Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween 2009

Halloween, or Samhain if you prefer, is upon us again. As much as I like to engage in the fun of costumes and candy, as I get longer in the tooth I also find October 31st and the days preceding it to be a time for reflection as well. This year, I’ve been thinking about stories and the ways in which the act of consuming them has become a ritual for many of us in the way we celebrate Halloween.

When I was young, network television would run animated specials each holiday. Nearly every year around Halloween It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and Garfield’s Halloween Adventure would air and nearly every year I would watch them. Now, thanks to DVD and Youtube, I’m able to rewatch these specials and I’m struck by the subtle subversive themes that are woven into them.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown tells the story of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts characters and their Halloween adventures. As other characters go off to enjoy the festivities of the night, Linus spends the evening sitting in a pumpkin patch, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to show up. The Great Pumpkin is described in the same terms as Santa Claus; an imaginary being who delivers presents to well behaved children and who will reveal himself to the most fervent believers each year.

Rewatching the program, I realized that Charles Schulz used his special not just to entertain children but to actually make a statement against faith. That may seem like a stretch but consider this: When Charlie Brown compares The Great Pumpkin to Santa Claus, he says, “We’re obviously separated by denominational differences.” When Linus encounters ridicule for his beliefs he says, “There are three things I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin,” and later admits in a letter to the Great Pumpkin that “If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” This is a stunning admission that speaks truth about our social traditions.

Throughout the middle of the story, Linus and Sally wait in the pumpkin patch, with Linus proclaiming that all he has do is be sincere enough in his belief in the Great Pumpkin to achieve enlightenment and revelation. At the end of the story, when the Great Pumpkin fails to show, Sally realizes how foolish she’s been and proclaims, “Trick-or-treat comes only once a year and I missed it by sitting in a pumpkin patch with a blockhead!” In other words, she spent the whole time abstaining from the real fun to be had while waiting for an imaginary figure to show up. And in the denouement, Linus continues to proclaim his beliefs in the Great Pumpkin, telling Charlie Brown that he just needs to find the most sincere pumpkin patch. Exactly how a pumpkin patch can be sincere is never explained, which is of course the point. The application of Linus’ delusion to national and cultural traditions and especially to religious beliefs ought to be fairly obvious. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown may not be Richard Dawkins or Bertrand Russell, but it is at least close to Mark Twain as a smart and subtle satire.

The other special I used to watch was Garfield’s Halloween Adventure. In it, Garfield and Odie go trick-or-treating while dressed as pirates and encounter a haunted house where the ghosts of dead pirates are returning to claim their treasure.

In the opening, Garfield actually spells out the appeal of Halloween: “It’s not like those other stupid holidays. I don’t get pine needles in my paws, there’s no dumb bunnies, no fireworks, no relatives. Just candy.” What Garfield says is the very reason Halloween has become one of the most popular holidays on the calendar and his comments subtly take a shot at religious holidays whose pretensions of spiritual importance are a hollow buzz kill.

In the course of the story, Garfield gets carried away with his costume and he and Odie eventually encounter the real darkness as the ghosts return for their treasure. This speaks to the tradition of a lot of horror stories—and this is a horror story, just one that has been made safe for children and families—of the gothic terrible discovery. But in that terrible discovery the characters of these stories also encounter some ugly truth. In this case it is the ugliness of greed when it becomes all-consuming, as Garfield’s obsession with candy and the ghost’s obsession with gold have become. Setting this theme of moderation and personal responsibility against the backdrop of Halloween, the holiday of carnality and gluttony, is a stab at the values of a capitalistic society.

When it comes to my intake of horror films, especially around Halloween, I can see a link between the stories that I consumed as a child and the ones I take in now. When I look at my favorite horror films like Jaws, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Cannibal Holocaust, The Hills Have Eyes, or A Nightmare on Elm Street, these films constantly undermine the order of civilization or mankind’s ability to assert dominion over the earth. Instead they remind us of our own savage past that, in the history of the world, is not all that long ago and every once in a while comes boiling to the surface.

Earlier this week I performed a lecture at Winona State University on slasher films, exploding the assumption that they are inherently misogynistic and exploring what these films mean for us as a culture. While doing the research for the lecture, I reviewed some interview footage of Wes Craven, director of Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. Although the quality of his output has been uneven over the years, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for this man and his work. Craven’s observations in the following excerpt demonstrate why his films so often stand above his contemporaries:

Craven’s comments about the ways in which horror stories adumbrate and shadow play the underlying nature of humanity illustrate how the genre may be subversive whether it takes the form of a razor fingered psychopath killing teenagers in their sleep or the animated adventures of Charlie Brown and his friends.

