Thursday, May 29, 1997
It's probably fitting that my continuum of venting
against Willie Brown should elicit responses along the lines of: Okay, wise
guy, you're quick to criticize the mayor, but he's hampered by problems
and federal guidelines not of his making, and he's at least making an attempt
at confronting them. Running your mouth isn't the same as putting yourself
out there on the hot seat. Exactly what would you do in his place?
What's Next, Wise Guy?
Well, ahem, my proper place is indeed on the sidelines, as you cleverly
imply, dutifully speaking truth to power, as the received tablets have always
bidden my kind to do. It's a difficult position in its own right, as here
I've been convinced that for the past year I've been prescribing for Willie
the boldest and most immutable of remedies. But no matter. We can utilize
my limited capacity to begin anew, and truly there's no better time (trust
me on this) than the present.
Whether the stadium-mall propositions spiral to their rightful doom or prevail,
this election campaign will have been a wake-up call for Brown. If he was
unable to face the facts before, this example of the extent to which government
is hamstrung by the bullying of the private sector will leave its mark.
Brown's politics may have become addled in recent years, but he's a far
cry from obtuse, and within that distinction lies a considerable ability
to make the extrapolation to the larger arena which dictates his local options.
He should by now have sensed that the New Democrat inclinations he began
indulging in the Sacramento of the 1980s will not withstand the scrutiny
given them presently in San Francisco. Whether he is yet entertaining thoughts
of shedding his fidelity to the musty cadaver of the party of Roosevelt,
he will soon be forced to act as if he has. And he no longer has the luxury
to make that choice alone -- the city he represents, and its symbolic representation
to the rest of the country, has already forced his hand.
* * *
In a little more than two months Brown will be faced with the detritus of
Clinton's welfare reform program. He has begun mobilizing for the avalanche
which will bestow the onus of SSI, food stamps and AFDC upon financially
beleaguered states and municipalities. One couldn't have envisioned a more
salutary moment for Brown to broach what is obviously his strongest suit,
one which no other party operative could remotely parlay: The capability
to tell Clinton to lodge it where the sun don't shine -- and make it stick.
That is the fulcrum on which the perception of Brown's power turns, and
make no mistake, it is substantial. The nexus of the nation's urban ganglia
solidifies around Brown's persona and the policies he effects here.
Inertia and amnesia about the core beliefs which initially brought him to
prominence are the crux of Brown's current dilemma, as those of us at lesser
remove have deciphered. Combined with his brittle self-absorption and concern
for image, the self-described boldness of his initiatives has been nothing
which caused alarm within the milieu of his wealthy friends. The contentiousness,
slipshod planning and exaggerated expectations of the stadium-mall, however,
have clearly jarred Brown, and one might expect that the appeal of privatization
which drove the approach of his first year in office will be less appetizing
and comforting. Now that he is forced to scramble to stem the fallout from
the disintegration of the federal safety net, he will doubtless be further
disappointed as the response of local businesses to the hiring of welfare
recipients parallels corporate disinterest nationwide.
Intrepidly is the only way Brown can move now. And that pretty much forecloses
on the methodology of deal-making for which he is most esteemed. There has
remained no basis for an appeal to Clinton since the supreme conciliator
Dick Morris dealt the remnants of the Democratic Party out of existence.
* * *
So Willie tells him to shove it. What then, wise guy? Are we supposed to
secede from the country or something?
Well, I'm delighted that you ask. And, no, there's no need for such a formal
disavowal. We are, after all, already a de facto city-state, as befits our
reputation as the conscience of the United States. The Willie Brown we thought
we elected (if he was only a projection of our own desires, we'll know soon
enough) merely carries on that tradition. But understandably, dear readers,
you're impatient to learn how he should proceed.
He does it in this way. He calls Ted Kennedy and he says, Senator, I know
you've been thinking about the year 2000. You want in, and why wouldn't
you? All the elements are in place and converging: the drama of the millennium
as a backdrop to the political crisis we are experiencing; the realization
that this is your last opportunity, the swan song toward which your entire
career has tended; the savvy, perspective and courage that the past ten
years have provided you. Best of all, you don't owe anyone anything, and
you've got nothing more to prove. You've got to do it, and I suspect you
know that, don't you? Moreover, you should take it outside the party, stand
apart, rather than expend your energies deflecting the resentment of Gore
and our latest bogus populist, Gephardt. Yes, that means a third party,
one that will take away Gephardt's and Wellstone's followers as well as
Perot's, other independents and even some conservatives. Tell me you're
in and I'll go to work here. I'll deliver California or I'll die trying.
And I'll start by cutting the legs out from under Clinton. I'll be in the
sucker's face every day, and I'll get my rich friends to siphon off his
business supporters. I'll use the 10-point program you delivered in 1996
at the Center for National Policy as a guide to the first steps the country
has to take. It's a blueprint I can sell.
The caution, of course, is that I'm not sure the voice I hear above is Brown's,
and I'll bet you're not sure either. The frightening thing is that, at best,
it may only be a measure of our own thwarted longing for change. Only Brown
himself can provide that answer, and all indications are that he's running
out of time.
