Page Two: Running in Place
Movie-serial-style coverage plagues the most thrilling, genuine, and troubling Democratic contest in decades
and the people are sad."
– Wallace Stevens, "gubbinal"
"Was this her revolution,
Just a child in love's crusade,
With the question in her innocence
Through the lies her eyes betrayed?"
– Gene Clark, "The Virgin"
The Purple Monster Strikes, The Desert Hawk, Fighting Devil Dogs, The Vanishing Legion, The Galloping Ghost, G-Men Never Forget, Burn 'Em Up Barnes, Sea Raiders, Gang Busters, Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion, Daredevils of the Red Circle, Zombies of the Stratosphere, and so many others: Lately I've been watching them all. These are classic American serials, for the most part produced from the 1930s through the mid-1950s. On a weekly basis, movie theatres would show a 15- to 20-minute chapter of a 12- or 15-part serial.
More than 500 were made by Hollywood between the late Twenties and 1956, yet only a handful are very good. Sure, there are some, like Gene Autry in The Phantom Empire or Ray "Crash" Corrigan in Underseas Kingdom, that are great fun. The original Star Wars owes a lot to serials in general but especially to those science-fiction adventures starring Larry "Buster" Crabbe. Loyalists may spit, sputter, and dismiss the assertion, but given the more than three decades separating them, at one's most generous it has to be admitted that Lucas' initial effort only has a little on the three Flash Gordon serials and the sole Buck Rogers effort, all starring Crabbe in the title role.
Sometimes serial heroes were original; other times, they were more developed characters already featured in comic strips, comic books, pulp magazines, or film series. The very best are few, and there are even fewer on which serial fanatics would concur: Zorro's Fighting Legion, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, The Lost City, Daredevils of the Red Circle, and maybe a handful more.
These segments were often called cliff-hangers because they always ended with the hero or heroine in danger. It might be a car plunging off a cliff, a house burning down, a factory exploding, someone strapped on a log heading into a saw, or a plane crashing. Regardless, the protagonists seemed impossibly trapped, so you had to come back the next week to see how they would escape, if they did (and, of course, they always did).
The next week's episode would begin with scenes from the ending of the previous week's episode. Many times the recap was reasonably honest. The exact same sequence was there, only it now continued past where the last week's had ended – right at the very last minute when the hero dove out of the car or escaped the factory right before the explosion. More often, it would be fudged a bit; the sequence would be mostly the same, only the escape would occur before the final, apocalyptic moment. Say episode nine would end as the building exploded, with the hero helplessly trapped inside with no way out; the next week, the beginning of episode 10 would show that seconds before the explosion the hero opened a trapdoor, escaping beneath the building. And then the explosion.
Many of my favorites were even sleazier than that, depending on the failures of memory even among children, with the beginning of the new chapter having a different action sequence (though many of the same shots) than the end of the previous chapter.
A narrative junkie, I love it when the linear sequential is challenged, rethought, tortured, or twisted as a Möbius strip that seems to be progressing sequentially, when in actuality going nowhere at all. Whether unintentional, as in many movies, or intentionally crafted by directors (Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker), writers (Robert Coover, Ford Madox Ford), or comic artists (Jack Cole, George Herriman), the unusual narrative structure is almost always of special interest.
In serials, a relatively typical Hollywood generic tale is told in 12 or 15 chapters. Even the best of them don't use this extraordinary extra time to develop characters or try to achieve some kind of depth, but instead simplify their story to its most basic – the requisite number of action sequences. The best are imaginative both in those sequences and how they are connected. The worst can be astonishing: 2½ hours of film featuring a story that would need to be inflated and distorted to fill a standard, 60-minute B-movie.
In serials, running in place – and sometimes running in place in slow motion – is a too-common failing. Being interesting in 15-minute increments should not be all that hard. Evidently, in some number of cases it was. Which doesn't mean some of the absolute worst of them are not without interest – extended narratives without narrative.