Stories are not unique in their connection to holidays; most holidays are rooted in the ritualistic retelling of a particular narrative and these narratives are often of renewal and reemphasize dominant ideologies and social structures, whether it is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter or the cherry tree myth of George Washington on the Fourth of July. But with commercialization and secularization many people have disconnected these stories from the way they celebrate. Halloween is unique in that it is the only holiday left where the act of consuming stories—in this case horror stories—is still integral to the act of celebrating the holiday. And further, these stories actually undermine or subvert ideologies and social structures instead of renewing them.

So as we celebrate Halloween, I think it is safe to say that it is in many ways the anti-holiday. Where most holidays are about enhancing and renewing the foundation and illusion of civilization and its ideologies and social structures, Halloween is the night of the year in which people cast off those pretensions to acknowledge the darkness within themselves and within each other and let the animal inside off the leash or at least allow that leash a little more slack.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Athenaeum Presentation on Wednesday at 1pm

On Wednesday, October 28th at 1pm I will be making a presentation as part of the Athenaeum speaker series at the Krueger Library at Winona State University. The presentation is titled "It's Only a Movie: The Politics of 1970s and 80s Horror Films" and it will cover films such as Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, addressing how this body of films was groundbreaking and represented a counter cultural statement that was later lost to commercialization. Attention will also be paid to the recent trend of remakes of these films.

Date: Wednesday, October 28th
Time: 1pm - 2pm
Location: The second floor of the Krueger Library at Winona State University.

The event is free and open to the public.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I Defend Fox News?

The Daily-Beast has an interesting essay by Nicolle Wallace, who had served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign and was director of communications for the White House under George W. Bush. Wallace comments on the Obama White House's anti-Fox policy and I think she makes some important points both for the White House and for other politicians:

The reasoning they’ve provided goes something like this: Fox News features some opinion programming, therefore the entire network should not be classified as a news-gathering operation. It is, in the words of White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, an “arm of the Republican Party.”

Assume, for a moment that this is true, and apply the White House standard to MSNBC, a news network that also features some opinion programming. Going by the White House definition of a news-gathering operation, it stands to reason that the heavily opinionated prime-time shows hosted by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow would put MSNBC into the same category as Fox News. No Republicans are making this argument, but Obama would have been better off if he’d singled out opinion shows on both sides of the ideological spectrum. It would have allowed him to attack Fox News from a principled and bipartisan position. By singling out Fox News, he looks thin-skinned, political, and petty. . . . Instead of ushering in a post-partisan era, the Obama White House seems intent on doubling down on all the alleged sins of the Bush years by putting politics front and center—and offering no apologies for doing so.

Far be it for me to defend Fox News, but Wallace is right. Fox News is a news organization--they're a terrible news organization--but they are nevertheless a news organization. That Fox approaches stories from an ideological angle, engages in hyperbole and distortion, and often gets the facts wrong is reason enough for consumers to ignore them but not an excuse for a politician to do so. Had the Bush administration decided to quarantine MSNBC or CNN, critics would have screamed bloody murder, and rightfully so.

The essential question is: what is the White House's goal? Make Fox change its approach by ignoring them? That's not going to happen. Impair Fox's ability to report the news? The network already makes crap up anyway. Damage Fox's credibility? The people who watch Fox already think God speaks through Glenn Beck. Hurt the network's ratings? They're already through the roof. It seems that Fox has everything to gain and the White House has everything to lose in this strategy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Catholicism Can Give You AIDS

When I get into debates with Christians about the usefulness and value of their faith, they often fall back on the argument that religious organizations provide social services to the needy. This argument has two problems. First, charity does not require a belief in the supernatural. Secondly, the argument makes no account of the quality of the services or whether the service actually helps those in need. In fact, when social services are provided upon the basis of religous dogmatism, they may hurt more than they help.

