See Disclaimer Below.

Posts Tagged ‘Film’

Donald Trump, the Cowboy

In America, American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Film, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics on March 22, 2017 at 6:59 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article originally appeared here at The Daily Caller. 

Americans love film, a medium we’ve popularized across the globe. We’re home to Hollywood; we pioneered cinema as an industry and an art form.

Film has enabled cultural memory and iconography to survive in residual form from generation to generation. Since early motion pictures, images that flashed across our screens have become part of our communicative coding, manifesting themselves in political discourse in subtle, unexpected ways.

Perhaps the most foundational figure in American cinema is the nomadic cowboy, that romantic hero of the frontier whose moral ambiguity thrills and troubles us. Frederick Jackson Turner announced his frontier thesis in 1893, drawing attention to the rugged individualism and westward expansion that characterized American liberty and differentiated the New World from Europe.

The masculine figure of the cowboy embodies this thesis. He’s an archetype. Garbed in buckskins and spurs, he conquers the wilderness and the Indians, exacting ruthless revenge on his foes and exercising his menacing skills to achieve justice, at least his notion of it.

But he has a dark side. One is never certain whether he’s a bad guy with good qualities or a good guy with bad qualities. He can be, like Wyatt Earp, both lawman and outlaw, and his very presence creates dysfunction, jeopardizing the harmony of the community and the stability of the nuclear family. Even Shane, the most impeccable of cowboys, endangers the affection between Joe Starrett and his wife and risks undermining the sense of corporate community he’s fighting to uphold.

The cowboy is a paradox: heroic yet savage, mannered yet unruly, tamed yet wild, gentle yet violent. He’s a beloved and mysterious loner, reckless in the pursuit of civilized life. There’s dissonance in his desire to establish domestic settlement and close the frontier while exploring nature, roaming the open range, and maintaining noble independence. With his code of honor, he’s the American version of the brave and chivalrous knight who rides off on quests and adventures.

Former presidents have sought to embed themselves in the Western genre, troping the image and lore of the cowboy. President Reagan, a friend of John Wayne, acted in Westerns and was known to clad himself in big shiny belt buckles and Stetson hats. George W. Bush played up his Texas swagger, wore boots and shot rifles, vacationed on his ranch and applied the pioneering spirit to foreign affairs.

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump is a cowboy, or the semiotic mutation of one. That’s why he appeals to so many Americans. This may come as a surprise. He might seem more like the cowboy’s close cousin, the urban gangster. After all, he’s a New York casino and real-estate magnate who wears dark suits and bright ties and displays his money and wealth. He’s gaudy and flashy like Tony Montana, and a wealthy patriarch like Vito Corleone. He’s charismatic and travels in groups, and there’s a noirish quality to his messaging, which the media keeps calling “dark.”

Yet his narrative arc is not one of dramatic rise and inevitable fall.  Nor is he an immigrant figure with ties to drugs and organized crime. He is, instead, the brawling gunslinger, marked by vanity and bravado, irresponsible in his boastfulness. He speaks for a community not his own, glamorizing his triumphs and victories. His bombast and boisterousness have an inexplicably moral feel, as if he represents more than himself and speaks for others—the common man, the forgotten man, the ranchers and laborers.

The cowboy stands up to cattle-baron cronies, just as Trump takes on leading news outlets and the so-called “establishment.” He portrays himself as an outmatched Will Kane, ready to confront gangs of rivals against all odds—as he did in the election when he knocked off his primary opponents and then the presumptive Democratic president, proving an entire class of pollsters and the commentariat wrong.

Like Old Rough and Ready, Trump is vague on political positions and policy prescriptions. His supporters speak of the “Trump Train,” a phrase suggestive of the nineteenth-century railroad, which dominated American industry. His derogatory comments about Mexicans and immigrants are alike in kind if not degree to those of Ethan Edwards regarding the Comanche. Think John Wayne in The Searchers.

Trump is married, but not domesticated. He blurs the lines between truth and embellishment, decrying and creating fake news in the same breath. He harnesses the power of the maxim from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Trump’s high-soaring rhetoric is reminiscent of an earlier moment in American history when there were, in the American psyche, clear winners and losers. The slightest insult can cause him to seek revenge that’s both personal and heedless, having something of the showdown about it.

He’s a tweet-dueler. The Internet being the new frontier, in an age when you can’t get away with gratuitous killing, he trades characters, not bullets. And he’s quick on the draw, able to unload rounds of tweets in mere seconds.

Like William Munny, the aging anti-hero in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Trump doesn’t drink. His infatuation with Mexico and insistence on building a wall across the Southern border recall the boundary disputes of a bygone era. Imagine Santa Anna and the Republic of Texas as historical antecedents to current border anxieties.

