My weekend? Great, thanks. That about covers it! Bye! Have a great day.
Okay, well, there’s this. Via Cartoon Brew, a summary of an off-Broadway play performed by the SpankinYanks:
A searing look into friendship, national identity and the politics of paranoia, the Happiest Place on Earth will never be the same.
Hollywood, 1952. Are the Communists coming? Senator McCarthy hunts Reds, the Rosenbergs are doomed to die, and Walt Disney spies for the FBI. Harris and Finch, scriptwriters at the Disney Studio, are plotting to unionize. Walt's just been called to name names. How much does he know about them? Can Grace, Finch's trust-fund girlfriend, penetrate Walt's private playground? How far will Walt go to save Mickey Mouse from becoming a Commie Yid?
It’s now playing at a Scottish festival. Book your flight soon; no telling how long it’ll last before the animatronic Abe Lincoln Brigade telepathically controlled by Walt’s frozen head hunts down the actors and brings them to justice. Ice-Walt’s touchy about these things.
I’m not going to defend McCarthy, because he was a brute and boor and a butter-eating drunk who set back the anti-Communist cause four decades. To say that he was sorta right, in the sense that there were Commies about, is like saying that J. Robert Oppenheimer had a salutory effect on Japanese urban renewal. I’m not interested in those debates right now. I’d just like to point out that it’s a little late in the game to trot out a play about the mean old witch-hunts. The bravery of the scrappy idealists! The piggish philistinism of the anti-commie brutes! The smothering wet quilt of Conformity that held America motionless until it was thrown off by the undulating hips of Elvis! (Did you know they didn’t show him below the waist on TV, at first! True! It was horrible, the Fifties; no one had sex without weeping in shame afterwards. Sometimes during.) It's just interesting how Westerners think that that Red Scare was a historical event of such towering proportions it trumps the tales of the Soviet Union in the same period. US version: communist sympathizers frozen out of screenwriting jobs, justly or unjustly. USSR version: actual communists killed in ghastly numbers by a parody of a legal system underwritten by brute force and an industrialized penal system built on slave labor. Why is the latter ignored, and the former celebrated?
Because a herd of frozen zeks dying in the snows of Wherdifugistan doesn’t really connect, you know? Whereas six guys sitting around the Carnegie Deli bitching about cowardly sponsors, that strikes a chord.
Apparently the Scots are keen to share our national Red-Scare shame; hence the glowing reviews. There must be some universal truth contained therein. Three hundred years from now they’ll be performing plays about the Red Scare ( it’s really an allegory about the Salem Witch Trials!) or showing “The Front” to adoring cineastes who secretly wish they’d been Communists in the 50s. It was so romantic. Oh, to live in an age where you could be blacklisted. you didn't go to jail, you were ever so tragic, and you had lovers and smoked angrily and wrote a novel about it that just showed everyone. But this play, as noted, has a new twist on the usual scenario: it’s about brave young idealists working for Walt Disney, who, as we know, was an FBI agent and rabid anti-Semite. Hence those famous cartoons “Pinocchio the Jew,” “Snow Aryan and the Seven Undermenschen,” and all those pro-Allied cartoons. Why did Donald make fun of Hitler? Because he wasn’t getting the job done fast enough, that’s why.
For a notorious Jew-hater, Walt did a remarkable job of keeping it out of his work; after all, the point of Dumbo isn’t the need to sterilize the defective elephant.
In any case, the play seems to get a little bit of history wrong. As the Cartoon Brew review notes, a brash idealistic newcomer who tried to unionize the cartoonists in the 50s would have been informed that they’d had a union since 1942. But that matters little to the playwright, because the premise is so delicious. It matters not a bit that millions of people enjoyed Mickey cartoons; what counts is pointing out that an actual mouse would have carried disease and left behind fecal matter. And here it is! Fecal matter! We found it! Ergo . . . uh, well, ergo something, and thank you, we are brave. Very.
There’s a clinical psychological term for all this, and it’s “Pissed at Daddy.”
