Friday, July 3, 2015

American Conservatives Have Only One Principle

In his book The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank observed that only one thing always holds true about American conservatives: “The interests of business are central and defining, while every other aspect or strategy of the movement is mutable and disposable. Indeed, even the cult of the free market, which appears to be such a solid, fixed element of the business mind, is malleable as well, with conservatism handing out the bailouts as soon as the going gets tough on Wall Street.
“These mutations are particularly remarkable when considered as the statements of a movement that claims to ground itself in ‘tradition.’ One year, the working-class, values-voting ‘hard hats’ are trumpeted as all-American heroes; on another occasion, they are an uppity canaille requiring a whiff of grapeshot. Thinly veiled racism elects a host of Republican free marketeers; soon afterward, the system’s big thinkers can be heard proclaiming racism to be the great enemy of free markets. Patriotism is a virtue under all circumstances — until the time comes to declare the nation-state a relic of the protectionist past. Combat veterans are to be venerated — until they run for office as liberal Democrats. Even communism itself becomes perfectly acceptable when, as in Red China, it mutates into a way of enforcing market discipline.
“The needs of business stand like a rock; all else is convenience, opportunism, a bit of bushwah generated by some focus group and forgotten the instant it is no longer convincing. Fundamentally amoral, capitalism is loyal to no people, no region, no heroes, really, once they have exhausted their usefulness — not even to the nation whose flag the wingers pretend to worship.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Swing!" A Brisk Trip on the Light Fantastic

Jordan Cyphert and Megan Farley in the Little Theatre's "Swing!" News-Progress photo by Keith Stewart
By Dan Hagen
The scene: an urban night club during World War II, and if the atmosphere is particularly realistic, that’s because the bricks and the loading dock are the actual back wall of the Little Theatre, cunningly incorporated into the scenery.
More than Jen Price-Fick’s set is cunningly done in this musical, Swing!, directed and choreographed by Amber Mak and Todd Rhoades.
Unencumbered by plot in any but the most abstract sense, Swing! swings from bebop to scat singing to torch songs at a brisk pace that never flags.
Sound problems lost us Brady Miller’s Boogie Woogie Country during the dress rehearsal, but those ought to be fixed when the show opens today.
Colorfully costumed by Jeannine La Bate (orange shirts, blue fringed cowboy jackets, the works), this show is all song and — particularly — dance, and as my friend Bart Rettberg pointed out, a great deal could have gone wrong with the show that didn’t. The dancing is furious yet fairly flawless.
When this show opened on Broadway in 1999, the people who could remember these song and dance numbers first-hand were already in their 60s. Many are now gone, a fact that has to shift the reception of the show somewhat. We’re looking at a lost world being evoked.
I think two of the songs bookend World War II particularly well. One is the high-octane delivery of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by Megan Farley, Danielle Davila and Chloe Kounadis, a number particularly fixed in time that is nevertheless curiously timeless. The other is I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Lee Ann Payne and illustrated with a ballet by Cameron Edris and Davila. The bittersweet reality of wartime loss remains haunting in that song.
I want to single out three of those dancers — Edris, Miller and Daniel Gold. They rocket across that small stage, leapfrogging people, backflipping and self-trampolining spread-eagled in a try at defying gravity. Edris and Davila also charm in the pantomime-like Dancers in Love.
Lyrics aren’t always necessary. Jordan Cyphert, so naturally sunny, slinks well past sundown in an Apache dance with Farley to the tune of Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers’ 1939 jazz standard Harlem Nocturne (you know, the Mike Hammer theme). And the singers and dancers take a break to let the onstage orchestra shine in the jazz standard Caravan. Adam Blakey and Robert Brooks have a couple of fine saxophone solos during the evening.
John Stephens and Corbin Williams take the period love songs in easy stride. While Williams is sweetly cynical in Throw That Girl Around, the clarion-clear Stephens sings the lovely Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein number All the Things You Are.
The dance finale, with all the dancers popping like corn, is one crowd-pleasing highlight of the show. Another more intimate one is a pair of favorite done-her-wrong songs played as a dialogue between youth and a sadder, wiser maturity.
Colleen Johnson belts out the great torch song Cry Me a River (really written in the 1950s but perfectly at home here) and is answered by Payne with what her mamma done told her in the equally lyrical Blues in the Night. When Johnson hammers the “NOW you say you love me…” lyric, she finds us a frisson.
You know, the last six decades haven’t only seen corn and soybeans blooming in the Central Illinois summer sun, but professional theatre too, thanks to the Little Theatre in Sullivan.
Art in the rural Midwest. We tend to forget what a rare, exotic and delicious crop that is, if only because the unlikely longevity of that theater has made us so familiar with it.
But we shouldn’t forget that. The day-to-day courage of theatrical professionals always impresses me. They work hard. Their lives are bright and busy and lonely, their defeats public and their triumphs ephemeral. They take risks we probably wouldn’t, enduring chancy incomes and itinerant existences to fulfill the incandescent promise of their own talent. And they share the resulting light and warmth with us a dozen times a week on stage, in the children’s show and the main musical, all for nothing more than a Visa charge and an ovation.
However any particular evening’s performance goes, I always appreciate that, and wanted to take this opportunity to say so.
Incidental intelligence: Swing!, a musical conceived by Paul Kelly, spotlights the music of the Swing era of jazz (1930s–1946) and artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, and continues through July 12.
The show has lighting design by Michael Cole, stage management by Jeremy Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long. The performers include Danielle Jackman, Mollyanne Nunn and Collin Sanderson, and the musicians include Colin Rambert, Erik Opland, Dan Wendelken, Austin Seybert and Chris Hartley.
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Six That Should Be Seen

