues (understanding that that is subjective) has taken place. And that's why I wanted to make clear that I don't blame the current mind set on any recent president.

Now. Of course, I don't really know for certain, but I would guess that The Great Depression was the last time discussions really hit home more directly? I think when a society is relatively affluent, happy, economically succssful, that political issues don't seem as personally relevant.

But that's good food for thought, Jason. I would hate to have to go back to colonial times to think that that was the last time discussions of taxes etc. really took place around the dinner table, but maybe so.

We'll have to disagree on whether the Obama Presidency (or the accension of it) has anything to do with current sensitivity. This is perhaps a weak example, but I remember Jon Stewart making an Obama joke on The Daily Show and the audience was hesitant to laugh and he said, "It's okay! You can laugh at the guy!". I don't blame Pres. Obama personally, it's not his doing, I just think people are more cautious than ever now b/c we have a black man as commander-in-chief.

But you make an excellent point about "political correctness". The phrase is commonly used as a negative (I use it as such quite a bit) but it is based in something very worthy: a conscious effort to respect the feelings of people in a society who may feel like outcasts. Now, like most things, this gets out of hand (esp. when politicians get involved) but the intention was nothing but good.

But on the "war on Christmas" thing. I'm can see where O'Reilly is coming from, but in the O'Reilly way, I think it comes off a little overexcited and silly. You are def. right that it's progress when we can have a holiday season when Christmas, Hannakuh, Kwanza, Ramadan, etc. can be celebrated equally, but I find it very backwards when people say they are "offended" by public displays of mangers or christmas trees on college campuses or if a co-worker says Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays. THAT, to me, isn't progress.

OK... like Jason said, I can go on forever... and to not make this comment appear unreadable b/c of it's length, I am snipping it here and continuing it in my next comment

Fox said...

Piper-

I think Ron Paul is a good example of another Steve Forbes-like character. Not they necessarily agree on the same agenda items, but that they talked about things in way that just didn't appeal to a lot of people (and, as you mention, to the sensationlist media). I mean, saying you want to get rid of the Department of Education is NOT gonna get you enough votes. I'm not saying that's a worthy debate to have or not, but, dude, that type of extreme change in our government is gonna turn off both mainline Republicans AND Democrats. And, back to your point about the media, when you have 30 seconds at a debate to try and frame your argument, well.... GOOD LUCK!

Now this goes back to what you mention about candidates turning social issues into divisive topics. They KNOW those issues will stick better than say economic ones, and they all exploit that. McCain & Palin used the gay marriage angle and Obama's stance on late term abortions to try and rally and knock him out, but it didn't work. Those are important social issues to discuss, but they get cheapened when used in a fever-pitched manner.

Finally, I didn't mean to imply that social issues aren't important, b/c I definitely think they are. But when I'm putting in order the things I want from a candidate, the social issues usually aren't near the top.

Good discussion guys. This is excellent. And as Jason mentioned, I think it is forums like there where important issues can be discussed by just regular ol' citizens like us.

Fox said...

Marilyn-

Another excellent point about "white guilt" that runs along well with Jason's point on "political correctness".

To me, "white guilt" definitely exists - I watched the documentary The Order of Myths last night, and one character in particular seemed to wear white guilt on her sleeve quite prominently - and I think it quite often makes for very stale art (The Visitor... oh shit, did I just bring that sparkplug of a movie up again!?!? Am I being divisive??? :o) ).

However, like the charge of "you're being too P.C.", accusations of "white guilt" can be misused, and I think your real life example is an outstanding one. Because of that, white people may back away from defending a minority friend or a minority issues b/c they don't want the knee-jerk "white guilt" lable tagged to them. And then, as you said, discussions become stymied.

It's tough. I don't know how situations like that can really be avoided. Keeping our heads up and being as honest as we can I guess is the best thing to do. I mean, I'm sure Tom McCarthy would said "fu*k you!" to me if he heard that I thought his film was born of white guilt, and good for him for defending himself. But based on his film, I just wouldn't believe him at all.

Again... good discussion guys! Lovin' it!

p.s. And if people wanna come in and talk about Sarah Silverman they are more than welcome! :0)

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: We can agree to disagree (we're good at that) on the Obama thing. But one follow-up...

I saw that "Daily Show" moment, I don't think the Stewart quip had anything to do with Obama's race. Or at least very little. I think he was telling the very-Obama-friendly crowd that it was okay to have fun with their messiah. The comedy problem with Obama thus far is that the only real thing to joke about is his race. He hasn't bungled anything yet to use that as fodder. Nor is he a walking cartoon character like Bush and Palin (Biden on the other hand...).

So in that respect, yeah, people are touchy feely about making black jokes about the president. But I think, too, that he gets special treatment in that respect and kind of deserves it. People know that having a black president is a big deal. If we're a little 'safe' with Obama in that respect, it's only natural. Doesn't mean folks are going to lighten up on more important racial discussions, or on R Kelly jokes.

