My Mother Made Me a Commie

My mother and I watched lots of old movies in the 1950s on a tiny TV screen in our tiny winterized screened in breezeway.  My mother knew all the supporting players by name.  Her own sisters had been MGM contract players.  She was never political and always voted Republican except for George McGovern.  But without her knowing it, the movies we watched left a deep impression on me.  They reinforced the idea of “getting in other people’s shoes whether they were worn out with holes in the bottom or velvet ones studded with pearls. I could feel for the “down and out” while coveting the lacy ball gowns, crystal goblets, and fox furs. It nurtured my love of contradiction that persists to this day.

The economist, Milton Friedman, was right in one respect. He once said, “When a crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas lying around.” This statement became the basis for Naomi Klein’s frightening book “The Shock Doctrine.” In it, she chronicles the ways his followers jammed his free market ideas down the throats of citizens in various countries when a crisis, man made or natural, occurred. Some of the ideas lying around during the 1930s and 1940s that produced movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) were often anti-capitalist, labor friendly and surprisingly saturated with feminism.  I watched “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” (1947) this past Christmas. It’s about a hobo who occupies (YES, Occupies!) a rich man’s mansion every winter when the rich guy goes to his winter home in Virginia.   The hobo wears his clothes, smokes his cigars, and drinks his wine. Year after year nobody noticed anything awry.

One day on his daily stroll through Central Park. The hobo happens upon a homeless WWII vet (YES, veterans are always treated like crap even after [1]“the good war”.) Against his better judgment the hobo takes in the veteran. The daughter of the rich man runs away from her snooty college and decides to hide in her father’s mansion. She overhears the hobo confessing that he’s a hobo to the vet. She decides to pretend to be poor so she can stay there too and cuz the Vet is cute. Turns out that the vet has a bunch of ex GI buddies and their wives and kids who also need housing, so, somewhat reluctantly, the hobo takes in all of them. The vet and his buddies then hatch a plan to purchase an army barracks and turn it into communal housing. Well there are many more complications when the rich man (who started out poor) comes back to New York to look for his missing daughter. When they finally meet, the spunky girl confronts her father. She tells him that she doesn’t understand why they should have big empty houses when there are people who need them. Then she convinces him to disguise himself as a bum and join the merry band of people inhabiting his mansion. And soon her divorced socialite mother joins up disguised as a poor cook.

Other movies of that era also have spunky females like Barbara Stanwyck in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) who writes a Martha Stewart-like column in a NY newspaper about her Connecticut stately farm. Truth is she’s a poorly paid journalist who lives in a one bedroom flat in NYC.  “Holiday Affair” (1949) is about a war widow raising her son and trying to find a good father while trying to maintain her dignity and independence. “My Man Godfrey” (1936) is my favorite film. Filmed at the height of the Depression, it opens with a bunch of rich people going on a scavenger hunt. One of the “items” they must find is a “forgotten man”. So they go to where all the homeless are shacked up tin order to find one. And audiences loved these stories of people struggling together in an often dog eat dog world. They still do if given the chance. “The Devil Wears Prada” is in this tradition, but not quite as subversive as the old movies.

Besides giving people work on sewer systems and dams in the 1930s, the WPA funded writers, artists and photographers. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have another WPA type deal in order to have writers and artists come up with other ideas.  Margaret Thatcher once famously said about financial capitalism  aka Milton Friedman’s“free market” that “there is no alternative,” referred to as TINA.  But there must be.  There were other ideas not so very long ago.  Time to dig them up and repot them.  We need to  “imagine” a better world that we can actually Occupy rather than watch on the TV.  I was lucky to watch old movies with my mother.  No, she didn’t make me a Commie, but she did help make me a Contrarian.

[1] “The Good War” was the name of the 1985 book by Studs Terkel. It is composed of first hand accounts of veterans of World War II.

Montana ‘s Inquisition

(This was originally published in 2010 and I think it’s time for re publishing it.  With all the hubbub and disagreement surrounding the film “American Sniper”, we should try not to fling around the word “treason” for people who disagree with you.  I heard about Christine Shupp at our watering hole, The Grand from a neighbor.)

