the past in pop culture

Category: Entertainment

Time of the Roma

Group photograph captioned 'Hungarian Gypsies ...

Group photograph captioned ‘Hungarian Gypsies all of whom were deported’ in The New York Times, Sunday Feb. 12, 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twenty-five years ago this month, the judges at the Cannes Film Festival named Emir Kusturica as Best Director for his Time of the Gypsies (1988). The audience at Cannes gave the film a five-minute standing ovation. It starred Romani people speaking the Romani language and incorporated symbolism based on their cultural beliefs into its plot. A beautifully constructed and moving film, it also played to nearly every cultural stereotype of “Gypsies” imaginable: psychics, thieves, and beggars abound. Inspired by a real (and sadly common) case of Romani children kidnapped for illegal adoptions, the movie emphasized not victimization but Romani criminality. The term “poverty porn” hadn’t been coined yet (a London critic first used it to describe the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire), but it trafficked in a similar kind of appeal. Ever wonder about the backstory behind the gangs of pickpockets or crews of beggars found in any tourist center in Europe? Well, this film has something for you.

In 1988, Yugoslavia, Kusturica’s country, still existed. Much has changed in the world since the fall of the wall and the end of the Iron Curtain. Not much has improved for the European Roma, and in many ways their situation has worsened. Widespread discrimination and harassment (both official—see France—and unofficial—see skinheads) continue to keep them often impoverished, poorly educated and socially marginalized. Recently, the New York Times reported that a school principal in Slovakia was looking to the American experience for models of how to desegregate schools (FYI: still a work in progress around here). In this principal’s school, Romani children study in separate classrooms for slow learners, play on a separate playground, are not served in the cafeteria, and their parents are forbidden to enter the building. These are just some features of the grave and systematic violations of human rights faced by Roma peoples in Europe.

And then we have My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. The tremendously successful show on TLC is in its second season and about to spawn a spinoff: Gypsy Sisters. Based on a similarly titled British series, the Big Fat franchise gets its kicks by letting viewers into the “secretive, extravagant and surprising world of the gypsies.” The voiceover narration used by the show is a mash-up of old school voice of God omniscience (“explaining” customs such as child marriage) and TMZ style snark. An earlier attempt by an American network to cash in on the newfound popularity of this subgroup titled American Gypsies featured a New York clan that runs psychic shops didn’t manage to get the mix quite right. National Geographic canned it after one season not, apparently, because it was threatened by a potential class action law suit on the grounds of racist discrimination, but rather because viewers found the characters “obnoxious” and the situations “contrived.” Big Fat has avoided an emphasis on criminality by instead taking viewers inside the blinged out wedding rituals and family dramas that accompany them and that the show relentlessly insists are typical in this community. Slate’s reviewer found the show “compulsively watchable,” and had no problem blaming the Roma for being backwards.

The Romanichal (the largest subgroup of Roma people in the United States, Britain, and Ireland) don’t, of course, face the kind of persecution in the U.S. that is more common in Europe. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, some Romanichal fled Europe for just this reason. Generally speaking, they are often lighter skinned than Romani groups in southern and eastern Europe. This fact places the recent reality shows about “gypsies” squarely in the category of a slew of shows that pander to stereotypes about the white working class. From the “hixploitation” of Buckwild to Honey Boo Boo and Breaking Amish to the many iterations of Italian bashing in Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, and Mama’s Boys, white is the new black for entertainment networks skittish about engaging in actual race baiting. As Eric Daggans of the Tampa Bay Times points out about this trend, the African American and Latino communities are far better prepared to bring pressure on producers to avoid creating shows around the most blatant stereotypes of these groups. It’s a good reminder though that it hasn’t been that long in the United States since the boundaries of the word “white” didn’t always include groups such as Italian or Irish Americans.

But as the principal of that Slovak elementary school realized, the African American experience remains relevant for understanding the dynamic of how Romanis (and other white ethnics) are perceived in contemporary popular culture. Reality shows about otherwise marginalized groups offer up the same deal with the devil that characterized how black characters and culture have long appeared in “mainstream” entertainment. From the minstrel shows of the nineteenth-century, to the mammies and Sambos of the early twentieth, to the homeboys and Sapphires of today, playing to a broad audience has meant playing to type. This has often been the only way in for black performers. As Hattie McDaniels famously put it about her mammy role in Gone with the Wind, given the choices available to her, it was better to play a maid than to be one.

It’s remarkable that reality shows are almost the only venues on American television where one is likely to hear regional (especially Southern) accents. It’s also remarkable to see the great diversity of peoples and lifestyles that make up this nation. Only on shows such as Bridezilla does one routinely see mixed race couples and a genuinely broad representation of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Yet they usually come with a kick. Exploiting masquerades as explaining and blaming is never far behind. Theories about “cultures of poverty” often lurk in the background where “traditional” and “backwards” are nearly always synonyms.

Titanica: A Night to Remember, and Remember, and Remember

The iceberg suspected of sinking the RMS Titan...

The iceberg suspected of sinking the RMS Titanic; a smudge of red paint much like the Titanic’s stripe was seen near the base. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2016, the Titanic sails again. At least that’s the plan. Australian billionaire Clive Palmer recently signed a deal with a shipyard in Nanjing, China to begin construction on the recreation of the ill-fated ship that sank one hundred and one years ago. Right now Palmer is on the road with the Titanic II World Tour. Guests of the events enjoy an eleven course meal based on the menu served aboard ship on its last night and then they can tour Titanic the Exhibition. Palmer’s company, The Blue Star Line, is taking reservations for passage on the ship’s maiden voyage. The list is reportedly more than 40,000 names long already.

Rebuilding the lost liner raises some interesting questions. The re-built ship will feature the same exterior design and interior décor. Passengers will eat the same meals, be encouraged to dress in period costume, and even be obliged to respect the same divisions amongst first, second, and third class as on the original. On the other hand, the boat will not recreate the design features that made it vulnerable to sinking and, by contrast, will have a full complement of lifeboats and safety equipment. This Titanic, in other words, is intended to arrive to its destination with all its passengers still safely aboard. (And on a happy note from the ship’s perspective, though perhaps troubling in other senses, global warming means that the ship isn’t likely to encounter many large icebergs in the North Atlantic.) Being true to the past, in this case, won’t include a reenactment of the dramatic part of the Titanic story.

Titanic II will sail its maiden voyage along the original route, from Southampton to New York. It will have to navigate half the globe from China to Great Britain first, but the definition of “maiden voyage” doesn’t count the travel from shipyard to ship launch. Indeed, Palmer noted at a Titanic II event in Macau that the new ship will not sail in Chinese waters. Presumably this is a nod towards the recreation’s fidelity to the original, however geographically impossible this might be.

The Belfast Titanic Society is not amused. Representatives from the group had hoped that at least part of the ship’s construction would be done at the shipyards in the Irish city where the original Titanic was constructed. According to one member, they also hoped that the Titanic II would serve as a floating public history memorial to the ship that would feature educational programs about the people who built it and went down with it. Instead, they now fear that Titanic II will recreate not the experience of the 1912 luxury liner, but that of James Cameron’s 1997 eponymous movie.

The idea that some people know the Titanic only as the setting for the fictional story of Jack and Rose and their doomed love affair seems far-fetched at first. Few historical events have been better or more lovingly documented than the sinking of the Titanic. In the United States there are two major museums that re-create not only parts of the ship, but even the iceberg. The city of Belfast has created a Titanic Quarter that is anchored by a building known as the Titanic Belfast. These are complemented by Titanic themed tours and even a light show in an effort to use Belfast’s historical associations with the well-known story to promote tourism, investment, and urban renewal. The RMS Titanic, the company that owns the rights to salvage parts of the wreck, has been touring its Titanic artifacts exhibition around the world. This is not to mention dozens of smaller museum exhibits and hundreds of books published on the topic. Perhaps it’s impossible to ignore the historical reality of the sinking of the Titanic but it’s easy enough to see that it’s dwarfed by the media that represents it. In its time, the event made a profound impression on all who learned of it and the story has since become an allegory for the perils of hubris and excessive ambition and for the virtue of heroic self-sacrifice and the vice of cowardly self-preservation.

Despite its outsized reputation, the Titanic was not the world’s worst maritime disaster. In fact it ranks seventh in terms of lives lost on ships sunk in peacetime. The worst disaster was quite a bit more recent. In 1987, a Philippine ship known as Doña Paz went down after a collision with another ship and took more than 4,000 of its passengers with it. The ship was being used to ferry passengers around the archipelago. It was overloaded and the ship that rammed it, unlicensed and understaffed. The Doña Paz caught fire as it sank and the passengers who leapt into the water to escape it also faced the threat of sharks. Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, the event remains little known. A National Geographic documentary about it that has tried to correct this chose the title, Asia’s Titanic.

