Monday, July 16, 2012

Caligula: Bob Guccione as Auteur

The word most often applied to the 1980 film, Caligula, is “pornography,” which the dictionary defines as “printed or visual material intended to stimulate sexual excitement.” Of course, all sorts of things can “stimulate sexual excitement.” The bosomy babe without clothing may do the trick for the average heterosexual man (although some men might prefer a flat-chested woman), while a transvestite may be more excited by the thought of trying on her discarded panties. A naked woman won’t do much for a gay man, but might get an approving nod from a lesbian. Someone with a foot fetish can get more kicks in a shoe store than in a strip club, and the rapist’s thrill comes not from intercourse, but the power he wields over his helpless victim. Like beauty, pornography is in the eye of the beholder. The orgy scenes in Caligula may indeed stimulate sexual excitement in the viewer who responds to close-up views of fellatio and cunnilingus, or simply the sight of a mass of nude bodies performing similar acts upon each other. For many viewers, it will do no such thing. It may even disgust them, which may be the point.

Even before the credits, Caligula opens with a title card identifying the setting as “Pagan Rome.” And what do we know about Pagan Rome? Was it not a crumbling empire marked by debauchery, by moral and spiritual corruption? Caligula depicts this rather well, maybe too well for some viewers. Entertainment comes in the form of debasement and sadism.

Reading what the critics had to say about Caligula is enlightening, not so much about the film but about their own double standards. I hate to pick on Roger Ebert (I did so once in a review of his Movie Companion at and received an angry email from the man himself), but it seems to me his review of Caligula, dated September 22, 1980 and posted at his web site, suggests the man has the kind of double standards of which I speak. “There are X-rated films I’ve enjoyed,” he writes, “from the sensuous fantasies of Emmanuelle to the pop-comic absurdities of Russ Meyer.” Ebert doesn’t bother to mention that he wrote many of the screenplays for Russ Meyer’s X-rated films, but charges ahead with his denunciation of Caligula and its creators, “that they are jaded, perverse and cruel human beings. In the two hours of this film that I saw (Ebert admits to having walked out after 120 minutes when there were still 50 to go), there were no scenes of joy, natural pleasure, or good sensual cheer. There was, instead, a nauseating excursion into base and sad fantasies.”

But did Caligula, or, for that matter, Rome fall because he/they were devoted to the pursuit of “joy, natural pleasure, or good sensual cheer?” I believe not. Although it could be argued that there was some joy and good sensual cheer in Ebert’s and Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, there were also some scenes that might identify its makers as “jaded, perverse, and cruel human beings.” When a lesbian love scene is interrupted by a killer who puts the barrel of a gun in Erica Gavin's mouth (and then pulls the trigger), what are we to make of that? It’s much more shocking than the depictions of fellatio in Caligula. At least in Caligula, it’s sex. In Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s perverse, it’s violent, and meant to shock. It might also be interpreted as anti-gay, which in 1970 was acceptable even among liberals. These two lesbians have no need of a cock, and the man wielding the gun might as well be saying, “Suck on this, bitch!” Prior to that violent act, the women are making love while soft romantic music plays in the background. It would be easy for its makers to claim otherwise now, but back in 1970 the music might have been meant to mock what most viewers would have considered an act of perversion. Look at these freaky lesbians!

Caligula is not a particularly good film. Its cardinal sin is that it’s mostly boring. True, the film's producer, Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse, was probably less interested in an accurate portrayal of the moral bankruptcies of ancient Rome than he was in the sex, but that’s a trait he seems to have shared with the real Caligula. Guccione might as well have been producing his autobiography.

Critics like to talk about the director as "auteur," and debate who and who does not qualify for this status. The auteur, you see, puts his personal stamp on a film, and you can trace his obsessions, etc, throughout his body of work, even when individual titles seem to have nothing in common with each other. Caligula would seem to be very much the work of an auteur, who, in this case, is not the director (someone named Tinto Brass receives the official credit), but the late Mr. Guccione. The carnal philosophy of Penthouse is very much apparent in Caligula. Guccione is an auteur. Critics may not like his “personal vision,” but it’s there alright.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, July 13, 2012

Those darn Bushes

Shortly after 9/11, former president George W. Bush writes in Decision Points, he found strength and solace from his White House team, wife Laura, and – this was news to me – “My brother Marvin and sister Dora . . . (who) stopped by frequently for meals.”

Brother Marvin? Sister Dora?

Never heard of them.

I have heard of Prescott Bush, his granddaddy, who he called “Gampy,” but what I heard doesn’t quite gel with what George W. says about him: “He was well known in Greenwich as a successful businessman with unquestioned integrity. . . “(9). He is also well-known to those who know more about history than the media and whitewashed textbooks tell us, as a Nazi sympathizer who collaborated with some other wealthy families to oust FDR and put a dictator in his place, a rather nasty episode that Naomi Woolf and other writers have exposed and which can be found in official (but unpublicized) government records.

Then there’s daddy George Herbert Walker Bush, the kind of job hopping flunky who epitomizes what’s wrong with “public service.” It’s no longer a secret that “Pappy” Bush went directly from Skull and Bones to the CIA and there’s a paper trail that ties him to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Shortly after becoming vice-president in 1981, he was very nearly promoted to the top spot when John Hinckley Jr. took a shot at President Reagan. Even the mainstream media managed to let it slip that Hinckley’s brother was scheduled to have dinner with Neal Bush that evening. Less well-known (but detailed in The Illuminati Zone) is the long business association that the Hinckleys had with the Bush family.

Like father, like son.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Right wing Bob?

American Masters, the PBS series that may be the finest program on television (an honor it claims quite easily in this age of reality based shows about fat people losing weight, and narcissistic showcases like American Idol), spotlighted Joan Baez in a recent episode. Baez, who turned 71 this year (she shares a birthday with Richard Nixon), was a bestselling recording artist and the subject of a Time cover story when Bob Dylan was still a struggling Woody Guthrie wannabe. He was writing songs and making quite an impression in Greenwich Village folk clubs, but, it could be argued, his success was assured only after Baez dragged him on stage to sing with her. Soon, he was the “voice of a generation” that protested the Vietnam War and followed Martin Luther King’s lead in demanding equal rights for blacks. Dylan would reject that role and even snicker at those who marched and carried signs, but Baez was and would remain an activist, jeopardizing her life and career. She spent time in jail and visited the war zone while bombing was in progress. It was, she noted, the kind of situation that could even make an atheist believe in God. She came from a family of Quakers and was brought up to be a pacifist, something Dylan never claimed to be. The man himself, looking old and grizzled, appeared several times. He said he was flattered to be the subject of her self-penned “Diamonds and Rust,” though in her biography she claimed it had been written about her husband, David.

It was my interest in Dylan more than Baez that made me tune in to the American Masters segment. If Baez is a typical leftist, Dylan is not, assuming he’s a leftist at all. A website called Right Wing Bob makes the case that he's quite the opposite. Despite having praised Barack Obama, there is evidence to suggest this voice of the counterculture (when there was such a thing) is something of a conservative. In his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan claimed his favorite politician, circa 1961, was Arizona senator Barry Goldwater who accepted the 1964 republican presidential nomination with his now infamous speech extolling the benefits of extremism (“Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice.”) To the liberal camp supporting Lyndon Johnson’s reelection, Goldwater was a warmonger and a right wing extremist whose conservative principles were woefully out of touch with the modern world. To Dylan, whose songs like “Masters of War” seemed an indictment of such a man, Goldwater was reminiscent of Tom Mix, the all-American cowboy of dozens of B westerns in Hollywood’s silent age.

Even when Chronicles appeared in 2004, a good 40 years after Goldwater’s overwhelming loss to LBJ, some readers obviously liberal in their politics, dismissed Dylan’s statement as disingenuous. Clearly, the man who wrote “The Times They Are-A Changin’” was joking, right?

Dylan didn’t seem to be joking in a 1968 interview with Sing Out when he refused to be pinned down on the Vietnam War. “I know some very good artists who are for the war,” he said, and cites a painter friend, a man he admires, who even considered enlisting to fight in the jungles. When he says he never argued with his friend about his stance, the interviewer pressures him, but Dylan refuses to budge, eventually asking a question of his own that undoubtedly raised eyebrows of readers on the left. “Anyway, how do you know I’m not, as you say, for the war?”

One thing that definitely separates Dylan from many of his left leaning admirers is his belief in God. Even before his very public conversion to Christianity in 1979, God was in his songs and his thoughts. In 1978, Dylan told Phillip Fleishman, “The whole world is a prison. Life is a prison; we’re all inside the body. . . Only knowledge of either yourself or the ultimate power can get you out of it. . . Most people are working toward being one with God, trying to find him. They want to be one with the supreme power, they want to go Home, you know. From the minute they’re born, they want to know what they’re doing here. I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t feel that way.”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Memoir is supposedly the most popular literary genre these days, at least after novels about teenage girls in love with vampires, but why? The answer is easy when the question is why memoirs are popular with writers. Everybody thinks his life has been interesting, and, as they say, write what you know. The question that’s more difficult to answer is why do people read memoirs by authors who are not already famous? Former president George W. Bush whose memoir, Decision Points, was a recent bestseller, and rock and roll legend Keith Richards who also had a hit memoir in 2010, have stories that are already well-known. Their memoirs give readers the story straight from the source. But why do people read memoirs by the likes of Augustus Burroughs or James Frey whose stories, not always true, are ones of dysfunction involving drug, alcohol, or child abuse?

The literary agents interviewed in the July/August 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest claim not to be interested in such books. “I’m sick of dysfunctional family stories,” says Mollie Glick of Foundry Literary and Media. Sharlene Martin of Martin Literary Management thinks that “every therapist in the country who is dealing with addicts of one kind or another has told them to journal their recovery and then turn it into a book.” But somebody is selling these books to publishers and somebody is reading them because tales of dysfunction dominate the memoir genre. What do these agents look for in a memoir?

Laney Katz Baker wants “a fresh story, told in a unique voice. I want the writer’s personality to ooze through the pages. I expect the writing to come to life.” Byrd Leavell wants “Aggressive, confident, well-written prose. . . “

The problem I have with their advice is that it doesn’t describe most of the books already out there, most of which do not make me want to turn the page. They make me want to put the book down and turn on the TV instead. Repeatedly, these agents speak of how desirable it is to represent a writer with a “platform,” a ready made shortcut to promoting their book. “An Internet presence is very helpful,” says Jeff Kleinman of “If you have 300,000 followers, you’ll find it much easier to get a book deal than if you have three.” Leavell recommends that writers “Put great content up on a website, and then find a way to start drawing people to read it. It’s no secret that publishers want writers who are adept at creating fans. Prove that you are one of them.”

These are “experts,” of course, so perhaps I’m an arrogant fool to challenge them, but if a writer has great content on a website that people can read free of charge, why would anyone buy that writer’s book? The advice these agents give makes it clear that their interest is in books that sell. Less important is the quality, unless you believe Mollie Glick who says, “If you’ve got an amazing story to tell and you write well, that’s enough for me.”

Writer’s Digest may not be the most trustworthy source for information, anyway. Its pages are filled with ads for MFA programs, print-on-demand publishers, writers workshops, and manuscript coaches. But who is teaching the Master’s level course in Creative Writing? Writers who can’t make a living writing, that’s who. The same is true of the writers teaching in community colleges. And who, other than a writer struggling to survive, offers his editing or ghostwriting services to writers with less experience? And yet, they must be successful if they can afford display ads in the back pages of a popular magazine. Robert McKee is successful, too, holding seminars on how to write a screenplay despite having only one professional credit of his own on IMDb: an episode of Murder, She Wrote. The world is full of hucksters who know the truth of P.T. Barnum’s statement that there’s a sucker born every minute. These days, most of those suckers are writing books.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Can I Pass These Tests?

I am not, at this time, likely to be hired to teach elementary school in Texas. An exam that the Texas State Board of Education requires all teaching applicants to pass is included in Can You Pass These Tests?, a collection of “The Toughest Tests You’ll Never Have to Take, But Always Wanted to Try.” I suppose if I studied or simply took my time, which I’d be more likely to do if I was taking the test for real, I could do better, but right now I’d probably manage a D at best, assuming, as I wouldn’t, that I correctly calculated the percentage for a test with 32 questions. I got a third of them wrong. My skill in Math is such that I wouldn’t even use the word “skill” to describe my ability, but I missed one question requiring mathematical ability because I misread it. I knew Marcy “runs a quarter-mile track,” but neglected to notice that she does so “two and one-half times.” So, how many miles does she run in five days? I said one and one-fourth miles. Nope. The correct answer is three and one-eighth miles. Other questions I missed include the most important indicator of a child’s readiness for reading. “Maturational age” is the key, not “Chronological age” as I would have thought. Math was also my undoing in a question concerning the lines of symmetry in an “equilateral” triangle. The clue must be in the word “equilateral” which means “having all sides equal.” I should have figured out that such a triangle has three lines of symmetry, but the image of a triangle that I had in my mind had a shorter base with only the sides being equal. I’m a victim of preconceived ideas. Hmm.

I felt no embarrassment at not knowing that when a cold air mass is replaced by a mass of warm air, the result is a “Cirrus” and not a “Cumulus.” I’m not a graduate of a school for meteorologists, and who else would be expected to know such a thing? However, I blush a bit about my answer to a question about the most relevant information to include in a report citing “specific” examples of extreme weather conditions in the United States. Asshole that I am, the word I thought most important was “extreme,” hence my rapid selection of the multiple choice answer mentioning a “hurricane.” The word that should have grabbed my attention was “specific.” The correct answer was specific, referring to rainfall of 1.23 inches that fell in Unionville, Maryland.

I really should know that the Monroe Doctrine was intended to “prevent European expansion in Latin America,” but my faulty guess was that it was to “open the southwestern United States to settlement.” As for the activity that would be most helpful to develop a sixth grader’s individual response to art, I chose “Matching artists to their works,” when the Texas State Board of Education says it’s “Participating in a critique of various artworks.” Again, it’s the language in the question that will guide you to the correct answer. The word that gives away the answer is “individual.” Tricky stuff.

These questions were part of the “Elementary Comprehensive” section of the test. I did better on “Professional Development,” missing only three questions out of fourteen. Tying shoelaces is more likely to develop fine-motor skills than throwing a ball; educationally disadvantaged students lack “exposure to positive, varied experiences,” and are not encountering problems that are a function of “traumatic childhood incidents.”

Of course, the people who compiled the questions and approved the test are more likely bureaucrats with no classroom experience. Even if the test was created by teachers, that wouldn’t make it infallible. The answer to one question seems all wrong to me. The question concerns a school district whose students scored below average in mathematics than other school districts that took a standardized test. Which is the most appropriate short-term goal for the district?

Remember, it’s mathematics, not reading, in which the students fell short, but the correct answer, the “most appropriate short-term goal” for the district, is – according to the Texas State School Board – “Assess students’ strengths and weaknesses in reading.” George W. Bush, the 43rd president who famously asked, “Is our children learning?” was once governor of Texas, although that was long before W’s influence could be felt. Maybe the book in which the test is reproduced has a typo because in the answer section, their explanation makes no sense: “Since scores for reading skills were below average, assessing students’ strengths and weaknesses in reading is the most appropriate short-term goal. Weaknesses that are identified could then be addressed.” There was no mention of the students’ reading skills in the question, so from where are we to learn that their reading skills are below average as they claim? And if the students scored below average in Math, why doesn’t their mathematical abilities, or lack thereof, earn even a mention in the explanation of the answer?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Phil Ochs: Journalism set to music

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune is a 97-minute documentary about the sweet-voiced folksinger who committed suicide in 1976. Ochs arrived in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s with the goal to become the world’s greatest songwriter, an ambition he realized was beyond him once he met the chipmunk-cheeked college dropout who changed his name from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan. A vulnerable sort who wore his heart on his sleeve, Ochs idolized the more career savvy Dylan, but whatever Dylan thought of Ochs, he publicly dismissed him and his songs. “You’re no folksinger,” Dylan once told him, “you’re a journalist.” And so, in a sense, he was.

While Dylan abandoned the protest movement in favor of more introspective personal songs, Ochs continued to offer musical commentary on the world at large in songs such as “Love Me, I’m a Liberal, “ a satiric ditty that dared to question the sincerity of those on the political left who felt that they were above reproach. Ochs craved the kind of popular success that Dylan enjoyed, but never achieved it, remaining a cult performer with a niche audience. Among those interviewed to sing his praises are Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, Sean Penn, and Christopher Hitchens. Dylan is conspicuous by his absence. One of those interviewed calls Dylan a “prick,” and having read quite a few Dylan biographies, I would conclude that he often was. In 1974, Dylan did come through for Ochs when he agreed to perform at a benefit that Ochs organized for refugees from Chile where the government was ousted in a CIA led coup. Tickets were selling poorly and it looked as if the concert would cost more to stage than it could ever take in. Crossing paths with Dylan on the streets of New York, Ochs convinced his one time rival to appear. Dylan had just come off a successful tour with The Band and earlier that year had his first number one album with Planet Waves. He was riding the crest of a comeback that would see his next two albums, Blood on the Tracks and Desire, also hit number one. He would never be as “hot” again as he was in this period, and his appearance at the Friends of Chile concert ensured it would be a sellout.

The documentary doesn’t mention that Dylan’s 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue originated in conversations he had with Ochs, or that Ochs’ erratic behavior, due to a combination of depression and alcoholism, meant that Dylan did not invite him to participate, a severe blow that author Bob Spitz believes played a part in Ochs’ decision to hang himself as the revue traveled across the country. In Spitz’s account, Dylan’s guilt may have influenced his later embrace of Christianity.

Kenneth Bowser’s film is worth seeing, but I found it a little slight, especially when covering Ochs’ sad last days. I may not have been giving the film my full attention and missed any reference to “John Train,” the persona that the singer adopted after insisting that Phil Ochs had died. The CIA is mentioned as perpetuating the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile, but did they also help drive Ochs to an early grave? Did they mark him for elimination as they later did John Lennon? To make such an accusation may lead to the filmmaker being targeted, so we can excuse Mr. Bowser for his reluctance to dig a little deeper.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks