Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mr. Sith Goes to Washington

I’d say Netflix’s House of Cards was a guilty pleasure (not that Hollywood produces guiltless pleasures anymore), but that would be underselling how deeply disturbing its success has been. On the surface, its appeal is readily understood: its sleazy shock factor conducts an electric new energy and lurid vibrancy to a tired old narrative. It’s Shakespearean tragedy fully modernized with graphic sex, violence and profanity: Iago Unchained. The result is intoxicating, addictive – I plowed through the first two seasons in the space of a few weeks – but with the hangover comes a chilling realization. This story is not set in some Machiavellian medieval state where murder and coups d’├ętat were routine, but in America, land of the free and home of the brave. Nor does Frank Underwood fit into the tragic anti-hero archetype: this is Palpatine, not Vader. Here he comes, the Evil Emperor, marching through our most revered and cherished political institutions, corrupting and subverting all he touches, trampling all who resist, and at times I catch myself rooting for him!
Let’s assume that I’m not a lonely deviant and other viewers feel similarly. How were we so easily seduced to forsake the red, white and blue for the dark side?  It was only a few generations ago that Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart made us believe that one good man could foil a corrupt D.C. establishment in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  So how did we go from Mr. Smith to Mr. Sith? Thankfully, a greater mind than mine has already tackled these questions in exhaustive or at least exhausting fashion. In case my excessive Star Wars references hadn't already tipped you off, I am speaking of George Lucas and his prequel trilogy.
Moving away from the elegant moral simplicity of his original trilogy, Lucas set out to answer a pair of dilemmas with obvious parallels to my own: how could a peaceful republic give rise to an evil empire and how could a righteous defender of said republic transform into a minion of its destroyer? Like Queen Amidala in the third film, the resulting movies are stiff, overwrought (if occasionally pretty) and mostly incomprehensible, but pregnant with valuable insights that can be rescued from their moribund host.

Our first clue comes from the glaring absence of a crucial element of the original trilogy: likable good guys.  The qualities that made Luke, Leia and Han likable are the same that made them successful in defeating the Empire: infectious enthusiasm for their cause and a powerful combination of moral clarity and courage. These were the same type of qualities that made Jimmy Stewart so powerful a figurehead for American optimism in Mr. Smith and similar roles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and It’s a Wonderful Life (heck, we can even throw in Fievel Goes West). They were also the qualities that got Ronald Reagan elected – it’s no coincidence that Reagan felt so comfortable co-opting Star Wars terminology for his policies. And it is the utter lack of these qualities that doom the prequels’ Anakin, Amidala and their Jedi friends to failure.
The prequel heroes are so fundamentally dislikable that I’ve almost convinced myself that it was intentional – that this was Lucas’ version of Idiocracy (no one hates on Mike Judge for populating his worlds with irritating morons). Amidala is one of the most flagrant examples. Lucas has surgically removed any organs producing charm, character or feeling. Under the pretext of shielding her from assassination, he has surrounded her with look-alikes and rendered her indistinguishable from them under metric tons of make-up and fabric. The same pretext prompts her to affect a mind-numbing monotone when pleading to the Senate for justice; imagine Ben Stein as Mr. Smith in the famous filibuster scene and you’ll get the idea. Or just watch C-SPAN. Of course Amidala isn’t the only offender.  Anakin’s a pouty psychopath with all the charisma and sex appeal of Elliot Rodger. Obi-Wan and his Jedi confreres squint and squirm their way through moral dilemmas in a constant state of mystic constipation.
Perhaps the best case for the prequels as Lucas’ Idiocracy is Jar Jar Binks, the alien rube who gets set-up in the exact same role as Mr. Smith – as a patsy Senator for a nefarious conspiracy.  If it were Mike Judge instead of George Lucas, Jar Jar would win the Chancellorship and run the galaxy into the ground a la President Hector Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. But Lucas, uninhibited by the comedian’s tendency to prophesy the most ridiculous outcome, offers a soberer outcome: Jar Jar makes the decisive motion to confer dictatorial powers to the evil Palpatine.
Can it be a coincidence that it is the failure of Jar Jar – the most blatantly idiotic and universally reviled character in the prequels – to live up to the example of Mr. Smith that paves the way for the rise of the Sith Lord? Or that Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine is the only character with anything approaching gravitas in the entire trilogy? Whether coincidentally or intentionally made, the argument is the same: that a dearth of likable heroes leads to increasing appeal for even the most despicable tyrants. Given the choice of benign mediocrity and malignant excellence, the majority will choose the latter.
The absence of a credible champion like Mr. Smith or Luke Skywalker to validate our belief in the Republic is felt as keenly across the culture as it is in the Star Wars microcosm. In the years since the close of the first trilogy and the end of Reagan’s presidency, our on- and off-screen political heroes have fallen precipitously in the public graces, drifting into irrelevance or stumbling into ridicule. Harrison Ford was the heir apparent – part John Wayne, part Jimmy Stewart, all American – but his various American heroes were always too busy saving their own families to serve any public interests.  Kevin Costner had the earnest idealism and the common man bona fides but deep-sixed his career on post-apocalyptic bombs.  Independence Day’s idea of a neo-Stewart to restore a fallen America was Prince Valium from Spaceballs.  Dennis Haysbert and Morgan Freeman both got turns as soothingly deep voiced statesmen, but their generic appeals to the American people are now almost indistinguishable from their ubiquitous commercials. Aaron Sorkin made perhaps the most serious effort, attempting to recreate the Kennedy urbane crusader persona in American President and West Wing as an alternative to the Stewart archetype. It failed to catch on, overwhelmed by the torrent of anti-Presidential snark unleashed by 16 consecutive years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, interspersed with Bob Dole’s Viagra ads.
With such competitors for public affection, it’s no wonder that Frank Underwood’s bloody march to the highest office in our Republic should elicit more cheers than tears (or even fears, to keep the poetry flowing).  Our pride in our political institutions has eroded under a succession of buffoons and mediocrities to the point that we can’t help but celebrate strength and competence in whatever form it arrives. When we've run out of real American heroes, we run into real American villains.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Burn Book Burning: Mean Girls, Donald Sterling and the Culture of Hysteria

