Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Return of Lonesome Rhodes

I don't want all of my posts regarding media and culture to relate to the same three movies, but it's far to appropriate that avoiding it would be conspicuous.

Lonesome Rhodes, for those who don't know, is the name of the character played by Andy Griffith in the 1997 Elia Kazan film, A Face in the Crowd. The movie tells the story of Rhodes as he is discovered by a radio documentarian in a rural jail. His folksy wisdom soon earns him a following that is exploited by the people around. His popularity is snowballed until he and his handlers start to fancy him a king-maker and he becomes corrupted with his own power.

There are two reads to this-that Rhodes was an essentially good man who was corrupted, or Rhodes was a mean man that a cult could conceal for only so long. The movie certainly leans on the former, with Walter Mathau's line, "You gotta be a saint to stand all the power that little box(TV) can give you." For the purpose of this discussion, it doesn't really mater.

By now, I'm sure, it's obvious why I'm bringing this up. Just about every one has talked Joe Wurzelbacker in some capacity or another by now, to the point that I don't have to give any background on it. But it's exactly that kind of attention that brings me to mention him and one of my favorite movies.

Since Joe's debut in the final election he has had what could be considered a predictable arc. The media camped out on the man's lawn and mined him for every opinion he might have. Lou Dobbs has endorsed the man for the Senate. He has a book, publicist, and is even considering a album. And Joe is on the campaign trail. Consider for a moment this scene from A Face in the Crowd-

Lonesome Rhodes: This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!
Marcia Jeffries: Sheep?
Lonesome Rhodes: Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president - and you'll be the power behind me!

In my previous post comparing a media figure to Rhodes (and Howard Beale and Brian from Life of Brian) I gave the figure credit for having enough of a sense of irony and self awareness to not be consumed by it, Howard Beale style. I don't know that it is true of our friend Joe.

There are two paths for Joe now, depending on how the person who thrust him into the spot light fares next Tuesday-he will either be the everyman kingmaker that saved the day for McCain or an Alamo-like symbol for a party looking to create a new identity after a devastating loss.

Either way, he is a product of the machine now, and the machine is not kind. The Lou Dobbs Chris Crocker-esque defense of Joe will only last so long. We won't need a Mel Miller to flick on a camera feed to let us know the real Wurzelbacker.

A Face in the Crowd contains one of the best and prophetic monologues at the end of the film after Rhodes is exposed for the bastard he has become (or always was)-
Lonesome Rhodes: Listen, I'm not through yet. You know what's gonna to happen to me?
Mel Miller: Suppose I tell you exactly what's gonna happen to you. You're gonna be back in television. Only it won't be quite the same as it was before. There'll be a reasonable cooling-off period and then somebody will say: "Why don't we try him again in a inexpensive format. People's memories aren't too long." And you know, in a way, he'll be right. Some of the people will forget, and some of them won't. Oh, you'll have a show. Maybe not the best hour or, you know, top 10. Maybe not even in the top 35. But you'll have a show. It just won't be quite the same as it was before. Then a couple of new fellas will come along. And pretty soon, a lot of your fans will be flocking around them. And then one day, somebody'll ask: "Whatever happened to, a, whatshisname? You know, the one who was so big. The number-one fella a couple of years ago. He was famous. How can we forget a name like that? Oh by the way, have you seen, a, Barry Mills? I think he's the greatest thing since Will Rogers."

After that, Miller calls to the applause machine operator to leave Rhodes with his canned audience.

That was fifty years ago. Before we went from three channels to hunderds. Before the internet and Web 2.0. Miller's life cycle still exists, but it now has an almost Moore's Law quality to it. He has to strike while the iron is hot because it cools quickly these days. It's not there is a lack of precedent, former Survivor contestants co-host shows, former reality show subjects host other reality shows as the monster eats itself.

But cynicism aside, we are a content hungry audience and novelty only will get you so far.

I don't know that Joe is ready for his own spotlight, much less his future as a footnote in presidential elections. It's easy to imagine your life as a kingmaker, not always as easy to imagine your life as an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.

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