And so the Titanic continues to loom in our imagination. In these days of cruise ships gone wild (see Costa Concordia and Carnival Triumph), the luxury liner industry seems a little tawdry. It remains to be seen whether the Titanic II will be an extension of this trend, or a reversal. For now, the unsinkable ship that sank remains improbably afloat on a vast sea of remembrance, recreation, and reenactment. It doesn’t seem likely that it will be going down again any time soon.

Intentional Anti-Racist, or Walkin’ on Eggshells

Giant Cowboy Hat

Giant Cowboy Hat (Photo credit: camknows)

This is a post about the-music-video-that-can’t-be-viewed on youtube. If you’re not sure what song this refers to, here are some clues. Take the first clause of this post’s title and turn the words into their antonyms. That will get you the song’s title. Still don’t get it? The second half of the title is quoting from the song’s lyrics. Gosh, need more help? Giving it away with a link wouldn’t be any fun, but if you’re really stuck, try googling the phrase, “The Worst Song Ever™.”

At the time of this writing, just over two days have passed since the song was released, the video posted to youtube, all copies of the video removed from youtube, and a torrent of social media unleashed. There’s not a lot to add at this point. The artists-who-created-the-song-that-can’t-be-viewed are well-intentioned but hapless bumblers; or they are publicity hounds; or they are part of the problem—depending on who you read and where you stand.

One thing that we can conclude is that there sure is a problem. A white country star and a black rap artist reach for reconciliation and stumble into recrimination. Accidental Racist (let’s cut to the chase: the hyphenated euphemisms were getting out of hand), according to its lyrics, claims that “the past is past.” It almost sounds like a deliberate rejection of Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That might be giving the songwriter a little too much credit, but as Faulkner knew well, the South and its past have a powerful hold on the country’s imagination.

Still, it isn’t often that references to Reconstruction come up in top 40 music, even if it is country. Here is Accidental Racist’s two line history lesson:

They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years

Brad Paisley’s critics point out that skipping from Reconstruction to the present leaves out a few things that might be relevant to a history of American race relations. Lynching. Jim Crow. Segregation. It reminds one of the blowback that Ken Burns got for the concluding volume of his Civil War documentary series. He, too, left out a lot of the really tough stuff in favor of wrapping it up with a reunion of Confederate and Union soldiers. Historian Eric Foner called this the “romance of reunion” that substituted white reconciliation for racial justice.

Not that Paisley pretends that past was pretty:

‘Cause I’m a white man livin’ in the southland
Just like you I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done

In the song, a white customer wearing a Lynrd Skynrd t-shirt reflects on what the black man who was serving him at Starbucks might have thought of the Confederate flag on the shirt. The black man, whose part is sung by LL Cool J, describes his own look of bling, do-rag, and low slung pants and wonders if this makes the white man think he’s a hood. The two have little in common and the distance between them is the song’s reason for being.

It’s striking that this musical conversation associates white with Southern with country and black with northern with urban. It’s as if the Great Migration of rural black southerners to the urban north was complete and absolute. Somehow lost in the equation is the black South and the white North (and a whole bunch of other groups besides). It’s this, in part, that makes it easier to dismiss the song. If racism in America were just a matter of white people from the South hating on blacks who left and went North, well, it would leave the rest of us in a much easier position. But it’s not that simple and never was.

In the absence of the video that’s presently in so much hot water that it might as well have been titled Song of the South, it might be a good moment to recall an earlier country tune that trod some similar ground. In 1975, Tanya Tucker had another take on the South’s history and future.

Our neighbors in the big house called us redneck
Cause we lived in a poor sharecropper shack
The Jackson’s down the road were poor like we were
But our skin was white and theirs was black
But I believe the south is gonna rise again
But not the way we thought it would back then
I mean everybody hand in hand I believe the south is gonna rise again

It might be time for a re-make and a cross-genre mash up. Mix it up with some southern rap and leave the eggshells behind.

But Some of My Best Friends Are Bananas

The title page of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, ...

The title page of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, also known as The Wizard of Oz, a 1900 children’s novel written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. Denslow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a clip titled “Bananas” from Oz the Great and Powerful, Finley the flying monkey takes offense when Oscar (who later becomes Oz) offhandedly remarks that he must surely like bananas. Finley calls him out for stereotyping monkeys. Oz tries to make amends by asking whether he likes bananas. To which Finley replies, “Of course I love bananas. I’m a monkey. Don’t be ridiculous. I just don’t like you saying it.” Ba dum bum.

It’s a short scene, a lot shorter than the version of the same joke in Crash (2004). In that one, Peter and Anthony, two young African American men, come out of a restaurant in an upscale L.A. neighborhood. Anthony starts ranting about how all white people assume they must be criminals because they’re black.