"Raise your hand if you've been personally victimized by Regina George."

Ten years ago this weekend, Mean Girls hit theaters.  At the time it seemed little more than a sleek Millennial turn on the pop anthropology studies of high school that have been a Hollywood staple since Andy Hardy.  Sure it was chock-full of insights into the pettiness of teenage girls, but you don’t have to dig very deep to get to the bottom of the shallowest age of human development. As far as I was concerned it was Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul interlaced with a few undissolved cubes of salty comedic bouillon.

What a difference ten years can make. When I watched it again this week, my once cavernous yawn became the slack-jawed gape of wonder.  This was no mere teen comedy, but a prophetic vision of the future of American society startling in its clarity!

Not that Mean Girls has gotten any better with time; it’s still as shallow and superficial as ever. Rather, society has sunk so low that the leaders of culture and industry are now seeing eye-to-eye with teenage brats. Indeed, we may already be looking up to the Plastics (the movie’s nickname for the elite faction of mean girls) as artifacts of a more civilized age.  Forget the serious business of civilization that occupied previous generations of adults: this society is consumed with assessing popularity, finding an advantageous place in the byzantine hierarchy of demographic cliques, eagerly trafficking in illicit gossip and shrieking hysterically over any perceived slight.  Case in point: the hubbub surrounding Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

The scandal might as well have been ripped from the scented pages of the Plastics’ “burn book” – a giant pink bible of scathing “burns” heaped on the other girls in school. In a private phone conversation with his mistress V. Stiviano – secretly taped in a manner strikingly similar to the sneaky 3-way calls the Plastics use to entrap each other – Donald Sterling hisses his disapproval of her public associations with star black athletes. Whether his distaste for these black men is driven by envy or prejudice isn’t quite clear from the tapes; perhaps it’s the same blend of both that drives the Plastics’ queen bee Regina to ravage the girls around her.
While Sterling and Regina are seemingly secure in their wealth and status, they still keep their most anti-social inclinations private.  In public, they make nice: Sterling with his ostentatious displays of charity and eager accumulation of humanitarian awards; Regina with her phony compliments and thirst for prom queen affirmation. Though their peers privately revile them – Sterling’s cocktail of sleaze, greed and racism has been an open secret for years – they reciprocate niceties in public. Only when a rogue Plastic takes disruptive action do the underhanded hostilities break into open conflict.

Enter Sterling’s mistress V. Stiviano, the incarnation of everything Plastic - still fighting the good high school fight at age 38. Apparently firing back at Sterling over a lawsuit (his wife trying to recover all the luxury items Sterling bought for her), Stiviano betrayed her sugar daddy and leaked their taped conversation to TMZ.  It’s not quite as neat as Regina posting the pages of the burn book in the halls, but the reaction has been the same: mass hysteria.  In both cases, the uproar springs not from material damage but from hurt feelings.  Apparently the realization that someone really loathes someone else is far too much to take sitting down.
Unfortunately, in the real world Tim Meadows isn’t around to bring the sprinklers down on the rage parade. Instead we have NBA commissioner Adam Silver joining the fray with a lifetime ban for Sterling, a $2.5 million fine and a push to force him to sell his team. Meanwhile, the pitchfork media clamors for anyone with any past connection with him to publicly denounce him, reverse Manchurian style: “Donald Sterling is the meanest, coldest, most despicable human being I have ever known in my life” (though with Sterling’s rap sheet, you wouldn’t think they’d need the brainwashing). A bunch of LA nonprofits are even sending his donations back - UCLA cancelled his $3 million pledge for kidney research.

Nor does the real world seem to believe in the healing power of inclusiveness, preferring inquisition to acquisition. Whereas the Plastics were ultimately broken in by the compassionate authority figures and reacclimated to a nicer (albeit utopian) world, there are no such better angels of our nature to be found on the modern scene. Whereas Mean Girls preached a message of overcoming evil with good, envy with empathy and arrogance with humility, in the real world we've reverted to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and 2,000 minutes of public hate for 2 minutes of the private variety. There is no longer any humanization of the offender, no self-analysis. Before removing the speck from our neighbor’s eye, we take the plank from our own and beat him to death with it.

Cady, the heroine of Mean Girls, becomes obsessed with Regina in much the same way that we have been consumed with Donald Sterling for the past week.  She hates and envies her just as we hate (for his racism) and envy (for his money) Sterling.  By the end of Mean Girls, Cady had come to an important realization: “Calling somebody else fat won't make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn't make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George's life definitely didn't make me any happier. All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.” It’s a lesson the leaders of the Sterling witch hunt would do well to learn.