Bread and Circus

An online journal of culture

Month: November, 2007

Stephen Colbert, Court Jester

by Editors

Stephen Colbert, Court Jester

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

I have an admission to make: I’m in serious withdrawal. “Hi, my name is Kimberlee and I’m addicted to The Colbert Report.” Even though, as a fellow writer, I am completely in sorority (and fraternity) with the writers on strike, I must admit I am suffering without my daily infusion of Monsieur Colbert’s sardonic wit.

So, to pass the time until corporate America comes to its senses, I decided to write about my cult hero from my own perspective—that of an art historian entranced by the history of fools.

Fools you say? A resounding “Yes!” The “Fool” precisely describes the part that Stephen Colbert plays. And furthermore, he should wear that badge with pride. For, the Fool has engendered a long, illustrious tradition.

Whether tribe or nation, human society has always had a clown or fool figure in order to test its communal structures. The Fool served the indispensable role of inciting restorative laughter as well as puncturing any pretensions to rise above our human estate. In the evolving cultures of kingship, the Fool served as the monarch’s comic foil, and even his alter ego. The Court Jester had special dispensation to “tell it like it is”, even to the king—again, puncturing pretensions and serving as the royal check and balance. Such royal fools lasted in until Absolutism in Europe climbed towards its apogee, and imperious kings no longer suffered Fools or their probing questions. Here in America, since the Revolution, we’ve had to settle for a President and other Public Servants to serve as our comic scapegoats. However, unlike our contemporaries, our original American forefathers provided much less popular humor. One might argue that this is because they earnestly strove for equality with their peers and, in comedy, those who seek ultimate power are the funniest to watch fall. In our own times, as the current administration ceaselessly consolidates power, wresting it from constituents, the imbalance has become palpable. Predictably, here is where Stephen Colbert comes in.

If we could liken our current administration to an Absolutist Monarchy, Stephen Colbert is serving as its heady Court Jester. But, you may ask, how is it that Colbert is routinely dismissed by those in power as nothing more assailing than a comedian, a “Fool.” Luckily, they tragically underestimate the ritualistic power of laughter.

If he seems to fly just below the White House’s radar, it is for two reasons. One, Post-Enlightenment society believes in the primacy of the infallible intellect to the exclusion of comic modes. And, second, Colbert has reinvented the “Fool” paradigm for the twenty-first century in remarkable ways. Most noticeably, he has abandoned the traditional outward markers of the Fool: for example, he shuns motley (outlandish, colorful garb), replacing it with Brooks Brothers suits and rimless glasses. His “sveltiness” leaves behind the traditional extremes of either skeletal thinness or perverse rotundness that characterized court jesters, and his height inverts their typical diminutive scale. Moreover, the suave demeanor and superficially satirical mind of his on-screen character belie deeper intentionality. These paradigmatic shifts allow Colbert to blend into his intended pinstriped context with more camouflage, and definitely in a more roguish way. One may not see him coming, a tree within the (updated) power suit forest.

In fact, Colbert has “had” many of his intended targets on his show seemingly without their knowing that they’re being systematically parodied at every turn. Or, as some suggest, perhaps his guests are knowingly self-deprecating, or just anxious to get in that coveted face time with the elusive “Gen X-ers” and “Gen-nexters”. Perhaps the guests justify their Colbert Show appearances with a “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” sort of approach. But, it seems that those politicians and politicos sorely underestimate the facile intellect, cynicism and world-weariness of Colbert and those in the 20-40 year old age group. It is a truism that you just can’t say something and be taken at your word anymore. Or, for that matter, even attempt to play the self-aware patsy; in the end you’re still the butt of their perspicuous mockery of authority.

Herein lies Colbert’s genius. He dons Conservative mannerisms and paroxysms with such deftness that he can seamlessly caricature their own shamelessly pandering, populist caricatures-and those of their media outlets. When they call him on it, he laughs the laugh of invincible “Truth” in the face of “Truthiness.” He winks and shrugs his shoulders; he plays at playing.

Indeed, most illustrative of his Fool status Colbert uses his wit to cut both ways—placing him squarely in the overall indefinable position of Folly. As many of his Democratic guests have seen, he does not spare them scrutiny because of their party affiliation—it goes without saying that they are cogs in the same Beltway machine as the Republicans. And, so when Colbert ran for President of the United States, he approached both parties with equal fervor and disgust.

Judging him by his free spirit and entrepreneurialism, one might short-sightedly conclude that Colbert is, at heart, an Independent. But, in reality, he is not aligned with the political party of that name either. Rather, as history teaches us, his nuanced status as Fool means that his persona exists completely outside of the system. He can powerfully jibe and cajole because he has no position, he is at once everywhere and nowhere. Every-man and no-man.

As “Nemo” is Latin for “no-man,” it is a great epithet for Colbert. It follows that we might consider the Colbert Report as a popular culture journey through the depths of our Post-modern society with Colbert as our feisty, changeable captain.

I, for one, will be so glad when his Nautilus of a show next surfaces, registering on the TV radar, and beginning the next chapter of our great American novel.

 

“O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up-for you the flag is flung-for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths-for you the shores crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning…”

— Walt Whitman

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Bread and Circus contributing writer Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

Image (above): Cover of The Best of The Colbert Report (Paramount Home Video DVD), available from Amazon.com.

What Strange Bedfellows

by Editors

HISTORY & POLITICS

What Strange Bedfellows…

By Sarah Katherine Mergel

So I have to admit I was a little surprised to find out Pat Robertson had endorsed Rudy Giuliani’s bid for the Republican nomination, as I am sure were many of you regardless of what side of the political spectrum you fall on. I could not think of two more different people coming together even in the name of politics. Pat Robertson (the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and perhaps one of the most widely recognized social conservatives) and Rudy Giuliani (who I suspect some watchers of the CBN liken to the devil for his pro-choice stance) at first glance seem to have nothing in common. As I told my students shortly after I found out, like oil and water they should not mix. Robertson and Giuliani have insisted that they have more in common than voters might think. Both are committed to continuing the War on Terror and cutting government spending, especially on domestic programs.

Once I got over the initial shock of the news, I began to think about how in reality there is nothing strange about the Robertson-Giuliani pairing. American politics has been filled with strange political bedfellows. In the spirit of thinking historically, I thought I would share with you perhaps my favorite political pairing of the nineteenth century, that of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler in the election of 1840. By choosing this president/vice president combination, I am in no way suggesting that if Giuliani takes the GOP nomination Robertson will be his choice for vice president. Rather, I just want to remind everyone that in American politics anything goes.

Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828 touched off the beginnings of the Second Party System in the U.S. pitting the Democrats against the Whigs. The seeds of the Second Party System dated to the early 1820s and by the end of the 1830s local and personal factions had coalesced into new political parties. The Democrats united in support of Jackson—both because of his personality and his policies. The Whigs emerged to challenge Jackson’s tariff and bank policies. They wanted to use the power of the federal government to expand the nation’s wealth while the Democrats tended to shy away from government intervention in industrial development. The Whigs hoped to paper over class conflict, but the Democrats played up the issue. Finally, the Democrats wanted expansion as quickly as possible, whereas the Whigs remained more reticent about acquiring new territory.

In 1836, the Whigs fielded three candidates (one with appeal in the South, one with appeal in the North, and one with appeal in the West) in hopes of preventing Jackson’s heir apparent, Martin Van Buren, from becoming president. They failed primarily because Van Buren was so closely tied to Jackson’s presidency. The Whigs selected only one candidate in 1840, William Henry Harrison, to challenge Van Buren. Of the Whig candidates that ran in 1836, Harrison polled the best nationally. He took about 36 percent of the popular vote. In 1840, Harrison managed to top Van Buren and take the presidency. He won a little over 53 percent of the popular vote, but had a more commanding lead in the Electoral College.

Harrison benefited from the Panic of 1837 and its aftereffects that had marred Van Buren’s presidency and frustrated voters in 1840. He also used the same campaign techniques that Andrew Jackson had used to win the White House in 1828. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” became the Whigs’ campaign slogan. The Whigs played up Harrison’s military record. They focused on his defeat of Tecumseh after the Shawnee leader ordered an attack on Harrison’s troops stationed at Prophetstown along Tippecanoe Creek in the Indiana Territory in 1811. Whigs also portrayed Harrison as a common man, like Jackson, who had made good. Harrison had limited political experience, but that actually worked in his favor. He never had a chance to alienate any voters while in office. He campaigned ardently between 1836 and 1839, building up quite a following among other Whigs. Once selected as the nominee in 1839, Harrison remained relatively quiet on what he would do if he became president, primarily because the Whigs never adopted a platform.

The Whigs chose John Tyler, a Virginia slaveholder, as the vice presidential nominee to balance the ticket. Tyler, a former Democrat, only moved into the Whig column because he disagreed with Jackson’s bank policy, i.e., the elimination of a national bank. If the Whigs were aware of Tyler’s strict construtionism, his opposition to internal improvements, or his desire to see slavery expanded, they ignored it. They wanted him on the ticket because he would draw southern planters into their party. Perhaps the Whigs thought it would not matter what Tyler thought; vice presidents had had little say about policy in previous administrations.

