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January 7, 2005, Columns


Cultural Tastes Contribute

To the editor,

In his Dec. 31 "Page Two" column, Louis Black, lamenting how the Democrats have been labeled with the charge of elitism, reduces elitism to mere wealth. Were it only so simple.

While the two qualities often overlap, they're not necessarily connected. For better or worse, elitism in America is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon. It trades in irony, cleverness, cultural – not economic – superiority, and the world of ideas more than material goods. Consider contemporary art. Why is contemporary art often perceived as elitist? Not because rich people buy it, but rather because most people don't immediately understand it. It revels in ambiguity. That's the point – to be exclusive by way of calculated confusion – and the elites, whether rich or poor, like it that way. I like it that way.

Democrats are labeled elitist more often than Republicans because we tend to appreciate things like contemporary art. Embracing the spirit of ambiguity inherent in contemporary art, we do edgy things like perform exorcisms on Starbucks cash registers (performance art), form ironic clubs like "billionaires for Bush" (public art), and, yes, we are more likely to support cultural expressions that are experimental rather than romantic (a sure sign of our strong cerebral nature). Beyond the art analogy, we are also more likely to buy organic food, worry about trans-fat, breast-feed in public, hug trees, support homosexual rights, save mutts at the shelter, read The New Yorker, shave less often, and swear that David Brooks has devolved since the Times hired him.

Of course this portrait sounds like parody, but American politics is nothing if not parody. And while I have no clue why any of these stereotypes has a grain of truth, I am certain that it has little to do with wealth.

Here's the real problem, one that I think Louis Black downplays: the fact that Democrats are more likely to support policies that value economic justice over crass cronyism pales next to our predilection for cultural judgments that casually dismiss Clint Black, AM radio, and the Hummer as grotesque abominations.

And sure, they are grotesque abominations. But until the Democrats – or at least the opinion-making forces within the party (i.e., Louis Black) – acknowledge that our cultural tastes – genuine or parodied – contribute considerably to our perceived elitism, then popular perceptions are unlikely to change anytime soon.

Certainly not before 2008.

Yours truly,

James E. McWilliams


'Smile' Blesses

Dear Louis,

Your comments about Brian Wilson performing Smile at the Backyard made me smile ["Page Two," Dec. 31]. I never get anywhere anymore. Vision problems, being Mr. Mom to an 8-year-old, need I say more? But I did make my way to Carnegie Hall on Oct. 13 to see Brian Wilson and his band perform Smile as well as a whole slew of old Beach Boys nuggets. Wow! It was amazing. I kept feeling something during that concert that gave me goose bumps. We were probably four or five miles from ground zero. Four or five miles, if that, from where the twin towers came down. But in that room, that night, we were transported. It was such a deeply lovely and religious feeling, "God Only Knows" how he did it, how he's done it. But I think it's this: it's religion without the oppressive weight of books. It's religion as it should be: pure and childlike and brimming with love.

Happy New Year, y'all.

Yours,

Steve Swartz

Schenectady, N.Y.


Bring Us Closer Together

Louis,

Thanks for "Page Two," Dec. 31. To quote a country song title from Alan Jackson who also sings "It's Okay to Be a Redneck" (no, Alan, it's not), you are "Right on the Money" when it comes to showing Americans who are the true "elitists," who are the right-wing name-callers, and the people who fall for their lies. I can only spew venom and anger for hypocrites who dupe the masses with obvious double-standard lies, but you calmly, with matter-of-fact truth, deliver your message and are a true force for change and for good. Thank you. I wish I was a force of good like you. You're a great benefit 'cause you say what needs so desperately to be said to me, and the rest of the world. It really is stating the obvious and folks don't get it. Wow. Unbelievable. Anyway, I am going to take you up on your gloriously hopeful prayer even for the hopeless like me. I'm taking it and running all the way through 2005 with your prayer for us all. I'm starting by reading Bobby's Chronicles. So, like Sly & the Family Stone at Woodstock, let's everybody sing "Higher" like trumpets, see the spiritual light shining brighter, and bring us back closer together as humanity. Back at you. Thank you. Good read.

Scott Pelham


A Moment of Silence

Dear Editor,

I'd like to have a moment of silence for Shirley "unbought and unbossed" Chisholm, the first black U.S. legislator, who recently died. She was 80. It was her observation that politics was ruled by a few fat, rich white men who were bought and paid for. The name of Tom DeLay is easy to roll off the tongue as a more recent offending example. What ever happened to the freethinkers, other than the crackpots such as Ron Paul? I'm going to ask for a moment of silence, but that's not like being a "dittohead" or the Bush league groupthink. Democracy just lost a little more of its soul, people. I guess that if you really like plutocratic federalism, this would be a good day for you. Oh happy day!

Oh happy day, when Shirley walked.

Clifford "Sam" Wells

Leander


Beyond the Film

To the Chronicle,

Why do I get the impression that Marjorie Baumgarten doesn't like biopics? Or is it just Bobby Darin that she dislikes? In any case, her incoherent review of Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea is more telling of her personal taste than of the film itself [Film Listings, Dec. 31].

Her snide reference to "that Rat Pack nightclub style so out of date today" reveals her inability to appreciate Darin's music.

I don't know how Baumgarten separates style from performance, but I wonder if she'd have felt better if Spacey/Darin had sung fixedly or, alternatively, had slouched around, making malevolent gestures, periodically grabbing his crotch. The fact is that Darin had a vibrant stage presence, that his movements – the dancing, the finger popping, etc. – expressed his complete possession by the music itself. Rather than being superficial and out of date, Spacey's delivery captures the crisp energy of a Darin performance, perfectly suited to a singer of jazz and classic American repertory. Rod Stewart, reprising American standards, adopts a style similar to Darin's as a natural expression of his intimacy with the music.

By the critic's own admission, Spacey "so inhabits the body of Darin" with his "impeccable ... impersonation" that he reveals the sound and presence of the younger Darin. All the more puzzling that she indicts him for failing to capture Darin's "soul and ... drive."

But Baumgarten's entire critique is dismissive and unappreciative. Having conceded the accuracy of Spacey's portrayal, it seems bizarre that she should fault him for spending so much time enacting the role of Bobby Darin in a film about Bobby Darin. Also confusing is her complaint that the film "progresses through virtually every song in the Darin catalog." In fact, Darin recorded well over 300 songs, of which perhaps 15, each organic to the story, were selected.

Finally, I don't know how MB could fail to be moved by the story: a poor child from the Bronx, stricken with rheumatic fever and a damaged heart, is not expected to live past the age of 15. By virtue of his courage, determination, and talent, he fashions his own destiny, achieving musical greatness and recognition. The critic somehow can't see "why any of it matters." But it's not the movie that "fails miserably to make the case for Darin's importance" – it's the critic's unsympathetic heart.

Jody Williams


'Closer' Empty

Dear Editor,

I'm surprised at the echo rising from people of my generation, nodding in unison, "Yes, yes, that's the way it is, that's what we do, that's what we are – that's the 'real world.'" The Chronicle chimes right along in terms of the film Closer [Film, Dec. 3]. The emptiness of the characters in this film reflects a lack of worldliness, and the nastiness borders on farce. I realize smug apathy has been pinned on Gen-Xers; in Closer, we watch our collective character stretch to self-loathing and empty vitriol. Perhaps we nod because we fancy ourselves the flesh form of a Julia Roberts or Jude Law, dressed in clothes we'll never have, living in London, which we'll never afford. This film is the mean version of Friends.

Closer does not make for "fine drama." It lacks the writing to flesh out the motives of its characters; therefore it is a flawed drama. Why does Julia Roberts' character stray? Are we to assume she is just "damaged goods," and therefore, so are we? What does the last scene tell us? Leering men on a New York street, a teenaged looking girl's knowing expression, the film's slowed gait: Is this scene reflected reality or a commercial for deodorant? This isn't a "fractured fairytale," it's a bluff.

The late Susan Sontag said earlier this year, "I think there's been a kind of demoralization of the culture, a dumbing-down of the culture, and an extraordinary ascendancy of materialistic and anti-idealistic values." Closer stands as an example of this. It slickly offers pretty people, in pretty clothes, treating each other with wanton disregard, for no apparent reason. It acts to define by showing a shiny, cold surface, without looking beneath. If you want to claim Closer as your mirror, feel free to do so, but it is not mine. I encourage you to rethink your idea of four stars and the "whole truth."

Thank you for your time,

Lya Dante Guerra


Thanks for Story

Dear Editor,

Thank you for printing this story ["DPS Slapped in 'Troopergate' Verdict," News, Dec. 24]. I've always felt that this has been an ongoing issue and has been going on at DPS for a long time but could never prove it. So I take this opportunity and time to thank you for having the heart to write about it. I was e-mailed this article by a friend. Again, thanks and keep up the good work.

Sharrel Banks


Add a Category

Dear Editor,

I know it's very early, but could you add a category for handyman services in the 2005 "Best of Austin" poll? I think this is one area where highlighting good service providers really does the community a service.

Floyd Quinn

HG Handyman Service

["Best of Austin" Editor Kate X Messer replies: Out of the hundreds of suggestions we receive for "Best of Austin," we select a number of new or different categories each year. Some categories are more difficult to classify or tally and often appear as Critics Picks in the same issue. Be sure to look for the 2005 "Best of Austin" ballot in an issue this June!]


A Real American Family

Dear Editor,

Thanks for Margaret Moser's great article on the Hancock family, some fine people as well as supremely talented ["Roadside Playboys and Texana Dames," Music, Dec. 31].

After all the coverage of the Bushes, it's great to see a piece on a real American family.

Art Langston

Jefferson City, Mo.


Most 'Churrascarias' Brazillian

Dear Editor,

Virginia B. Wood writes in the Dec. 31 issue ["Food-o-File"]: "Is it possible there's a churrascaria (Argentine steak house) in our future?" Well, could be an Argentine place, but most of the churrascarias opening in Texas and around the U.S. – so suddenly trendy – are Brazilian ... and horribly overpriced. The problem is, they lay out an amazing salad bar where people make the mistake of filling up. Then waiters bring around some amazing meat, but after the veggies and beans, there's no way anyone can eat 45 bucks' worth of picanha.

By the way, based on her recommendation in her cupcake story several months back, I paid a visit to Russell's Bakery ["Food-o-File," Aug. 6, 2004]. Well, whatever confidence I might have had in her ability to point to worthwhile food experiences was shattered when I had the worst cupcake of my life, plus a few pâté choux-based items – a couple of cream puffs and an éclair – all of which were rock-hard stale. I should have returned them, but didn't want to raise a ruckus. Let's just say I won't be going there again, and am amazed that someone with Virginia's baking experience would rate Russell's so highly ... looking back on my experience, I'd have to say, four strikes and you're out.

Mike Quinn


Thanks, Sandra

Dear Editor,

[In regard to Sandra Bullock's $1 million donation to the Red Cross in response to the recent earthquakes and tsunamis in southern Asia and eastern Africa.] I'm sitting here trying my best to come up with something to say about Sandra Bullock. Something that's worth a million dollars in gratitude. My words have turned to a quivering smile and watery eyes. Thanks, Sandy.

Sincerely,

Kelly M. McDaniel


No Gigs Today?

Dear Editor,

No gigs today? Austin would be a great place to come to live and play music. But I don't want to end up on a street corner because there is no place left to play. I can do that in Nashville.

Daniel Grandy

Denver, Colo.


What About a Crossword Puzzle?

Editor,

Let's be honest with each other, it's safe to assume the majority of Chronicle readers often participate in inebriating themselves through less acceptable methods (myself included).

We need a mind-engaging, time-consuming activity to pass time at work, in school, etc. Might I suggest a "Page Eight" type of crossword puzzle? Please. Be as Sunday-New-York-Times pretentious as you want, just give us something besides This Modern World to ponder.

Thank you,

Iliana Lopez

San Antonio


Blasts United Nations

Dear Editor,

A UN official claimed that the original offering of aid from the U.S. was not enough, that we were being cheap. However, the United Nations is in no position to denigrate anyone's contribution, not even France's original offer of $130,000. It seems Kofi Annan is away on vacation at this time, and he plans to "cut it short" and return, after almost a week, to the United Nations to get relief efforts going. The United Nation's own relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, has said it will take another "two or three days" before they get going, that, according to him, "We are doing very little at the moment." Once again, the United Nations proves to be all talk, no action, all finger-pointing, and no work.

Carl T. Swanson

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