Anthony: Do we look threatening? No. Fact, if anybody should be scared around here, it’s us: We’re the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people, patrolled by the trigger happy LAPD. So you tell me, why aren’t we scared?

Peter: Because we have guns?

Anthony: You could be right.

And then they carjack a white couple who just walked by. Ba dum bum CHING. Crash, though, is a movie about the collisions that racial fears cause and it tries to disrupt expectations by alternating between playing to the stereotype and upending it.

In Oz, the joke is a throwaway. It’s funny because it’s harmless: of course monkeys like bananas! Now, Hollywood cartoons have a long history of taking cute animals and giving them human traits that wouldn’t quite pass muster if they were played by people instead of pixels or paint. But as suspicious as it might be that a monkey is being made fun of for being over sensitive, let’s let the monkey go even if he is dressed as a bellhop. Finley is in good company. Lots of other monkeys have played second banana to humans: Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat, Ronald Reagan and Bonzo, Justin Bieber and Mally, Han Solo and Chewbacca (c’mon: he’s a monkey).

If we really want to run with the theme of excessive sensitivity, how about some concern for the humble banana in the joke? Oz tells Finley, “I’ll get that big pile of gold, and you can have that nice pile of bananas.” This lets us know that Oz has some character issues. Gold is a prize, bananas are for chumps. They’re cheap and common and considered the world’s most popular fruit. It hasn’t always been that way, at least in the United States where bananas are not grown commercially.

L. Frank Baum does not have any character, monkey or human, eating bananas in the original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). At that time, bananas were only just starting to become popular and inexpensive enough to be accessible. Besides, Oz takes off from desolate Kansas. Baum’s book was influenced in part by the time he spent out west in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s and 90s. He lived through a serious drought and experienced firsthand some of the conflicts between debt burdened farmers and the eastern bankers and western railroad men—robber barons all—who made their lives impossible. Some scholars suggest that the Wizard of Oz is one big political allegory about the struggles of the little people against the money power.

Which brings us back to bananas. Railroad magnates and bankers didn’t just expand to the west, they also went south to Central America. In 1899, after a series of mergers of railroad, steamship, land, and telegraph companies, the United Fruit Company was born as a monopoly along the lines of Standard Oil or Carnegie Steel. They brought Americans a steady supply of cheap bananas, but often at a steep cost to the countries that produced them. Ruthless exploitation and political meddling on the part of the company contributed to government instability in a number of countries. Now we think of Banana Republic as a clothing store. It used to be a derogatory term for a country that was really little more than a dependency of a large corporation. UFCO eventually acquired such a negative reputation that, following a 1972 payola scandal in Honduras known as Bananagate, it shed its original name in favor of the cuter and sweeter Chiquita.

These days, Chiquita is a cartoon lady with a basket of bananas and other fruits on her head. In the past, she was actually a banana in a tropical style dress, frequently shown winking or posing seductively, ripe for the plucking. It’s a false suggestiveness. The bananas on large commercial plantations are actually virgin fruits. They have no seeds and are reproduced via parthenocarpy, or asexually. And however abundant the bananas in the hat, they are all depressingly the same. Endlessly propagated from the same genetic material, the type of banana cultivated for export is predictable enough to base a gigantic industry on. The fruits are picked green, packed in refrigerated containers, and chemically ripened at their destination. So Finley, the faithful little friend, can have his pile of bananas. And Oz, the pile of gold.

Take Me Home, Country Roads

Migrant Mother (LOC fsa.8b29516)

Migrant Mother (LOC fsa.8b29516) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okie. Hillbilly. Redneck. What do “Migrant Mother” and Shain Gandee have in common? The first is the name of the iconic photograph that practically stands in for the words “Great Depression.” The second is the name of the young man who recently died shortly after becoming known for participating in the MTV reality show Buckwild. Similarities between the two? Not many—except a persistent interest in gazing at the rural poor.

In 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange stopped at a pea pickers camp in California. She found the pickers suffering from hunger because the crops had frozen and there wasn’t enough work to go around. Many were from the Ozarks and especially Oklahoma—and so “Okies” became a disrespectful term for the desperate Dust Bowl migrants who flooded into California. Lange was working for one of the New Deal agencies designed to relieve the suffering of the Great Depression. Lange’s job was to document said suffering. She did so most brilliantly with this photograph of Florence Owens Thompson and two of her children. The “Migrant Mother” title came later. The original caption read, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” Lange never took down Thompson’s name nor sent her a copy of the photograph.