--Copyright John Hutchison 1997
People in Tokyo about a hundred years ago had a sure-fire
method for beating the heat: theatrical terror. As an old man, the novelist
Tanizaki Jun'ichiro recalled boyhood visits to the Kabuki Theater where
dramas of betrayal and revenge froze his blood and even the dark interior
of the hall swirled gusts of wind "as cool as mint" up his sleeves
and down the neck of his kimono. Better still were open-air performances
late at night, where he shivered as puffs of steam rose like ghosts from
nearby sewage ditches and the brightly lit stage -- the only light to pierce
the darkness -- revealed horribly mutilated victims and gruesome murderers.
In this spirit, I visited San Francisco's Japantown in search of relief
during a recent hot spell. In a nod to summers spent in Tokyo, I stopped
first at Mizuno for sanshoku -- three small dishes overflowing with
noodles and vegetables in a combination of colors and textures, accompanied
by a tangy dipping sauce. Only lack of time, and perhaps a little uncharacteristic
prudence, prevented me from topping off the nostalgia trip with a bowl of
sweet-beans-and-syrup over shaved ice. Then I headed over to the Kabuki
to see the most frightening movie I could think of, The Lost World: Jurassic
The beginning was promising. The house lights switched off suddenly, and
bone-rattling roars beset the almost entirely male audience. The noisy onslaught
continued for several minutes as late arrivals groped their way frantically
toward empty seats. Silence followed, broken by a few nervous titters. Finally,
music burst forth from an invisible orchestra, and a red-and-white advertisement
for soft drinks flashed onto the screen. And I realized that the cold sensation
in my chest came not from the overly active air-conditioning system but
from a deep foreboding that had nothing to do with dinosaurs.
First of all, for anyone who has managed to miss the hype surrounding this
movie (including an extremely sophisticated "official" web site
that rivals certain imaginative CD-ROM games in complexity), The Lost
World is Steven Spielberg's summer blockbuster. Despite poor-to-worse
reviews, it opened to huge crowds on Memorial Day weekend, setting box office
records and leading to predictions that it would earn $1 billion for Universal
Pictures. It really isn't very good. The plot, which doesn't even bother
to take up the leads that Spielberg's 1993 Jurassic Park left dangling,
begins with the revelation that scientists have been nurturing a previously
undisclosed dinosaur colony on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. Two
groups converge on the site, one (the good guys) to document the activities
of the big critters; the other (a motley bunch of greedy capitalists, big
game hunters, and wildlife experts) to round them up and haul them off to
a zoo in San Diego. This ménage à trois ends up with every
man -- and every politically correct woman and dinosaur -- for himself,
and with the U.S. Navy protecting them all from one another.
It's definitely a scary movie. I did indeed recoil in response to unforeseen
ambushes by men or beasts, and I gripped the arms of my chair to white-knuckle
tightness during the (sometimes literally) cliff-hanging scenes. But it's
even scarier on another level. I can tolerate its unrelenting violence,
and I don't particularly mind its dramatized comicbook feel, which pops
up in many of today's Hollywood films. I certainly don't object to its silly
plot. But I regard as pernicious the techniques chosen to present the story
-- the director's point of view, if you will.
Spielberg employs two highly effective tactics that reinforce each other.
One is a kind of auditory aggression. He assaults members of the audience
with a continuous confusion of deafening noises that seem to explode unpredictably
from any and all directions. Like someone in the middle of a battlefield
that is being overrun by the enemy as shells burst on all sides and panicking
soldiers mill about, a person experiencing this film in a movie theater
is kept constantly off guard, threatened by the almost unbearable din, and
unsure what to do for protection.
Surely, this is the goal of a well-made thriller! Perhaps. But it also describes
a process that reduces independent human beings into pure reactors with
no will of their own. In this case, they then become responsive to Spielberg's
second tactic, the way he presents the visual images on the screen. We rarely
meet adults at eye level. Instead, we see them in aerial shots that emphasize
their puniness and vulnerability in the face of arrant danger. Or more likely,
we view them (often in closeup) from below, from the perspective of a nine-year-old.
Their actions may be inexplicable, stupid, and cruel, but they loom so large
and all-powerful that resistance is out of the question. In this way, the
camera draws young viewers into the story by re-creating the relationship
that always exists, at least potentially, between parent and child.
But it also re-creates the relationship between ruler and ruled in an authoritarian
society like the one depicted in Spielberg's 1993 film, Schindler's List,
where both young and old were at the mercy of the Nazis. The historically
based description in one film has become a way of life -- the only way of
life -- in another. Oskar Schindler, in the last days of the war, wished
that he had given away his entire fortune to save a few more Jews, forgetting
that his wealth and position made his political actions possible. Similarly
Spielberg, in The Lost World, ignores the fact that the power of
organization enables people of good will to confront evil. There are many
ways to tell a story, depending on the storyteller's vision. In Spielberg's,
there is no room for politics. He has chosen to create a world where, even
though the film itself stumbles to an upbeat ending, the little people can
only watch helplessly as everything of value careens toward ultimate destruction
by the sadists and numskulls in power.The Lost World is a statement
of defeat, not a call for protest. In a work intended for consumption by
as many people as possible ("Be a part of history," the ads say),
it is irresponsible not to calculate the impact it will have along with
the income it will produce.
Many years ago, I left another Spielberg film -- the beloved E.T.
-- furious at its depiction of adults as storm troopers. With the withering
wisdom of a twelve-year-old, my son protested, "Mom, it's only a movie."
But something that is seen by millions of people, especially millions of
young people, is never just a movie. At that level, we are not talking merely
about artistic expression. We are talking about a worldview in the making.
Now that's a chilling thought.
--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997