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August 05, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

How important is it to you that you and your thing -- whatever that is -- be reflected in popular culture? Perhaps better put: How important is it to you that you and your thing be among popular culture's explicit focuses?

I find myself wondering about these questions because I've been -- in my usual shambling and formless way -- poking around the blaxploitation cinema.

A brief pause for those not in the know: The "blaxploitation" moment in film history happened in the late '60s and early '70s. It was an interesting time in many ways. Politically, the era was still "the '60s," with all that implies of race consciousness, civil rights, youth protest, sexual acting-out, etc. In terms of popular culture, think soul music, black pride, drugs, pimp chic, and theatrical attire.

As far as the movie business went, it was a time when the movie studios had fallen out of touch. The generations that had created and established the business were coming to the end of their careers. TV had taken over many of the functions movies had previously served. A generation that had grown up on TV (and, in some cases, on foreign films) was yawning in the face of the movies Hollywood was producing.

These were the conditions that gave rise to the well-known and legendary art explosion of '70s American movies: Altman, Mazursky, Coppola, Peckinpah, etc. They were also the conditions that permitted another and very different movie explosion, this one of low-budget B pictures aimed at black audiences and featuring black performers.

Up to this time, black people showed up in American movies in basically three ways: as supporting players in movies about white people; as civil rights cases in seriously-intended movies ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"); and as the cast and crew in a very low-budget, black-made and black-distributed cinema world that I know far too little about. (Oscar Micheaux was the giant figure in this world.)

It seems bizarre in a post-Richard Pryor, post-Eddie Murphy, Denzel/Halle world, but until the late '60s, black American movie audiences had only seldom had the chance to enjoy the spectacle of black people starring in good-natured, nonserious, nonpolitical mainstream movies that were aimed specifically at them, the black audience.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Old Hollywood crumbled. When that happened all kinds of things emerged and found eager new audiences. Among them were "Bonnie and Clyde," "Easy Rider," "M*A*S*H," "The Godfather," Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould, and blaxploitation. In many cases, the blaxploitation films were every bit as commercially successful as the legendary "white" pictures. The blaxploitation pictures were movies like "Shaft," "Cotton Comes to Harlem," and "Sheba, Baby": cheap, quickly-shot crime pictures about pushers, pimps, drugs, and hookers that meant to sell in movie terms what the music business had been selling successfully for some time: soul, style, and funk.

Several hundred blaxploitation films were released before the bottom dropped out of the market in the late 1970s. The films established a lot of styles and archetypes that have been with us ever since, for better and for worse. The films are full of sassy sistahs, fast-talking drug dealers, racist white cops, bad karate fights, and chases set to wah-wah guitars and stabbin' horns. The hair and clothing styles in these films are so flamboyant they can still make eyes vibrate even in these graphics-happy times: platform shoes, shiney doubleknit suits, fancy handshakes, big Detroit steel, immense earrings, decaying downtowns, pantsuits, bellbottoms, bad wood panelling, suave pimp swagger, and the bushiest Afros ever grown. The color pallette was always set to "overload."

The films themselves -- often written and directed by white men -- were quickie productions, as cheesily-made and lousily-lit as the television dramas of the day. But they usually featured a lot of gore, profanity, violence, and sex. And they often had four important elements: spirited performers, funky soundtracks, likably far-out plotlines and situations, and those hilarious styles.

Many of the films were terrific financial successes; according to some accounts, the blaxploitation films helped save the studios during an era when the studios had no idea what the public wanted to see. Urban audiences (and in a few cases, white audiences too) dug the casual fun of the films: the racial taunting, the overblown death scenes, the various black types that had never been foregrounded in movies before. A new list of performers became stars: Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown.

The country's various establishments found these films (and their popular success) very hard to digest. The blaxploitation pictures were a genuine populist phenomenon, and they stirred up the kind of anxiety and fuss that runaway popular successes sometimes cause. The studios weren't thrilled that their bills were being paid by such unrespectable efforts. Politicians and worryworts fretted over the films' celebrations of sex, violence, and drugs. The country's respectable black organizations denounced the films even as the people these organizations were meant to serve cheered, laughed, and enjoyed themselves at movie theaters. The NAACP and the Urban League in fact formed an anti-blaxploitation organization that helped bring an end to the cycle of blaxploitation.

(By the way, the word "blaxploitation" has nothing to do with exploiting black people. It's a reference instead to the tradition of "exploitation" movies.)

I saw a few of these films as they came out in the early '70s; they weren't what I was looking for from movies at the time. But I've made some efforts since to fill in the blanks. I've read up on them a fair bit, and I've gone back and watched a number of the films. Recently I've been feeling inspired by "Jackie Brown" -- Quentin Tarantino's homage to blaxploition and the only Tarantino film I like -- and have taken in another handful of the movies. The two I've enjoyed the most -- and I really did enjoy them, as in "I think they're pretty good!" -- were "Coffy" and "Cleopatra Jones."

"Cleopatra Jones" stars the 6'2" Tamara Dobson as a federal drug cop who drives a 'Vette, and who has the biggest, baddest wardrobe (think turbans and capes) of any law-enforcement agent ever. Dobson wasn't an actress, and even her karate moves are clunky. But she's an awe-inspiring visual.

