Taking and Giving

Dystopias are among my favorite kinds of literature.  Things tend to go wrong in human society, and although we’ve made great progress over the past couple of centuries, in many ways we’ve set ourselves back.  Dystopias are searching, thoughtful ways of addressing that slippage and they warn us of what me might become.  (Especially if Republicans remain in power.)  Lois Lowry’s The Giver is young adult literature, but I’ve been curious about it for some time.  Set in an undefined time and place, a highly structured society exists where things seldom go wrong.  There are no animals and people take pills to eliminate “stirrings” so that sex won’t complicate relationships.  Families are constructed by algorithm and children are assigned from a pool so they will match expectations.  In order to continue this bland lifestyle, memories have to be repressed in the person of the Receiver—the keeper of communal memories.

At first things seem pleasant enough.  Life, however, lacks color and music.  It lacks emotional engagement.  Those who, in real life, idealize the 1950s as before the madness of the sixties began, have trouble conceiving of how societies go wrong.  The dilemma is that no society is perfect and as time goes on we look for improvements.  For a very long time in American history, for example, nobody had bosses.  The majority of people were independent farmers.  They prospered by luck and hard work, but they worked for no one but themselves.  Now we mostly work for bosses who have bosses who have bosses in some kind of endless regression of power.  Our ability to change things is quite limited, even in professional positions.  Is this better than the uncertainty of farming?  With all the rain this year it might seem so.  Of such things dystopias are made.

The Giver follows a protagonist, Jonas, who when he becomes twelve is assigned to become the new Receiver.  As he gains memories of how things used to be, he’s fascinated.  Learning his society’s darkest secret, however, spurs him to try to make a change.  A lot of questions remain at the end.  (The novel is part of a series, as most young adult fiction tends to be, but it can be read as a stand-alone story.)  Those of us who’ve been around the block a time or two might be able to guess where this is going, but for younger readers to be introduced into the way of human problem solving this is a gloves-off approach.  Those accustomed to dystopias will find themselves in familiar territory.  As will those who live under Republican regimes.

Chilly Fluids

I’m not sure why I did it.  Read In Cold Blood.  I’d known of Truman Capote’s main claim to fame for years, but an accidental recent mention, a cheap copy in a used bookstore, and a week of grabbing time to read did it.  I’m not a fan of true crime, and despite my fixation on horror movies, I try to steer away from anything that doesn’t have a hint of the speculative about it.  There’s a difference between horror and terror.  I’d happily lived a half-century without ever hearing about the Clutter murders and kind of wish that were still the case.  Yes, there are doubts about the veracity of Capote’s account at points and novelists are often convincing liars, but still, at the heart of the matter more than just four people are senselessly murdered in the course of the tale.

A few elements stood out in the reading of the book.  One was that given the naiveté of the 1950s I wonder how anyone could ever really want to go back to that decade.  We’re run by a government full of doddering old men who seem to idealize the falsity and utter conformity of an age that was really a pressure cooker in which cases such as this would explode.  I was born in the much idealized 1960s but I don’t think we should go back to them.  We learn, we change, we grow.  Knowing what we now do, it was kind of painful reading how blissfully ignorant so many people were.  We may be more afraid these days, but at least we’re more realistic.

Another factor, very much at home in this world older but no wiser, is how the Bible is cited at the trial in support of capital punishment.  Although it may not have been intentional on Capote’s part, he demonstrates a deep truth about Scripture.  It can be read in more than one way.  In conservative Kansas in 1960 it could sway jurors to seek the death of other human beings.  The murders were indeed savage and pointless.  Capote’s account of them is difficult to read.  Perhaps more difficult is the way the Bible is used to unleash the basest instincts of people against other human beings.  Yes, parts of the Good Book require the bad thing, but if we’re over fifty years beyond Holcomb we’re over fifty score beyond a time when just one interpretation stands for all.  If it ever did.  There’s a difference between horror and terror, but the Bible can participate in both.  I prefer to stick to the former.