So you are a little girl in grammar school in 1917.  Your name is Christine Shupp.  You related to a neighbor here in Montana that as a child you were forced every morning after the pledge of allegiance to the flag to  kneel down on the floor and kiss the flag.  It is because you were German. And say you are a rancher in Rosebud County, Montana and you call WWI “a millionaire’s war”. Whamo, you are dragged off by neighbors to jail. You’re in a saloon and call war time food regulations “a big joke” and you are sentenced to from 7 to 20 years.  http://www.seditionproject.net/index.html

Montana played a huge part in suppressing free speech during WWI.  In light of all the noise about Julian Assange,  Wikileaks, and Joe Lieberman’s “upgrading” The Espionage Act of 1917,  it ‘s probably a good idea to take  a look backwards to the Montana Council of Defense.  (Yes, President Obama and MSNBC, it’s a good idea to look backwards because leaning forwards can more often than not have you falling on your face.)

Historian K. Ross Toole wrote a chapter called “The Inquisition” in his book “Twentieth Century Montana: A State of Extremes” about a very dark time in Montana’s history.  At the  beginning of WW I, Woodrow Wilson formed a National Council of Defense and asked each state and each county in the state to help with war propaganda, helping in recruitment of troops, and getting people to buy Liberty Bonds.  The Montana Council of Defense went whole hog into this endeavor and was especially keen on finding “slackers” and “draft dodgers”.  The Governor of Montana, Sam Stewart called a special session of the legislature in part to make the Montana Council of Defense a legal body with funding by the state.  The legislature also passed the Sedition Act and the Criminal Syndicalism Act, which the federal government would use as a model for the federal Sedition Act which was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917. This act was probably one of the harshest anti-speech laws ever passed in the United States. Continue reading

“It Was a Two Dog Night…”

DSC00082 Last night Daphne wriggled into her long johns and stretch corduroys; laced up her knee high boots; threw on her down coat; adjusted her trapper’s hat; chose the red gloves for a bit of color and finally wrapped her face in a long grey scarf.  Thusly encased in wool, down, and fur and despite feeling a bit like a the Michelin woman, she briskly walked to the garage, pulled the car out and drove to town to meet Cowboy Clay at the watering hole.

Clay (clad only in an insulated shirt and a Carhartt vest) laughed at her get up.  Gladys the waitress yelled, “Don’t pay him any mind.  That’s the way I dressed up today too to walk to work.”

Daphne sidled up to Clay as Claudia slid a Pinot Grigio  her way. She smiled sweetly and replied, “I enjoy feeling my feet, fingers, and face, that’s all.  And don’t start with the “Cowboy Up” malarkey.  It’s 5 degrees.  It’s fricking cold.”

Just then Sonny breezed in and Claudia slid a Cab his way. “Fricking cold,” he announced, much to Daphne’s glee, “Looks like it might be a two dog night.”

Daphne knew this was a cue to ask Sonny to tell another tall tale as he liked to do.  “So what’s a “two dog night?”

“Well, I heard a story from a friend of mine.  A bunch of hunters went out hunting on this 200,000 acre ranch far from any town.  By late afternoon everybody was back at the ranch house except two of their party and their dog.  The rest of them looked for them until dark, but then there was nothing to do until morning.  So the next morning, they set out and finally found them in their vehicle; alive but really really cold. The one hunter said, “It was a two dog night, but we only had one dog.”

Clay laughed and said he knew an old sheepherder.  Clay had asked him what he did when the temperature dropped below zero. The old guy said, “I just pulled up another dog.”

“I wonder what a three dog night is?” Daphne mused as Daphne often did.

“Well, I know it’s a band,” said Sonny.

“From the Seventies,” Clay offered.

Everybody nodded and tried to remember any of their songs and strangely enough were all at a loss for words.

“Well, I guess it’s time for you to get out that I Pad and find out,” said Sonny.

This is what makes nowadays a bit different than the old days when you had to wait for somebody to walk in the door who knew the answer to the question.  In this case it would be one of the music experts like Cal or Thelma, but they were nowhere near.  So Daphne got out the I Pad and looked them up.