P.S. I'd sleep with Sarah Silverman. I'd invite R Kelly to watch, but Silverman is in cougar country in his eyes, so he wouldn't be interested.

Fox said...

P.S. I'd sleep with Sarah Silverman. I'd invite R Kelly to watch, but Silverman is in cougar country in his eyes, so he wouldn't be interested.

Maybe you could invite O'Reilly to watch instead?

And speaking of cougars, what about the new NY senator? Ooh la la!

Marilyn said...

I can think of a few things to "kid" Obama about, but nobody would like me if I said them. However, the media are all over his pal/not-pal Rod Blagojevich.

Fox said...

I can think of a few things to "kid" Obama about, but nobody would like me if I said them.

Oh Marilyn... what a tease! :)

I don't wanna give you the "Obama expert" title without your consent, but you did observe his rise since you live in Chi-town. You probably know quite a bit about him.

Plus, there seems to be a bit of backpeddling already on the "we are gonna be 100% transparent with the public" declaration. Some of Robert Gibbs' awkward daily press briefings have been well,... awkward. Today I heard him field a question on the drone attacks in Pakistan and he kept deflecting it ("I'm not gonna talk about that... I'm not gonna talk about that.").

I don't mean to have knives out so early, I'm just saying that every politician usually has reason to be made fun of.

PIPER said...

Fox,

I didn't mean my "shut up" comment to say that I was swaying away from debate. I just meant that I was kind of wandering with my thoughts a bit.

And now that I know you are okay with talking about Corndogs... watch out.

Jason,

I can't say that there was a time of more enlightenment in regards to race relations or religion or whatnot. But I think that there was a time when people didn't sway from debate the way they do now. Sure, you and Fox and Marilyn and I can debate this easily online. But it's not us sitting across from eachother at a table. Or on a street corner. The truth is, we are a non-confrontational nation. A passive/aggressive one that would much rather express ourselves on-line than in face.

There was a time when politics were debated openly on streets with candidates. Now the questions are picked beforehand and everyone gets a time-limit. It's a joke.

We may have evolved as far as our thoughts and debate, but I wouldn't say we're better because we choose to do it behind doors.

Now that's just me living in the suburbs of Kansas City. It may not be the same where you live. Open, face-to-face debate may be alive and well. But with the rise of blogs and blackberrys and Youtube, I'm not sure.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm just saying that every politician usually has reason to be made fun of.

Oh, no question. But due to a smartly run national campaign, a kid gloves treatment by the media, a general good naturedness that's hard to dislike, a relatively short time in the spotlight or a combination of all the above, Obama just haven't given comics much to latch on to yet. It'll happen. No question. As it should.

Actually, NPR's "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me" has consistently come up with good Obama jokes despite being left leaning. And the jokes have nothing to do with race. Which isn't to say race jokes can never be made about Obama. It's just that right now people are expecting those, and so they seem, well, kind of obvious and lame.

Anyway, good discussion here today. It is interesting how all these things have converged: political correctness, the first black president and electronic socialization (e-mail, blogs, Facebook, etc). I'm sure all of these play a part in the suggestion that Americans perhaps don't discuss things as openly as they once did.

Thanks, all. Time to eat a corndog and watch "Jesus Is Magic" while thinking of Sarah Silverman naked and burning a Christmas tree. Or as I like to call it: Friday.

Fox said...

Piper-

You bring up a good distinction about debating behind "masks" (e-mail, blogs, texting, etc.). Part of the reason I have this blog is b/c I prefer to discuss somewhat sensitive/controversial issues behind a virtual wall instead of face-to-face with my "real life" peers.

Now, what I say on here is always 100% honest. It's 100% how I feel, but it lets me get my opinions & feelings out without risking face-to-face confrontation. I don't know if that's good or bad. It's something to think about.

Many of my friends and I don't see eye-to-eye on politics, and though that's never jeopordized my strongest relationships, I feel that if I can get a lot off of my chest on a blog or message board then I don't feel the need to argue with my friends when we hang out. Again, ultimately I don't know if that's being selfish and less productive as a member of society, but...

Jason-

No doubt. You're right that Obama is a much less easy target to make fun of than Bush. B/c he's articulate, "cool", smooth, etc. he doesn't set himself up for a lot of ridicule (ie something like Bushisms). And the fact that he's only been in office four days means he doesn't have much executive errors/flubs to really goof on yet.

The time will come. I mean, SNL has already spoofed him a bit, especially the media's reaction to him. Plus, the President himself seems to have a fairly good sense of humor himself.

Geoff said...

bill said:
I haven't seen Redacted either, nor do I want to, but Dennis at SLIFR had a whole post about the uproar surrounding it, and from what I know about it, De Palma came off as a thoughtless, hypocritical dick.

Here is the link to Dennis' post:
http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/2007/10/slifr-forum-redacted-gets-redacted.html

De Palma was simply fighting to get his movie released the way he made it and was told he could make it-- he was angered when, after being forced to write a script for a film that he'd wanted to improvise, he had layed everything out for the studio to see, was given the go-ahead, but then had the final scene edited by someone else's hand. He made his feelings public at festivals because he was hoping that his cut would wind up being the version released to theaters.

Fox said...

Thanks for the link, Geoff-

I haven't read Dennis' link yet, but wasn't the version that DePalma had envisioned the one that Magnolia eventually released?

I don't know who had the rights to Redacted first (again, I plan on reading Dennis' link when I get off work), but it seems that the studio that "nope" to DePalma's final cut is within their right to do so. Afterall, it's their film.

I'm not saying I favor a studio slicing-up a director's film (although sometimes it's for the best), but DePalma crying free-speech oppression was a little silly since it wasn't about speech at all, it was about business.

Geoff said...

No, the version that De Palma wanted did not have any faces blacked out at the end of the film-- De Palma was completely against blacking out the faces because he'd felt the whole point of the pictures at the end was to see the faces of people affected by war.

The sequence mimics the types of videos De Palma found on YouTube that put pictures to music, but in addition, within the context of the film, De Palma wanted to evoke the sense within the soldier who had just returned home from war that there are images he cannot get out of his head. De Palma felt that by blacking out the faces, it lessened the impact, and therefore the whole point of the scene.

Yes, it is the studio's right, etc., but De Palma felt cheated because he had already submitted everything to Magnolia, hiding nothing about the film's content, figured everything was okay, but then found that they had compromised his vision (De Palma refused to black out the faces, so they did it themselves). He knows it is within their right, which is why he made/makes a public battle out of it, to try to get other people on his side and convince the studio to release it as he originally intended. You can say "asshole," etc., but De Palma looks at it as he has one chance to get it right, and the time is now.

As a side note, if you look at the history of De Palma's censorship battles (he's had several throughout his career), he is almost single-minded in getting his vision across-- his view is that it is his name on the picture and he will have to live with it, so he wants to get it right.

Fox said...

Geoff-

Thanks for the info.

I didn't know that about the ending, and I didn't know his struggle was with Magnolia.

I need to see the film so I can get better involved with conversations over it. It's one of the six films of his I've still yet to see, and I want to be a completist with him, so I shall bite the bullet soon.

Seeing that you are a huge DePalma fan yourself, may I ask what you thought of Redacted? As a stand alone film and/or also how it fits into the work of DePalma as a whole.

Geoff said...

Fox, I like REDACTED-- while not as compelling to me as something like THE BLACK DAHLIA, REDACTED shares a similar sense of urgency with HI, MOM! Both films seem to be capturing something of the moment, and both share a heated interest in the way technology and media affect the way we experience things.

While REDACTED can get emotional, its immediacy makes it a different animal than De Palma's CASUALTIES OF WAR-- the two are sister films that share some plot points but differ radically in presentation. Where CASUALTIES has a classical sensibility and sheen to it, marked by reflection and the distance of time, REDACTED is raw and angry that we seem to have learned nothing from such distance and reflection.

REDACTED's focus on media technology, and the way an incident will be represented/viewed/recycled by various media channels, make it something like HI, MOM! meets CASUALTIES, and makes it a fascinating thing to watch. You will definitely think of the "Be Black, Baby" sequence as you watch the rape sequence in REDACTED, although there is somehow a more distancing effect in the latter (which is odd considering it is based on a real incident).

REDACTED does feature scenes that, in the fiction of the diegesis, are supposed to be an arty French documentary, and are thus very beautifully filmed. Despite the appropriation of media forms (internet, TV, film, even video camera-- see if you can spot the clever point at which, for a few brief seconds, what we see comes purely from a camera that has just been turned off), the film plays chronologically, as if someone (De Palma) found all of these items and decided to piece together a linear story out of the pieces.

MovieMan0283 said...

This has been on my Netflix queue for a long time, though Greetings has been even higher. Perhaps I should switch the order (or am I hallucinating? Is this even available on Netflix? Maybe I'm just thinking of Greetings...)

De Palma's approach seems to have varied more wildly than that of any other American filmmaker. I mean, how the hell do you go from American Godard to American Hitchcock in 10 short years?

MovieMan0283 said...

This has been on my Netflix queue for a long time, though Greetings has been even higher. Perhaps I should switch the order (or am I hallucinating? Is this even available on Netflix? Maybe I'm just thinking of Greetings...)

De Palma's approach seems to have varied more wildly than that of any other American filmmaker. I mean, how the hell do you go from American Godard to American Hitchcock in 10 short years?

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