Full Flaps | Tailspin | Back Issues | sfflier@well.com

Thursday, May 29, 1997

Full Flaps

What's Next, Wise Guy?

It's probably fitting that my continuum of venting against Willie Brown should elicit responses along the lines of: Okay, wise guy, you're quick to criticize the mayor, but he's hampered by problems and federal guidelines not of his making, and he's at least making an attempt at confronting them. Running your mouth isn't the same as putting yourself out there on the hot seat. Exactly what would you do in his place?

Well, ahem, my proper place is indeed on the sidelines, as you cleverly imply, dutifully speaking truth to power, as the received tablets have always bidden my kind to do. It's a difficult position in its own right, as here I've been convinced that for the past year I've been prescribing for Willie the boldest and most immutable of remedies. But no matter. We can utilize my limited capacity to begin anew, and truly there's no better time (trust me on this) than the present.

Whether the stadium-mall propositions spiral to their rightful doom or prevail, this election campaign will have been a wake-up call for Brown. If he was unable to face the facts before, this example of the extent to which government is hamstrung by the bullying of the private sector will leave its mark. Brown's politics may have become addled in recent years, but he's a far cry from obtuse, and within that distinction lies a considerable ability to make the extrapolation to the larger arena which dictates his local options. He should by now have sensed that the New Democrat inclinations he began indulging in the Sacramento of the 1980s will not withstand the scrutiny given them presently in San Francisco. Whether he is yet entertaining thoughts of shedding his fidelity to the musty cadaver of the party of Roosevelt, he will soon be forced to act as if he has. And he no longer has the luxury to make that choice alone -- the city he represents, and its symbolic representation to the rest of the country, has already forced his hand.

* * *

In a little more than two months Brown will be faced with the detritus of Clinton's welfare reform program. He has begun mobilizing for the avalanche which will bestow the onus of SSI, food stamps and AFDC upon financially beleaguered states and municipalities. One couldn't have envisioned a more salutary moment for Brown to broach what is obviously his strongest suit, one which no other party operative could remotely parlay: The capability to tell Clinton to lodge it where the sun don't shine -- and make it stick. That is the fulcrum on which the perception of Brown's power turns, and make no mistake, it is substantial. The nexus of the nation's urban ganglia solidifies around Brown's persona and the policies he effects here.

Inertia and amnesia about the core beliefs which initially brought him to prominence are the crux of Brown's current dilemma, as those of us at lesser remove have deciphered. Combined with his brittle self-absorption and concern for image, the self-described boldness of his initiatives has been nothing which caused alarm within the milieu of his wealthy friends. The contentiousness, slipshod planning and exaggerated expectations of the stadium-mall, however, have clearly jarred Brown, and one might expect that the appeal of privatization which drove the approach of his first year in office will be less appetizing and comforting. Now that he is forced to scramble to stem the fallout from the disintegration of the federal safety net, he will doubtless be further disappointed as the response of local businesses to the hiring of welfare recipients parallels corporate disinterest nationwide.

Intrepidly is the only way Brown can move now. And that pretty much forecloses on the methodology of deal-making for which he is most esteemed. There has remained no basis for an appeal to Clinton since the supreme conciliator Dick Morris dealt the remnants of the Democratic Party out of existence.

* * *

So Willie tells him to shove it. What then, wise guy? Are we supposed to secede from the country or something?

Well, I'm delighted that you ask. And, no, there's no need for such a formal disavowal. We are, after all, already a de facto city-state, as befits our reputation as the conscience of the United States. The Willie Brown we thought we elected (if he was only a projection of our own desires, we'll know soon enough) merely carries on that tradition. But understandably, dear readers, you're impatient to learn how he should proceed.

He does it in this way. He calls Ted Kennedy and he says, Senator, I know you've been thinking about the year 2000. You want in, and why wouldn't you? All the elements are in place and converging: the drama of the millennium as a backdrop to the political crisis we are experiencing; the realization that this is your last opportunity, the swan song toward which your entire career has tended; the savvy, perspective and courage that the past ten years have provided you. Best of all, you don't owe anyone anything, and you've got nothing more to prove. You've got to do it, and I suspect you know that, don't you? Moreover, you should take it outside the party, stand apart, rather than expend your energies deflecting the resentment of Gore and our latest bogus populist, Gephardt. Yes, that means a third party, one that will take away Gephardt's and Wellstone's followers as well as Perot's, other independents and even some conservatives. Tell me you're in and I'll go to work here. I'll deliver California or I'll die trying. And I'll start by cutting the legs out from under Clinton. I'll be in the sucker's face every day, and I'll get my rich friends to siphon off his business supporters. I'll use the 10-point program you delivered in 1996 at the Center for National Policy as a guide to the first steps the country has to take. It's a blueprint I can sell.

The caution, of course, is that I'm not sure the voice I hear above is Brown's, and I'll bet you're not sure either. The frightening thing is that, at best, it may only be a measure of our own thwarted longing for change. Only Brown himself can provide that answer, and all indications are that he's running out of time.

--Copyright John Hutchison 1997





Chill Out!