What none of the Whigs expected was what happened after William Henry Harrison’s inauguration. Harrison unwisely chose to give a two hour inaugural address in the freezing rain without topcoat or hat. He contracted pneumonia and died in April, a month after taking office. Upon becoming the president, Tyler rejected the Whigs’ program for internal improvements that had been formulated by Harrison’s cabinet in conjunction with fellow party members in Congress. He also rejected the idea that because he had inherited the presidency he should take a backseat to the Cabinet in determining policy. The Whigs tried to force Tyler to resign, but he would not. Essentially, he became a president without a party.

In the next few years Tyler vetoed almost every bill Congress sent him. Moreover, he embarked on an expansionist foreign policy which included trying to bring the Republic of Texas into the United States. The annexation of Texas led to war with Mexico and raised a host of questions relating to the expansion of slavery that national politicians had been trying to avoid for years. While Tyler accomplished little in office, he did set a precedent for future vice presidents who suddenly found themselves as president. People may have questioned Andrew Johnson’s or Harry Truman’s leadership skills, but they did not question that those men had the right to be president.

It would be hard to suggest that if Tyler had not been president the Mexican-American War ( 1846 to 1848 ) might have been avoided, or the politics of slavery might not have lead to a civil war. However, Tyler’s presidency raises the proverbial “what if” question. What if Harrison had not died? What if the Whigs had chosen more prudently when they selected a vice president? Of course, we will never have an answer to those questions, which does not stop us from wondering. But those “what if” questions do highlight how in politics strange bedfellows can cause some strange outcomes. It should be interesting as we draw closer to the election of 2008 to see what other interesting political pairings develop.

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Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.

5 Movies About the Vietnam War Worth Seeing

by Editors

FILM NOTES

5 Movies about the Vietnam War worth seeing

By G. Arnold

With the arrival of Veterans Day, here are a few movies about the Vietnam War that are worth a look—or even a second or third look. This is not a list of “best” pictures. Instead, these five films are selected to offer a range of perspectives from different eras. No doubt, your list would be different. Let’s hear what you would add.

  • Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s epic from 1979 was controversial when it first appeared in American movie theaters. The decision to combine a Vietnam War story with elements of the novella Heart of Darkness perplexed people. They were expecting a more literal exploration of the war from the popular director whose film The Godfather had catapulted him to public attention. Over time, however, audiences have been won over. Coppola’s movie still doesn’t answer many questions about the war, but it’s a bold statement about the madness and chaos that the war can bring. Apocalypse Now features stunning cinematography and production design and a strong performance from Martin Sheen in the lead role. Skip the Redux version and see the original cut.
  • Platoon. In the 1980s, America’s taste in Vietnam War movies gravitated towards the likes of NARA unrestricted imageRambo and Missing in Action. Director Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran himself, was unhappy with what such movies said about the divisive conflict that had ensnared his generation, and so he set out to make a very different kind of film about the war. Combining a morality play about good and evil with battle sequences that many Vietnam vets found very realistic, he created a movie that elicited a deeply emotional reaction. In an interesting casting decision, Charlie Sheen, whose father Martin starred in Apocalypse Now, appears in the lead role. The film also features superb performances from Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger. Platoon won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1986.
  • The Deer Hunter. This 1978 movie was one of the first moves about the war to appear after it had finally come to an end. Focusing on a group of Vietnam veterans, it reinforced for the nation just how traumatic and scarring that war had been. The film is set after the war, but for this group of men, the war hasn’t really ended. The flashbacks, including tense scenes in which captive Americans are forced to play Russian roulette, are notable. Featuring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
  • The Anderson Platoon. This 1967 documentary from director Pierre Schoendoerffer was released at the height of the war. Originally made for French television, it does little more than tag along with an American unit for several weeks. In doing so, however, it offers a sobering portrait. Not really expressing a view in favor or against the war, The Anderson Platoon shows the bitter reality of a war apart from its politics. Original title: La Section Anderson. [This one is a bit hard to find.]
  • Rescue Dawn. The main character in this recent movie is a pilot shot down over Laos, Vietnam’s neighbor, but as we know, the Vietnam War spilled over national borders. Director Werner Herzog offers a complex movie, in which the characters come to center stage. The New York Times called this picture “a marvel: a satisfying genre picture that challenges the viewer’s expectations.”

More than thirty years after the end of the war, Hollywood still returns to the Vietnam War theme. Oliver Stone is working on Pinkville, a film about the investigation into My Lai Massacre [Business Week reports that the current writers strike has delayed work in this project]. In addition, Sylvester Stallone is resurrecting his iconic Vietnam vet hero in a new Rambo movie, set for a January 2008 release.

* * * * * * *

UPDATE!Here are five more…

  • Full Metal Jacket — features a great performance from Vincent D’Onofrio.