The movie, directed by Jack Starrett, is one of the most wholesome of the blaxploitation movies. It isn't nearly as raunchy as most; it's more like a family-friendly cartoon. But it's a funny, companionable movie, full of nifty character touches, snappy action, and terrific '70s cinematography. (The DVD supplies no extras, but the print is in beautiful shape.) As "Mommy," the white druglord behind the evil, Shelley Winters is in full, rampageous, "no one out-overacts me!" mode -- not that that stops the inimitable (and very entertaining) Antonio Fargas from trying. Fargas plays a flamboyant dealer named, inevitably, "Doodlebug."

(Movie trivia: Jack Starrett was an excellent director. I loved his little 1976 rural drama, "A Small Town in Texas." He was one of the early directors on "Hill Street Blues." Starrett was also an actor, with credits in "Blazing Saddles" and in "Rambo: First Blood." He died in 1989 at the age of 52.)

The 1973 "Coffy," written and directed by Jack Hill and starring Pam Grier (who was to star many years later in "Jackie Brown"), is a different kettle of fish. It's much raunchier, far grittier, much more violent, and full of gratuitous profanity and nudity. It's a sleazy, efficient, tight little melodrama that's surprisingly steamy.

Pam Grier wasn't much of an actress at that point. But she brought her beauty, her formidable physical charms -- to cut to the chase, she was the possessor of one of Hollywood's greatest-ever chests -- and a surprising amount of avidity and intensity to the story of a nurse who wants to solve her sister's murder. Jack Hill was a classmate of Francis Coppola's at USC; he worked in the Roger Corman factory; he's sometimes credited as a part-inventor of the immortal "women in prison" genre. He was, in other words, a skillful, scrappy sophisticate accustomed to delivering the goods in quickie exploitation forms. Where Jack Starrett was airy and open, Jack Hill liked to make you sweat, and he was very good at it. The print of "Coffy" featured on the DVD is swell, and the Jack Hill commentary track is amusing and fun.

Another recent blaxploitation discovery that I can recommend is an IFC-produced documentary about the era by Isaac Julien entitled "BaadAsssss Cinema." I have some quibbles with the film, but it's very interesting and informative, and it's full of fascinating anecdotes and facts. "BaadAssss Cinema" is buyable from Amazon, but I'd suggest waiting for it to show up on IFC or renting it from Netflix instead.

Isaac Julien and some of his interviewees make a case for blaxploitation not just as an important moment in film and popular-culture history (no quarrel from me about either of these judgments) but as really terrific movies, worthy of being discussed in sober, dignified tones. I can't get on board there. As far as I can tell, the best of the movies were fun trash -- a nifty and super accomplishment in its own right. They deserve respect, discussion and appreciation not in exalted or professorial tones, but in tones appropriate to fun trash.

Which brings me back to my original question. Some critics and commentators make such extreme claims for blaxploitation movies that you might rent them expecting to make artistic finds on the order of "Macbeth," "Take the 'A' Train," or a Handel oratorio. No such luck, of course. Most of these movies are pretty crude, and even the best of them are like the better episodes of "Charlie's Angels."

Why would anyone claim more for them than this? I suspect it's because some commentators simply love the films so much they get carried away. But why would anyone love these films that much? I suspect that the reason may be that it meant so much to some people to see good-natured portrayals of blackness projected big and proud in popular-culture form. The fact that the best of these movies are pretty good trash is less important to some of their fans than is the fact that they existed at all.

That's why I found myself wondering how important it is to me that I and mine -- whatever that is -- be represented in pop culture. It seems to mean so much to some people that they and theirs find a reflection in popular culture ... Am I one such person?

I'm torn between saying "not at all" and feeling ungenerous. Does my sense of self-worth depend on media portrayals? Puh-leeze. Before anyone brandishes the indisputable fact that straight-white-males haven't exactly had it hard onscreen, let me point out a few postings Friedrich von Blowhard and I once swapped about how rare it is for people with middle-American backgrounds like ours to see even semi-accurate portrayals of people dimly like us onscreen: "Hoosiers," "Breaking Away" The list starts to run out quickly. Our age group and our arty-intellectual cohort had a brief moment in a little bit of popular-culture sun during the late '70s punk era. And that's it. So the experience of observing popular culture hasn't exactly been like looking in a mirror for us.

In any case, I've often been amazed by the fuss some people make about popular culture and its portrayals of this and that. What do they expect? What do they want? Popular culture is a business, after all, not a social-work institution. It wants to hook you; it wants to make you feel good only so that it can empty your wallet. (And, hey, that's OK!) Given this basic fact of life, I find it hard to believe that some people look to popular culture for emotional support? For ... reportorial accuracy? For ... therapy? To ... feel real? Or maybe "validated"?

Are they crazy? How naive can they be? Whining that popular culture doesn't show you and yours in a positive and fun light seems just childish to me.

And yet, and yet, and yet I do sometimes find myself thinking: How can young girls not find it deranging to be surrounded by twinkling images of chicness and skinnyness? How can the absence in popular culture of images of honorable maleness not be playing a role in the cluelessness of so many boys and young men? There are almost no images of grownup pleasure and eroticism to be found in American popular culture: How can this not contribute to the general devaluation of adult-ness that's apparent all around us?