Six movies many should see, but most have not. Here they are in chronological order:

A Face in the Crowd (1957): Andy Griffith made monstrous by celebrity culture in a film that suggests the vast dangers swimming just beneath the surface of American triviality and anti-intellectual self-satisfaction.
Lonesome Rhodes: “This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!”
Marcia Jeffries: “Sheep?”
Lonesome Rhodes: “Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers — everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be ‘Fighters for Fuller.’ They’re mine! I own ‘em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ‘em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I’m gonna be the power behind the president — and you'll be the power behind me!”

The Americanization of Emily (1964): A very funny film that takes the glorification of war very seriously. After the laughs settle down, the insights remain unsettling. Way ahead of its time and — in our bellicose, warrior-worshipping society — still ahead of its time.
Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Madison: “You American-haters bore me to tears, Miss Barham. I’ve dealt with Europeans all my life. I know all about us parvenus from the States who come over here and race around your old cathedral towns with our cameras and Coca-Cola bottles... Brawl in your pubs, paw at your women, and act like we own the world. We overtip, we talk too loud, we think we can buy anything with a Hershey bar. I’ve had Germans and Italians tell me how politically ingenuous we are, and perhaps so. But we haven't managed a Hitler or a Mussolini yet. I've had Frenchmen call me a savage because I only took half an hour for lunch. Hell, Ms. Barham, the only reason the French take two hours for lunch is because the service in their restaurants is lousy. The most tedious lot are you British. We crass Americans didn't introduce war into your little island. This war, Miss Barham, to which we Americans are so insensitive, is the result of 2,000 years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity. Don't blame it on our Coca-Cola bottles. Europe was a going brothel long before we came to town.”

The President’s Analyst (1967): Does the American political system ever give you the feeling that you’re the only sane person left standing? A film for those born with the gift of laughter, and the sense that the world is mad.
Bing Quantrill: “Hey, Dad. You want the Magnum .357 in the house?”
Wynn Quantrill: “Darn it, Bing. I told you not to play around with my guns. No, I do not want that in the house. That is my car gun. My house gun is already in the house. Now, put that back in the glove compartment, and don’t let me catch you fooling with my guns again.”
Bing Quantrill: “I’m sorry, Dad.”
Wynn Quantrill: “Great kid.”
Dr. Sidney Schaefer: “I thought you said you were an accountant.”
Wynn Quantrill: “I am.”
Dr. Sidney Schaefer: “Why do you have all these guns around, then?”
Wynn Quantrill: “You know.”

Network (1976): The madcap film that presciently predicted the contemporary TV “news” environment by springboarding from a simple premise — what happens to a society when profit trumps truth?
Howard Beale: [laughing to himself] “But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We’ll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker's house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he's going to win. We'll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in ILLUSIONS, man! None of it is real! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds... We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even THINK like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! WE are the illusion!”

The Lives of Others (2006): Big Brother sees all, hears all — including existential and moral examples that may shake the foundations of his own inhumanity.
Anton Grubitz: “Did you know that there are just five types of artists? Your guy, Dreyman, is a Type 4, a ‘hysterical anthropocentrist.’ Can’t bear being alone, always talking, needing friends. That type should never be brought to trial. They thrive on that. Temporary detention is the best way to deal with them. Complete isolation and no set release date. No human contact the whole time, not even with the guards. Good treatment, no harassment, no abuse, no scandals, nothing they could write about later. After 10 months, we release. Suddenly, that guy won’t cause us any more trouble. Know what the best part is? Most type 4s we've processed in this way never write anything again. Or paint anything, or whatever artists do. And that without any use of force. Just like that. Kind of like a present.”

A Single Man (2009): The prospect of death becomes a lens that transmutes despair into a vivid vision of the wonders just under the surface of quotidian human existence.
George Falconer: “Waking up begins with saying ‘am’ and ‘now.’ For the past eight months waking up has actually hurt. The cold realization that I am still here slowly sets in.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The First Time I Saw the Flash

The first time I saw the Flash as a solo feature I was 5 years old, at a newsstand in the spring of 1960, looking at the cover of the 113th issue of his comic book.
Really, it was the 9th issue following a four-issue, two-year tryout run in Showcase comics. The numbering of the title had continued from the end of the original Flash’s run in 1949 because high numbers were, at the time, thought to signal a successful comic book, one worth reading.
And this one was, featuring the initial appearance of the Trickster. He loomed large on the cover, running on air and mocking the earthbound superhero, and I’m sure the blond, harlequin-costumed villain was what drew my brightness-fascinated young eye and my dime. He was caped, yellow-clad, flying — three things I loved.
I understood the appeal of the hero — whom I’d first seen with the Justice League of America — on an equally instinctive level. The superabundant energy of little children spills over into a love of running, and the Flash could run anywhere, accomplish anything, with his speed. Up the sides of buildings, across the surface tension of oceans and right through walls he raced, leaving behind strobe-effect images or an elegant jet stream or — if he cared to — a spin-generated, full-blown tornado.
He could whip the wheels off a getaway car in a second, while it was in motion, and the man never got winded or even raised his voice. About the only thing the Flash couldn’t do was fly, and even that restriction seemed arbitrary and iffy.
The obscure scientific facts and historical references in the comic also whizzed by me, because I was really too young to understand the title at the time. Mighty Mouse was more my speed.
For example, I remember puzzling over the title page of the second story, The Man Who Claimed the Earth. Alien beings who had once posed as Greek gods returned to seize our planet, and the Flash fended them off alone without too much trouble (Earth averaged at least a half-dozen alien invasions and visitations per month in DC titles back then). That was satisfying — then as now, I like my superheroes to be effortlessly competent. But how, I wondered, could this “Po-Siden” character and the Flash be as big as continents, towering over the globe on the title page of the tale?
So symbolism escaped me, but the sleek elegance of Carmine Infantino’s art did not. It was contemporary, clean-lined and sunlit, as optimistic and reassuring as the stories by John Broome. Infantino made the impossible seem pleasantly plausible, somehow.
“The mature Infantino drew everything — a hidden city of scientific gorillas, a harlequin committing crimes with toys, Flash strapped to a giant boomerang — as if he believed absolutely in its existence,” observed Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs in their book The Comic Book Heroes. “But Infantino’s art could so fully evoke the quiet of a small-town afternoon or the cool of a shaded lawn that readers could forgive even plots full of beatniks, schoolteachers and singing idols. Even those of us who resented, as kids, finding Kid Flash stories in the backs of so many Flash comics now find them hypnotically nostalgic.”

