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.

Pt. 11 Finale:Berlin's Rough Patch

Berlin had a rough fifty years in the latter half of the twentieth century. If nothing else, it certainly as made the really good at memorializing.

First up was the Jewish museum. The only building in Berlin with more barriers and security (including the Reichstag) was the U.S. consulate. It's not so much for the threat of someone attacking it, but rather the demonstration of how serious they were about it.

The architecture was remarkable, and purposefully disorienting. It's dominated by this crazy criss-cross pattern.

Apparently this can be reconfigured into the Star of David.

Among the various instilations meant to deal with themes like diaspora, there was this one-

The room, with a ceiling several stories high, was filled with thousands of metal carved faces-

The visitor is invited to walk on them, which once suggested becomes a disturbing prospect. It's at once a hamhanded and effective symbol. In the antiseptic atmosphere of the museum, sharing the Perganon Museum's audio tour silenced vistors-wandering out onto the instillation is a little surreal. The clanks of the metal faces against each other under foot echo through the chamber. I noted that it sounded a bit like their cries, and was disturbed by the fact that it made me walk further. Not to say it was a metal Stanford Prison Experiment, but still.

One of the center pieces was an instillation that was supposed to memorialize the disorientation of the uprooted Jewish people. You exit the building into a into a courtyard with uneven floors and tall rectangular columns with a plant canopy filtering the sun.

It's impressive, not so much the second time-

Apparently, when it came time to build a Jewish Holocaust Memorial there was a contest on the design. The winner? A large expanse with an uneven floor and tall gray rectangular columns. One hundred feet from the Jewish History Museum, with it's display with an uneven floor and tall gray rectangular columns.

Also, disappointingly, it's the Jewish Holocaust Memorial because the counsel representing the Jewish community did not want to share this memorial with other victims of the Holocaust, meaning that homosexuals and gypsies had different, non-central memorials.

Across the street was a clutch of shops and restaurants, one of which had this out front-


There were reminders of that dark part of Berlin's history-a plaque down the street from my host's apartment noted a former train depot where Jews were loaded on board. It was a little harrowing, at least this time I had something to compare it with. It was the same feeling that hit me when I found out the mall I performed as the Easter Bunny was on the site of a Japanese internment camp. Not as severe by orders of magnitude, but still...

But that history doesn't leave the same kind of scar as the Berlin Wall. They only recently have started to create the memorial to that, preserving one section-

complete with 'zone of death'-

It's hard to imagine any country would want to build something like this again.

Just sayin'.

Well, that's it-that's the Germany trip. If you read through each update hoping for something like, "How the hell did someone like you end up in Germany?" and "Who is 'the host'?" well, sorry. Maybe later.

The complete photo album can be seen here. Maybe I'll even get around to labeling all of them...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pt. 10 Graveyards

It may seem a little 'Goth,' but we spent a little time in Berlin's cemeteries. There was a reason, of course-Berlin is the home of Bertolt Brecht.

Who had what seemed an appropriate grave-

But it was the graveyard that had been partially uprooted for the split between East and West Germany where, between the amusing one upmanship between secret and super secret or really secret or whatever advisers to royalty (my host has tried to explain the difficulty in translation, but it is not nearly as amusing as the grave stones that differentiate between secret and really secret advisers), came probably one of the more sobering things.

All throughout Berlin you can see the odd unrestored building riddled with bullet holes. I've spent my life where no war has scarred the landscape, war is an abstract to me. But what really hit me was walking through the graveyard.

Many of the tombstones were damaged and covered with bullet holes. Of course, I cannot imagine war, nor do I have much of a desire to. But that-this was the last gasp of the war for Germany, a street by street fight with a Soviet army that wasn't going to go easy. How horrifying, how morbid, to have this last stand among the graves. Some of the tombstones taught the military service of the person buried there or their children.

Afterward I became more aware of the stories of the bullet pock marks-imagining the sniper that must have held up on Museum Island that attracted the small group of bullet holes.

What made it worse was the graveyard had to be partially uprooted for the Berlin Wall to be made, a section of which was still up.

Actually, a great deal of it was still up, now used simply as the cemetery wall.

Which is I guess where all those authentic pieces bought by tourists are supposed to be coming from...

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Pt. 9 "The Garage"

I have to finish these posts, I'm starting to forget the name of this place. Whatever its name, it was awesome. Essentially a classic car showroom and storage facility for collectible cars, it was also open to the general public to wander in and out of to do the ultimate window shopping.

The cars on tap ranged from a 'lowly' Fiat 500-

to F1 boss Bernie Eccelstone's personal Thunderbird-

to this Audi...I gotta be honest, I have no idea what it is beyond Audi...

Two Enzos where on tap as well and it didn't occour to me to photograph them. That's how cool the cars were.

While no split windows, there were some Buses (or 'Bullis') there as well. The best thing about this one?

You could rent it. I spent a long time trying to come up with a reason we needed to rent a crane.
Eastern block cars were available as well-naturally the Trabant-

(Two fun side notes on the Trabant-first is that there is a Berlin tour that is conducted by a caravan of puttering Trabants, which I didn't take but did witness. The second was the explanation for what was going on on the back deck here-

It turns out, the roadside stop is really more of an American thing-in Europe at least for a while, once you were out of town, you were on your own. So it was common to bring along your own toilet paper, which modest people would knit cozies for... My host informed me that while a touch unnecessary now, it's still common for older people to have the little TP cozy in the back.)
There was also a Czech Tatra-

Not the cool 'Batmobile' style with the giant fin, but still cool. Also available for rent.
In the wild we spotted one of these-

Which was your alternative to the Trabant if you were an East German. (that's the new Fiat 500 in the background there, which seemed about as popular as the new Mini is here)
This seemed like the most functional of hood ornaments-

-except I imagine hard to read when in use.

The floor had silhouettes of famous racing circuits including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Daytona, Le Mans, and of course-

Avus. Which is also part of the Autobahn that still serves Berlin. And I totally drove on it. Awesome.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Pt. 8 Museum Island, or 'No autofocus!'

In the center of Mitte (which itself means 'middle' or something like it) there is an island with a collection of museums, the center piece of which is the Pergamon Museum which contains the Pergamon altar and the Ishtar gate. On display there was a massive Babylon exhibit divided into 'myths' and 'reality.' There were no photographs allowed, so I don't know where this came from.

By this time we had been to enough museums to decide to do away with the audio tour. We had been dragging these clumsy bastards around to only listen to maybe three tracks that more or less just repeated what was on the wall next to the display. Rather than jostle with the crowd for a cumbersome device to do our reading for us, we jumped ahead to the exhibit. (besides, we had an all museum pass, so there was no dallying...)

The result was on of the most surreal experiences of the trip. Among all the glass enclosed antiquity, massive throngs of museum goers shuffled around occasionally gathering in semi-circles to stare silently at displays. When the signal in their ears told them, they would shuffle off in small groups to stand in silence in another semi-circle around another display.

We darted in and out of these clusters, vaguely following the map that suggested our route. As we poked in and out looking for signs or sometimes not caring the silent people would move around us like water.

It was kind of wasn't even library quiet, it was quiet quiet. Footfalls and the occasional voice.

The 'truth' was stuffy and warm. Myth was air conditioned and spacious. I don't know if this was by design, but it certainly made me like the myths of Babylon a lot more. Plus, there was porn (for the 'whore of Babylon'), so that's always good.

We passed through other museums, the New Museum and Old Museum, where I was taking these pictures when I encountered the strangest photography restriction yet-

A kindly but heavily accented curator came up to me and said, "No autofocus." (well, actually, he was one of the few people that didn't just automatically speak to me in English. Apparently I scream, "Not German.") We figured that since I was taking close ups they were afraid the that the lens moving in and out might hit the sculpture.

The real highlight (well, there were a lot) was the Turkish street vendors on the bridges selling 'authentic' Soviet paraphernalia, mostly hats and pins. My host informed me that for ten year after the fall they were selling 'authentic' chunks of the Berlin wall (which can also still be bought in the store next to the Brandenburg Gate, across from The Museum Kennedy...we had to look because the name was odd.) While the East Berlin government buildings have been torn down due to asbestos, the Marx and Engels statues were still up.

Also what my host kept calling the 'television tower.'

It was interesting to see a product of what I had studied in college. During the occupation the 'west' and 'east' had very different ways of dealing with the communications and film making in Germany. The East kept them nationalized, naturally, and churning out works, the west tore them down (which conveniently opened the door for British and American films that had already made their money domestically. This is a phenomenon that continues on, with American movies filling the theaters and American shows taking up the television programing. I was reminded of the line from a Wim Wenders movie, "The Americans have colonized our minds.") After re-unification the studios are now oriented in the East where they still stood and operated.

I never actually went to Checkpoint Charlie, though I did contemplate getting something with the "You are now leaving the American controlled sector," but it seemed too predictable...