So I conclude that I am indeed being a bit ungenerous. Maybe some occasional bitching and protesting about popular culture isn't out of order. And maybe some overenthusiastic cheerleading -- even of the kind that finds expression in misleading critical judgments -- can be forgiven too.

Some blaxploitation links and trivia:

* Larry Cohen (who was responsible for the story idea of a recent fave of mine, "Cellular") wrote a couple of blaxploitation movies: "Hell Up in Harlem," and "Black Caesar." Larry Cohen has been active in films for a long time.

* Watching these films, I noticed that "bad" was being used in the sense of cool/groovy/good 'way back in 1973.

* There have been a couple of movie spoof/parodies of the genre: "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" from the Wayans brothers, and "Undercover Brother," which was co-written by the talented novelist John Ridley.

* Here's a sweet Cult Sirens apprecation of Pam Grier. Pam Grier talks to E! Online here.

* According to this site, Tamara Dobson started off as a beautician and a fashion illustrator -- not a surprise. Her movie career evaporated when the blaxploitation era came to an end, and her current whereabouts are unknown.

* Here's an interview with director Jack Hill. Here's another. The very talented Hill doesn't seem to have made a movie since 1982.

* I see that Quentin Tarantino likes Jack Starrett's movies as much as I do.

* Tarantino talks about "Jackie Brown" and blaxploitation here.

* Here's a giant collection of links to blaxploitation-cinema resources. And here's a website devoted entirely to blaxploitation.



posted by Michael at August 5, 2005


I remember reading once that the impressionist and cubist art movements grew from a reaction to photography, which did a better job of conveying realism that traditional painting. Painting became about abstraction, line, and color while photography became the medium of capturing reality.

I think there is a similar split in most modern art forms, particularly in film. Golden Era films had a certain abstraction to them, with movie stars with Movie Star names such as Cary Grant and Rock Hudson. Those films still exist today. But starting in the 1950's, movies started to be developed that wanted to show "realism." I think the result of this is that people started looking for themselves in movies, and feeling pride when a movie represented them. Think about how excited Jews were when Barbra Steisand and Dustin Hoffman hit the scene. These blaxploitation films were definitely of that era. This tradition continues with "The Joy Luck Club," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "The Passion of Christ," and all sorts of gay-oriented films. Movies have gone beyond just storytelling. The realism of movies make them into a weird sort of public relations tools for various groups and movements.

I think this trend will only continue as consumers get fragmented into different groups, and there are different cable channels, magazines, and books published for everyone. If you are of white, mid-Western stock, I think PAX is supposed to be your television station. You can watch the Waltons there three times a day.

Posted by: Neil on August 5, 2005 8:27 AM

Oh, I see now, why I find my cable so boring: I simply can't find my facet in this dragonfly eye of American movie culture!

Posted by: Tatyana on August 5, 2005 9:24 AM

I'm reminded of Susie "Sexpert" Bright's comments in "The Celluloid Closet": "Gay people were so starved for images of ourselves on screen...I'd get a call from a friend saying, 'You've gotta see this new movie -- there's lesbians in it! Okay, they're *vampires* but still...!'"

The trick now is trying to avoid the trap of having characters SO specific (African-American gay lawyer with 2 kids!) that general audiences won't relate to them (or try, at least).

This is the new challenge: for instance, I've really enjoyed how the writers of "Six Feet Under" have made each character so incredibly well-drawn and precise yet so human as to allow us to "get" each and every one of them.

Posted by: Scott D on August 5, 2005 10:22 AM

As for the appearance of Middle American culture in film, part of the problem is the lack of excitement in a way of life where everything is supposed to go smoothly and usually even does. ("Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens"). Garrison Keillor did figure out how to write about that, as did John Updike in a way, but artisticly fucked-up places (e.g. the South) provide more action.

People go tomovies for boredom relief, and the people who see 3-5 movies a week especially so. The film market is not evenly spread over the whole population -- a family with 5 kids will probably see fewer movies in theatres all put together than one college-age slacker who's into film.

The portrayal of my own Middle America in "Fargo" was highly exaggerated but basically accurate, but the action came from three highly atypical characters -- "something tells me the perps are not from Brainerd". (My sister has a cabin in Brainerd, and my brother lives in Fargo, if you want a credential).

A film I didn't see that my Mom loved because it reminded her of my late father was "Grumpy Old Men". Probably not the favorite movie of anyone here.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 5, 2005 10:50 AM

Great post, and I agree.

When I saw "Fargo" and they NAILED that variant of the Minnesota/Dakota accent, it was like finally there was a movie about people I knew personally.

But, then, I can relate to both male leads in the Will Smith vehicle - I have been both of those guys (but, of course, not the suave Will Smith character so much). No matter that neither talk, walk, or act like I do. I enjoyed the story, and so on.

So, again, I think you've walked the razor's edge splendidly.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 5, 2005 10:57 AM

One thing I've learned as a teacher is that you can't predict who's going to respond strongly to what -- I had a 20-something white son of a Hollywood producer respond incredibly strongly to a novel I taught about migrant Japanese chicken-sexers, after WWII; then there was the Asian kid who came to my office one day when I had the Chieftains playing and he told me how much he loved them and we talked about Arthurian romance for quite a while . . .

That said, I remember being extremely moved by a book by Ursula Hegi called "Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America." It's a series of interviews with people who were born in Germany during or right after WWII but who emigrated to America. They were talking about their lives, their upbringing, their feelings toward the German past, etc. etc. It was the first time I could ever recall seeing my exact heritage represented in a book (I'm German on both sides of my family) -- the foods, the way parents talked to children, holiday customs, and so on. It gave me a real insight into why it's important for people to see themselves, from time to time, in art. But I think that to *only* see that would be incredibly boring and limiting. Both things are important.

Posted by: missgrundy on August 5, 2005 11:38 AM

Neat thoughts, and I'd forgotten about "Fargo," thanks. I'm with y'all, I suspect: it's really fun (and kind of a relief, though I don't know why) to see or read something that rings supertrue to the specifics of your own existence. At the same time, what a bore to let that kind of "Hey, that's me up there!" reaction lead and dominate. A big part of the art-and-entertainment adventure is learning, going outside, being surprised. Finding ourselves moved (or being made to laugh) by material whose physical specifics are foreign to us is a great experience too. And there's the additional point, which is that we all live on multiple levels and in many dimensions. Why should should the specific externals matter more than anything else. I love early Jonathan Demme movies and Tom Perrotta novels, both of which supply details and lives similar to ones I'm familiar with. But I'm just as deeply amused and moved by Mizoguchi films and Tang-period Chinese poetry.

You're also reminding me of some stray thoughts I had about chicklit. Has anyone else taste-tested? (I remember a funny Yahmdallah posting, come to think of it.) The books make my skin crawl, but they're a remarkable development, it seems to me. They're novels that are deliberately made to provoke that "Hey, that's me!" reaction -- as insistently as women's magazines articles are. Exceptions allowed for, as always in the arts. But has there ever been anything like it in fiction? Fiction used to be generally intended as a way to imaginatively explore the world. Chicklit supplies what strike me as purely narcissistic pleasures -- getting your own buttons poked.

Maybe all the arts are moving in that kind of appealing-to-narcissism direction ... It seems, though, that the more we cater to ourselves, the more vaporous and elusive these selves become, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 5, 2005 12:15 PM

"So the experience of observing popular culture hasn't exactly been like looking in a mirror for us."

But Michael, would you WANT popular culture to be like looking in a mirror? Lord knows I'd want to be remembered for winning a writing contest, not for watching "The Partridge Family" or buying peace symbol necklaces at Azuma on 8th Street!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on August 5, 2005 12:42 PM

Ordinary People comes to mind. It was concerned with the tensions in an upper middle class, white family.

It was very well made, but painful to watch.

Maybe that's why so few films are made about "people like us."

Most want to escape reality at the movies, not take a bath in it.

Posted by: ricpic on August 5, 2005 1:05 PM

"Fargo" was highly exaggerated, and people in Fargo did NOT like it. But the non-felonious locals, for all their funny mannerisms, were all pretty sensible, OK people, and in the case of the pregnant police chief, a bit more than that. (The two goofy prostitutes are certainly unique in film history.)

I've always believed that the Coen brothers intended the movie to be some kind of riposte to Quentin Tarantino and others who believe that crooks are sexy and dramatic and interesting and exciting.

The Coen's crooks weren't, and the crooks I've known were more like theirs.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 5, 2005 2:11 PM

I forget, did we mention "Election" as a movie set among people we grew up with? I think my strongest feeling while watching that movie was that it was at least semi-successful at dramatizing the lives of people I really recognize. As you point out--this is a rarely accomplished phenomenon.

I actually have read some chick-lit, but did so primarily out of anthropological motives. I wanted to see what buttons such literature was pushing, which were, unsurprisingly, not my own.

Question: would you consider a bigger-budgeted, 'serious' crime movie like "Across 110th Street" to be blaxploitation?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 5, 2005 2:19 PM

Just have to say it - Fargo was not "highly exaggerated" and folks in Fargo didn't like it because it was too accurate in its reflection. And yes, I spent my teen years growing up in North Dakota and I went to NDSU (which is in Fargo).

I really liked this post for the information and for the thought-provoking question it posed. As usual Michael Blowhard, thanks for giving me something to chew on.

Posted by: Bad Maria on August 5, 2005 4:19 PM

For example, in one place in the movie the dialogue goes like this:

A Yah
B Yah
A Yah
B Yah
A Yah

There are question marks, exclamation points etc. to add, but those are the words. Well, I never heard more than 3 yahs in a row growing up there. I call that exaggerated. There's just a general thing of taking local-color stuff like that and pushing it over the top.

Of course, "Ja" would be the correct spelling, but I make concessions to the national convention.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 5, 2005 4:49 PM

"Well, I never heard more than 3 yahs in a row growing up there. I call that exaggerated."

Three is right:





"Terrible price on grain now, don't you know.*"



"Ole sure doesn't clean the weeds out of his fields very well."

"Terrible -- never get any yield that way."




