Sunday, September 27, 2009

AIN'T IT AMERICA: THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF ROBERT FRANK'S "THE AMERICANS"

Most of us have a seminal cultural artifact or event that represents a touchstone moment. For some it’s a sporting event: Carlton Fisk in ’75 smacking that ball against the Green Monster or Bucky Dent’s grand slam of ’78; Jordan’s infamous “air” slam dunk; Gretsky’s entire career. For others it’s a concert event: Woodstock, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead or the first Lollapalooza. Maybe it’s a piece of live theater: "Hair", "A Chorus Line", "Rent"; or a Gathering: Burning Man; or maybe a profound historical event: the fall of the Berlin Wall or living in Prague during the early ‘90s.

For me it was discovering City Lights Bookstore in North Beach while spending the summer of ‘88 in San Francisco. It’s there that I immersed myself in the writings of the Beatnik poets, aka the Beat Generation: Corso, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima and of course, the man himself, Jack Kerouac.

Now, French-Canadian Kerouac was just as puzzled by the adoration of those long-hairs of Haight Ashby (and Central Park back East) to his work as any other member of the World War II Generation. The cultural shifts that took place around ‘63 through the ’67 Summer of Love and leading all the way up to Watergate transformed the American cultural landscape forever. Gone were the days of World War warrior white men in business suits enjoying an afternoon glass of scotch served by subservient secretaries dressed like Mimi Eisenhower. These were the latter days of Kerouac and the Age of Camelot and in some nostalgic way – whether it’s the vintage clothing worn by tattooed hipsters on Melrose or at Viva Las Vegas, or the Rock-a-Billy/Swingers revival and Rat Pack retreads – in some way we’re clinging to an America that has long since faded away.

This is what brings me back to the summer of ’88 and those days spent at City Lights; this is where I discovered the photographs of Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. I don’t think any piece of art has left more of a lasting impression on my psyche. There’s something about those photos that shoots to the very core of my being and similar to the music of Coltrane, Miles Davis and Terence Blanchard – Robert Frank’s images stir something deeply profound within me. They cut so close to the vein because they represent what I think it means to be an American.

I was born in ’71, but those photos taken from 1955-1956 feel like a past that I swear I lived through. He captured the ordinary and somehow always seemed to elevate it to the profound. His any given day shots didn’t so much tell some story but rather captured the very Soul of America. Landscape shots and desolate highways, Harley bikers and waitresses staring vacantly, the outskirts of towns and the center of political rallies and “Coloreds” or “Negros” just moving along trying to get through the day – Frank observed it all with his old school photo lens and reproduced his images without the help of Photoshop or a Mac.
It’s purity at its finest. These ghostly images from the past present us with Americans that may still be living among us. The couple just married at a Reno courthouse always captured my imagination (as they do Anthony Lane in his New Yorker article Robert Frank’s The Americans review : The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/14/090914fa_fact_lane?currentPage=3).

A grinning Pompadour embraces his pretty new bride as he stands behind her wrapping his arms around her midsection. The image has movement and energy and captures a moment in time that begs me to wonder: “What happens next? Where’s this couple going? Who are they and what do they do out there in mid-50s Reno?”

As I revisit the image while reading Lane’s article, I begin to imagine what could have happened to that couple. Frozen in time, she’s a vision – a Western beauty dressed in her best and caught in the arms of her Elvis wannabe (with a touch of Johnny Cash) lover just fully absorbed in the significance of the moment. He couldn’t ask for a more attractive bride; sure, she’s not Marilyn, but she is, from the looks of her, definitely easy on the eyes and has that kind of look you want to wake up next to for the long haul. But as far as looks go, the long haul has a short life span. Pin-up beauties of the past do not always age gracefully; hard living, a few packs a day and afternoon lunches of bourbon and fatty food, those “hotties” from the ‘50s (your aunts, your grandma or your grandparents high school sweethearts) look at them now and sometimes all a guy can think is: “That’s what my girl’s gonna look like when she’s their age!” But you also hope he’ll think: “And God bless her! I love her all the more because she’s real and she’s reliable and she’s so much more than some frozen image from my past that I can’t let go of.”

Frank’s Reno couple actually lived American lives long after he returned to New York to publish their nuptial moment. Did they stay married, have a couple of kids and realize the American dream? Or did he drink too much and maybe smack her around a bit until she couldn’t take it anymore and ran off with some local cowboy? Did her drug problem get so out of control or his womanizing make him impossible to live with, or did they just settle into that groove that couples fall into where they just live together like roommates, growing fat and old and moderately happy and now own a condo in Arizona and their daily grind interrupted with random visitations from the grandkids for Thanksgiving or Christmas?

The American couple frozen in time at the exact moment when nothing else mattered except: “We just got hitched!!!” And it’s a beautiful thing! In all of its black and white splendor, Robert Frank’s "The Americans" is the quintessential Beat Generation poem – the perfect visual bookend to the magical and mystical wanderings of Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road". These two men captured the side of the American story not covered on television or by the Hollywood Studio machine of the era. The real America – the gritty, dirty, urban, rural, dark, drab and tired America with all of its backwater shacks, crosses and grave markings along lonely Western highways, dilapidated row houses and dead on their feet elevator girls just trying to get through another day.

As I flip through the pages of my copy of Frank’s masterpiece, I am transfixed and mesmerized. I swear I know these people. I may have – during my travels across this vast landscape – actually come across the older version of one of the subjects of Frank’s thousands of shots. They could have been at a train station or in a supermarket or at a hotel or sitting in coach. Now they probably use a laptop, send emails, text and maybe even use Facebook. They either voted for John McCain or Barack Obama, listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Keith Olbermann. They may be titans of industry, or dying of cancer. But they’re here and they’re living their lives and they answer the question posed in every frame of Zurich born, American immigrant Robert Frank’s love letter to America: “So… what happens next?”

… And ain’t that America?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In Defense of Our Pragmatist-In-Chief; Or, Conservative vs Liberal -- a Bridge to Nowhere

In the latest issue of Time, back-page essayist Nancy Gibbs inadvertently nails the exact description I use to sum up the presidency of Barack Obama. She writes: “The beauty of the policy is that it’s neither liberal nor conservative, just deeply pragmatic—the most American ideology of all.” Gibbs is referring to the now defunct government policy known as “Cash for Clunkers.” She equates the clunkers program to that which is fundamentally American: “You do whatever works, throw ideas at the problem and see what sticks.”

Gibbs’ assertion struck me as a perfect way to describe the reason why I voted for, and still strongly support, President Obama. During the course of the long, drawn out campaign season, much of the dialogue about then candidate Obama centered on his ethnic heritage. The age old question for African-Americans seemed to be pulsating with white hot heat: is Obama black enough? Or, will white voters identify with him because his mother was an Anglo?

Although the thought of electing the first African-American (or half African-American) appealed to my multi-cultural, liberal arts educated sensibilities, the key selling point for me was a word that ├╝ber liberal Mario Cuomo used to describe candidate Obama on Larry King Live: “Cosmopolitan.” Absolutely Mario – mi New York Italian-American paison – but to Jay-Z it up a bit: Obama is “Urban”; he’s our first truly “Urban” president.

Being an Urbanite/Cosmopolitan, this definition of our president makes me drool. But this isn’t even the reason I am an Obamaphile. The reason why President Obama has my undying devotion is because of what Nancy Gibbs spoke of when she explained the short lived success of “clunkers”, and I will now borrow from her to summarize my opinion about the president: he’s neither liberal nor conservative, just deeply pragmatic.

Now I know my friends on the Right (be they Republican, Independent or Libertarian) will probably let out a huge guffaw if they read my summation of our Commander-In-Chief. In the mind of a conservative Republican, Obama – (forget using the word president because most have a hard time acknowledging that he is, indeed, the president, or at least will not give him the respect owed the office – and I guess that’s fair because those of us who were not too thrilled with the presidency of George W. Bush didn’t exactly treat him with the utmost kindness, and the sword does cuts both ways) — is not only a liberal, he’s a flat out socialist! Hell, he’s another Hitler, Mao and Mussolini all rolled into one Black Consciousness, Malcolm X package.

Sean Hannity is convinced he’s Rev. Jeremiah Wright AND terrorist Bill Ayers (but stops just short of the terrorist precipice because, unlike Glenn Beck, Hannity’s smart enough to know that it’s not really a good idea to call the sitting president a terrorist – at least in the eyes of corporate sponsors). Speaking of Glenn Beck, he flat out referred to President Obama as a racist (and there go the sponsors en masse) but then in the next breath was all: well maybe not exactly a racist per se (nice try Glenn, once you let the racist cat out of the bag, good luck cramming that clawing little fucker back in there!). All the punditocracy of the Fox News Nation – including The Birthers, The Tea Baggers, Michael Steele, The Republican Parties of Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Utah… yeah, all them folks – have pretty much painted him as the most tax and spendy, socialisty, big governmenty, communisty, pinko-pinky in the whole political crayon box!

Here’s the Box. Here’s President Barack Obama in the Box. Here’s every proposal the Obama Administration will propose in the Box. Here’s the Box on fire. Here’s America as we know it going up in one socialism fueled fireball!!! (Cue: Carmina Burana) BE AFRAID!!! BE VERY, VERY AFRAID!!! HITLER!!! STALIN!!! SOCIALISM!!! DEATH PANELS!!! ACORN!!! FANNIE & FREDDIE!!! KILLING GRA’MA!!! KILL THE NIGG—

Oooops, got a little carried away there. But I mean, seriously? Is that not just stewing right under the surface at all times? Sure, not with every right-winger, fine. I’m sure the majority of right leaning Republicans and Libertarians are not a bunch of racist idiots. Hell, the guy who showed up at one of them health care rallies brandishing a semi-automatic was, indeed, a Negro (possibly a self-loathing Negro, but a Negro none-the-less). It’s too overly simplistic to assume that the vitriol directed at President Obama (and the policies of his administration) is because he has black skin. The opposition fired the same ferocious shots at presidents Carter and Clinton, and they were as white as they come (definitely two gentlemen I would not characterize as “Cosmopolitan” or “Urban”).

Sure, a lot of people thought Bill Clinton was our first black president. That’s why a slew of comedians in the ‘90s used this as an opportunity to tell a series of black jokes that went something like this: “he came from a broken family, he was raised by his mother without a father figure, he dug fat white chicks with big asses”… and I’ll stop here as it only gets more offensive and, at this point, becomes utterly irrelevant. Barack Obama shares one familial similarity with Bill Clinton: an absent father.

But what he also shares with President Clinton is an ingenious political mind and a governing principle that leans towards: The Center. For all the talk of how socialist and liberal Bill Clinton (and then First Lady, now Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton) was as a politician from those on the right, President Clinton is most responsible for dragging the party of Carter and Kennedy further away from the far left and closer to the middle, and also closer to big business.

During the ‘90s, those on the left (or Progressives) started seeking out new leaders like Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich, to name a few, not only because of their left leaning tendencies, but also because they were the loudest opposition to the encroaching dominance of Globalization, which basically seemed to be the spreading of Americanization not by exporting our art, literature and culture around the world – but by consolidating power into the hands of a small cabal of multinational corporation CEOS, shareholders and board of directors. Thanks to the centrist Clinton administration, big business found a way to take possession of the two dominant American political parties. From the vantage point of many Americans on both the left and the right, the Republican and Democratic parties are two-sides of the same multinational corporation controlled coin.

Now we come to the health care debate. Much to the utter dismay of those on the left, members of the ever chattering liberal media class seem to think that President Obama is set to drop kick the public option. At first they had their collective panties in a bunch over the fact that the single payer option was MIA. Then red flags started going up all over the place when President Obama invited major players of the insurance industry to the table, while at the same time speaking somewhat out of both sides of his mouth by chastising and condoning insurance industry standards and practice (spoken like a true centrist liberal, I guess?). But then he turned back around and said today that he was in favor of a public option???

What keeps me all up on my toes is that, much like the great Muhammad Ali, I never know when Obama is going to throw that right hook. On the three big 24/7 cable news networks, they throw around a lot of buzz words and catch phrases like “throw under the bus” or “Lion of the Senate” (seems like when one person says it they all pile on and then everybody says it to the point where it becomes like the political geek equivalent of “wuz up?” or “did you get the memo?”). One of the phrases I’ve picked up is: political Jujitsu. Apparently, in the opinion of left leaning, ultra fun, wing-nut, film-maker Michael Moore and media firebrand commentator and poli-sci expert Chris Matthews of left leaning MSNBC, President Obama has a black belt in Jujitsu, same as President Clinton who mastered the political equivalent of this old school martial art.

Meanwhile, over at FOX (and at town hall meetings and on the steps of the Texas State Capitol) Obama ain’t nuthin’ more than a fascist, big guv’nment, socialist who wants to take away your guns, steal your hard earned dollars and give it to black welfare mommas and illegals from Mexico. Somehow, Cash for Clunkers was a communist plot to destroy America, Obama talking to school children is a form of indoctrination into socialistic… err… tendencies? And Obama’s agenda for health care is just a way to kill old people and cripple the U.S. economy so that Obama can fulfill his mission as the Harbinger of All Things Evil and Bad in the Universe (and somewhere in the midst of all that: Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan is a hotbed of Communism, says thee Holy Prophet of Doom: Glenn Beck, the Revelator!).

There really is no middle ground: President Obama is either a Jujitsu Sen Sei Master or – that racist guy Barack Hussein Osama – is the Destroyer of All that is Good and Holy in the Universe. Wow, and you thought Oprah was all powerful!