“Yep, formed in 1968 and had a lot of hits like “One” and “Joy to the World.”

“That was a b.s. song, said Clay,  “Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea. What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Maybe they were influenced by the Beatles.  You know since we all live in a yellow submarine we would want the fishes to be happy,” Sonny theorized.

“That’s funny,” Daphne said, “We’re having shrimp stir fry tonight.”

This is when everybody paused and knew it was time to go home.

“Says here that the name of the band comes from an article one of the band members read about how the Aborigines crawled into a cave and bedded down with a wild dog, a Dingo.  But when it went below zero, they had to find three Dingos.  Hence, it would be a three dog night, “Daphne related. So what would happen tonight as it is surely is going to drop below zero?”

“I guess I’ll take the dog,” Clay smiled.

“Well, then, I guess I’ll take the electric blanket,” she grinned.

“Well, Not Exactly”

2013_12_01_08_29_05.pdf000 “Ready to Run”

The temperature was falling fast as Daphne made her way past a cow who had just had her calf and was munching contentedly on some after birth while her newborn shivered in the grass.  Trying to get rid of that very natural, but let’s face it, gross image, Daphne high tailed it down the ranch lane and sped into town.

She entered the Saloon and threw off her coat and trapper hat.  There was nobody at the bar except Glenn and Gwelda who were finishing up some dinner.

Gwelda: “Well you’re dressed for winter.”

Daphne: “It’s 25 f***ing degrees. It’s not Spring. I’m sick of the cold and sick of talking about the weather.  Let’s change the subject.”

With that she opened up her Wall Street Journal and began to read.

Daphne:  “Here’s an article on ‘Noah’ and building the Ark. I’m looking forward to it seeing it.  Should be good.”

Gwelda: “Well I sure hope it’s accurate–biblical, that is.  I know the Bible and those animals made their own way into the Ark.  He didn’t gather them up.  They came by themselves.  So they just better tell it like it really was.” Continue reading

Shut Eye

Sunset

(This is an ongoing series that takes place in The Grand Saloon, a kind of bar at the edge of the frontier much like the Star Wars bar in the first movie.  There are the regular cast of characters as well as alien visitors from planets such as Hollywood, King of Prussia, PA, and Billings, MT.  The first in the series is a piece called “Old Blisters”.  The second one is called “Fun”.  The third is “12 Churches and 5 Bars.”  You can start there or read this one first. )

The days are getting longer and so the drive in to Little Twig at the end of the work day is no longer in the dark but in the waning hours of sunlight.  This means the deer who love to ambush cars at dusk will be lurking behind the trees just before the bridge over the Boulder River.  But Daphne is on to them.  She slows down from the 55 mph speed limit and looks from side to side and, sure enough, three does come bounding across the road.  The weather has been skittering back and forth for days between just above zero to below zero.  The snow has fallen in large wet clumps unlike the usual powder that blesses Montana winters.  Then it melts.  Then it freezes.  And for the last day and a half it’s now started to rain.  And now it’s cold again.  And so the road has patches of black ice.

Daphne glides to a crawl as the deer slip and slide across her path.  All survive and she drives on past the neon sign at the Lazy J Motel that has just come on as night begins.  

Daphne hitches the car up on small leftover pile of snow and sloshes through a foot of water at the curb.  She  straightens herself up and breezes into the saloon.

The joint is jumping because it is free pizza night.  Each year from early February to the end of March, the bar serves free pizza on Wednesday nights  to reward the locals for their loyalty and, well, to try and sell drinks at a slow time of the year.   Of course, some people who rarely come to the place manage to take advantage of the free food.  There was a bit of a kerfuffle years ago when they first started the free stuff because people would bring their kids and try to get away without ordering anything to drink.  So they had to put the keebosh on that and make this an “adults only” kind of deal.  Thelma and Will are in the middle of the bar.  Cal and Carl are down closer to the table with the pizza on it.  Sonny, Soot, and Clay are at the other end.  Daphne slides on to the only bar stool left and throws off her puffer coat.

Claudia sets a glass of Savignon Blanc in front of Daphne. 