Proselytization and Cheese

One of the universals of many childhood lives is Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. If I were the financial sort, I would consider investing in it. As my daughter was moving into college, I noticed other worried-looking parents sitting by their unpacked cars, some with corporate-size boxes of Mac and Cheese shrink-wrapped and ready to tide a son or daughter through difficult times. It is a comfort food, a warm and welcoming friend. Some would say heavenly. Eventually, as adults, we learn to view processed foods with some introspection, moving toward the harsher, but healthier fresh varieties. Secretly, most of us would welcome the opportunity to eat like we did as kids when the consequences were unclear and the guilt was still a plucked apple away.

IMG_0960So at a college organizational fair, my daughter sent me a picture of savvy marketing. Christ the King Lutheran Church giving away boxes of childhood. When that warm, gooey, comforting sensation of childhood hits those whom society is suddenly telling they’re adults, they might have their thoughts turn to the Lutherans. Or the many other faith-based organizations eager to recruit among the young and newly independent. This, of course, is nothing new. Religions have long displayed their benefits to convince those with more earthy things on their minds. The evolution of religion is a fascinating study from the days of enforced loyalty despite belief up to the buyer’s market that religion represents today. How do you convince those who legitimately have a choice? What brand of religion is better than the others? Which is the tastiest variety?

The irony of appealing to the body to gain the commitment of the soul is one religions have had to adopt. There was a time when the way to heaven came through self-denial and spiritual discipline. Earning salvation was hard work. Now if we can get you into the pews on Sunday morning, preferably with your wallet, all is good. It is well with your soul, it is well. I feel for the modern, institutional religions. They were once a powerful force in society and by default people believed that they had a special line to God. Up to the 1950’s, even, this perception was especially strong. People learned, as people will, what they could get away with. Turns out, religion is optional. But eating is not. Not if you’re going to survive in this harsh world. And even if you don’t believe in heaven, we will always believe that in the kitchens of paradise they will be serving Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Super Women

DivasDamesDaredevilsDivas, Dames and Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Gold Age Comics, by Mike Madrid, is a stroll down a memory lane that many of us never previously walked. My imagination is such that I no longer read comic books, but as a child they provided a cheap escape from a reality that didn’t feel so different from the crime-infested world that superheroes inhabited. For young boys reading these stories the absence of women was normal—there were some things of which Mom didn’t approve, and that was because she just didn’t understand. Boys will be boys. Still, Mike Madrid has ably demonstrated a secret knowledge that the 1950s would deem arcane—female characters once held a position nearly equal to that of men in the world of comics. Prior to Comics Code Authority in 1954, the women who helped win the Second World War were portrayed as tough, independent, and in charge (to an extent) of their own destinies. In the conservative backlash of the ‘50s, however, women were diminished, relegated to the home and domestic life. Comic books presented them as secondary to men. That myth has proven pernicious, even now, six decades later.

One of the perks of blogging is having someone you’ve written about contact you. Mike Madrid has been the subject of a previous post for his book The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heriones. Madrid’s agent kindly sent me an advance proof of Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and I was once again struck by the historical scope of knowledge that these books present. Academics are—let me correct that—some academics are becoming aware of the fact that popular culture defines reality for many people. We find our troth in those who live on the big screen or on the pulp paper, those who rise above the constant threats of an uncaring world. We’ve seen that business can be its own evil empire, and superheroes, and everyday people, do have it within their power to act. Madrid shows that we were well on our way to equality of the sexes when the haircut and horn-rim crowd of the clean-cut 1950s insisted a return to Stone Age ethics in the treatment of women was appropriate.

In keeping with the general theme of this blog, the book has a chapter on the goddesses who became heroes. We all know Thor, but what of the forgotten Fantomah, Amazona, Marga the Panther Woman, Wildfire, Diana the Huntress, or Maureen Marine? Madrid’s book presents a story from several of the animated heroines of the days before censorship tamed the feminine mystique. More than that, he clearly shows how women—even ordinary women—were once deemed incredible and awe-inspiring. Then the titanium gate of male inferiority complexes and the vaunted “old ways” crashed down, trapping us all in a world fit to be ruled by men alone. I congratulate Madrid for resurrecting so many forgotten figures who never had a chance to become cultural icons. All women are heroes, and I know there is a hero that I miss very much, although even Mike Madrid didn’t mention her in his wonderful book.