But to me, and in my humble estimation, President Obama is just a really pragmatic, practical dude from Chi-Town who tries desperately to see both sides of every issue. He makes honest attempts at bringing everyone to the table to try and find some common ground. I feel, and I could be wrong about this, that he deeply cares about helping to make people’s lives a little bit easier and really doesn’t want to over tax or grow government or take from the rich and give to the poor because of some fanatical liberal ideology or because of retributions owed to poor black people. But that is exactly the line of horseshit guys like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck sell to their audience of angry, red meat hungry listeners on a daily basis.

And can you blame them, really? That shit sells. That narrative is so easy and so simple and it’s already in place. Barack Obama was put into that old standard conservative Republican box tailor made for every Democrat. Why else would they trot out an old workhorse like socialism over and over again? I mean, look, for one thing it’s so 1980s. Every time I hear some knucklehead on the Right get on the TV Box and talk about Obama is a socialist I hurl something breakable at the wall! I mean, how can you not??? IT’S FUCKING 2009, mutherfuckers!!! And after 9/11 and two wars in the Middle East with Islamofascists, blah-blah-blah, you’re fucking worried about socialism and communism (and fucking gay marriage)??? Really??? Yeah, we see how far all that went. Cuba: be afraid, be very afraid!!! Russia, yeah they’re not capitalists, no!!! China – fucking China does capitalism better than we do!!! Their economy is kicking our ass!!! We owe them Yuan, bitches!!! Not to mention that most developed European nations, like France, Great Britain, Sweden and Germany are quasi-socialist and they haven’t blown themselves up yet and their citizens seem to be getting along in life just fine (most Americans would actually know this if they took the time to get a freakin’ passport and go travel outside the country every once and a gawd-damn while!)

Those of you, my friends on the Right, will you do me a solid, a personal favor for me, your friend… can you tell your friends in high places that go off about the threat of socialism on the TV Box… yeah, can you please tell them to eat a huge giant bowl of SHUT THE FUCK UP??? I know it may sound angry coming from me, but you, with your huntin’ rifle in hand, your NASCAR hat and your “I’m An Old School Conservative” t-shirt with the photo of Ronald Reagan aping the famous Che Guevara image – you’ll be all good. You can say it with a big shit eatin’ grin on your face and then slug down a beer and kiss your wife, or kiss your beer and slug your wife – however you roll, I won’t judge… I’m Liberal ;-).

Now that I got that out of the way… and I mean, seriously, welcome to the 21st Century already! Okay, I’m done. Now here’s the deal with what Prez Obama is throwin’ down. Shit went waaaaaay south during the Bush Years. Don’t deny it, you know it’s true. If Democrats can fess up about the mess that was Carter, you can fess up to the horror that was W. Bush II. But we’re moving on. What’s done is done and now we have to play clean up. However, there were some other things that were neglected during the other Republican administrations (see Reagan, Ronald). Now, Poppa Ronnie was great for making America feel good about itself again after the disasters of Vietnam, Watergate (and see Carter, Jimmy). He helped to defeat the evils of Communism… rrrrr! He made a lot of Wall Street folks rich and a lot of White America really rich. (Black America… eh, not so much.) Deficits, yeah, they rose. Why? Tax cuts! See, Republicans, you like tax cuts. Hell, everybody likes tax cuts! Tax cuts good – the American way! More money in your pockets, smaller government (but don’t include that military over there hanging out with those Pentagon types, though). Free Market! Ayn Rand! Unregulated corporate enterprise!!! TRICKLE DOWN!!!

Republicans and Libertarians, have I helped you reach orgasm yet? Now, folks can debate until the cows come home (where did they go? I dunno, the cows just left!) about whether the market should be regulated or if the Republican conservatives have a better way of doing business than the liberal Democrats. I personally really don’t care all that much. I think there’s a little bit of good in both and a lot of bad in both. Liberalism, conservatism, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian – all have their pluses and minuses and all can equally screw up and can sometimes get it right.

But right now it’s time to retrofit! There are so many domestic issues that have been overlooked and basically expired over the years, and most of the neglect happened because of the philosophy of Reagan and both Bush administrations. Democrats for sure have to take half of the blame; both parties are to blame, actually. Yet, now is the time to start updating America to the 21st Century. If Clinton tried to build a bridge, well, sorry to say it all you Obama haters but Barack’s the one to take us by the hand and lead us across said bridge and, unfortunately, it’s a toll bridge.

Shits gotta get retrofitted and shit costs money. Bridges, tunnels, roads, LEVEES (remember levees?) need retrofitting. Transportation and communication systems need a complete overhaul. For those of us that work in the airline biz, we can tell you first hand: Air Traffic Control (ATC) needs a MAJOR face lift. All of these infrastructures need to be dragged – kicking and screaming for sure – into the 21st Century. It has got to be done and it’s got to be done like yesterday. Unfortunately for President Obama, he’s the guy that has to convince an already cash strapped American populace that this shit needs to get taken care of or it’s only going to get worse if we don’t.

Health care is a major part of that equation, along with social security, energy/oil, etc. and to a larger extent our military. There’s also the matter of Afghanistan and waging war against jihadists who would like nothing more than to see America crumble from within. All of this is on President Obama’s plate, and EVERYBODY – and it really is everybody – thinks he’s either doing too much, not enough, doing it all wrong, or what he has done is too much too quickly. Every single pundit, politician, talk show host and the guy sitting next to you at the bar yammering away has an opinion and thinks they can do it better and that they are in a position to judge how President Obama is doing.

In actuality, there’s really very few of us who can talk with authority about the job president Obama is doing. There’s a small percentage of the population that has really invested time and education and their blood, sweat and tears into the political process (and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are actually not among this group of people – in fact, Limbaugh was an oldies DJ that didn’t even finish community college). Most of us tune into our favorite politically biased news show and feed off of what the expert class is telling us to think.

Right now, President Obama is not looking so hot. Every day I’m told how he’s not standing up enough for what he believes in or what he believes in is bad and evil and will destroy America. The Left wants the public option and an end to both conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Right basically just wants him to go away.

That’s why I feel I need to stick up for him because I truly believe that we’ve finally got someone in the White House who actually GETS IT! He understands the struggles of those living in the inner-city, but he also understands the complaints of those that live in small towns and suburbs. He knows how the media works and is tapped into the pulse of the culture at large. He reaches across the aisle to include the other side that is, quite frankly, hostile towards him. He’s been called a racist, a communist, a socialist, Hitler, a terrorist and Satan. He’s been disrespected and treated like he’s not worthy to sit in the chair at the Oval Office. Yet, he’s also looked at each and every problem that America is facing and jumped into action trying to find bi-partisan solutions that are the most practical and pragmatic.

And that goes back to my original point: I believe he’s that rare political animal that has moved beyond the Left and Right arguments of the 1960s generation; those of the so-called Culture War that Bill O’Reilly has made a killing exploiting. He’s the Pragmatist-In-Chief and he’s practical to a fault. He’s seeking solutions that are logical and, well, modern. He is not Roosevelt (Teddy or FDR), Carter, Truman, Lincoln, JFK or any other assassinated president he’s been compared to (and I hope it stays that way!) He is his own man. He’s a one of a kind; the Jackie Robinson of politics. He’s not perfect, he’s flawed like every politician, he has flip-flopped on issues, he’s had verbal faux pas, and he has made mistakes and miscalculations and major fuck ups. He’s a president – he’s an American president –and therefore he is imperfect. But he has greatness in him and he’s striving to do right by us if everybody would just SHUT THE FUCK UP FOR TWO SECONDS AND LET THE MAN GET SHIT DONE!!!

All I’m saying is: give him four years. If he’s the worst president we’ve ever seen (and judging from some of our last few, that’s going to be a hard title to claim) then we vote him out and start over again. Sure, watch what he’s doing and go ahead, express your opinion about the moves he makes – but for the love of God and all that is holy, keep it in perspective! That leap from you don’t like his position on health care to HE’S HITLER is crazy, psycho babble!!! I mean, can’t we all just try at least to rein this shit in? Why is it that when some blowhard comes on the TV Box and starts spouting off about socialism, nobody points out that their entire argument is utterly ridiculous and outdated. Sometimes Matthews will go there, but not enough to really shame these idiots… I mean really shame the shit out of these morons so they’ll just shut the fuck up already!

This is why our Pragmatist-In-Chief really is somewhat superior to them, at least in terms of intellect, and they know it and they hate him for that reason. You can tell by the way they try and tear him down with the most preposterous and insane of arguments, and they just keep getting more outlandish and more extreme. If “extremity in the defense of liberty is no vice” then what is idiocy in the defense of a lack of a solid argument – liberty itself? When right-wingers spout off about socialism and paint Obama as Hitler, do they think that what they are doing is defending liberty? Well, if that’s the case – then so help me God… give me death – ‘cause I can’t stomach their concept of liberty. Give me practical pragmatism any day of the week and spare me the conservative vs. liberal argument – because THAT truly IS a bridge to nowhere.