American Sissies

The Super Bowl arrived here in Hollywood in the middle of the afternoon, but it was a big Sunday evening event back east, the biggest of the year. Ask the advertisers. They paid four million dollars for each thirty-second spot, and this is where they go wild, with their most inventive and often surreal stuff, which is supposed to be awesomely memorable if not iconic forever. This is the biggest captive audience they ever see, after all, until next year – except it was sunny and seventy-five here in Los Angeles, and the surf was up and people were out and about. In was a fine day, another one, as always – not a day to watch television in the dark – and no one cares anymore. The Los Angeles Rams moved to St. Louis long ago, when the St. Louis Cardinals moved to Arizona, so Los Angeles no longer has an NFL team, even if this is the second-largest media market in the nation. But no one out here seems to mind. We have other things to do, perhaps on rollerblades. Those of us who are too old for that sort of thing sit in the sunshine and muse, or putter around the garden. There’s no winter here. There’s always the garden.

The Super Bowl is tiresome anyway. It’s all about hyper-masculine posturing, punctuated by endless short bursts of carefully-planned intense violence, to establish total dominance, to show that the posturing wasn’t just posturing. The dominate alpha-males win, any way they can – which is supposed to be admirable. Much of this has to do with inflicting pain, within the rules – the “good hit” and all that – but most if it seems to have to do with inflicting humiliation. The Super Bowl is perhaps the most purely “male” thing in American culture, although it may have little to do with masculinity, which is a different matter. The Super Bowl is gloriously primitive, in the way male primates behave – which may be why it’s so popular. Everyone in our culture has to be so careful about everything. We’ve been thoroughly socialized – there are things one simply does not do, which is a good thing for everyone – but for a few hours everyone can take a break from that and root for their team to make that other team look like sissies, like girly-men. It a vicarious return to the primitive – male plumage-displays and deadly fights to see who the top dog is, who gets all the bitches – the pack’s female dogs that is.

Okay, this year the New England Patriots won – the arrogant cheaters who have won it all many times fbefore – the guys that seem to sneer a lot these days. The Seattle Seahawks – the loose and happy team full of guys who actually seem to like each other and really do like having fun – lost. That’s perhaps as it should be. The Seattle Seahawks have too many thoughtful and articulate guys. Those who just grunt win these things – but the game was unwatchable. Who cares? When the Rams left, the folks out here moved on. Yeah, the game was muttering away on the television here, but the small balcony out back looks up Laurel Canyon. It was good to sit in the sun as the ghosts of Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa drifted down the hill. A glance at the game now and then was more than enough. It was what it was.

There was, of course, that halftime show – “Katy Perry delivered on all of her potential for out-of-her-mind silliness. Riding in on a giant mechanical cat, dressed as a cartoon flame, and at one point employing a group of background dancers dressed as sharks…”

What? This was a thirty-year-old woman pretending to be a proud and loud fifteen-year-old sexpot, the ultimate jail-bait tease, but she looked her age, even if she was dressed as Bam-Bam from the old Flintstone cartoons. The show was impressive – everyone seemed to agree on that – but it was kind of creepy. It was, however, perfect for the Super Bowl. It was pure primitive femaleness to the game’s pure primitive maleness. It has nothing to do with femininity, just as the game had nothing to do with masculinity. This was primal. This is the one weekend a year that America goes pure-primal for four hours.

That may not be entirely true:

“American Sniper” shot down another box-office record: Its $31.9 million is the biggest Super Bowl weekend gross ever.

According to studio estimates Sunday, the Clint Eastwood film narrowly surpassed the previous top Super Bowl weekend draw at the North American box office. The concert film “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: The Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour” opened with $31.1 million against the NFL’s big game in 2008.

Hollywood often avoids competing with the Super Bowl as movie-going falls dramatically on Sunday, but “American Sniper” has proven an unlikely sensation. It has now made $248.9 million in six weeks (and only three weeks of wide release), making it the most lucrative war movie without adjusting for inflation. (The distinction was previously held by Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”)

In the Guardian, Lindy West explains the problem here:

It’s a masterpiece of short-form tension – a confluence of sound and image so viscerally evocative it feels almost domineering. You cannot resist. You will be stressed out. You will feel. Or, as I believe I put it in a blog about the trailer, “Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper trailer will ruin your pants.”

But however effective it is as a piece of cinema, even a cursory look into the film’s backstory – and particularly the public reaction to its release – raises disturbing questions about which stories we choose to codify into truth, and whose, and why, and the messy social costs of transmogrifying real life into entertainment.

This is the basis for the film:

Chris Kyle, a US navy Seal from Texas, was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and claimed to have killed more than 255 people during his six-year military career. In his memoir, Kyle reportedly described killing as “fun”, something he “loved”; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a “bad guy”. “I hate the damn savages,” he wrote. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” He bragged about murdering looters during Hurricane Katrina, though that was never substantiated.