People in Tokyo about a hundred years ago had a sure-fire method for beating the heat: theatrical terror. As an old man, the novelist Tanizaki Jun'ichiro recalled boyhood visits to the Kabuki Theater where dramas of betrayal and revenge froze his blood and even the dark interior of the hall swirled gusts of wind "as cool as mint" up his sleeves and down the neck of his kimono. Better still were open-air performances late at night, where he shivered as puffs of steam rose like ghosts from nearby sewage ditches and the brightly lit stage -- the only light to pierce the darkness -- revealed horribly mutilated victims and gruesome murderers.

In this spirit, I visited San Francisco's Japantown in search of relief during a recent hot spell. In a nod to summers spent in Tokyo, I stopped first at Mizuno for sanshoku -- three small dishes overflowing with noodles and vegetables in a combination of colors and textures, accompanied by a tangy dipping sauce. Only lack of time, and perhaps a little uncharacteristic prudence, prevented me from topping off the nostalgia trip with a bowl of sweet-beans-and-syrup over shaved ice. Then I headed over to the Kabuki to see the most frightening movie I could think of, The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

The beginning was promising. The house lights switched off suddenly, and bone-rattling roars beset the almost entirely male audience. The noisy onslaught continued for several minutes as late arrivals groped their way frantically toward empty seats. Silence followed, broken by a few nervous titters. Finally, music burst forth from an invisible orchestra, and a red-and-white advertisement for soft drinks flashed onto the screen. And I realized that the cold sensation in my chest came not from the overly active air-conditioning system but from a deep foreboding that had nothing to do with dinosaurs.

First of all, for anyone who has managed to miss the hype surrounding this movie (including an extremely sophisticated "official" web site that rivals certain imaginative CD-ROM games in complexity), The Lost World is Steven Spielberg's summer blockbuster. Despite poor-to-worse reviews, it opened to huge crowds on Memorial Day weekend, setting box office records and leading to predictions that it would earn $1 billion for Universal Pictures. It really isn't very good. The plot, which doesn't even bother to take up the leads that Spielberg's 1993 Jurassic Park left dangling, begins with the revelation that scientists have been nurturing a previously undisclosed dinosaur colony on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. Two groups converge on the site, one (the good guys) to document the activities of the big critters; the other (a motley bunch of greedy capitalists, big game hunters, and wildlife experts) to round them up and haul them off to a zoo in San Diego. This ménage à trois ends up with every man -- and every politically correct woman and dinosaur -- for himself, and with the U.S. Navy protecting them all from one another.

It's definitely a scary movie. I did indeed recoil in response to unforeseen ambushes by men or beasts, and I gripped the arms of my chair to white-knuckle tightness during the (sometimes literally) cliff-hanging scenes. But it's even scarier on another level. I can tolerate its unrelenting violence, and I don't particularly mind its dramatized comicbook feel, which pops up in many of today's Hollywood films. I certainly don't object to its silly plot. But I regard as pernicious the techniques chosen to present the story -- the director's point of view, if you will.

Spielberg employs two highly effective tactics that reinforce each other. One is a kind of auditory aggression. He assaults members of the audience with a continuous confusion of deafening noises that seem to explode unpredictably from any and all directions. Like someone in the middle of a battlefield that is being overrun by the enemy as shells burst on all sides and panicking soldiers mill about, a person experiencing this film in a movie theater is kept constantly off guard, threatened by the almost unbearable din, and unsure what to do for protection.

Surely, this is the goal of a well-made thriller! Perhaps. But it also describes a process that reduces independent human beings into pure reactors with no will of their own. In this case, they then become responsive to Spielberg's second tactic, the way he presents the visual images on the screen. We rarely meet adults at eye level. Instead, we see them in aerial shots that emphasize their puniness and vulnerability in the face of arrant danger. Or more likely, we view them (often in closeup) from below, from the perspective of a nine-year-old. Their actions may be inexplicable, stupid, and cruel, but they loom so large and all-powerful that resistance is out of the question. In this way, the camera draws young viewers into the story by re-creating the relationship that always exists, at least potentially, between parent and child.

But it also re-creates the relationship between ruler and ruled in an authoritarian society like the one depicted in Spielberg's 1993 film, Schindler's List, where both young and old were at the mercy of the Nazis. The historically based description in one film has become a way of life -- the only way of life -- in another. Oskar Schindler, in the last days of the war, wished that he had given away his entire fortune to save a few more Jews, forgetting that his wealth and position made his political actions possible. Similarly Spielberg, in The Lost World, ignores the fact that the power of organization enables people of good will to confront evil. There are many ways to tell a story, depending on the storyteller's vision. In Spielberg's, there is no room for politics. He has chosen to create a world where, even though the film itself stumbles to an upbeat ending, the little people can only watch helplessly as everything of value careens toward ultimate destruction by the sadists and numskulls in power.The Lost World is a statement of defeat, not a call for protest. In a work intended for consumption by as many people as possible ("Be a part of history," the ads say), it is irresponsible not to calculate the impact it will have along with the income it will produce.

Many years ago, I left another Spielberg film -- the beloved E.T. -- furious at its depiction of adults as storm troopers. With the withering wisdom of a twelve-year-old, my son protested, "Mom, it's only a movie." But something that is seen by millions of people, especially millions of young people, is never just a movie. At that level, we are not talking merely about artistic expression. We are talking about a worldview in the making. Now that's a chilling thought.

--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

Home | Current Issue | Back Issues | sfflier@well.com