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Empowerment and Super-Empowerment

The Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four. Art by Stuart Immonen
The relations between the sexes still leave something to be desired in superhero comics.
For example, in a 2007 issue of Ultimate Fantastic Four, Reed Richards has been abusively addressed by his father and refuses to discuss it with Sue Storm. As he walks away, Sue forms a force field and slams Reed into it face first. Hardy har har.
Reverse the situation. If Sue had asked for privacy and Reed had instead slammed her into a force field wall, the readers would be livid. As well they should be. Writer Mike Carey appears to have confused empowering women with turning them into bullies.
Yes, Sue was a something of a shrinking violet when the Fantastic Four began in 1961, but overcompensation is not the answer.
And yet the attitudes of all the superhero comics in 1961 were not as retrograde as people think. Check out the Julius Schwartz titles at DC — Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom and Hawkman. Iris West, Carol Ferris and Jean Loring were all independent career woman focused on the own accomplishments, not on their boyfriends and certainly not on the weird costumed heroes who operated at the margins of their lives. Hawkgirl and Hawkman were married, and full partners in crimefighting.
And not one of them needed to slam her man’s face into a wall to make a point. The real point that should be kept in mind, I think, is mutual respect.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The First Time I Saw the Justice League

The first time I saw the Justice League of America I was 5 years old, at a newsstand in the spring of 1960, looking at the cover of Brave and the Bold 29.
This second appearance of the team was a first for me in several ways — the first time I saw a number of soon-to-be iconic superheroes, and the first time I was introduced to the thrilling concept of a superhero team. I’d missed their first, instantly-sold-out appearance.
The Martian Manhunter I recognized from the first issue of Detective Comics I’d purchased, number 277, two months before. I considered him to be kind of a Superman, but green.
I probably also recognized Aquaman from his back-up features in Superman family magazines. But the thrilling, brightly colored figures of the Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman were delightfully new to me.
This was cover-dated May 1960. By July 1960, I’d be buying my first issues of Flash and Wonder Woman and by December 1960, my first issue of Green Lantern.
As if five cover-featured superheroes weren’t enough, the issue also offered some of the attractions that could be seen in DC’s sleek science fiction titles like Strange Adventures — multicolored interstellar dinosaurs and, joy of joys, a giant yellow robot with an alien criminal inside his glass tummy.
The fact that the robot also seemed to have a ray gun for a penis is something of which I was not consciously aware.
The plot was, to my young mind, perfect. This Flash guy was clearly the hero in the pin spotlight, since he broke free first and tackled the future supercriminal alone. The Flash had kicked off the new wave of immense popularity for superheroes, and DC was aware of it. Martian Manhunter and Aquaman teamed up next, then Wonder Woman and Green Lantern.
Finally the heroes tackled the villain as a team, but were turned against each other by an illusion-casting beam. Yikes!
Yet who should come hurtling out of the sky but Superman! The Man of Steel grabbed the robot by the feet and jammed him into the earth. The whole menace wiped out in a mere three panels — that’s my guy! I hadn’t even been aware that my beloved Superman was a part of this team. I was in heaven.
By the way, Batman was around on the sidelines but did nothing. At the time, I probably figured that Batman’s lack of super powers rendered him useless for any task other than calling in Superman for a kind of WMD drone strike. It’s probably difficult for today’s fans to realize that Batman was starting to seem old hat and unspectacular compared to these shiny new rivals, and that the sales of his two titles were sinking.
What I didn’t know was that it was the internecine warfare between DC’s editors that kept Superman and Batman in the background for the first several appearances of the JLA
I would have been thrilled beyond containment if I had known that this team was a space-age iteration of one from the Dark Ages of the 1940s, the Justice Society of America, and that even this cover idea had been used before by the earlier team.
To a child of 5, a decade ago might as well be a time when dinosaurs roamed the planet.
The entire subsequent history of comic books — and of much of American popular culture — is channeled directly through the three Brave and Bold tryout issues for JLA. Because publisher Martin Goodman was watching how eagerly kids like me plunked down their dimes for those issues. He had an idea for editor Stan Lee…

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On the Co-Emergence of Virtue and Happiness

“Virtue, until its very recent revival, has sounded old-fashioned or even prissy to our modern ears. Epictetus’s teachings on virtue had nothing to do with being a goody-goody or a doormat. Virtue, happiness and tranquility are not separate experiences but co-emergent states.
“While he advocated being good for its own sake, his practical observation was that a virtuous life leads to inner coherence and outward harmony. There is great relief in being morally consistent: The soul relaxes, and we can thus efficiently move forward in our endeavors, as Epictetus would say, ‘without hindrance.’
“Inner confusion and evil itself spring from ambiguity. Epictetus coaches us to call forth the best we have by making our personal moral code explicit to ourselves. Freedom, ease and confidence are won as our outward actions gradually conform to this code.” —  Sharon Lebell in “The Art of Living: Epictetus”