"So, how do you like that new combine, then?"


If it isn't apparent, both my parents come from families that owned farms about thirty miles north of Fargo-Moorhead. I've spent more than enough evenings driving around looking at the fields. (One would be more than enough; would that it were only one.)

So, I'd agree with John Emerson that it was an exaggeration. But then it was intended as a caricature, not an ethnolinguistics study.

* Somehow we never get to the "Cthulhu Fhtagn" part. Innate conservatism, I suppose.

** Alternately, this could be, "Terrible yield this year, don't you know." It's always one or the other.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on August 5, 2005 6:41 PM

I met a women from Miami whose daughter started crying when she heard they were moving to Portland. She thought it would be like Fargo.

The daughter of another friend walked out of the movie. Sentences with "So then...." or "So.... then" really bothered her. It's perfectly good German: "So denn".

Posted by: John Emerson on August 5, 2005 7:39 PM

Because I'm a weirdo I just searched through the script of Fargo on the internet and the "yeahs" are included in the script just like Doug Sundseth describes them being in normal speech. So I dunno. Maybe in hindsight it sounds like a lot of them all together, but it wasn't as bad as described.

Posted by: lindenen on August 5, 2005 9:44 PM

I do remember 5 yahs in a row in just one place. The other yahs seemed fine. I imagined the actors drooling at the challenge.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 5, 2005 9:56 PM

Some of the features of blaxploitation movies, such as the cheesy visuals and absurd plots, are also commonly found in martial arts movies, which arose at about the same time. Coincidence?

Posted by: Peter on August 5, 2005 10:17 PM

Mr. John Emerson,

With all due respect, I went to college in Fargo/Moorhead, and then lived in Minneapolis. They have that accent PERFECT in the movie. Like anywhere, only a portion of the population had that accent, but those that did were channeled in Fargo.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 5, 2005 10:20 PM

I agree, they had it down perfect, but there was an element of caricature. In order to do a good caricature, you have to be a perfect mimic first.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 5, 2005 11:35 PM

Jack Starrett was an excellent director... He was one of the early directors on "Hill Street Blues."

Not only that, but Michael Warren (Bobby Hill) had a supporting role in "CJ." I assume you've seen its sequel, "CJ and the Casino of Gold," which I actually prefer to the original.

I've been working on some notes for an essay on Larry Cohen. I wish the Special Edition DVD of Maniac Cop was easier to find.

Posted by: Kane Citizen on August 6, 2005 1:13 AM

Passions run high when the topic is North Dakota -- who knew?

Looking forward to the essay about Larry Cohen!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 6, 2005 2:25 AM

North Dakota is probably the best state in the union if you combine HS graduation rate, crime rate, unemployment rate, longevity, and housing prices (my brother's brother-in-law got a livable home for something like $3000.)

Downside: -40 degrees with a 20-mile wind during the winter, no scenery, and not much social life or entertainment.

It also leads the nation in out-migration per capita. People really need that crime, unemployment, diseaase, illiteracy, and housing inflation. ND is the America conservatives pretend they want.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 6, 2005 9:46 AM

>>>ND is the America conservatives pretend they want.

And because of that they should be happy to live with -40F and 20 mph winds??

Posted by: grandcosmo on August 6, 2005 2:48 PM

They could brag about their real toughness then, instead of bragging about how vicariously tough they are against terrorism.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 6, 2005 3:28 PM

At least they have something to brag about, John, you know - they actually DO something useful; my only regret - a bit late and not forcefully enough.
I was reminded today how moderate Democrats (I stress - moderate) view success in international politics - that image of benevolent Ms.Clinton kissing Suha Arafat appeared before my mental eye (is there such expression in English? John would know). Two thieves in sincere embrace.

Appeasing the enemy with total benefit for one's country: zero.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 6, 2005 3:59 PM

Hi, Tatyana. Better the wrong war than none at all, eh? Especially if you're sitting home watching.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 6, 2005 4:14 PM

Answering to imagined arguments, John, as usual?
Once again, not only I believe it's a right war, I am sure US should've started it many years ago.

I AM sitting at home watching. I'm a woman, you know - I bake. I knit. I purchase furniture.
You, on the other hand...let's just [politely ] say - compensate for the lack of manliness by badmouthing those man who have it.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 6, 2005 4:43 PM

Should we worry about how the presentation of a more "authentic" black culture, by the movie industry, and by the music industry, beginning in the late 60s, has contributed to the decline in the life prospects of black children? How do black Americans leading quiet middle class lives feel about how what it means to be "authenticly black" is presented to their children by the movies they watch and the music they listen to. Face it, the way for most blacks to get ahead in America is to toss your authenticity and try to act middle class. Movies and music can break down parent's efforts to discourage their kids from emulating underclass behavior.

If the old, out of touch generation of movie and music taste monitors, "Old Hollywood", could have somehow lived on and worked on and stayed in charge of their industry for another 20 years, Black America would be in much better shape. We've gone from Sidney Portier to Ice T, from Harry Belafonte to Tupac Shakur, from the black guy who used to dance on the Lawrence Welk show to Michael Jackson. The new generation may be talented and exciting, but has their work had an uplifting effect on the fate of black children? Then again, there's lots of money to be made entertaining white people with authentic protrayals of the excitement, sexiness, danger, and folly of life in the black underclass.

Posted by: Bill on August 6, 2005 5:39 PM

My niece is a woman, and she's apparently going to Iraq. We all hate the idea. We will support the troops, especially our own personal troop, but we hate the war.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 6, 2005 6:13 PM

Bill -- A lot of good points, which go to the heart of many juicy questions: the '60s, popular culture, "liberation," the role of elites and tastemakers, what to make of populism ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 6, 2005 6:45 PM

Reading Bill's comment:
interesting, how "authenticity" got substituted for "underclass".

In countries with more racially homogenized population, like Russia (you can only see black faces in big university centers), the criminal lifestyle' subculture and its attractiveness for the arts and movies is taken for what it is, without masking the issue with ethnic/racial label, I don't remember attribution to one particular "heroic" ethno-group.

It would be, generally, considered in very bad taste. Generally, since there are exceptions - say, members of Chechen (for example) gang could be featured in a movie, bit without underlying notion that being a gang member is an authentic Chechen thing to do. And certainly no ethnic group would want to be associated solely with being underclass, let alone to glamorize it.

Trash is trash: white, black, pink, plaid or polka-dot.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 6, 2005 7:25 PM

Black America seemed to be on it's way up in the mid-60s, with hard won civil rights victories in hand, but in a precarious position, and during the 70s in seemed like the bottom fell out, and I think a popular culture that took an "up against the wall" stance toward authority figures and a hip, ironic view of middle class family values helped to knock the legs out from under a lot of them.

Even more than White America, Black America could have used a few more years of the staid, bland, positive world view, pro family values music and movies of the 50s and early 60s. Too bad the old guard of the entertainment industry couldn't hold on a while longer.

Posted by: Bill on August 6, 2005 10:07 PM

>> We will support the troops, especially our own personal troop, but we hate the war.

Posted by: grandcosmo on August 7, 2005 1:41 AM

Dear Michael:

I have observed it about my educated American friends as something amusingly disconcerting -- that they actually do take interest in/follow popular culture. And if you do, then, I suppose you might care if you are reflected in it.

We in the old world do not have these hang-ups. It is perfectly OK for us NOT to listen to pop music, NOT to have seen the "ET", and not to know/bother whether any of these productions mention us, and if so in what light. In short, the answer to your question, then, is: NO.

It is not a new development for us, we continental eggheads have always trashed trashy culture. The present is in this no different from the past. There is no moment of divergence, no Fall (from Eden). That's how we are and it is OK over here.

In this context it is interesting to observe the interesting reason frequently given by my otherwise intelligent American friends for following low-quality drama/comedy on TV. "Then, they say, we have something to talk about with people at work." Well, gee-whizz, personally I'd rather not talk, then. ;-)

Btw, I've given you a link on my blog. Would you give me yours?


Posted by: tom potocki on August 7, 2005 3:44 AM

The argument that people should be reading about or watching people who look, act or live just like them has always struck me as an extremely cramped way to look at life and human nature. Why should a kid from the ghetto only relate to people whose circumstances are the same as his own? I could just as easily imagine his being enthralled by, say, ancient Chinese culture. Why not? BTW, Miss Grundy, I read the chicken sexer book and loved it, too. What's it called? I forgot.

Regarding Fargo, I loved it and I'm not midwestern. At the same time, I recognized it as verging on caricature--like all the Coen Bros. movies (which I love). I think Fargo transcended the usual Coen fare because of the character of the police chief. She seemd true to me.

Chicklit has always been around (Harlequin romances anyone?). But the success of Bridget Jones led to an explosion in the genre. The brilliant part of Bridget Jones was the way her diary entries always started with her weight and her resolutions to cut back on drinking, smoking, etc. As a woman, I identified with the weight aspect, but I suspect more than a few of us (male and female) resolve to stop (or start) something and fail to live up to.

Chicklit, really is just an updated version of what Northrop Frye identified as comedy (it always ends in marriage). Bridget Jones borrowed the plot from Pride and Prejudice: Girl meets boy, hates him, dates another boy who is obviously bad news, bad news boy's true nature is revealed, girl discovers the true worth of hated boy, marriage. The form goes back to Taming of the Shrew, if not further. And it's also the classic plot of musical comedy: Boy meets girl cute, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, marriage.

Posted by: Rachel on August 7, 2005 8:48 AM

Rachel -- Great points about chicklit, as well as about femme-lit generally. You've managed to sum up in a paragraph what many critics and profs have never been so clear about. But as a practical matter, there's also a new element in chicklit, which is a reason why it's earned a new name (it isn't just romance updated, or romantic comedy with some fresh herbs) and why it's understood to be a new category of fiction. Interesting to note that a few of the traditional romance publishers have tried to do their own version of chicklit/romance and haven't had much luck with it. Chicklit and romance (and romantic comedy), despite the many overlaps, also seem worth discussing as separate femme-lit categories.

