Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March 31, 2015: April Fools: The Interview

[A few years ago, I had a lot of fun writing an April Fools series. Foolishly, I haven’t done so since, but this year have decided I won’t get fooled again. So this week I’ll be highlighting and AmericanStudying a series of funny figures and texts. Share your own funny favorites in comments and I’ll add ‘em to the crowd-sourced weekend post—no foolin’!]
On what’s problematic, and what’s important, about the controversial comedy.
In the last post in that 2012 April Fools series, I highlighted five great, enduring works of American satire. Having had the chance to see the satirical film The Interview (2014) earlier this year, I have to admit that I don’t see it ever landing on such a list. Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, based on a story by Rogen, Goldberg, and Dan Sterling, and starring Rogen and James Franco as the producer and star of a celebrity interview show who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the screwball comedy throws a ton of jokes and over-the-top sequences against the wall, many of them vulgar, graphically violent, or some combination of both. There are certainly funny moments, both of the silly and the pointed variety; but for the most part the film feels like it’s working way too hard for much too little payoff. And much of the problem lies in that attempt to combine the silly and screwball with the satirical—satire, it seems to me, requires us to use our brain; and too much of the time, The Interview is trying to hit us far lower than that.
The film became far better known for its controversy than its comedy, of course, and on that level too I would argue that it’s problematic. I don’t have any problem with a work of fiction satirizing (and even, SPOILER and graphic violence alert, brutally killing) a world leader like Kim, and certainly I don’t support the North Korean government’s attempts to suppress the film’s release. But as I wrote in this January piece for my Talking Points Memo column, I don’t believe we Americans have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to critiquing such blind, uncritical worship of our beloved leaders. Since many of the responses to my piece suggested I was equating the two nations overall, let me be clear: America is not North Korea, in any sense. But I would stand by my point that far too many Americans expressed, in response to Natalie Maines’ far less incendiary depiction of George W. Bush, a level of outrage and anger commensurate to the North Korean response to a film portraying their leader in far, far worse light (as well as, y’know, brutally killing him). Which is to say, if we want to make the case that North Korea should be able to handle satire and criticism more calmly, we’re going to have to turn that mirror on ourselves and our own histories as well.
I don’t think it entirely succeeded in doing so, but it is important to note that The Interview does, in fact, attempt to true that satirical and critical lens on America as well as North Korea. It does so partly through the easy targets of the media and our culture of celebrity, both embodied by James Franco’s thoroughly annoying and stupid character (although he is eventually supposed to be a hero, so I’m not sure how much the zingers ultimately connect). But it does so more subtly through the film’s true heroine, Sook, the North Korean officer who hopes to overthrow Kim and establish a democratic government in his place. When Sook reveals her true intentions, Franco and Rogen exclaim that Kim must be assassinated; she replies, “How many times is America going to make the same mistake?,” and Franco responds, “As many times as it takes, sister!” Again, such moments of thoughtful satire of American foreign policy and perspectives are both few and far between and often overshadowed by the silliness and vulgarities and so on; but they’re there, and perhaps they even registered with the millions of viewers who sought out the film after the controversy. For a silly, mediocre screwball comedy, that’d be a surprising and meaningful effect.
Next fools tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Funny favorites you’d share?

Monday, March 30, 2015

March 30, 2015: April Fools: Stooges and Marxes

[A few years ago, I had a lot of fun writing an April Fools series. Foolishly, I haven’t done so since, but this year have decided I won’t get fooled again. So this week I’ll be highlighting and AmericanStudying a series of funny figures and texts. Share your own funny favorites in comments and I’ll add ‘em to the crowd-sourced weekend post—no foolin’!]
On the two groups of siblings at the heart of mid-20th century American comedy and popular culture.
From the Booths to the Barrymores, the Douglas’s to the Bridges, on down to Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and their increasingly visible young ‘uns, multi-generational families have long been a staple in American popular culture. Whether you read the trend as one of many signs that American society is not nearly as class-less as we like to believe, as a symbol of our hankering for an equivalent to the British royal family, or as simply a reflection that it’s easier to get ahead if you know the right people, there’s no doubt that our cultural icons have often come as part of family units. Yet I’m not sure that any other cultural medium or any other historical moment have been dominated by competing families of entertainers as were the 1930s and 40s by the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.
The two families (which is a slightly inaccurate word for the Stooges, since Moe, Shemp, and Curly were brothers but Larry was unrelated to them) have interestingly parallel biographies: each group of brothers was born to Jewish American immigrant families in late 19th century New York; members of each began to perform in Vaudeville-type acts for the first time in 1912, and achieved their first real breakthrough successes about a decade later; and the similarly-titled films that truly launched each group both appeared within a year of each other, the Marx’s The Cocoanuts (1929) and the Stooges’ Soup to Nuts (1930). The families even feature individual brothers who helped originate the act but left the group at a relatively early point, Zeppo Marx and Shemp Howard. Yet despite these parallels, in my experience it’s very rare to find passionate fans of both the Marx Brothers and the Stooges—they seem today, as perhaps they did in their own era, to have found pretty distinct fan bases.
It’d be easy to attribute that divide to the highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy, and certainly there’s no doubt that the two groups tended to employ very different kinds of comedy: the Marx’s using their scripts and wordplay first and foremost, the Stooges their physical comedy and violence (although certainly Harpo Marx was entirely a physical comic, and in other ways too this division would break down upon close examination). Yet I would say that the two groups also exemplify two very distinct directions for American comedy and popular culture after Vaudeville, both employing developing technologies but in quite different ways: Cocoanuts was one of the first sound films, and throughout their career the Marx Brothers used this new medium of sound film to great effect; whereas most of the Stooges’ classic works were shorts, and while such pieces were often featured before or with other films they were also tailor-made for the new medium of television as it developed in the decades to come. Both films and television remain central media for American comedy, of course, but they work and connect to audiences in fundamentally different ways, and the Marx’s and Stooges can help us analyze those trends at their earlier moments.
Next fools tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Funny favorites you’d share?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

March 28-29, 2015: March 2015 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
March 2: Forgotten Wars: The Second Barbary War: A series on under-remembered American wars starts with the anniversary of an Early Republic conflict.
March 3: Forgotten Wars: The First Barbary War: The series continues with three longstanding legacies of the late 18th century conflict.
March 4: Forgotten Wars: The Aroostook War: National history, local history, and lumberjacks, as the series rolls on.
March 5: Forgotten Wars: The Occupations of Nicaragua: Two 20th century conflicts that are all too representative, and how to remember them specifically nonetheless.
March 6: Forgotten Wars: Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre: The series concludes with three sites that can help us remember a complex Civil War massacre.
March 7-8: James Fallows on Forgotten 21st Century Wars: But wait, a special weekend post follows up a fellow AmericanStudier’s take on our current, ironically forgotten wars.
March 9: Jazzy Connections: Scott Joplin: A JazzStudying series starts with the musical and cultural legacies of the hugely influential composer.
March 10: Jazzy Connections: Jazz Literature: The series continues with three engaging and important examples of jazz’s influence on American literature.
March 11: Jazzy Connections: Whites and the Harlem Renaissance: White America’s troubling and exploitative yet important relationship to black culture, as the series rolls on.
March 12: Jazzy Connections: Charlie Parker’s Death: On the anniversary of the tragic event, reflections on what is lost and what endures when an artist dies young.
March 13: Jazzy Connections: Jazz in the 21st Century: The series concludes with three ways to argue for the genre’s contemporary relevance.
March 14-15: All That Crowd-sourced Jazz: Additions of mine and the thoughts of fellow AmericanStudiers round off the series—add yours in comments, please!
March 16: AmericanThaws: Eliot and Williams: A Spring series starts with two very different images of the season in two great Modernist poems.
March 17: AmericanThaws: The US and the UK: The series continues with when and how America’s oldest antagonism warmed up.
March 18: AmericanThaws: William Mahone: Late-life evolutions that don’t impress me much, and those that do, as the series rolls on.
March 19: AmericanThaws: Humanity in War: An amazing moment of humanity amidst the horrors of war.
March 20: AmericanThaws: Nixon Goes to China: The series concludes with two ways to contextualize an undeniable historical turning point.
March 21-22: AmericanThaws: Cuba: A special weekend post on two pieces of mine that can help us understand one of our most recent warmings.
March 23: American Epidemics: Influenza and Ebola: A series on past and present epidemics starts by comparing and contrasting two of the most potent.
March 24: American Epidemics: The Measles: The series continues with three stages in the history of a frustratingly persistent disease.
March 25: American Epidemics: Yellow Fever: The Early Republic outbreak that nearly changed everything, and why it didn’t, as the series rolls on.
March 26: American Epidemics: Smallpox and Mather: Two prior posts of mine that highlight the worst and best of American perspectives through Cotton Mather and smallpox.
March 27: American Epidemics: Typhoid Mary: The series concludes with how an anniversary can help us remember a complex and important figure.
Next series starts Monday,

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!

Friday, March 27, 2015

March 27, 2015: American Epidemics: Typhoid Mary

[Inspired both by the recent events I’ll include in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts and the historical anniversary on which I’ll focus in Friday’s, a series AmericanStudying epidemics, past and present.]
On how an anniversary helps us remember an iconic and complex figure.
One hundred years ago today, on March 27th, 1915, Mary Mallon (1869-1938)—better known as “Typhoid Mary”—was quarantined by public health officials for the second and final time. The Irish immigrant and cook had previously infected numerous New York-area employers, families, and communities with the highly contagious and dangerous typhoid fever; the incidents began around 1900, but it was not until a 1906 outbreak in Oyster Bay that Mary’s role in them was discovered, and she was quarantined from 1907 to 1910 in a clinic on North Brother Island. Upon her release she agreed to change professions, but instead changed her name and began working as a cook once more. Arrested in 1915 after starting yet another typhoid outbreak, this one at New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women, Mary was taken once again to North Brother Island, where she would remain in quarantine for the final twenty-three years of her life.
Typhoid Mary’s striking story can be contexualized in a number of AmericanStudies ways. The public fascination with her (she was interviewed numerous times during those final decades of quarantine) reflects our longstanding interest in “true crime” narratives and figures, in seeking to understand and perhaps even empathize with those who do horrific or sociopathic things to their fellow citizens. At the same time, but on the other end of the emotive spectrum, the fearful and paranoid responses to Mary (and it is possible to see those responses as extreme at the same time that we recognize her culpability in her arc) were undoubtedly connected to equally longstanding narratives of dirty and diseased immigrants and the threats they pose to our communities and culture: narratives that had long been associated specifically with Irish immigrants; and that in response to the late 19th and early 20th century waves of arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America were newly energized in this period. In both these ways, the Mary of North Brother Island—quarantined away from the rest of America and yet forever available for interviews and pictures—could be said to represent a twisted American ideal.
Comparing Mary’s life and history to a more genuinely idealized American story offers another lens through which to analyze her, however. As part of a September 2013 series on Newport’s The Breakers, I wrote a post on Rudy Stanish, the son of Eastern Europe immigrants who would rise to become the “Omelet King,” one of the most famous chefs in American history. Stanish’s Newport experiences began in 1929, while Mary was still alive and quarantined; in that, and even more in their shared profession, social status (as servants of wealthy families), and immigrant background, the two offer a compelling and complex comparison. Each life and identity is individual and shouldn’t be reduced to types or mythic narratives, but it’s hard for me to resist noting that Rudy and Mary represent two sides to the same coin, the American Dream and American Nightmare respectively. Their versions are extremes, of course—few Americans end up in either lifelong quarantine or as a chef to the stars—but that doesn’t mean they can’t be connected to more typical communal experiences. And it’s fair—if more pessimistic than I like to be—to say that more Americans experience the nightmare than the dream; and thus to note that we might understand how such a nightmare might lead to the life and choices of a woman like Typhoid Mary.
March Recap this weekend,

PS. What do you think?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

March 26, 2015: American Epidemics: Smallpox and Mather

[Inspired both by the recent events I’ll include in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts and the historical anniversary on which I’ll focus in Friday’s, a series AmericanStudying epidemics, past and present.]
On the inspiring, redemptive response of a Puritan leader to an 18th century epidemic.
A few years back, I had the chance to contribute some pieces to Maggi Smith-Dalton’s wonderful “Salem History Time” column for For my second and third pieces, I focused on two sides to the story and history of one of Salem’s most prominent citizens, Cotton Mather: his moral and social failures during the Witch Trials; and his subsequent, far more admirable responses to the city’s smallpox epidemics. Mostly I wanted to use today’s post to highlight those prior pieces, but I would say one more thing about these two American histories: that they reflect a longstanding conflict between fear and rationality, superstition and enlightenment, the worst of what we believe and how it can divide us and the best of what we can learn and how it can save us. In Mather’s own life, he moved from the former to the latter, from the Witch Trials hysteria to his influential innoculations—may we all find ways to make the same move, individually and collectively.
Last epidemic tomorrow,

PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 25, 2015: American Epidemics: Yellow Fever

[Inspired both by the recent events I’ll include in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts and the historical anniversary on which I’ll focus in Friday’s, a series AmericanStudying epidemics, past and present.]
On the Early Republic outbreak that very nearly changed everything, and why it didn’t.
Yellow fever has been a recurring threat to American communities and populations (along with many places, in the Western Hemisphere and around the world), and one that has most frequently targeted the South and the Gulf Coast. From the numerous 19th and early 20th century outbreaks in New Orleans and the Mississippi River Valley; to an 1858 outbreak that killed more than 300 members of a single Charleston, South Carolina, church; to the 1878 Memphis outbreak that forced a steamship, the John D. Porter, to travel up and down the Mississippi for two months, a floating quarantine unable to unload its passengers for fear of infection; much of the region’s history has been shaped by the disease’s presence and effects. Yet Northern cities such as New York and Philadelphia experienced their share of yellow fever outbreaks as well—and it was a late 18th century Philly epidemic that came close to forever altering American history.
Few Americans remember that it was Philadelphia which served as the nation’s capital for most of its first post-Revolutionary years, including the majority of George Washington’s time as president. Washington was inaugurated in New York City but served most of his first term (1789-1793) and all of his second (1793-1797) in Philadelphia; John Adams (president from 1797 to 1801) would likewise lead from Philadelphia, as Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration was the first in the newly completed Washington, DC. And so Washington, his administration, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the whole of the young federal government were located in Philadelphia during the 1793 yellow fever outbreak, the worst in the city and one of the most devastating in American history. The summertime epidemic claimed the lives of more than 5000 Philadelphians, with more than 100 dying each day at its height; Washington and the rest of the government managed to flee the city safely, but given the potency and rapidity with which infection spread (local merchant Samuel Breck noted that many of those affected were “in health one day and buried the next”), it’s very easy to imagine Washington stricken by the illness. What that might have meant for the nascent republic is an interesting and provocative question to say the least.
We don’t and can’t know what that alternate history might have comprised, but we can say with far more certainty how and why the city beat back the epidemic. That story would have to start with Dr. Benjamin Rush, the physician and founding father (he signed the Declaration of Independence and participated in the Constitutional ratification debates, among other contributions) who refused to leave the city and spearheaded its efforts to contain and combat the outbreak (Rush did contract the disease in October but fortunately survived; his methods for fighting the disease were and remain controversial, but became the norm for many decades thereafter). But equally important to the city’s efforts was its substantial free African American population—Rush believed that the African American community were immune to the epidemic, and asked its members to serve as nurses and in other medical and support roles; while he was almost certainly wrong in his assumptions, many nonetheless answered his call and performed vital duties that the fellow citizens were unable or unwilling to execute. In a subsequent memoir, community leaders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones wrote that they felt, in response to Rush’s call, “a freedom to go forth, confiding in Him who can preserve in the midst of a burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals.” Alternate histories can be compelling, but none holds a candle to this actual, inspiring American history.
Next epidemic tomorrow,

PS. What do you think?

PPS. After I wrote this post, Jonathan Bryant published a great one of his own on Yellow Fever for We're History:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March 24, 2015: American Epidemics: The Measles

[Inspired both by the recent events I’ll include in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts and the historical anniversary on which I’ll focus in Friday’s, a series AmericanStudying epidemics, past and present.]
On three telling stages in the history of a frustratingly persistent disease.
In the mid to late 19th century, outbreaks of the measles devastated two different South Pacific paradises. Beginning with a series of deadly epidemics in 1848-1849 (including whooping cough and influenza as well as measles), and continuing through much of the next decade, the disease took roughly one-fifth of Hawaii’s population. In 1875, the disease was introduced to the tropical island of Fiji by King Cakobau, upon his return from a diplomatic trip to Australia, and before it was contained it had killed 40,000 Fijians, roughly one-third of the small nation’s population. As these and many other outbreaks make clear, measles, often perceived here in the United States as nothing more than a potential childhood annoyance, has been as deadly a worldwide epidemic as any, and remains so: it is estimated to have killed roughly 200 million people between 1855 and 2005, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 158,000 were killed in 2011 alone.
The fact that the disease has come to be perceived so differently in late 20th century America (and beyond) is due directly to two interconnected individuals. In 1954, medical study of David Edmonston, a 13 year old infected with the disease (one of many affected by an outbreak at a Boston private school), allowed for the virus that causes it to be isolated for the first time; the efforts of one young researcher, Dr. Thomas Peebles, were instrumental in achieving this success. Subsequent work over the next decade to develop a vaccine culminated in the 1963 successful creation of one by Maurice Hilleman, a researcher and vaccination specialist working at Merck; Hilleman’s vaccine (eventually folded into what is now known as the MMR [Measles Mumps Rubella] shot) has been estimated to prevent up to 1 million deaths each year. To my mind, few developments capture the best of the 20th century better than vaccines, and their combination of science, technology, research and collaboration, and international efforts to improve lives and communities; by any measure, Hilleman and the MMR certainly have to occupy prominent spots on that list.
Which brings us to now, and a particularly frustrating 21st century trend. As those WHO estimates indicate, measles has never been eradicated; but it has nonetheless made a striking recent return to our conversations, thanks in no small measure to a new American community: the anti-vaccinaters. This community has been around and making its controversial case for nearly two decades, aided and abetted by a fraudulent researcher and his hoax of a scientific study, but a recent outbreak of measles, caused it seems by the presence of unvaccinated and infected individuals at California’s Disneyland, has brought the community and the disease together in our collective consciousness. There are lots of ways to argue against this extreme and dangerous perspective, but to my mind chief among them would have to be a better understanding of each of these prior two stages: the long-term history and effects of measles, and the hugely destructive force of outbreaks such as those in Hawaii and Fiji; and the vital breakthroughs and successes of the vaccines, and the way they have turned measles into something manageable instead. It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone who would want a return to that earlier stage in the arc of this epidemic.
Next epidemic tomorrow,

PS. What do you think?