Thompson, then, became famous anonymously. Shain Gandee only became truly well-known this week, after he and two others died of carbon monoxide poisoning after his truck got stuck in the mud. Gandee was just 21 years old. Producers selected him and a handful of other young people for Buckwild, a show intended by MTV to replicate the popularity of Jersey Shore. Instead of Italian Americans partying hard on the boardwalk down the shore, Buckwild had backwoods West Virginians drinking, fighting, and racing pickup trucks through the mud. “Mudding” was what Gandee was doing when he died. This has since led MTV to suspend production on the second season of a show that had already been criticized for exploiting stereotypes of West Virginians. In case you’re not sure what these might be, they include characterizing West Virginians as “moonshine-swilling, gap-toothed inbred hillbillies in tattered clothes and bare feet.” In fact, most of the West Virginian young adults on Buckwild were college students or graduates. Gandee was an exception.  Part of his appeal, according to the show’s producers, was that he didn’t have a cell phone and wasn’t on Facebook. He was described as genuine and down to earth. His local accent was thick enough that the show gave him subtitles so the rest of America could understand him.

Gandee, in other words, was a simple man from the hollers of the backwoods. It was an unlikely story that landed him in the news this week. His death brought out the facts of his life into greater relief especially as news reports revealed that his family was trying to organize charity events to pay for his funeral. (This finally shamed the producers into offering to pay for it.) This is oddly reminiscent of Florence Thompson. She was only recognized as the woman in the “Migrant Mother” photograph late in life. Thompson hated the picture for defining her by her poverty and hated it even more for having made her image, but not her self, world famous. Yet when she became sick with cancer, her children were able to use the photo’s fame as a way to raise money for their mother’s health care in the last months of her life.

It’s been nearly a century since a majority of Americans were rural people. Yet the influence of the rural past persists. For the 2013 Superbowl, Dodge ran a commercial for its Ram truck that is a heartfelt hymn to the American farmer. It ends with the tagline, “for the farmer in all of us.” This is one side of the rural inheritance. On the other side stand the Beverly Hillbillies. In life, Gandee was the “reckless redneck.” In death, the ugliness of the show’s hillbilly-sploitation is more apparent. The persistent poverty of Appalachia isn’t particularly funny. Appalachia and the Deep South are places where life expectancies are actually declining. In the 1930s, the iconic photos taken by Lange and her fellows at the Farm Security Administration of dirt poor farmers of the backwoods and barren plains shocked Americans by revealing to them the squalor and desperation of their lives. They also showed their dignity. This is why “Migrant Mother” still appeals even as it condescends. Two of Lange’s colleagues, photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee, chronicled the lives of some of those tenant farmers in a book. They titled it, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The fame, of course, went mostly to the writer and photographer.

By the Decade: Russians in Mom Jeans

Vintage Ad #1,246: Class Fashions at Oakland Mall

Vintage Ad #1,246: Class Fashions at Oakland Mall (Photo credit: jbcurio)

The new show The Americans on F/X features a perfectly typical (ok—TV typical, meaning white and affluent) family living in the DC ‘burbs just shortly after Ronald Reagan became president. The catch is that, really, they’re super undercover Russian spies. So super undercover that they never ever speak Russian and even in flashbacks to their spy-in-training days they merely have heavy accents. Their kids aren’t in on it and so they innocently pipe up with the occasional mindless anti-Soviet remark. Meanwhile their mom, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), bustles about the kitchen but is really wondering whether she should go cut the throat of the Russian defector tied up in the trunk of the family Oldsmobile.

There are two ways to explain the appeal of the show’s premise. One is to put it down to Cold War nostalgia. The other is to chalk it up to 1980s nostalgia. Of course, since they happened at the same time, the answer can also be both. If the political issues were serious, the rest of the 1980s now seem quaint and laughable: look at those glasses! that hair! Isn’t that Roxy Music? Really, though, it’s the mom jeans. The show’s drama is supposed to be dark and serious, its moral quandaries, quagmires. But when the suburban mom / Russian double agent is wearing mom jeans, we’re in Red Dawn territory. No, not the remake, the original with Patrick Swayze (rest in peace), C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey and even Charlie Sheen. The movie’s Cold War conceit—that high school students would lead the resistance after a Soviet invasion of the heartland—was pretty late in the game to be convincing. By 1984, the dark threat of nuclear annihilation still loomed, but fears of a full scale invasion were so 1950s. Thus Red Dawn—the dawn of the Soviet occupation that is—was more of a red herring. The movie’s most dramatic moment comes when C. Thomas Howell executes one of their own when he’s found to be hiding a Soviet tracking device. The Cold War setting just happens to be contemporary but its values have more in common with the 1980 WWII film, The Big Red One. And so it is with The Americans. It’s not about the Cold War, it’s about characters who aren’t sure who they can trust. Its 1980s setting seems like comic relief.