It made me think (I was weeding today, doing lawnwork, and that lends itself to crank-think) of the perpetual adolescent strain in post-WW2 culture. Before the 50s, when there were actual problems like an interminable Depression and Nazis, adolescents were mostly unseen in the culture. You had kids, and you had grown-ups. Adolescents were young grownups, expected to adhere to the same general rules of behavior. It was an adult culture, and adolescents were the interns. The culture would tolerate some things like Bobby Soxers, but with wry eye-rolling amusement. After the war, though, the adolescent was not only the focus of the culture’s attention, he was taken seriously. He was an inarticulate oracle, a mumbling sage, a jeering jester with a switchblade. One of the dumbest lines in cinema is one of the most famous: asked what he’s rebelling against, Marlin Brando’s character in the “The Wild Ones” says “Whaddya got?”
Oh, I don’t know. The Pure Food Act, antibiotics, an industrial infrastructure that makes it possible for you to ride your bikes around, paved roads, a foreseeable successful conclusion to rural electrification, sewers, the ability to walk into any small café and order a Coke and know you won’t be squitting your guts out 12 hours later into a hole in the ground alive with squishy invertebrates. Little things. No wonder they fretted over the Juvenile Delinquents – they’d known not hard times nor war, and they acted as if they’d been born into the sixth circle of Hell. If pressed, JDs would respond - with their trademark mommie-took-my-rattle petulance that they were against the whole phony world, man, because there’s nothing the adolescent finds more contemptible than hypocrisy. Somehow they find the fact that their Old Man lied about Santa Claus – lied, man, stood there and lied with a big old smile on his big old face, dig it – is a piercing insight to the machinations of adulthood. Please don't tell me they were alienated by the threat of nuclear war. So was my generation. We reacted with Disco and "Supertrain."
I was thinking about the JDs and their heirs when I read this DVD review in the Onion.
In Robert Downey Sr.'s 1969 underground touchstone Putney Swope, an advertising agency feels the full force of the revolution, as the executive staff's token black man, Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson), gains control of the company, and turns it into a phenomenally successful subversion factory, turning out commercials so frank and shocking that people stay home to watch them and don't go out and buy things.
Uh huh. The DVD cover says “Don’t Rock the Boat . . . Sink it!” But not until we’ve moved 100,000 units through the distribution chain.
I pray the author is having us on when he writes “Downey scores points off the establishment's hang-ups” – he’s just using the vocabulary of the times. (Any serious thinker would have uppercased Establishment.) “Hang-ups,” for you younguns, was one of those pop-psych terms used to describe people whose vestigial molecules of morality keeps them from personally participating in a barnyard orgy, even though they may decline from judging those who do. “Hang-ups” were the watery Freudian version of “problems,” which were called “neuroses” by people too old to smoke pot. There was nothing worse than having a hang-up in those days. Squares had hang-ups. It didn’t matter what you had a hang-up about; the point was getting over your hang-up, because its very existence implied that you were not a free person open to experience.
I have no idea how this actually worked in the real world, but I suspect the term was used sarcastically as much as it was employed with conviction. Depended on your age. If Young Angry Hip directors made some cheapo groovy movie for American International, the herone would accuse the hero of having a hang-up, and she’d mean it. If it was a big-studio movie meant to capitalize on the counterculture and explain it for the squares in a nonthreatening way, well, you’d find some middle-aged fellow at a Love-In stammering fractured hip-talk at some blessed-out blonde in a flower-printed miniskirt; she was usually too stoned to notice he was an old dude who was wearing this ruffled shirt entirely by accident, amusing chain of events don’t you know, honestly I’m a respectable married man with a career who has been drawn into your intoxicating demimonde, and she would run a finger down his sternum and coo something about her guru; he’d realize she was bonkers, and utter a riposte that told the audience he was too clever and decent to have sex with her, and then he’d leave. Some mutton-chopped guy with red sunglasses would sidle up and ask the blonde why the guy split the scene, and she’d say “he had hang-ups.” The audience would know what that meant: chick’s an idiot.
Back to the review:
Taken in smaller, manageable chunks, though, Putney Swope can still be as pungent and bracing as it was 37 years ago. While it isn't as inherently funny as it once was to hear a guy say "No shit!" in a TV commercial, and while there's little about the film that seems as "vile and offensive" as reviewers once complained, Putney Swope still has the refreshing feel of someone trying to tell the truth in a forum where people aren't used to it. The movie remains a landmark, if only for the way it brought hipness to the town squares.
Because no one ever tried that before or since, and God knows that the town squares – you know, the parents – needed to hear someone say “shit” in a movie theater, and because someone had to make people see that advertising was a pack of lies that appealed to your secret anxieties. You may have thought you wanted a detergent that got your clothes whiter than white, but you were really worried about the racial composition of your neighborhood and the firmness of your breasts. What happened when Mick Jagger punctured the Ad Man’s lies with “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?” He bravely sang:
When I'm watchin' my TV
and a man comes on to tell me
how white my shirts can be.