He was murdered in 2013 at a Texas gun range by a 25-year-old veteran reportedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

And he’s the hero, which is the problem:

However we diverge politically, I have enough faith in Eastwood’s artistry and intellect to trust that he is not a black-and-white ideologue – or, at least, that he knows that the limitations of such a worldview would make for an extremely dull movie. But the same can’t be said for Eastwood’s subject, or, as response to the film has demonstrated, many of his fans.

West cites Laura Miller in Salon – “In Kyle’s version of the Iraq war, the parties consisted of Americans, who are good by virtue of being American, and fanatic Muslims whose ‘savage, despicable evil’ led them to want to kill Americans simply because they are Christians.” And there was Scott Foundas in Variety – “Chris Kyle saw the world in clearly demarcated terms of good and evil, and American Sniper suggests that such di-chromatism may have been key to both his success and survival; on the battlefield, doubt is akin to death.”

West is troubled by this. West notes that a few thoughtful (or forgiving) critics say that Eastwood sees only many shades of gray in all this, and that this movie is morally ambiguous and emotionally complex and all that, but West is still troubled:

There are a lot of Chris Kyles in the world, and the chasm between Eastwood’s intent and his audience’s reception touches on the old Chappelle’s Show conundrum: a lot of white people laughed at Dave Chappelle’s rapier racial satire for the wrong reasons, in ways that may have actually exacerbated stereotypes about black people in the minds of intellectual underachievers. Is that Chappelle’s fault? Should he care?

Likewise, much of the US right wing appears to have seized upon American Sniper with similarly shallow comprehension – treating it with the same unconsidered, rah-rah reverence that they would the national anthem or the flag itself. Only a few weeks into its release, the film has been flattened into a symbol to serve the interests of an ideology that, arguably, runs counter to the ethos of the film itself. How much, if at all, should Eastwood concern himself with fans that misunderstand and misuse his work? If he, intentionally or not, makes a hero out of Kyle – who, bare minimum, was a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people – is he responsible for validating racism, murder, and dehumanization? Is he a propagandist if people use his work as propaganda?

That question came to the fore last week on Twitter when several liberal journalists drew attention to Kyle’s less Oscar-worthy statements. “Chris Kyle boasted of looting the apartments of Iraqi families in Fallujah,” wrote author and former Daily Beast writer Max Blumenthal. “Kill every male you see,” Rania Khalek quoted, calling Kyle an “American psycho”.

West covers more of this in detail, but sees nothing will be resolved:

There is no room for the idea that Kyle might have been a good soldier but a bad guy; or a mediocre guy doing a difficult job badly; or a complex guy in a bad war who convinced himself he loved killing to cope with an impossible situation; or a straight-up serial killer exploiting an oppressive system that, yes, also employs lots of well-meaning, often impoverished, non-serial-killer people to do oppressive things over which they have no control. Or that Iraqis might be fully realized human beings with complex inner lives who find joy in food and sunshine and family, and anguish in the murders of their children. Or that you can support your country while thinking critically about its actions and its citizenry. Or that many truths can be true at once.

They can? The most popular film on Super Bowl weekend may be as primitive, and as primal, as the Super Bowl itself.

There is this grunt:

Fox News contributor and radio host Todd Starnes argued on Monday that Jesus Christ would have been a fan of Clint Eastwood’s latest movie… Starnes asserted that the movie “American Sniper” was “driving liberals bonkers.”

According to Starnes, filmmaker Michael Moore was wrong to suggest that Jesus would not “hide on top of a roof and shoot people in the back.”

“I’m no theologian,” Starnes opined. “But I suspect Jesus would tell that God-fearing, red-blooded American sniper, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant for dispatching another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire.'”

Starnes said that he longed for the days when Hollywood “stood in solidarity with our fighting men and women.”

“Those days are long gone, and our sweet land of liberty has been soiled by the stinking stench of Michael Moore and Howard Dean and their liberal minions,” he insisted.

Jesus would hide on top of a roof and shoot people in the back, damn it! And it there’s more:

The latest flap erupted following comments by former governor Howard Dean (D-Vt.) on Friday night. They came on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” after the show’s host ripped the movie for its moral ambiguity and Kyle for writing previously that he didn’t care about Iraq and hated the “savages” there.

“‘Hurt Locker’ made $17 million because it was a little ambiguous and thoughtful,” Maher said, citing the opening weekend sales of another Iraq War filmed released in 2008. “And this one is just ‘American hero. He’s a psychopath patriot, and we love him.'”

Dean said Maher had made a “very interesting point.”

“There’s a lot of anger in this country, and the people who go see this movie are people who are very angry,” Dean said. “And this guy basically says, ‘I’m going to fight on your side.’ … I bet you if you looked at a cross section of the Tea Party and the people who go to see this movie, there’s a lot of intersection.”

That prompted a reaction Monday from actor and veterans advocate Gary Sinise that has gone viral. He noted that he has seen the movie, and does not consider himself to be an angry person.

And there’s this:

Among those to respond angrily to Moore were former governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) and Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer, who were photographed together with a sign that used an expletive to dismiss Moore.

The photo was posted online by Meyer and Palin’s daughter, Bristol. The vowels in Moore’s last name on the sign were filled in with crosshairs.

That’s as primal and primitive as it gets, and the Washington Post provides a complete compendium of all tha national back and forth on this movie – which isn’t particularly enlightening.

Enlightenment is hard to come by these days, and it doesn’t flow down from Laurel Canyon. Actually it might flow down from the canyon two miles east, when Outpost Road runs up from Hollywood Boulevard through the hills to Mulholland Drive way up top. Gore Vidal lived out the last few years of his life in his fancy Italianate villa on Outposts, and he once wrote that essay Theodore Roosevelt: American Sissy – because Vidal liked to stir things up. David Masciotra explains:

Vidal classified the former president and known tough guy as an “American sissy.” He was a sissy, because “he never showed much real courage.”

“Despite some trust-busting,” Vidal writes, “he never took on the great ring of corruption that ruled and rules in this republic.” The man whose face forms a fourth of Mt. Rushmore was a particularly American sissy, because he was a “war-lover” and he embodied the belief that physical bravery was the ultimate manly virtue. Vidal, inspecting the idiocy of this belief, concludes, “There is something strangely infantile in this obsession with dice-loaded physical courage when the only courage that matters in political or even real life is moral.”

Masciotra thinks the strangely infantile persists:

There is a war in the American cinema right now, and it is not the one that is visible in the boring battle scenes of Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper’s jingoistic fairy tale. It is the war for attention and adulation taking place at award ceremonies and ticket booths between American Sniper, and a movie about the sacrifices of heroes who fought for freedom, Selma.

There’s that other movie:

Selma and American Sniper present two different heroes of two dramatically different historical narratives. As they compete at the box office, they mimic the competition between two conflicting conceptions of heroism. There is the heroism of Martin Luther King Jr., who challenged the most powerful forces and institutions of his culture, facing death threats and daily harassment, to work tirelessly toward equality and justice, practice peaceful resistance to oppression, and preach love for your neighbor, stranger and even enemy. Chris Kyle said it was “fun” to kill the “savages” of Iraq, and blindly followed the destructive marching orders of George W. Bush.

Anyone can see where Masciotra is going with this:

The prevailing and prevalent projection of American manhood is at once a cartoon, simplistic in its emphasis on strength and eschewal of sensitivity, and dangerous in its celebratory zeal for violence. It is not masculine as much as macho, according to the useful distinction of one of America’s finest male novelists, Jim Harrison. Because Harrison often writes about roughneck, working-class characters in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or the ranches of Montana, many shortsighted critics have called his literature “macho.” Explaining his objection to that label, Harrison said, “I have always thought of the word ‘macho’ in terms of what it means in Mexico – a particularly ugly peacockery, a conspicuous cruelty to women and animals and children, a gratuitous viciousness.”

That sounds a lot like the NFL, doesn’t it? One thinks of Ray Rice and women, and Adrian Peterson and children, and Michael Vick, who went to jail for the dog fights (to the death) that used to amuse him. And the celebratory zeal for violence is the Super Bowl. It all comes together:

The American macho problem of social dysfunction and intellectual paralysis is at work on the football field whenever coaches, fans, parents, and even players enforce a code to take concussions like “real men,” and ignore the possibility of early onset dementia. America’s antiquated notion of macho toughness is operational in the aggressive pursuit of sexual ownership in the military, where one third of women are victims of sexual assault, and on college campuses, where one fourth of women experience sexual harassment.

It is also not far in the background of America’s foreign policy, and its enthusiasm for wars when primitive, locker room calls for “kicking ass” replace meaningful discourse on geopolitics and international affairs. Toby Keith’s anthem about “putting a boot in the ass” of terrorists, like President Bush’s flight suit posturing and “bring it on” finger waving, captured the nation’s attention, demonstrating how at the highest levels of governance and in the most avid articulations of politics, America has not yet graduated out of the Bronze Age nor has it left the professional wrestling ring.

Yes, the prose is a bit over the top here – hectoring from the left is just as irritating as hectoring from the right – but Masciotra has a point:

King and Gandhi possessed what Vidal described as “moral courage.” That standard of courage and measurement of bravery is flawlessly helpful in the world or adult reality, but not as appealing in the world of juvenile fantasy.

And there’s that movie:

Chris Kyle suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that caused robotic detachment from his family culminating in nearly killing his son’s pet dog during a child’s birthday party. It is likely that his laconic rejection of regret, remorse, or even reflection on his own role in an unjust war worsened his psychic disorder.

“Do you have any regrets or doubts over anything you did?” a VA psychiatrist asks Chris Kyle in the movie. “No, that’s not me,” he answers back.

It isn’t America either.

Of course it isn’t. America loves the Super Bowl. That’s the one weekend a year that America gets to go hyper-male hyper-female pure-primal for four hours, with no doubts, except that America was there already, in the movies, in the evangelical churches. The curious thing is that in cities like Los Angeles, where the local NFL team moved on long ago, no one missed that team, because they had moved on too. It’s a start.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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