Everything is Politics

[the losing side in re: last Tuesday collates a few recent pop culture observations]

When considering my earliest cinematic experiences, two movies stand out: Ghostbusters and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The boy is father to the man. To this day, I still have a soft spot for "supernatural meets urban landscape" conceits and innovative action movies.

I mentioned Ghostbusters a few years ago as part of a greater unpacking of institutional racism. Now Darcy has just sent me this unsettling new interview with Ernie Hudson. Hudson is careful to not mention race once – he still works, after all – but the takeaway is truly the blues. I can’t ever look at Ghostbusters again.

For some reason Raiders of the Lost Ark just came back around into rotation. This is probably not a news bulletin for most, but, my god, is this movie ever unapologetically racist as well. Indiana Jones lords over South Americans and Egyptians in ludicrous fashion. It’s the American Way at its most fatuous, writ large. I can’t ever look at Raiders of the Lost Ark again, either.

When I mentioned all this Dave King, he suggested that many ‘80s movies will be seen by future generations as akin to the way we see early movies using blackface today. He’s probably right.

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Another early love was Doctor Who on television. These days the Doctor is back and bigger than ever, although the show also seems unusually vulnerable to political currents. Various factions watch intently, eager for any political misstep.

I backed Philip Sandifer’s DW reviews on Patreon. Sandifer is the most politically correct essayist I’ve ever seen, which is probably why his comment section is filled with those banging drums for various disenfranchised camps. (A low point were those that somehow saw “Kill the Moon” as a conservative anti-abortion message. As if not wanting to kill off a unique space creature was comparable in any way to the pro-life crew.)

In retrospect, I know that a big part of my boyhood attraction to the Doctor was that he only used violence as a last resort. Often he advocated for the opposing side before calling in the reserves. Perhaps because this hero was comparatively gentle and understanding, the show gained a cult following with those who felt oppressed. The brilliant architect behind the reboot was Russell Davies: Since then, gay camp on Doctor Who is no longer a possible subtext, it’s in plain sight.

It only follows that contemporary activists of all kinds see the new show as a litmus test. For myself, I find Peter Capaldi’s sardonic but humane characterization the most satisfying since the reboot. As for the stories: well, pretty good. Yes, too sentimental and faux-adult for sure. But I appreciate how this season scans as relatively sedate overall. For a while DW was looking like a bad Hollywood action movie most of the time.

I’m probably one of the few fans let down by a possibly racist detail from the last season. In “Mummy on the Orient Express” the horrible jazz is a parody of American black music. The BBC should really do better. Surely a few centuries from now (the time period of “Mummy”) they will.

Sidebar: The one episode of Doctor Who with decent jazz is “Silver Nemesis,” a truly inconsequential Sylvester McCoy tale boasting a bit of Courtney Pine shredding with burning Mark Mondesir on drums. Pine once interviewed me for the BBC, and we spent much of the time talking about Doctor Who.

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The irony – at least as I see it, as an admittedly automatically empowered white male – is that Doctor Who lacks something today because it seems like every goddamn thing goes through a focus group first.

After all, if you are going to tell a story, some kind of authorial ruthlessness is required.

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The most positive use of my free time recently has been rewatching the lone immortal season of Firefly. Now, this is authorial ruthlessness. Joss Whedon, riding high on Buffy and having learned some tough lessons on Angel, does a postmodern ensemble space opera just as he thinks it should be done. I’m not saying it’s not flawed. It’s television! Of course it’s flawed! But every character is solid, and every plot is inspired. (No wonder it got cancelled?)

For Halloween I went back to another Joss Whedon success, Cabin in the Woods. I’ve praised this movie before on DTM. If you are hesitating because you don’t like horror movies, I understand. But just so you know, Cabin the Woods is much more than a conventional horror movie. Indeed, it gives Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford roles that any actor would die for. I admit I have looked at the Cabin in the Woods scenes with Jenkins and Whitford dozens of times.

On Sadifer’s blog I’ve learned about the Bechdel test. (Again, I have a feeling that this is really old news to my younger readers.) I've been having fun seeing what passes the test or not. Of course, few of the crime films I adore pass. Cabin in the Woods does, not least because of the late entry of Sigourney Weaver, who also features in the original comic strip introducing the test.

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

Weaver's Ripley was a landmark character. Someone else I was thinking about recently is Linda Hamilton. Say what you will about Terminator 2, but Hamilton does absolutely heroic work in moving the battle right to the front door of male gatekeepers everywhere. Whedon's Buffy and Zoë are two of my favorite characters, but Sarah Michelle Gellar and Gina Torres don't radiate the same kind of physical power that Hamilton does. 

On a related note, I'm kind of obsessed with this photo that Vince Keenan put on my Twitter feed via Old Pics Archive. Armenian guerrilla fighters, 1895:

  Female Armenian guerrilla fighters, 1895

Speaking of Armenia, and back to jazz, the next DTM post will be about the scores of Paul Motian.