Well he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
the same cigarrettes as me
They had Jagger shot for that. (Disney was the Chief Judge at the Star Chamber, I believe.) Vance Packard came out with “The Hidden Persuaders,” a shocking expose of the ad industry: they actually dropped a piano on his head. (Again, Disney was implicated.) Few and brave were the voices that dared go up against The Establishment; brashly raised and quickly silenced.
Take a look at a movie about the evils of the music industry, “The Girl Can’t Help It.” As one critic noted:
The film was still presciently punk-rock in its contempt for the emptiness of mass culture and its bone-deep cynicism about show business. Tashlin depicts the music industry as a cross between advertising and organized crime, where talent is irrelevant, and image and marketing trump all other considerations.
It came out in 1956. Despite many attempts on the director’s life, he came out with another movie in 1957, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” described by the same critic as a cynical, satirical “skewering of post-war consumerism, with its boob tubes, dumbed-down pop culture, screaming teenyboppers, and ubiquitous advertising.” Those films were immediately withdrawn from circulation once plainclothes men noted a 17% increase in housewives staring skeptically at the boxes in the grocery store detergent aisle, and they reported back to Hoover. Of course, J. Edgar was involved in bizarre gay orgies every night, which proved that there was no such thing as domestic Communism. But in his rare lucid moments, Hoover knew that skeptical attitudes towards detergent claims would lead to rock bands with sitar solos - unless something was done. They’d hushed it up when that crazy Mrs. Greer burned herself alive in the lobby of the Maidenform company, but this was worse. This could get out of control. So the movies were withdrawn and the leading actress decapitated. (Or so they’d like you to think.)
So how do I know about these movies? Well, I’ve seen them. Passed- around copies. Home screenings for a select few, shades down, lookouts posted. But by some miracle they’re now out on DVD, a fact I learned on the same bloody page of the Onion review section as I learned about “Putney Swope.” In other words, one review talks about how the Establishment was paying people to skewer itself in the 50s, and it’s followed by another review that praises an incomprehensible 1969 “satire” for bringing hipness to the squares.
Hmm. Well. Suggestion:
It’s quite possible the squares had been hip to this long before, inasmuch as they did not believe housewives really clicked their heels when they saw what Tide could do. It’s possible the squares didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about Madison Avenue and its lies, man, its Santy-Claus lies, because it wasn’t exactly a thunderous revelation. It’s possible the squares were hip before the hipsters invented the squares.
Yes, we bought cars with tail-fins, but not because they said we’d like them. We actually liked them. When they gave us an Edsel we said “no sir. Don’t like it. Take it back.” But – but we have a large ad campaign! Submit!
No thanks! Now more rocket cars, please.
Fine. We’ll show you. We’ll build underwhelming boxy cars for 20 years, and trade the romance of sex and horsepower for the dull ache of a world winding down. And you’ll buy them.
Not if you make rocket cars, we won’t.
But back to the brave daring Anti-Disney play. Wouldn’t be interesting to see a play about actual contemporary anti-Semites whose power extends beyond the confines of an animation studio? But you’re far more likely to see a play about the sex-doll origins of Barbie, for example. Why? Because it would shock town squares to learn that the doll with the tiny waist, long legs and hella-portion hooters might have something to do with sex. It would reexamine – nay, examine for the first time – this culture’s notions of sex, a subject no one ever dares to raise.
Some day someone may pen a biting satirical look at a government so nervous about sex and the irresistible lies of Mad Ave they banned Barbie, Western Pop music and American ads themselves.
If such a play’s performed, it won’t be in by expats in Scotland; it’ll run in Tehran after the Mullahs fall. Among the wise and brave in the west, the Red Scare and the Eisenhower Golfocracy will remain the go-to era for the modern Dark Ages, a time when talented, witty people couldn’t glibly support a collectivist blood-soaked totalitarian system without fear their boss might get the wrong idea. You can see why the “Mouse is Dead” premise, however historically flawed, was catnip for the playwrights. Disney = Mickey, and everyone loved Mickey Mouse. He was cheerful, brave, industrious, ingenious, faithful, fair, scrappy and true. He was everything the grownups said we should be.
God how we hate him.