Wednesday, September 26, 2012

New column: Blue Like Jazz

I have a new column at The Interim's website, on the pretty-much-straight-to-video college/coming-of-age putatively Christian film Blue Like Jazz. Here's a quote:
Taylor has a lot of fun with the overbearingly nonconformist and aggressively flakey campus life at a college like Reed. In search of extracurricular activities, Don learns that flag football is canceled for lack of interest, but Lamaze For Non-Mothers is fully subscribed; it’s only a shade more absurd than the course in the Science of Superheroes actually offered by the University of California, Irvine, or Underwater Basket Weaving, an elective enrichment course offered by UC, San Diego.
I'm not at all sure how important college will be when it's time for my kids to go. It was a very big deal - and a huge disappointment - when I went, thirty years ago, but seems to have peaked as the single most important decision in your kids' life, and if you get it wrong they'll end up on the pole or driving a truck. If the whole Higher Education Bubble thing turns out to be true, it might be very different in a decade or so. In any case, academia changes very slowly, so I don't imagine it'll be any less stridently liberal by the time I'll have to convince my daughters to learn a trade or join the army.


In late December of 1967, just as the western world was passing over the first convulsive hump of a youthquake and about to head steeply down the slope on the other side, Woody Allen hosted an episode of the Kraft Music Hall, and as part of his look back at the year just ending invited William F. Buckley to join him for a joshing, soft-shouldered left vs. right debate, at some point between Liza Minelli and Aretha Franklin doing a couple of numbers.

To imagine such a thing today, you'd have to picture Ricky Gervais hosting the MTV Movie Awards and asking Mark Steyn on to look back on President Obama's first term and do a bit of friendly handicapping of his chances for reelection. That's actually not even a fair comparison, since most of the young people in the audience for the Kraft TV special seemed to know who Buckley was, whereas Steyn - the most witty and pop culture savvy conservative personality I can think of - is utterly unknown to anyone outside of that part of the Venn diagram where conservative politics and media literacy intersect.

I'd go so far as to say that Steyn's name would be obscure to a palpable majority of Republican voters. To find someone with close to the name recognition that Buckley had back in 1967, you'd probably have to imagine Gervais bantering onstage with Sarah Palin, and at this point the whole analogy becomes utterly preposterous.

To set up their differing politics, Allen introduces himself as having views that are "desperately liberal and criminal at times," while calling Buckley "one of the most controversial and charming men on television." After a slightly awkward exchange where Buckley puts forward the idea that he might mace Allen if provoked, they settle down to look at the year, which Buckley judges as something near to a disaster. That summer's riots in Detroit are mentioned, which helps Allen set up a joke about his mother scribbling "Soul Brother" on the wall of a synagogue.

The kids who step up to the microphone to ask the two men questions look remarkably square - not a long hair or a dashiki to be seen, which underscores how much of a marginal, elite college phenomenon the counterculture was up till then, a fact plainly evident if you look at D.A. Pennebaker's footage of the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival, which also happened that summer. The unpopularity of Lyndon Johnson, as yet to turn down a run at a second term as president, is generally agreed upon, as Allen jokes that the Boston Strangler could probably beat LBJ.

A pretty blonde asks Buckley if he thinks miniskirts are in good taste. He replies, with a wolfish smile, that "On you I think they are." We're still firmly in Mad Men territory here, where it was perfectly appropriate for older men, even adamantly conservative ones, to raffishly ogle young girls. It's interesting to reflect that, on the far side of the sexual revolution, this would go down very poorly, a sign that we might tolerate an awful lot more of what was once considered deviant behaviour today, but we're very definitely not that liberated, in the sense that anyone in 1967 would have understood the word.

(Asked the same question, I probably would have said "I don't know - I've never eaten one." It's amazing to think that this would have been an issue of public interest, but it's worth remembering that the real civilizational battle we're facing today isn't about skirt lengths but whether any part of a woman should be seen in public at all. Try explaining that to them back in '67.)

Allen does his best to reinforce the cliche that conservatives like Buckley are antique in demeanor and Victorian in taste, which Buckley himself does little to contradict. Amazingly enough the stereotype still has legs today, which is rich when you consider the "desperately liberal" Allen is a fan and performer of 1920s jazz - the contemporary musical equivalent of the Strauss waltzes he inferred Buckley preferred - and built one of the scenes in his 1986 film Hannah And Her Sisters on the noisy unlistenability of a punk band playing CBGBs.

To be fair, the 39 Steps - who came from Montreal - were actually pretty shit.

The Six Day War, another highlight of what looks now like a very eventful summer, is brought up, and Buckley opines that war has a remarkable way of settling issues and even producing positive outcomes and that he's sure that, with time, Israel's neighbours will come to live, perhaps even enthusiastically (he uses the word "salubrious," which probably suggests a different meaning) with the Jewish state. He was right about war but, forty-five years later, got it all wrong on the Middle East.

Ultimately, what's remarkable about Allen and Buckley on the Kraft Music Hall is not just how amicable the two men can be despite their politics, but how comfortable a young audience is with conservatives occupying the stage - and getting off a few good lines - on a prime time, mainstream variety show. As I try to divine the precise point at which conservatives either abandoned pop culture - or were exiled from it - it would seem that they still had a place at the table, even in the winter after the Summer of Love.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Years ago, a crew from ITV came to Toronto to film a documentary about Due South, the Canadian-made "Mountie goes to Chicago" TV series that was - apparently - a huge hit in the UK. I was still writing a daily TV column for the paper-that-can't-be-named, and was asked to join the cast of talking heads eulogizing the show. My recollection was that I did a fairly good job of disguising my complete ambivalence about Due South, and that I made a few cranky comments about my country and our self-image.

I never heard another thing about the show, and assumed that it had disappeared into the UHF ether, but we live in the dawn of the 21st century, which means that everything you ever do in front of a camera will persist. Imagine my surprise to find that someone has put it online (part 1 of 6 above) and that at least a few shards of my unpatriotic bile made it to the small screen. It seems like so long ago. And yes, the camera does add ten pounds...