  • Fog of War – an enlightening and controversial documentary with Vietnam War-era Secretary of State Robert McNamara.
  • Rambo: First Blood, Part II not exactly a favorite of critics, it’s worth seeing this Sylvester Stallone vehicle if only to see for yourself what it was that captured America’s attention in the mid-1980s.
  • The Green BeretsHollywood star John Wayne made this picture at the height of the war in order to shore up public attitudes in favor of American participation; this one is also worth seeing for its role as a historical artifact.
  • We Were Soliders — based on the true story of America’s so-called first battle in Vietnam; starring Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, and Greg Kinnear.

__________________

G. Arnold is co-editor of Bread and Circus and the author of The Afterlife of America’s War in Vietnam, [pictured right, McFarland & Company Publishers, 2006] and the forthcoming Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics [Praeger 2008].

Photograph [above]: Department of Defense photograph, 1967. Courtesy National Archives & Records Administration.

Tuned In, Turned On, Burnt Out

by Editors

THE WRITING LIFE

Tuned In, Turned On, Burnt Out:
It’s Time to Take a Break From Creativity

By Erin Dionne

It’s time for a confession: I’m a writer who isn’t writing. The untouched projects have accumulated like dust bunnies under the bed: a novel languishing on my laptop (which I can’t even turn on without feeling pangs of guilt), a magazine article idea that I should have pitched three weeks ago, a blog that’s stagnated, and, of course, essays for this publication that are late. I’ve barely even answered email.

Sure, it’s the thick of the academic semester, and papers and projects from my students are rolling in, eating up my free time with grading and commenting responsibilities, but that’s not really an excuse. I work a schedule that is embarrassingly light and have ample time on my days off to both grade and write creatively. So why do I find myself frittering away the hours watching Law and Order marathons on basic cable, or spending an inordinate amount of time running errands and walking the dog?

For weeks, I’ve been struggling with this question, trudging around feeling guilty and fraudulent. Then the self-doubt set in: “you only have one good book in you,” “no one cares what you write about,” and the ever-popular “who says you can be a writer?” Panic mode—which includes consuming metric tons of leftover Halloween candy and using diversionary tactics whenever anyone asks about my work (“my book…oh, yeah—hey, isn’t that Elvis?”) isn’t far behind. My husband hid the bag of Kit-Kat bars in preparation.

Then, yesterday, I received an email from a friend. A regular, run-of-the-mill update-style message, it detailed what she’d been up to lately (baking, prep for a competition she’s in, day trips to explore nearby towns and attractions, and work), but for me it served as a light bulb moment bright enough to illuminate the eastern seaboard. I wondered at the variety of activities she’s involved in, envied her time spent in the kitchen with a mixing bowl and cookie batter. And it hit me.

I’m burnt out.

For the past six months, I’ve done nothing but write, think about writing, edit other people’s writing, or teach writing. An aggressive summer schedule of writing for hours every day gave way to an intense fall of working on revisions and balancing new curriculum elements in my classes, plus managing assorted outside projects and events. Everything I’ve been doing has one thing in common: it’s all about writing. I had no idea how alike all of these things are. Seems silly not to notice, doesn’t it? But if you’re enjoying what you do, it’s easy to miss the obvious.

My friend’s chatty email reminded me of a basic tenet of creativity: it needs to be fed from outside sources. Our experiences and broader lives help us to channel the inspiration and energy we need to create innovative, personal, and exciting work. I’ve been recycling my mental reserves instead of replenishing them. My well, so to speak, has run dry.

Now what?

Elsa Neal, in her article “Recovering from Creative Burnout” suggests taking a break from creating, going on a mini-vacation, or making small lifestyle changes, like getting up earlier, to recharge the batteries. Other experts advise allowing yourself time away from the work without guilt, or exploring different creative avenues to get your brain out of its rut.

Taking time away from work, even if it’s work you love, is necessary. Without a break, the creative process turns on itself like Frankenstein’s monster, destroying the artist who gives it life. I need to give myself permission to not write or read every second. It’s okay for me to walk away from my book for a little while—it’s going to be there when I return. The essays, articles, and blog will, too. And friends will forgive a lapse in email correspondence, won’t they?

The bottom line: my Law and Order marathons and Kit-Kat binges aren’t going to cut it. Replenishing the well of creativity requires some serious fun. A trip to a museum, perhaps? Time spent enjoying the fall foliage of New England? Whipping up a batch of cupcakes to share with family and friends? All that, and then some, needs to be on my calendar for the next few weeks.

Honey, the candy is safe. I’ll turn off the TV. Let’s go out.

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Erin Dionne, co-editor of Bread and Circus, is the author of the forthcoming novel Beauty Binge from Dial Books for Young Readers. Available in spring 2009.