I haven't seen any discussions of what the diff is, though everyone seems to know there is one. As far as I can tell (from some very limited flipping around in the books), it's the "that's me on the page!" quality that chicklit has that distinguishes it from the more traditional genres. You read it largely out of interest in yourself (very narrowly defined), as a gal might spend a few hours with a woman's magazine that's full of "What's in it for me! How can I turn my life around! A brand new you! How to turn him on (so he'll finally marry me!" It kind of blends self-interested lifestyle journalism and femmelit in a way that took everyone by surprise. (It's one of the few new categories of book that has taken on a life of its own.) But I'm sure someone somewhere could do a much better pulling-apart of the phenom than I can. Still, I suspect that "Bridget Jones" is a far more influential and important book than many of the heavyweight novels that get more serious atttention.

I think it's kind of an interesting development -- the narcissistic element makes chicklit kind of interactive-y and perforamnce art-y. That's appalling too, in the sense that you write about in your comment: sheesh, why should we engage with the arts only to look in the mirror? I'm like you: much of what the arts are good for (and much of why they appeal to me) is that they take me out of myself. They're an imaginative adventure. But there you have it, it's the way many of the arts are developing. Sigh, of course.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 7, 2005 11:33 AM

It would be so, so easy to say: "Your niece, John, had probably felt obliged to make up for the lack of men in her family" - but I wouldn't, and not out of charity (what fun, after all, to spar with opponent who takes insult for a compliment?)
Just caught a couple of glimpses on C-SPAN from the talk Hendrik Hertzburg from New Yorker was giving in Washington's B&N.
He moaned the loss of democracy in the country and opined that our Army is a mercenary Army, consisting of internal Foreign Legion-type troops, "lured in" on false pretenses of patriotism, and so on.
If New Yorker editor's head is so screwed-up, what to expect from Mr. Emersons of this world? At least he sounds ...human. So I'll let you be, John.

Bill, what you said makes me think of wider question, what constitutes a satisfactory goal for generation? What are the anchors giving that "feeling-good-about-oneself" confidence? Had a dinner in ridiculously overpriced restaurant in Union Square on Fri with much younger woman of 24. Conversation touched on a mutual online acquantaince, who lives in semi-bohemian Greenpoint in Brooklyn. She thought at his age of 35 (or 36, 37, K.?) it started to look strange. "On the other hand, it's better than Upper West Side", she said, at least he's not selling out". Very intelligent, much-traveled around the world, Europe-educated white woman.
I wonder if that's not the same logic underneath the blaxploitation etc.?

Posted by: Tatyana on August 7, 2005 12:05 PM

Michael, If chicklit is a new category, it's because the heroine has been updated. Now she's an urban 30-something gal who has a great career in a glamorous business (TV, publishing, advertising, movies), dresses smartly (much label-dropping) and has it all (including a sex life). Bbut she doesn't have a good man. It's still wish fulfillment, aspirational to coin an advertising term.

And it's everywhere. "Sex in the City" is just a 7-year-long chicklit TV show. At the end they all got their man. In the meantime, they got to screw around, wear nice clothes and go to fabulous parties. In the sense that readers recognize themselves, I don't know: There are more 30-something unmarried career girls out there and most of them have had a sex life, as opposed to your traditional heroine who was most assuredly a virgin.

At least that's what I see. I was just thinking about this last week at the bookstore when I was looking for something light to read. The tables at B&N were overladen with chicklit. (Even the covers of these books look alike.) And while I would gladly pick one up for a light read, few of them are as skillfully done as "Bridget Jones" and the last thing I want to spend an afternoon doing is trying to plow through some poorly written, clunky imitation.

Posted by: Rachel on August 7, 2005 1:11 PM

Tatyana, I won't call you a poisonous stalker bitch, since you didn't call me a coward.

I won't go into the details of how my niece entered the service, but I can tell you that she, her mother, her family, and (eventually) her young child are pretty devastated. She feels trapped with no place to go. People who are actually being forced to risk their lives are often less enthusiastic about wars than people whose involvement is limited to supporting the troops and sneering at doves. Especially when every passing month reveals that the war is an unwinnable fraud.

Have fun sitting on your fat butt, knitting, and offering the troops your worthless, useless, meaningless support.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 7, 2005 1:24 PM

Gee, I do seem to draw out the essence of people, don't I?
Stalker? Don't flatter yourself, John. Remove your brave person from my pasture (where you intruded in the first place) - and you'll never hear my voice again, I promise. Same thing with your relatives - don't want to hear remarks about them - don't bring them up first. (Your niece's dilemma: isn't participation in our Army voluntary?) Seems you now want me to discuss the rest of your extended family, or why would you list them one by one otherwise - but I'll not, or you'll have a stroke - and who I'll bitch about afterwards? (Aside: anybody who calls my butt other than delicious, be afraid. You're warned.)

Rachel, that was on the nail, about Sex and the city, thank you. The nature of the genre has puzzled me in the past, especially when watched in a row. It's sort of a therapy, don't you think, the whole "rosy mirror image" literature, be it chicklit or black novel (or, to think of it, Sholom Aleihem's stories)?

Hmm, therapy is somehow a lot on my mind lately.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 7, 2005 2:43 PM

I'll leave the other readers to judge the outcome of this debate.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 7, 2005 2:47 PM

>>.I'll leave the other readers to judge the outcome of this debate.

You lost.

Posted by: jeff j on August 7, 2005 4:23 PM

At first I didn't believe that this is really Tatyana's pasture, as she says, but I guess I was wrong. It does have that kind of smell.

It was fun until Tatyana came along, but I guess I misunderstood a few things when I showed up.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 7, 2005 4:44 PM

Ah, the real secret to Sex and the City are the clean houses and apartments.

Most of the professional women I know (myself included) watch that show and think: how do they manage to work full-time, still have the energy to go out after a hard day's work, and dress up like that and have clean apartments? You never see them cleaning. Only Miranda had Magda. Actually, only Miranda seemed to have a real life: stayed in if she was tired, worked on the weekends and had someone to scrub out the bathtub, which explains why her place looked clean.

Do you know how much energy it takes to work your way up the ladder at work, keep your house neat and clean, work out , eat your vegetables, pluck your eyebrows, do your nails, etc, etc, etc (well, of course you all do). The real secret to Sex and the City is the blessed fantasy of perfection and time and ease. The other stuff was just silliness. You knew it would all work out in the end and they would get their men or be happy without them.

Posted by: MD on August 7, 2005 6:44 PM

Tatyana's a classic version of the blowhard asses who are threatening to ruin my beloved country, and John "won", although frankly everybody who had to read that ugly exchange lost. Don't know much about John but I'm certain he's more of a real man than GW Bush.

Some excellent points about chick lit made above. I agree that "Bridget Jones" was actually a very important novel, not to mention being far more witty and entertaining than later examples of the genre. IMO chick lit is about preserving the zing of romance novels in a world where women no longer define themselves through early marriage. Part of the extra fizz in chick lit is that it admits sotto voce the possibility that the heroine *might not get married*, but is and will be vital and sexual even in her single state. The worry usually comes in through the heroine's comic anxiety about the men in her life, it can only come in a humorous form, but it is a real anxiety. And it is counterbalanced by the new freedom to explore and experience and be sexual outside of the marriage paradigm. It is an adaptation of the fairy tale of women's desires and expectations to a new world where marriage is of diminished importance in coming of age, so it is culturally quite important I think.

"Jackie Brown" is a brilliant movie.

The point about youth worship in American life and culture is very good and deserves its own post I think. Culture in continental Europe in particular is quite different and movies there often have a sense that older people make vital and adventurous romantic and other choices. I actually think this cultural difference between American and Europe is important in lots of ways -- for example it relates to why Europeans seem to dress so much better than lots of Americans. Americans in lots of regions of the country often seem to consider themselves out of the style/sexual game once they enter middle age; not so in Europe.

Posted by: MQ on August 7, 2005 7:04 PM


I think the 'invisible' elephant in the livingroom of chick-lit (and the livingroom of European culture, as well) is whether or not the women in question will have children, not whether they will be able to sustain the thrill of courtship rituals into their dotage. I think the reproductive rates of Europe and the cultural differences noted above are not unrelated.

I think the current below-replacement level of wealthy country birthrates (the consequence, I would guess, of large numbers of women choosing to remain childless) is an unprecedented phenomenon of truly cosmic significance that receives nothing at all like the attention it deserves.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 7, 2005 10:36 PM

Hmmm, I'm not sure 'choosing to remain childless' is quite the way to put it. Not an original thought, but one of the fallings out of the post-feminism era is that women wait too long to marry and have children as they set up their careers, and then, when they are set up, the opportunities are just not there as they were when they were younger. I think a side effect of chick lit (beyond the comforting nature of it - things turn out all right in the end, there's always a happy ending no matter the choices you've made) is to serve as sort of a parable. It's tricky negotiating all these different choices on offer, and biology is there, after all. Can't deny it.

*I have a good friend, a stay at home Mom who is quite a computer whiz from her former career days, who is thoroughly irritated with the boomerish notion that to be a liberated woman means being like a 1950s male who has to work his way to the top. That's enlightened, but staying home with the kids, or working part time, or being anything 'less' than full-throttle sucessful in your career is somehow a failure of the womens movement. These women did not help me out in my younger days....frankly, their advice sucked.

Posted by: MD on August 7, 2005 11:08 PM

Fear of childlessness (unspoken or not) provides the tension in chicklit. These women are already older than your romantic heroine of old and the biological clock is ticking. In this way, they differ from the feminist version of female lit--"Diary of a Mad Housewife," "Fear of Flying"--in which a woman rises above the shackles of a bad marriage to become a fully actualized being, which translates into really good sex and--perhaps--a glamorous career.

The apotheosis of this feminist version was probably "An Unmarried Woman." Not a novel but a movie, I know. In that case, the character had it all: She already had a child so procreation wasn't a worry. And she was so self-actualized she could take or leave the dishy Alan Bates.

Posted by: Rachel on August 8, 2005 6:26 AM

Really good points about childlessness, you are right about that. And it is not getting nearly enough attention. Having children is not always incompatible with the "thrill of courtship rituals", especially in wealthy European countries where substantial supports are provided for single parents (I think this is also related to some points about middle age in Europe I made above). Being a single parent in the U.S. is usually a pretty crushing burden.

Posted by: MQ on August 8, 2005 2:20 PM

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