Trump’s carefully orchestrated press conferences, campaign rallies, and inaugural address suggest that he demands a spectacle that’s as visually magnificent as a John Ford film. He fancies the long-shot panorama with American flags in the background. He flies in and out of small towns, ever the roving myth, and he doesn’t have a single place to call home.

During a period of economic contraction, aging population, shifting demographics, and declining American power, ordinary Americans understandably look to a time of territorial growth, when heroes defeated “the Other,” solved their problems, and overcame adversity. With the advent of Google Maps and Street View, folks long for a past of exploration and geographic mystery—when there were borders between known and unknown lands. Trump talks about Greatness. Speaking in superlatives, he refers to things as Amazing, Huge, Tremendous, and Wonderful. His vision for America is as wide in scope as the Western landscape.

Trump is a construct of the mythic figure we’ve come to expect from viewing Western symbols, plots, and motifs. He reminds us of the William Faulkner line: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” The cowboy is indeed alive and well, even if he’s a sign of the past. He comes in the improbable, astonishing form of Donald Trump. And he wants to win.

 

Advertisements

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Fiction, Film, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Rhetoric & Communication, Screenwriting, Television, Television Writing on January 22, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The Independent Review.

“Television rots your brain.” That’s a refrain many of us grew up hearing, but it isn’t true. So suggests Paul Cantor in The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, his second book about American film and television.

Cantor has become a celebrity within libertarian circles. He is Clifton Waller  Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia and recently became a visiting professor at his alma mater, Harvard University.  What’s remarkable about his appointment at Harvard is that it is in the Department of Government, not the Department of English. That doesn’t surprise those of us familiar with his breadth of knowledge and range of interests.

Recognized as an interdisciplinary scholar, Cantor attended Ludwig von Mises’s seminars in New York City before establishing himself as an expert on Shakespeare.  Besides publishing extensively on literature of various genres and periods, he has been a tireless advocate for Austrian economics, even though Marxist theories and their materialist offshoots dominate his field. In 1992, the Mises Institute awarded Cantor the Ludwig von Mises Prize for Scholarship in Austrian Economics, and his work at the intersection of economics and literature resulted in Literature and the Economics of Liberty (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010), which he edited with Stephen Cox (while contributing nearly half of the book’s contents).

Like that work, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture owes much to the theories of Friedrich Hayek, in particular the concept of spontaneous order. It is a reflection of spontaneous order that the most beloved films and television shows did not spring perfectly from the mind of some genius working in complete isolation.  Rather, they emerged out of the complex interactions between producers and consumers and the collaborative efforts of scores of diligent workers. Viewer feedback facilitated modifications and improvements to films and television, which  advanced in meliorative stages.

Hayek discusses spontaneous order to refute the belief that government intervention and central planning ought to force order onto the marketplace. Cantor discusses it to refute the belief that artistic creation stands outside of commercial exchange. Examining depictions of freedom and coercion in a wide variety of films and television shows, he highlights the disparity between elitist and populist understandings of American culture, which he links to “top-down” and “bottom-up” models of order, respectively. His position is that the popularity and artistic appeal of film and television appear to be proliferating despite the objections and insults levied by the cultural elite, who, it should be added with not a little irony, nonetheless probably watch a great deal of television.

Against the cultural elite and their promotion of patrician—and mostly  European—standards for the arts, Cantor maintains that the marketplace enables  creative and experimental forms of expression that aren’t so different from earlier aesthetic media such as the serialized novel or popular plays. He reminds us that “nineteenth century critics tended to look down on the novel as a popular form, thinking it hardly a form of literature at all,” and adds that it “was not viewed as authentic art, but rather as an impure form, filled with aesthetically extraneous elements  whose only function is to please the public and sell copies” (p. 7). This once “vulgar” medium has lately been celebrated as one of the highest and most impressive categories of art. The form and content of great American novels—whether by Twain or Cooper or Salinger or Pynchon—should remind us that popular novels have been elevated as canonical even though they have rejected the standards and conventions that highbrow critics insisted were necessary for a work to constitute “literature.” Twain and Cooper recognized that highbrow presuppositions and expectations for novels derived from influential Europeans, so they set out to forge a uniquely  American literature free from Old World constraints.

Because film and television are commercial, they allow ordinary Americans  (as opposed to academics and the cultural elite, including and especially the neo-Marxists) to determine aesthetic standards and trends by indicating what does and does not interest them. Authors and television producers, in turn, become responsive and attuned to the demands of their consumers; they become, in short, entrepreneurs who must struggle against the status quo, defy the odds, and push the limits of artistic acceptability.

The elite disparage this process and advocate for aesthetic criteria divorced from the tastes and pleasures of the general public. As Cantor explains, “Elitists who profess to believe in democracy nevertheless have no faith in common people to make sound decisions on their own, even in a matter as simple as choosing the films and television shows they watch” (p. xiv). The elite would have film and television removed from the marketplace, but without the marketplace there would be no film or television.