Blob Blog

Those who actually know something about movies occasionally complain that Hollywood seems to provide us with diminishing returns. How many movies have been remade? Can anyone even count all the sequels, prequels, and just plan quels? A similar trend is evident in publishing. A teen-vampire novel takes off and every publisher faces a twilight of the profits if it doesn’t spin off its own version. Sometimes I end up becoming familiar with a movie through its remake before ever viewing the original. The Blob is one example of this. I’ve seen the thirty-year remake 1988 version a few times. Just this weekend I saw the original 1958 version for the first time. It seems to me that teen movies of the late fifties and early sixties tried a little too hard to get the snappy, sassing dialogue of teens on the brink of the incredible cultural changes that were about to take effect after the extreme conservatism of the McCarthy Era. At times it is so hip that I can hardly stand it.

The_Blob_posterThe Blob falls into that category. A young Steve McQueen trades ripostes with his chums who think a drag race and a Bela Lugosi movie with your gal are pretty daring behaviors. Buried in all that innocence, however, I found a hidden warning tone. When I watch scary movies, I always keep an eye out for religious themes. Sometimes they fail to materialize. The Blob is about as secular as they come. I didn’t even spot a church or a priest (unlike the 1988 remake) in the typical American town. Just a bunch of kids that, Archie-like, try to convince the adults that they’re serious. A blob from space really is loose in town, and nobody has an idea how to stop it. All the adult men wear ties and the ladies all wear dresses. It is a world that follows the rules.

What of this warning tone I mentioned? Well, the blob itself is, apart from its disruptive raison-d’être, hardly more threatening than the stifling culture it attacks. It can’t be shot or burned, and nobody has any other ideas. It is unstoppable. Except for cold. And here’s the chilling part. As the carbon-dioxide drenched blob is airlifted to the Arctic by the military, Lieutenant Dave declares the world safe once more. Steve (Andrews, i.e., McQueen) chimes in with, “Yeah, as long as the Arctic stays cold.” The film ends with a trademark horror question-mark (this one literal) as the blob is parachuted onto a snow-covered landscape. Global warming was a future monster in 1958. The optimistic world could see nowhere but forward. Now, over 50 years later, our future looks a lot less cold. With politicians and some religious leaders decrying global warming as just another liberal myth, we might do well to remember The Blob. Something up there on our melting ice caps is waiting for us to return to the 1950s to begin its sequel of terror.

Freud’s Nightmare

B movies are a guilty pleasure. Weekends sometimes allow for guilty pleasures, when I can check my mind at the door, take a seat near the screen, dim the lights and grab the popcorn. 1950‘s sci-fi reflects paradigms that have ossified in some people’s brains, it seems. It has been many, many years since I watched Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman. I was a child the last time I saw it. As an adult the message is strikingly different. The year is 1958, and my parents haven’t even married yet. Millionaire Nancy Archer has a run-in with an alien in a “satellite,” but he only wants her for her jewelry. Meanwhile her cheating sleaze of a husband, Harry, is making out with the redhead at the local, and plotting to kill his wife for her money. So far the story is fine, if tragic. Then the woman, enlarged by radiation, breaks free from her chains, rips the roof from the bar, and grabs her husband. To the local sheriff, there’s only one option—shoot the “monster.” He unloads a riot gun into her, and, hitting a transformer, electrocutes her. The crowd, aghast, run to see if her trashy husband is alive. The wronged woman they ignore. The metaphorical elephant in the room. Role end credits.

Attackofthe50ftwoman

The misogyny of this story escaped me as a child, as did the sexual innuendo. I was only after the cheap thrills of cheap special effects. So I turned to The Incredible Shrinking Man, released a year earlier in 1957. Scott Carey, after sending his loyal wife Louise to the galley for a beer, is hit by a radioactive cloud while on his brother’s boat. An accidental dose of insecticide some months later sets him to shrinking—a freudian fear for all men. As he grows smaller, his will to dominate his wife—now a giant to him, increases. Many scenes end with a tiny man leaving his wife in tears. Even when he is supposed dead, but in reality is too small to make himself heard, Louise is reluctant to leave, in case he still needs her help. Like a short beer, I suppose. The spider scene, which no doubt caused nightmares when I was a child, follows on his monologue about having to dominate his new, tiny universe. The little man shrinks into non-existence with the realization that “to God there is no zero.” What he doesn’t say aloud is, “as long as one is male.”

IncredibleShrinking

These are the 1950s to which some political commentators (and not a few voters) wish us to return. Men fear being dwarfed by women. Call it radiation, or call it social regress, or call it paranoia—the message is all the same. Man must dominate. Women who overshadow are a threat. In the earlier film, Scott Carey is a passively shrinking man. By the next year, when Nancy Archer grows, it is now an “Attack.” Fast forward half a century. Dreamwork’s Monsters vs Aliens makes a parody of Nancy Archer, and Susan Murphy’s fiancé, Derek Dietl (who is clearly modeled on the smug, self-righteous newscaster in Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman) ends up alive, but shamed. The male alien who seeks to dominate her is destroyed. And the male monsters feel somehow less fierce in her presence. As this year’s political posturing clearly demonstrates, there is still a long, long way to go before true equality appears. Many men are clearly stuck in the black-and-white fifties. The full-color, larger than life Ginormica will hopefully better reflect the paradigms of the future.

Map is Territory

Far be it from me to challenge the established certitudes of the experts in academia, but I’ve been beginning to think maybe map is territory. This insight came to me from an unorthodox source (of course). I was watching War of the Colossal Beast over the weekend—among the corniest of corny 1950’s sci fi flicks. If you were born around the middle of the last century you already know the premise: a nuclear device has converted a man into a towering giant who resists all attempts to stop him or keep him under control. The reason that map and territory came to mind was that this 60-foot tall man (an apt companion for the 50-foot woman) could not be found by the authorities although he was terrorizing Los Angeles. Just as I was climbing on my high horse I realized that the problem they faced was communication. (And maybe they needed glasses.)

From the perspective of the twenty-first century and the vast network of instant communication (you can tweet your latest observation while on public transit, deep under the Hudson), map has become territory. There is nowhere left for the sixty-foot giant to hide. I am not the only one to speculate on the effect this shift will have on religion, but when we have become so intricately inter-connected, we seem to have squeezed the mystery out of life. Every trail has been blazed, every path has been trod. Old Ecclesiastes is laughing up his wizard’s sleeve. If a giant escapes among us its location will be texted across the territory second by nano-second. There is nowhere for us to hide either.

Our dependence on electronic media has changed part of the human race. It is easy to forget that in places not too distant, some of them even in the developed nations, there are human beings untouched by the revolution that has compressed map and territory. I have to wonder if their lives are better or worse for the ease that pervades our culture of flying fingers and ultra-dexterous thumbs. Avoiding the concept of the noble savage, I sense of kind of purity in the life free from the constant buzzing of 3G and 4G networks, wi-fi hotspots, and microwave towers disguised as trees. Theirs is a life where map is not territory, where being unplugged is natural and normal. It is a world where giants might hide in the night, and those who fear them may be all the more human for doing so.

I Pledge Allegiance

It would only be with the most tentative and hesitant of reservations that a person might call her or himself an intellectual. The denotation carries with it such possibilities and potentialities of arrogance that even being seen reading Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in public could be cause for considerable timidity. The end result, however, is so rewarding that it is worth the risk. Seldom have I read a single book that explained so much of what continues to define our society. As an historian, Hofstadter was acutely aware of American self-perception—so much so that it seems foolhardy to distrust him. Although the book was published in 1962, it seems as though the five decades of my life haven’t had time to transpire—things are shockingly similar to the myth of the 1950s that still drives the Religious Right. Hofstadter could be lurking in the corner with his pen even now. I turned to this book because I had grown weary of having felt set upon by a society I have only ever wanted to improve. In tracing the roots of anti-intellectualism Hofstadter clearly demonstrates that the distrust is felt on both sides of the divide. Having not had the dubious benefits of an affluent rearing, I simply followed where my limited talents led. What future is there for a poor boy who likes to read and write? My earliest and most honest aspirations were to become a janitor. At least in that job you can see the filth being scrubbed away.

Expecting an objective historical account of intellectual history, I was surprised to discover that the first section of the book dealt with the privileged place of evangelicalism in early America. I’m not so obtuse as to have overlooked the obvious mockery that the intellect receives so freely from the coffers of Christendom; one need only glimpse the headlines or listen to street-corner evangelists for a fraction of a minute to learn that. I had supposed that my limited experience had made me naïve in assuming religion stonewalls free inquiry. The problem, it seems, is endemic. Those who would suggest that brains are actually meant to be taken out of the box and played with incur the wrath of the almighty.

Hofstadter resisted keeping the gaze too long upon the faithful, for there are clearly other forces at work. The rugged, self-made individualism of a nation that consisted of frontier until comparatively recent times also plays into this suspicion against the self-proclaimed sages. We have all had the displeasure of knowing the self-impressed, and their sticky indulgence in immodesty clings to many who simply can’t turn off the motor in their heads. Instead of walking away from the book feeling justified, I instead felt reflective. My own perceptions have led me down the path of trusting the guidance of the soul (whatever it may be), but the perceptions of others raised in different circumstances lead to materialistic assumptions, or the hunger for power. Deep down inside, though, I know that I shifted perceptions by the slow, steady influence of education. There is no unlearning that. And education has brought us this far. And a little intemperance in appreciating intellectual life may be the most venial of sins.

Brain Death

The computer revolution has spoiled some of the wonder associated with old films that had been formerly staged with cheap props and poorly written dialogue. (Well, computer literacy has not always improved the dialogue, in all fairness.) Nowhere is this more apparent in the science-fiction/horror genre where CGI has made the impossible pedestrian. There’s little we’re not capable of believing. Back in the fifties and early sixties when even color film often went over budget, some real groaners emerged. Over the weekend I watched one of the movies at the front of the class for poorly executed. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, is experiencing something of a renaissance with a stage musical coming out next month in New York based on this campy classic. Most horror movies don’t really scare me much, probably due to overexposure. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, creeped me out in an unexpected way. Daring toward exploitation status (the movie was shot in 1959 but not released for three years), the “protagonist” is Dr. Bill Cortner who specializes in transplants. When his girlfriend Jan is decapitated in an automobile accident, Cortner keeps her head alive while seeking a body onto which to transplant it. Ogling over girls in a strip club, or even stalking them from his car while they’re walking down the street, the doctor imagines what features he’d like grafted onto his girlfriend’s still living head.

Campy to a nearly fatal degree, the film is nevertheless disturbing on many levels simultaneously. Although I was born the year the film was released, I was raised to consider both genders as equal. The unadulterated sexism of a man grocery shopping for the body he wants stuck onto his girlfriend’s head was so repellant that I reached for the remote more than once. A bit of overwritten dialogue, however, stayed my hand. Kurt, the obligatorily deformed lab assistant, while arguing with Cortner declares that the human soul is part in the head, yet partially in the heart. By placing a head on another body, the soul is fractured. Now here was a piece of theological finesse unexpected in such a poverty of prose. The question of the location of the soul has long troubled theologians, an inquiry complicated by the growth of biological science. Heart transplants are common today, but the resulting people are in no way monstrous. The amorphous soul, theologians aver, is non-material yet resides within a specific biological entity. Some have even suggested that you can capture its departure by weighing a dying body at the moment of death. Others suggest no soul exists—it is a mere projection of consciousness. Cortner, however, once his eyes have opened the possibilities, can’t look back.

Our social consciousness has grown considerably since the late 1950s. Politicians and Tea Partiers who hold that era up as a paradigm of sanity do so at the price of half the human race. On the outside with the oiled hair, polished shoes, spotless automobiles, society seemed clean cut and orderly. Women, however, were relegated to inferior roles while men made the rules. Life was less complicated then. We knew who was in charge. Or did we? As a species that has evolved via sexual reproduction, it has taken us surprisingly long to realize that both genders are essential to humanity. We still tolerate gender disparity in pay scales, often shored up with the tired excuse that pregnancy and childbirth disrupt “productivity” and therefore female efforts are worth less than male—never changing due to biology. Such trumped-up excuses ring as hollow as a head without a body. Many Neo-Cons will even use the Bible to support it. John Q. Public (always male, please note), they insist, yearns for the “good old days.” The days they desire, however, were days of cheap horror and unrealistic dialogue. If they can watch The Brain that Wouldn’t Die without flinching, our future is bleak indeed.

Dreams of Equality

Shortly after my wife and I married, over twenty years ago, while living in Scotland we needed cheap entertainment. Growing up one of my chores had been washing the dishes. I continued this calling all through college, working in the dishroom to pay my way through. My wife was pleased with this trait and offered to read to me while I scrubbed away. This was our cheap entertainment, but now, after more than twenty years of the practice, we have read over 100 books together. Last night the book we finished was Martha Ackmann’s The Mercury 13. Most Americans do not realize that during the space race, thirteen women received non-official tests to qualify as astronauts, many of the tests more extreme than those undertaken by the Mercury 7 crew. Because of social prejudices of the 1950s and ‘60s, the women were never given the opportunity to actually achieve space flight.

Apart from the moving account of how these women strove for the stars, this account also chronicles a social prejudice that remains today. Ackmann reveals that during the ‘50s and ‘60s, scientists and physicians had never really taken an interest in women’s physiology. They were, in this McCarthyian era, considered to be an inferior version of males, the dominant social gender. Although the Mercury 13 were accomplished pilots – some with more flight hours than the chosen astronauts – many political and military decision-makers feared that social fabric would fray should women prove as adept as men. It wasn’t until 1983 that an American woman was allowed to enter space.

Here in the 21st century, many religions throughout the world still staunchly hold to the myth of female inferiority. In a monotheistic worldview where non-gendered deities need not apply, one sex will always be somehow less god-like than the other. In a world where men still pay women less, they are reminded daily that God is a white man and that the mythology declares man was created first. Religion is as often used to repress as it is to liberate. The women who sacrificed careers without personal reward to demonstrate that space belongs not only to men deserve our gratitude. And even that old white man, sitting up there beyond the dome that surrounds our flat earth, must be smiling.

Gila’s Got the Whole World

Singing pretty-boys and colossal lizards – it must be time for The Giant Gila Monster. A horror film that portrays all the innocence of the 1950s before the Beat Generation led us down the path to reality, the film has earned cult status in recent years. More accurately titled, “A Regular-Sized Gila Monster Filmed in Close-Up,” the sub-mediocrity of the movie has probably done more for preserving it in popular culture than any other aspect. The film stars the relatively unknown Don Sullivan as a great teen role model who writes and performs his own songs. The number that receives the most Internet attention, and the one that makes this movie of interest to this blog is “The Mushroom Song.” Chase Winstead (Sullivan’s character) has a young sister who is just learning to walk with leg braces. To cheer her, he picks up a ukulele and sings: “And the Lord he said I created for you/A world of joy from out of the blue/And all that is left to complete the joy–/Just the laugh of a girl and boy/And there was a garden, a beautiful garden/Held in the arms of a world without joy/Then there was laughter, wonderful laughter/For he created, a girl and a boy/And the Lord said, laugh, children, laugh/The Lord said, laugh, children, laugh” with the final line repeated numerous times.

Laugh, children, laugh

Perhaps intended to underscore the societal norms of a time when “the Lord” made frequent appearances as an unseen supporting actor in many movies, this song is oddly out of place. The disability of Missy Winstead is obviously a device to raise tension: how will a disabled girl run from a giant lizard? The song, however, provides the resolution – the Lord will take care of all good people. Their response should be to laugh. The reference to Adam and Eve, fitting for teen fantasies of all generations, also belies the evolution of this monster. The gila grows to its great size because of chemicals in the water that wash to the delta somewhere in Texas. This creature did not evolve. The Lord will take care of it. The Lord and nitroglycerin.

Respectful teenagers with predictable haircuts and a society that believes a missing teenage couple could be doing nothing but eloping fits the world of the Religious Right exceptionally well. Even though they may not be perfect, these kids know right from wrong for they live in a black-and-white world with no ambiguity or ambivalence. Children of subsequent generations have grown up with shades of gray or psychedelic colors. The older generation is frightened by new developments, claiming that the world they know is about to end. In fact, an evolution is occurring. Those who try to hold society to the norms of the 1950s would do well to move ahead a decade and at least listen to Bob Dylan. No matter how far we progress, however, it seems that Texas will always delight in producing Lord-loving, bloated threats to rational civilization.