Daphne:  “A little slick out there. ” Continue reading

12 Churches and 5 Bars

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It was another cold, dark, and howling night in Little Twig, Montana.  No longer below zero, the wind had picked up again and slapped Daphne in the butt as she literally blew into the saloon.  At the end of the bar in his usual spot stood Cowboy Clay with his Chardonnay.  Carl nursed a whiskey a seat down from where Clay stood and Soot was to the right of Clay also sipping a whiskey.  One bar stool next to Carl was open and Daphne slid in and threw off her long down coat.  Claudia had already poured her a glass of  Sauvignon Blanc and set it down in front of her.  Daphne pulled out her cell phone and placed it on the bar.

Daphne:  I waiting for one more call and then I’m done for the day.

Soot:  I’m getting rid of my cell phone.  We never needed them before.  Why should we now?

Clay:  Well what happens when you get stuck in a ditch?

Soot:  Well, maybe I wouldn’t have gone anywhere where I’d get stuck with no way of telling anybody where I am.  Maybe these phones just cause people to be reckless.  What did ya think about that?

Carl:  You could be right, Soot.

Clay: I don’t know.  I think people are going to be stupid whether they’ve got a phone or not.

With that the first round of the Philosophy Club finished and it was on to the next round. Continue reading

Express Yourself – An Evie Taloney Movie Observation Worth Ropin

There was a song written in 1970-71 by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band that summed up a good part of the 1970s.  It was “Express Yourself”.  It said “Whatever you do, do it good.”  “It’s not what you look like when you’re doing what you’re doing.  It’s what you’re doin when you’re doin what you look like you’re doin.”

As we approach the Oscars, I can’t help thinking about how perfectly David O Russell’s “American Hustle” captured the 1970s with all it’s gaudy messiness.  The film’s characters and costumes and art direction and cinematography and, of course, direction help capture and amplify the strange whirlwind that blew through the 70s.

Here is the costume designer,  Michael Wilkinson, describing how he went about the design of the costumes.  He remarks that the 70s were more about expressing yourself than “looking your best”.

Women were coming into their own and becoming bolder about their sexuality.  While still trapped in hair curlers the size of lemonade cans, they also began to let their hair down and lowered their necklines.  And I remember the color, oh the color.

Wilkinson had as much fun with the men’s costumes as he did the women’s.  In the 1970s men also felt freer to “express themselves” even while they too seemed trapped by their hair; Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld carefully applied comb over and Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso permed-look hair took a lot of time and effort.   Jeremy Renner’s silver/gold tux lights up the screen as does Renner’s New Jersey mayor with a pompadour that takes a lot of gel and spray.  He’s a sunny big-hearted character who dresses the part of the would be savior of his city.

At the heart of the story is Christian Bale’s Irving and Bale dazzled me.  As Wilkinson remarks in the video, Bale’s lead character is awash in “paisleys and patterns” in his suits, scarves, shirts, and ties.  He carefully constructs a persona for his hustler and Bale loses himself completely in Irving.  Amazingly, Irving doesn’t see what we see when he looks in the mirror or when Amy Adams’ Sydney looks at him.  We see a paunchy balding slime ball with an ID bracelet.  They see a clever and dapper cultured entrepreneur out to have some fun as do the other characters in this wild frenzied ride through the heart of the darkness of America; a land born of hustlers and con men who still think of themselves all as masters of the universe and kings of the world.

It is a story about deceptions and lies.  But these are mostly small time cons while a much bigger con was starting to be hatched as wages stagnated never to rise again for the average worker.  By the end of the 1970s when this film takes place, hard times were the norm and what was coming was the era of “greed is good” that hasn’t yet let up. I lived in New York during this time.   So, as Cindi Lauper sang “When the working day was done, girls just want to have fun.”    That’s what I did.  And as the designer Michael Wilkinson concludes, it’s about a time when you just didn’t give a damn.  You just wanted “to try stuff”.  For a time we were out of the box called adulthood and we had some fun.

P.S. I hope the film and it’s designers win lots of awards. It is the mirror opposite of the lovely, funny and sad “Nebraska” which should also win gobs of awards.  Maybe that’s why there shouldn’t be any awards at all.  How can one really choose what’s best?