Films and television shows might just become the masterpieces of the future; they might have already provided us with canonical “texts.” It is too early to say whether they have contributed substance to what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” Greatness, after all, takes time to ascertain.

Orwell, Dr. Johnson, and Hume adhered to the “test of time” measure of  greatness by which a work of art or literature is evaluated according to its ability to compete and survive in the literary marketplace over the course of generations.  This measure requires the sustained consensus of consumers as opposed to the esoteric judgments of elite critics. A work’s ability to attract vast and diverse audiences and to do so long after its production is what makes the work great.

It might seem odd to think of Cantor’s subjects—South Park and The X-Files, for  instance—alongside important literary works of the Western canon. And yet the groundlings who paid a penny to enter into the pit of the Globe Theatre, where they would stand and watch performances of Shakespeare’s plays, probably didn’t think they were witnessing greatness, either. Harold Bloom once said, “Cultural  prophecy is always a mug’s game,” and Cantor is wise not to prophesy about the enduring merit of any films or television shows. Cantor’s point is not that the products of film and television will be considered masterpieces one day, only that they might be.

For the record, I consider it extremely unlikely that South Park or The X-Files will achieve classic status, but I would not extend that speculation to such films as Casablanca or the Star Wars trilogy. Cantor himself takes pains to distinguish first-rate works from run-of-the-mill entertainment by invoking “traditional criteria for artistic excellence” (p. xxii). We should not take him to mean that film and television are media superior to that which came before them; instead, he considers them as substantially similar to their artistic antecedents, except that their  features signal an evolution in artistic preferences. The allure of art comes not from its alienation from popular culture, but from its ability to incorporate popular culture in ways that do not impede its power to speak beyond its moment.

To be sure, American film and television have produced an overwhelming amount of trash, but so did novel serialization. Not all novelists who published their work in contiguous installments in magazines and periodicals held the stature of Charles Dickens or Henry James or Herman Melville. Cantor points out that we forget about the thousands of bad novels from the Victorian era and extol only around one hundred novels from that period, which supposedly represents a  zenith in culture. Among the thousands if not millions of films and television shows that have been produced over the past century, perhaps a few will rival the works of Dickens, James, and Melville.

If Cantor weren’t such a generous and careful scholar, he might have become the bête noire of sophisticates and lambasted in the pages of The New Criterion for his embrace of the purportedly lowbrow. His command of economics and literary history, however, has spared him from such condemnation and even gained him a devoted following. To do justice to his latest book would require a more comprehensive treatment of his arguments about the figure of the “maverick” in film and television or about the value of collaborative work and coauthorship in  generating exceptional products. Yet these arguments demand more attention than a review can give.

The incomparable Cantor has blessed the libertarian movement with a literary  voice. He has expanded the study of Austrian economics into the fields that need it most. He himself is a maverick, reading and writing industriously to break up the habits of thought and monopolies on ideology that mark literary scholarship.  Would that we had more Cantors to show us how literature flowers when freedom flourishes. There is hope in the idea that artists can turn to the market to cultivate their talents and supply us with the arts we demand. No English department or cultural guardian can rob us of the entertainment that we enjoy.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Joyce Corrington

In Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Fiction, Film, History, Humanities, Information Design, John William Corrington, Law, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Philosophy, Screenwriting, Television, Television Writing, Writing on September 22, 2011 at 8:31 am

Joyce Corrington is a writer who, with her late husband John William “Bill” Corrington, wrote several films, including The Omega Man (1970), Box Car Bertha (1971), and The Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).  Also with Bill Corrington, she co-authored four novels: So Small a Carnival (1986), A Project Named Desire (1987), A Civil Death (1987), and The White Zone (1990).  She was head writer for such television series as Search for Tomorrow, Texas, General Hospital and Superior Court, and she has been a co-executive producer for MTV’s The Real World.  She holds a Ph.D. from Tulane University.  Her latest book, Fear of Dying, is available in both Kindle e-book and paperback format.  Formerly a Malibu resident, she now resides in New Orleans. 

Photo by Robert Corrington

Joyce, thank you so much for doing this interview.  I’m surprised we haven’t done one before.  You’ve been an enormous help to me over the years.  You even allowed me to stay at your home in New Orleans so that I could do research on your late husband, Bill.  During that time I learned that you hold a Ph.D. from Tulane University, and taught Chemistry at Xavier University for ten years.  Tell me, how did a person with that background become a writer?

I’m sure it would never have happened if I hadn’t met and married Bill when we were both at Rice University.  He was working on a doctorate so he could earn a living teaching, but he wanted to write.  Bill succeeded in publishing a number of well-received novels, which I typed and edited for him.  But we did not become co-writers until Roger Corman read one of Bill’s novels and invited him to write a movie script.  This was not something Bill especially wanted to do.  But it paid better than college teaching, so we evolved a film writing partnership, whereby I would create a detailed story structure and Bill would write a script following my outline.  After six films, we became involved in writing television series and continued our writing partnership there and in the four New Orleans mystery books we published.  Bill passed away as the fourth was being written, so I completed it.

Why did you choose to continue the series?

After Bill died I found it difficult to get the same kind of writing jobs we had been used to doing.  I think this was because all of my credits were as half of a writing team and producers felt uncertain whether I could do the job by myself.  Thus I had about two years where I had little to do and, while I read a lot during that time, I also began writing a sequel to our New Orleans mystery series.  I think I wanted to prove that I could do it by myself.  Just after finishing the manuscript for Fear of Dying, I was hired to help produce The Real World, a job which I held for eleven seasons.  I did not get around to publishing Fear of Dying until I retired from that job. Read the rest of this entry »

Dragon*Con Convention in Atlanta

In Arts & Letters, Fiction, Georgia, Humanities, Literature, News and Current Events, News Release, Writing on August 31, 2011 at 8:25 am

Allen Mendenhall

The Dragon*Con convention will take place in Atlanta from September 2 through September 5.  The convention features events and workshops about science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film.

Adam’s Rib and the “Two-Worlds” Problem

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Film, Humanities, Information Design, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Shakespeare, Teaching on June 29, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Directed by George Cukor, the film Adam’s Rib tells the story of Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn), New York attorneys whose marriage smacks of “tough love.”  The couple square off when Adam is assigned to prosecute a woman (Judy Holliday) who has attempted to murder her philandering husband—a bumbling dweeb—in the apartment of his mistress.  Amanda, who approves of the woman’s act, which she views as resistance to patriarchal society, takes up the case as defense counsel.

Genesis tells us that God fashioned Adam from dust, Eve from Adam’s rib.  Adam’s Rib tells a different story.

If anything, Amanda, or “Eve,” is the starting-point—a source of controversy, inspiration, and curiosity.  Adam’s Rib isn’t the first production to render gender contests in comedic tones—it’s part of a tradition dating back at least to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew or Fletcher’s Tamer Tamed, and probably much further—but it is one of the more remarkable of all twentieth-century productions, especially in light of Amanda’s advocacy for a doctrine that, in American family law, came to be known as “formal equality.”

What, exactly, does Adam’s Rib offer law students?  What does it teach law students, and why should law professors bother with it?

A film that’s in no way after verisimilitude is unlikely to teach law students how to file motions, write briefs, analyze statutes, or bill clients—tasks that we assume are requisite to becoming “good” lawyers.  So what’s the point?

In his cunning way, James Elkins, during his Lawyers & Film course that I took in law school, responded to questions of this variety by drawing two boxes on the blackboard: one representing law, the other film.

“We’ve gotta get from this box to this box,” he explained, retracing the diagram with the tip of his chalk.  “One place to start,” he suggested, “is with the movie scenes depicting lawyers or the courtroom.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Screening Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Film, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Teaching, Writing on June 15, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Allen Mendenhall

We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.  We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days.

 —Robert McKee, from Story

Law school is, in a way, about performing.  From the minute you walk into the building as a 1L, you search for and construct a new identity—one that conforms to your assumptions of what a lawyer is and does.

The first time a professor called on me—Mr. Mendenhall, can you tell us how the judge in this case distinguishes restitutionary from reliance damages?—I panicked.  I knew the answer.  More or less.  But I had no chance to rehearse.  Here I was, before a large audience, a packed house, all alone, all eyes on me.

“Um, yes,” I stammered, apparently suffering from stage fright.

I don’t remember how I answered—not precisely—but I remember taking a deep breath, feigning confidence, and pretending to know what the professor expected me to know.  I must’ve sounded silly talking about things I hardly understood; but I must’ve performed satisfactorily because the professor let me alone and interrogated another student.

My first audition.  Read the rest of this entry »

Constructing Tony Montana, Scarface

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Film, Information Design, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Scarface, Semiotics on August 12, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Brian de Palma’s Scarface (1983) adopts and adapts several conventions of the gangster genre that feature prominently as icons on posters and in trailers for the film.

These conventions constitute and perpetuate the narrative image of “gangster” that audiences have come to expect from gangster films.  Big guns, flashy jewels, impeccable suits, sexy women—these are the signifiers de Palma employs as semantics of the gangster genre.  They summon forth ideas of “the gangster” before audiences ever see the film.

Scarface is a remake of another gangster film.  Viewers who are unaware of this fact will nevertheless recognize the gangster signs and symbols used to market it.  Tony Montana’s image remains popular today, some twenty-seven years after the film’s production.  Scarface has become a lasting contribution to our national culture.       Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: