The “Touch of Evil” Election Day

I thought I was sitting out Election Day when I slipped into a theater at 4:30 yesterday afternoon to watch the classic Touch of Evil, and then tried my best not to look at a web browser for the rest of the night. Turns out the film was absolutely relevant.

The Mexican-American border, the largest open border in the world, “1400 miles long and not a machine gun on it,” the hero brags. That that hero, Mexican Special Agent Michael Vargas, is played by Charlton Heston himself has made the film a bit of a joke over the years, but that’s actually not the hardest piece of miscasting it asks you to swallow. (Bronx accents in Texas, anyone?) As films go, it’s classic Welles. You appreciate it for its conception more than you’re actually moved by it. The script works so hard to make narrative constructs happen that you’re jarred out of the reality within the film. Instead of wondering what the hell is going to happen next, you marvel at the cinematic and pulp novel razzle-dazzle the story-teller is going to use to get you there.

The rad thing about Touch of Evil is that the bad guys are Americans. The hero is Mexican. It took the “white person having an ethical crisis by the hard choices he must face while across the border” template, which is still thriving, and turned it on its head, and this was 56 years ago.

Ebola: The menace from deepest Africa!

Ebola: The menace from deepest Africa!

Which brings me to yesterday’s election, the top story of which, let’s face it, was racial paranoia. A lot of celebratory scotch and beer got swilled last night by Republican-affiliated ad people toasting the success of their message: Democrats want to leave the Mexican border unprotected; they’re soft on ISIS; they don’t do enough to stop ebola; and all kinds of stupid combinations of these three.

Time is still on the side of the Left, we’re just going to have to put up with a whole lot more stupidity for two more years. I could already sense this back in September during the People’s Climate March here in New York. The massive crowd felt like the American Left was finally moving past Obama, who himself represented the psychic antidote to Bush. Finally we were groping for a consensus about what the highest priority in our political future ought to be. And now that the dumbest guy from a country club full of oilmen in Oklahoma has the most powerful environmental position in government, except for the president, we have a perfect foil, and a perfect foil is what American politics are all about.

Other takeaways from Election Day:

1. As political beings we (Americans) are still hard-wired to resist elite authority from afar. The Alpha Ideological American is the Puritan who hated the crown and the official church, because he had his own, personal relationship with God, and that God put pretenders to divine authority on earth just to test his faith. And nothing makes him stand up and shout Hallelujah!” like a sign that says “Don’t tread on me.” Why God would be such a jerk, we are not allowed to ask, but this inheritance we carry makes us selectively reframe the stories we tell as “us, God’s chosen people” versus “them, elites whose earthly success is a sham.” And it’s rarely enough to say that the elites you’re mobilizing against are mistaken, or just plain greedy; it must be that they’re on the brink of perverting democracy itself.

2. Raising the stakes by making the villain nastier is the oldest narrative shortcut in the book (It’s also one of the most common screenplay notes.), but we have to do better! The breathlessness of the Democratic fundraising emails in the past few months such as this one from none other than Barbra Streisand just didn’t cut it, and actually turned us off:  “Dear Charles, Have you seen Congress lately? It’s a mess. And it’s only going to get worse if people like Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers continue to treat corporations better than people.” Nice alliteration, but it turns out people need to be for something too.

3. Citizens United is the new enemy. No wonder many liberals sat this election out. What are we supposed to do, get into a spending war against billionaires who have no legal limit?

4. The most brilliant Republican move of the last decade was the term “Obamacare.” Now we think of the president every time we think of our health insurance companies, who really are doing the devil’s work. Genius.

5. The American Right’s knee-jerk racism – Ebola quarantines? Come on! Like a hurricane before 2012 election, you can’t think up coincidences like that! – is sometimes just too much. They already have the Constitutional deck – which was very progressive in 1787, I might add – stacked in their favor, and the ease with which they achieve consensus when race is introduced creates historic anomalies like yesterday’s election.

6. We should never be satisfied with social media success. As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a must-read op-ed earlier this year, social media “can have long-term consequences by defining which sentiments are ‘normal’ or ‘obvious,'” but those bonds are not as resilient as the real person-to-person movement-building of the pre-social media dark ages.

I’m a white male over 40 and I voted yesterday, because that’s what people like me do: boring stuff like get married, go to church (Well, it’s been a while in my case…), go to non-profit cinemas, and vote. I refuse to be an aging leftist, or an aging cinephile, who thinks young people can do nothing right. And yet I confess to some despair – not for the U.S. Senate this year, or for 2016. All that junk will come out in the wash, and the Democratic Party is only just barely worth fighting for. I despair because every political achievement last century happened because individuals joined groups, whether unions or the Civil Rights movement, co-operatives or antiwar groups. We’ve lost the habit of going out and joining unless we’re constantly soothed by the blanket of social media groupthink, and there may not be enough “like” buttons to click to compete with the crazy Evangelicals who are on an errand from the oil industry and think they’re on a mission from God.

(World With)In a World…

2013’s In A World… (written by Lake Bell) is one of the best American comedy scripts of the past few years, in its tightness and elegance, if not in the number of knee-slapping moments.

It’s a story of a family going through a crisis – or crises, since the Solomons, like many families, have their freakouts in clusters. It’s a feminist call to action that also has something profound to say about Jewish-American family life. And it’s among the most accurate portraits of life in L.A. in “the biz” that we’ll ever see – among the people who aren’t celebrities and won’t ever be, but who are quietly climbing their professional rungs. But mostly I keep coming back to her script.

She does it in the first ten minutes. First the heroine, Carol, gets a gig as a vocal coach. Then during the titles we learn all about the “world of the story”: the voiceover profession has just been thrown into a free-for-all, since its star Don LaFontaine – who in real life was the Wayne Gretzky of voiceover artists, and really did die in 2008, no doubt prompting something like this plot in some households – has died.

Then Carol’s father comes home in the morning, presumably, we soon learn, from his girlfriend Jamie’s house, and rousts his adult daughter Carol out of bed. One short scene, and we already have the whole conflict: She’s trying to get ahead in the voiceover world herself, but settling for jobs as a vocal coach – on top of which, she really just wants her father’s love. Her father Sam, who’s established in the profession, thinks she doesn’t have the chops, and is suddenly a lot more inclined to withhold his love, since Carol’s being snarky about dad’s new girlfriend, who’s just a year older than Carol.

We’re barely into the plot, but the conflict is all there already. Not to mention “the world.” That’s what a good story does, it creates its own reality. Its own mini-world: the voice profession. And then a mini-mini-world within that: the Solomon family. That’s why stories about crime families and rock bands and police departments all work so nicely. Their miniature hierarchies lend themselves to contested power dynamics.

Lake Bell (Carol) with the sexiest man in America Fred Melamed (Sam).

Lake Bell (Carol) with the sexiest man in America Fred Melamed (Sam).

So, by around Minute 12, Don LaFontaine’s trademark line “In a world…” has been tactfully avoided since his death, but now the studios are ready to start using it again, and every voiceover artist in town wants to be the one who gets the gigs that say it. So what does Sam do in the very next scene? He promises to throw his professional support behind another voice, a handsome prick named Gustav.

A purist would say that Bell’s script needs to make up its mind whether it’s farce or romantic comedy, since she has elements of both in the plot. You could even argue that the message-heavy climax is undermined by this lack of focus, but I never minded that for a bit. The setups and payoffs are so delicious up to that point, I was ready to let her have it, and say whatever the hell she wants. I especially liked the farcical side:

While Carol is riding high, she is booking the most coveted gigs and has been sleeping with Gustav besides, and has a good reason not to tell her father about it. Her father hears from Gustav, in explicit terms, that he had sex with their rival; her father, not realizing he’s talking about his own daughter, urges Gustav to “give her one for me.” Great writing!