"Baby for a long time you had me believe
You said your love was all mine and that's the way it would be
I didn't know that you were putting me on
And I'll probably feel a whole lot better when you're gone
Oh when you're gone"
– Gene Clark, "Feel a Whole Lot Better"
As with the most cumbersome of these serials, sometimes one is running but not getting anywhere. Which is fine when that may be the idea, but a lot of the time it isn't. Often when you run, you are running away. Something is being fled, being left behind. It might be fear that is driving you, or disgust; you might be running scared or in relief. You slam a door behind you. Go out to hit the road, taking you far away. You might, on the other hand, be leaving, even in a rage, knowing you will be coming back again as soon as you calm down.
When you are running away, you may look back, or you may not. If you don't, maybe it's that you're running away from what you never want to think about again, or else you may well fear the curse of Lot's wife. It might be that there are hellhounds on your trail that you can not only hear but smell or that you're just following Satchel Paige's sage advice: "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."
Running, however, is not always running away; it doesn't have to be toward anything either. Sometimes it's just running. In 1973, after living in Florida for about three months, I drove out of the state in a drive-away car, crossing the border into Georgia near dawn. I began laughing so hard, I had to pull off the road until I stopped.
After watching The Graduate in New York City in a theatre around 58th Street, we ran to the Port Authority bus terminal at 42nd Street. Running wild, we flew down the long New York City streets, racing out the jazz with which the film had filled us. Then, running was like singing.
Sometimes you leave by running, sometimes by walking, and sometimes you leave by standing still as someone or something goes flowing by you. Significant movement can be made by just sitting down, not looking, not talking. Just sitting.
"Nora Charles: I got rid of all those reporters.
Nick Charles: What did you tell them?
Nora Charles: We're out of scotch.
Nick Charles: What a gruesome idea."
– Another Thin Man
I'm not running now, but I might be running soon. Maybe not actually physically running but instead maybe spiritually, or emotionally, or mentally. Sometimes I run trying to get away from myself, sometimes to be alone, sometimes just to not be where I am.
This primary season has me fixated on the news, alternating with my slipping deep inside myself, away from everyone else – including myself. The most thrilling, genuine, and troubling Democratic contest in decades has some muttering in disgust at the failures of our constitutional republic rather than wallowing in its finally obvious glories. Lest this pronouncement seems too on-high, I should note that the idea of primaries is for politicians to be like old vaudeville traveling acts, where they are on the road week in and week out, doing the same basic material. There is a charm to the utter repetition of it all, an immediacy without urgency. Each of the many thrilling near-climaxes turn out to be followed not by closure but another chapter.
This season has offered one of the greatest of all-time serial adventures, with the still-unknown ending either weeks (the convention) or months (the election) away.
Contradictions plane out to normalcy. Absurdity becomes mundane in the action-packed stasis of these primaries. The right-wing pundits' election analysis has taken intellectual dishonesty to new heights. In the history of satire, there is little that can match four well-known and happily acknowledged right-wing conservatives pretending to some objectivity while discussing the Democratic campaign.
Listening to these champions of unconstitutional "constitutional fidelity," one finds that they never quite make it to the document but stop at their own self-righteous boundaries. "Original intent" is a not-very-subtle code phrase for "the way I see it" or "what I believe is right, so it should mean exactly what I want it to": It's not just the baby, but almost everything else, thrown out with the bathwater. What's left are bells and whistles, fireworks, and neon shadow plays where trigger words are celebrated without context or meaning.
One thing to keep in mind is that anyone demanding that the Constitution be read as a reflection of the Founding Fathers is dealing in fiction. The Constitution is a document forged out of infighting and violent disagreements designed to privilege compromise over ideological unity. Some were federalists and others states' rights fanatics; still more embraced a range of other philosophical positions. The Constitutional Convention began as a meeting to rethink the Articles of Confederation but, because of disagreements and conflicting visions, as well as insurmountable philosophical and structural problems, instead eventually ended up drafting the Constitution.
TV news is through the looking glass, or a series of looking glasses, regardless. The best, of course, is Fox, which in its claims to be fair and balanced is either the wittiest TV network of all time or the most blatantly dishonest. Surely no one is so self-deluded as not to be aware this is the most partisan station offering the most biased reporting. Outside of the "fair and balanced" crap, that is the way I think it should be done: Each medium should make its biases clear.
Although not nearly the demagogue and smug charlatan that Bill O'Reilly is, the leading champion of hysterically pitched, unpatriotic patriotism has to be Sean Hannity. His patriotism is designed to exclude rather than include, to deny and trivialize others' ideas and beliefs rather than empower and validate them. His ideology, when ladled out day-to-day on current issues, is exactly the opposite of constitutionalism. The other day, Hannity was talking to Fox News commentator Karl Rove about the primaries. Hannity was engaged in some dismissive, contemptuous attack on Hillary Clinton's campaign. After Hannity offered an especially strident observation, in honest pursuit of fair and balanced reporting, he turned to Rove and said something along the lines of, "Now Karl, correct me if I'm going too far with this." It turned out that Rove didn't feel Hannity had gone too far but, in fact, agreed with him.
The absolute dishonesty of this commentary drove home how much of political dialogue has fallen into sloganeering in an attempt for the advocates of one point of view to show the weaknesses of an opposing point of view.
Last night, the news channels covered the release of Scott McClellan's new book on his days as Bush's press secretary. Immediately, Bush administration loyalists boiled down their campaign of dismissal and disenfranchisement to one simple idea: He was in this only for the money. His outrageous claims and attacks on the Bush administration were not motivated by common decency or his own desire to come clean. Instead, they were labeled fictions that were being used to sell books.
Now, I think my uncomfortable feelings about vast conspiracy theories have been clearly stated. Still, this administration has been amazing at manipulating meaning while staying on message. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, there was a New York Times story about a meeting of some top Republican leaders at the White House. As reported in the Times, Rove urged everyone to take the initiative by attacking the state's governor and city's mayor for their failings to shift focus from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Immediately, the party line was repeated exactly – but not just by politicians, party leaders, and pundits. Callers to talk radio and letter-writers to print media almost wearily explained the chain of command, division of responsibilities, and resulting distribution of blame, often with the confidence, airs of authority, and deep knowledge of academic scholars who study and teach government. But all they were doing really was mouthing party line.
I won't say that this strategy of attack on Scott McClellan's book came from on high, but it was so pointed and consistent that it's hard to believe it rose spontaneously. The sense of this being some crafted response is further enforced by the utter dishonesty and completely partisan positioning of this dismissive assault. A former press secretary to the president of the United States is a serious player in party politics, able to cash in on such status in any number of ways. McClellan is not stupid. The courage he is demonstrating by this attempt to straighten the record should be neither trivialized nor underestimated. If money was the goal, well then, no matter how well the book sells, McClellan could have done just as well, if not better, by either not writing it or offering a whitewash. Whatever motivated him is probably complex, but ascribing it to simple greed is blatantly dishonest, evidencing a partisan attack rather than a reasonable consideration.
This is movie-serial news. Despite the amount of time and number of reporters covering an ongoing campaign, too many of the media's priorities involve finding the simple hook rather than going after the detailed story. Verbal slip-ups, personal connections, unproven allegations, and this insidious, dishonest attack all evidence the same standards of reporting. Go for the spectacular; stay away from the details. Go for the explosive; avoid the comprehensive.
Switching from The Green Hornet or The Vigilantes Are Coming to news shows unfortunately finds one observing all the same narrative conventions. This is a season of rebirth and of extraordinary political vitality. I look back down the long trail that we have so far traveled. Only the very distanced shadows of hellhounds loping after us are evidenced; mostly it is a long, dusty, hopeless gray trail lacking vegetation and any signs of life. Ironically, as I look ahead and to the sides, I see much turning green, as if a strange, long-delayed spring is trying to rouse life from the land. There is a freshness to the air. Still, even hope is limited by overwhelming structures; even rebirth finds its territory limited by what is too-long dead. The disease is not beliefs, differences of opinion, or opposing ideologies. Instead, it is the cancer of intellectual dishonesty, pandering to a mass audience, and neither understanding nor having real faith in the very difficulties of government and social cooperation as celebrated in the Constitution.