James Carroll has written a piece for The Daily Beast about the Catholic Church's posture on contraceptives as it relates to the spread of AIDS in Africa:

Unlike Protestant and Muslim fundamentalisms, which are tied to fixed readings of holy texts, Catholic fundamentalism derives from a rigid defense of papal authority and boils down to a fixation on sexual morality. That has turned the Catholic hierarchy into a raging enemy of condom use—even when it comes to preventing the spread of AIDS. . . . A few bishops discretely promote condoms as a lesser evil, and one (Kevin Dowling of South Africa) has openly challenged the Vatican to change its teaching. But the overwhelming institutional weight of the Catholic Church continues to be thrown on the side of the virus. The result has been and will be the deaths of Africans. The virus of Catholic fundamentalism infects that beleaguered continent. At the Vatican, that, the church’s most grievous failure, is not being discussed.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Come On and Ride the Train

The city of Rochester, MN has been trying to get a proposed Chicago-Twin Cities high speed rail train to come through their city and this recent story in the Winona Post cites a new study that strengthens their case:

Rochester has got powerful lobbyists working hard to bring high speed rail to their city, and now, it’s got a new study which conflicts with some state data, purporting that a rail line through the city would be faster than one along the river and attract millions more passengers.

But that same study confirms that a high speed passenger rail line through Rochester connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities would cost at least $139 million more than one that followed the existing Amtrak lines through Winona and along the river.

Rochester’s study claims that millions more passengers would travel a line that would cross its city because completely new lines, which would be needed to connect Rochester, could mean trains as fast as 220 miles per hour and a quicker trip time from Chicago to the Twin Cities than following the river through Winona.
As exciting as it would be to have a major line of mass transportation come through Winona, if this new study is correct it makes much more sense to begin by serving the greatest number of people; those living in Rochester are much more likely to be commuting to the cities for work and there is already an Amtrak line from Winona to Chicago.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

October Activities

I'll be involved in a number of Halloween and movie related items this month:

October 4, 2009: Sounds of Cinema - Cinema's Villains
This episode will feature music of films that feature some of the most memorable villains from a variety of film genres including science fiction, action, and horror.

October 11, 2009: Sounds of Cinema - Vampires
Vampires are as popular as ever and this episode will include music from various incarnations of Dracula as well as other vampire films like Twilight and The Hunger.

October 18, 2009: Sounds of Cinema - Lucifer Rising
Former Manson family member Bobby Beausoleil's score to Kenneth Anger's experimental and esoteric short film is an extraordinary piece of music and this show will feature the entire score as well as commentary on the film and its production.
*Listeners to 89.7 KMSU FM will hear a special pledge drive episode this week.

October 25, 2009: Sounds of Cinema - Twenty-Five Years of A Nightmare on Elm Street
It's been a quarter century since Freddy Krueger first appeared on movie screens and he hasn't left the culture since. This episode will take a look at every Nightmare film from the 1984 original to 2003's Freddy vs. Jason and consider the ongoing appeal of the series.
*Sounds of Cinema will move to a new 11AM time slot on 89.5 KQAL FM on this date.

October 28, 2009: WSU Library Athenaeum Speaker Series - It's Only a Movie: The Politics of the 1970s and 80s Horror Film
I will be giving a lecture as part of Winona State University's Athenaeum program in which I will discuss the horror films of the 1970s and 80s including movies like Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Athenaeum series is held every Wednesday afternoon at 1pm on the second floor of the Krueger library at WSU. You can find out more about the series here.

October 31, 2009: Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special
Sounds of Cinema will air a special Halloween episode at 11 PM on 89.5 KQAL. Broadcasting of this special on 89.7 KMSU FM is still pending.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

This is Beautiful

Late last week, Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL) went on the floor of congress and explained exactly what the Republican health care plan is:

Hyperbole? Not really. With the GOP blocking every attempt to reform a broken system and unable or unwilling to offer a serious counter proposal, Grayson's explanation is the logical outcome of their position.

The House Republicans naturally demanded an apology, and this was Grayson's response:

Some have expressed outrage over Grayson's use of the word "holocaust," but I think there is room for it. The word "holocaust" is defined as "a thorough destruction involving extensive loss of life," and with 44,781 Americans dying each year because they don't have health insurance, the term applies. And the Republicans and other reform opponents, through omission of action, are allowing this to continue.

The bigger question is, do Grayson's comments help? Yes and no. For once, a Democrat is showing some spine, something that has been woefully absent in this debate. The health care issue is a gut-check for the Democrats. If they are not willing to fight tooth and claw for this, then all the promises made in the last two election cycles are proved empty and they don't deserve to stay in power. Grayson's comments invoke the ethical part of this issue, something that has been missing for the pro-reform side of the debate, but it is also the one that is the most powerful.

On the negative side, Grayson's comments turn the debate from health care and onto Grayson himself. This means that a news cycle is spent debating the man and not the message. On the other hand, if this minor spectacle on the floor ends up reigniting the reformers and ultimately refocusing the debate, then the ends will have justified the means.