The mom jeans, in other words, beg to be laughed at. Just in case you didn’t know this, what we now call “mom jeans” are direct descendants of the above-the-bellybutton style of the ‘80s. Some people debate whether the high waist alone is enough to define a pair of pants as mom jeans, but it’s nearly impossible to look at people wearing jeans from the early ‘80s and not think it. To test this theory, you might try watching one of the live versions of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. As they perform the power ballad of the decade, the band members are decked out in muscle shirts, mullets, and, c’mon say it, mom jeans. Even so, surely one of the reasons the song has remained a hit for all these years, is its total sincerity. Its chorus, and Steve Perry’s performance of it, don’t hide a trace of irony. The band still tours on the strength of this song, even now that Perry refuses to have anything to do with them. (Amazingly, the remaining members managed to outsource the job to a singer from a cover band in the Philippines who they discovered via a youtube video. Really.)

The nostalgia of looking at and laughing at early ‘80s style in a 2013 show would seem to have a lot to do with the reputed sincerity deficit of our own times. No doubt it also has a lot to do with the fact that people who were teenagers in the 1980s are now forty-somethings, and suffering the first pangs of mid-life crises. It’s somehow less ridiculous to look back longingly for one’s lost youth if one first engages in ritualistic mockery of it. And sad to say, middle aged women bear the brunt of it (mom jeans, after all, feminizes something that was unisex back in the day). How else to explain the popularity of recent episodes of What Not to Wear that featured makeovers of Mindy Cohn (Facts of Life) and Tina Yothers (Family Ties), adolescent stars of 1980s hit shows? Both decided to hide their aging, and now less than famous selves, behind ill-fitting clothes until Stacy and Clinton swoop in to save them. The show’s usual early doses of humiliation are made collective by virtue of the fact that they were practically family for those old enough to have watched TV in the 1980s. The women’s ultimate redemption—now clothed in of the moment style—is that much more satisfying for the suffering. We can laugh at the 1980s and love them, too. The Russians in The Americans are about as threatening as they were back in that Wendy’s commercial. But Boy George, who was hard to take seriously back in 1983, now seems so sweet, so sincere, and so right when he points out that the past is never truly gone.

Karma karma karma karma karma chameleon,

You come and go, you come and go-oh-oh-oh . . .

Sing it, everyone.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dress: Material Made History

Mary Todd LincolnPhoto Credit: Library of Congress

Mary Todd Lincoln
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

There’s a reason that costume designers are nominated for Academy Awards. It takes nothing away from Sally Fields’ performance to say that Mrs. Lincoln’s dress animated Lincoln almost as much as its wearer. The dress—ok, the dresses—nearly had a life of their own. In the receiving line at the White House, Mrs. Lincoln’s ball gown makes her a force of nature not to be ignored and when she sinks to the floor to plead with Lincoln the way her everyday dress nearly engulfs her suggests exactly how her emotional mess threatens to swamp him. While designer Joanna Johnston certainly deserves credit for her thoughtful attention to Lincoln’s love for his shawl, just as the hairdresser did for Thaddeus Stevens’ wig, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses stole the show. Fields, as the Mrs., seems at times to be a daguerreotype come straight to life. Lincoln’s dramatic dresses surely owe something to the fact that the script was partly based on the book Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. Elizabeth Keckley was Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and friend but you’ve probably already heard the news that her career as a powerful business woman and powerbroker in the African American community of Washington D.C. didn’t quite make it into the movie. In defense of these and other omissions of black people (cf: post on Frederick Douglass below), the film’s makers point out that the movie is a work of historical fiction.

And so it is. How, after all, can one make a satisfying movie about a man whose voice was never recorded nor moving image ever filmed? This is the conundrum of the past: some of the things we most want to know are unknowable. Imagination helps to fill that void even as it insists on authenticity. That Johnston prohibited the use of plastic buttons even where invisible for any of the film’s 140 or so cast members’ costumes speaks to this. Abraham Lincoln looms too large in the American imagination for anything less to be acceptable. And since the movie is so very talky, we have plenty of time to look at the details and wonder at how vividly real it all seems. The truth about the 13th Amendment and how it came to pass surely lies elsewhere; the emotional satisfaction of seeing and hearing a convincing illusion of 1865 makes even two hours and thirty minutes seem short.

In this, Lincoln’s love of accuracy in all things material calls to mind hardcore Civil War reenactors. These often misunderstood enthusiasts first came to the attention of the wider world with the publication of Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic (1998). Robert Lee Hodge, dressed as a Confederate soldier and photographed with period technology, graced the cover of the book. Hodge took Horwitz on a tour of the hardcore underground where reenactors eschewed the least anachronism. They slept on the ground and spooned together for warmth, ate semi-rancid food out of common pots, and endured the blisters brought on by long marches in ill-fitting boots made to match a time period that did not distinguish left feet from right. Most memorably, Hodge so immersed himself in his quest for authenticity that he developed a marketable specialization: imitating the rigor mortis and bloating typical of dead soldiers in Civil War battlefield photographs.

People often find this level of obsession a little freakish, so much so that one recently engaged woman felt driven to write a light-hearted but also heartfelt explanation of the subculture titled, “So I’m Marrying a Reenactor.” The freak factor was still sufficient for National Geographic to do a one-off reality show titled “Extreme Civil War Reenactors.” (The word “hardcore” presumably sounded a little too much like the adult film industry.) The reenacting community remains divided on whether the hardcores are ruining or saving the pastime, but they march on regardless of mainstream ridicule. So it’s ironic that Daniel Day-Lewis is revered for his rigorous insistence on method acting that has led him to sleep out in the fields of Alabama and survive only on what he shot to prepare for Last of the Mohicans or to have fellow cast members spoon feed him while he played a disabled man in My Left Foot. And hardcores might teach Johnston a thing or two about buttons: they get just the right patina on their uniform buttons by peeing on them.

It’s a Downton, Downton, Downton World


Highclere (Photo credit: neilalderney123)

What’s a Downton fan to do in the absence of the Abbey? Season three has ended and with it Sybil and Matthew, never to return. Oh yes, season four is in production but the only truly kind sister and the heir to the earl have signed off for good—unless of course Downton takes a turn towards the undead. If previously we suggested that Downton: Empire Edition might be a good idea, Downton: Vampire Edition sounds even better. Then the show could run for eternity and all that English pallor would be put to good use. At Donegal, most of the downstairs cast wouldn’t even need any new makeup or costuming.

But while awaiting these developments, we’ll need some interim entertainment. The obvious place to start is with an English aristocracy movie and TV marathon. Sure you’ve seen it all before, but it will fill up some of those empty hours. Go to Gosford Park, return to The Remains of the Day, slink on back to Brideshead Revisited. If your conscience doesn’t trouble you too much, take a tour of Upstairs, Downstairs. Some say Downton ripped it off and then resented its revival, but what’s another fox hunt or two between friends? After that, you’ll have to go a little farther afield. Bleak House beckons, and every Jane Austen movie ever.

You could try getting creative. Follow those plot leads and read Jane Eyre for another inconvenient married-man-with-a-mad-wife romantic complication. It must be Lady Edith’s bad luck to only get recycled love stories. Her earlier suitor, the disfigured amnesiac with a Canadian accent, sure did remind one of The English Patient, except of course for the fact that Ralph Fiennes didn’t whine about having a mummy’s head. Maybe it’s just that some Downton scriptwriter has a thing for movies with Juliet Binoche—Matthew’s last drive looked an awful lot like the final minute of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

If that’s too far afield, find yourself some Downton fanfiction: with two thousand plus entries and counting, you’ll have plenty to read. Prefer professional writing? Never fear: the Fellowes’s are here. Jessica and Julian have helpfully penned The World of Downton Abbey and The Chronicles of Downton Abbey. Don’t think the actual inhabitants of Highclere are just renting it out for sets either. The Countess of Carnarvon would very much like you to read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. In case your taste runs more to the downstairs, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” has been conveniently re-issued and re-titled.

For the less literal minded, Downton as metaphor might work. Downton’s depiction of a hierarchical social structure under pressure has inspired some reflections on contemporary Catholicism. On the secular side, it turns out that Downton confronts us with questions of free will and individual agency. It might seem a bit like shooting fish in a barrel to point out that Downton’s popularity can be pegged to current concerns about rising income inequality, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Too many words, not enough pictures? Let’s take a look at the lamps of Downton Abbey. We could consider the clothes as Downton struts the runway. But you don’t have to drop that many dimes to dress Downton with these outfits for under a hundred. Don’t forget our crafty friends at Etsy: handmade Downton, anyone? Once you’re all decked out, you might as well go on the road. There are all inclusive season three tours and DIY budget vacays. For those stuck stateside, a tour of the mansions of Newport might do as the next best thing. By the time you’re back, season four might be ready to roll. Finally, don’t forget to cook up some Downton dainties. They’ll come in handy in case you get the Downton d.t.’s.

A Valentine for Frederick Douglass

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As of this writing, Frederick Douglass still does not appear in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Spielberg has gotten a lot of grief for this, as has his screenwriter Tony Kushner who started with a script that included Douglass but then left him out. The black characters who did make it into the film are mostly kindly, grateful, and token. Sure, there’s one angry black man at the start who’s intent on holding Mr. Lincoln accountable, but he isn’t Frederick Douglass and the other black soldier who is with him keeps laughing at Lincoln’s jokes. Spielberg’s Lincoln is in good company at this year’s Oscars though—Argo and Zero Dark Thirty have also been raked over the historical accuracy coals for what they left in, left out, or just plain made up. And in far off Chile, film director Pablo Larrain recently invoked Spielberg in defense of his Oscar nominated movie No in which a complicated social movement that led to a national referendum to oust dictator Augusto Pinochet is told primarily as the story of a single man and his ad campaign. Worse, many of the people who were actually involved are very much among the living and not all have had kind words for the film.

Frederick Douglass, we hope, is resting in peace. And since he will not be on screen this year and nor will any actor portraying him be on the red carpet at the Oscars next week, let’s remember him on this his birthday. Douglass chose Valentine’s Day to celebrate the day of his birth because his mother, who he saw only a handful of times during his childhood in slavery, called him her “little valentine.” He didn’t know his own birth date because, as he writes in his autobiography, no slave ever did. Even as a child he wondered why he was deprived of this privilege. It’s fitting that Douglass’s chosen birthday falls between that of Lincoln and Washington. There is a considerable distance between the two on the question of slavery and Douglass as much as anyone and more than most helped to move the country in the right direction. If this isn’t in the movie, well, Hollywood history has always left a lot on the cutting room floor and Spielberg is not a documentarian. Douglass is not in Lincoln. So here’s a thought: how about next year a movie titled Douglass for Best Picture?

Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln-Lewis

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

Given that Daniel Day-Lewis is known to inhabit his roles deeply—even texting Sally Fields as Abe—one wonders whether he feels like today is his birthday, too. It would be a well-deserved celebration. His Lincoln seems a daguerreotype come so to life that it is uncanny. Nor is this all. In Lincoln there are ghosts of other films and shades of other performances. With Daniel Day-Lewis as the lead these haunt the imagination. He has inhabited other roles and been especially at home in movies about the past.

Given the Civil War setting, his Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York most immediately comes to mind. Bill was no Lincoln fan and the scene in which he throws a knife at a Lincoln poster seems mostly funny in retrospect. More striking is the other Lincoln in Gangs: the costumed actor from the cast of Uncle Tom’s Cabin who is suspended above the stage and directs the actions of the characters. As he proclaims, “And Topsy, dear little Topsy, cradle Uncle Tom’s head,” the Lincoln performer nervously eyes the audience. And with good reason—the play doesn’t so much end as erupt when the very tough crowd starts pelting the stage with rotten fruit. This, truly, is a performance of Lincoln in extremis. It’s this other Lincoln, this vaudeville hack who points to the greatness of Day-Lewis’s performances. The rendition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Gangs is supposed to be bad theater and audiences of the time generally were that rowdy. But it’s the faux-Lincoln’s declamation that steals the scene because it’s so marvelously bad. Sometimes it takes a dose of bad acting to set the real thing in relief.

In Gangs, one such moment comes when Bill rejects the notion that the Irish immigrants can become a part of America. He doffs his stovepipe hat—tall as Lincoln’s, but a good bit filthier—to reveal the greasiest case of hat head imaginable and explains that his father gave his life for this country, “murdered by the British with all of his men on the twenty-fifth of July, anno domini, 1814.” In another echo, and another reversal, a father murdered by the British also steps out of the past from Day-Lewis’s early role as Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father. Day-Lewis, as Conlon, must come to terms with his relationship to his father who is unjustly convicted for a role in an IRA bombing and dies while both are in a British prison. In Gangs, Leo DiCaprio seeks to understand his Irish father’s death at Bill’s hand. Got that? Day Lewis has played a Lincoln hater and Lincoln, an Irish victim and an Irish persecutor. Yet the role of the father, and of the son, resonates across each of these films. It’s Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln as a father who has lost one son, and who refuses to lose another, that makes the man real. That the father is then martyred makes it transcendent. Hats off to Lincoln-Lewis.

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