Attack of the Zombie Vampire Werewolves

Recently I had a conversation with a young adult who is reading and analyzing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for a university class.  She’s a deep thinker, and she’s making some deep applications of the text to modern life.  Somehow, our discussion turned to the literary and cinematic fare that she sees being pumped out to her generation.  “Why are they giving us vampires, zombies, and werewolves,” she asks.

     It hadn’t occurred to me that this was the case, but a speedy scan of what’s currently going on in the realm of movies, TV, and young adult literature reveals that the current cultural world is under invasion by a host of malodorous and malevolent creatures.  The purveyors of contemporary entertainment, for example, offer up a mind-bending variety of zombies.  There are Nazi zombies, stripper zombies, and apparently even an Osama Bin Laden zombie appropriately known in his afterlife as Ozombie. And we shouldn’t leave out the recent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This Seth Graham-Smith product isn’t merely a novel; it’s an entire series.  Mr. Graham-Smith has also given us Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

      In the vampire category, the Twilight series is merely the tip of the fang. Dracula has risen from the grave –again – to star in his own Masterpiece Theater-styled TV series.  To lure young adults to his lair, some Steam Punk elements have been threaded in.  We have also been favored with a new movie titled Vampire Academy that appears to be Hogwarts with a different student population.  These are just a couple of highlights.  There is also the Black Dagger Brotherhood novel series by J.R. Ward about a New York turf war between vampires and vampire hunters.  As though the Big Apple doesn’t already have enough problems.  And we can’t leave out that splendorous cinematic wonder, Vampires Suck.  Whether or not the title is intended as a slang criticism of vampires, I can’t help agreeing with the sentiment. 

     We won’t launch into a survey of the werewolves that are being unleashed on us. Instead we’ll let it go with Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman.  Need more be said?    

     The young adult world, defined by the publishing industry as ranging in age from 12 to 18 and defined elsewhere as 18-24, is practically drowning in a fictional bloodbath.  So be skeptical the next time you’re in a library and happen to see celebrities – such as the stars of the Twilight series – posing with books on READ posters.  Content matters. Maybe not every young adult is up for Chaucer, but surely there are some thoughtful stops between Canterbury Tales and Night of the Living Trekkies; likewise, the YA mainstream might not have the intellectual sturdiness for Kenneth Branagh’s three hour Hamlet, but there is a contemplative middle ground bridging Shakespeare and Zombieland



The Rob Ford Follies

It’s difficult to know where to begin when discussing the notorious mayor of Toronto. His infamy began with the revelation that he is apparently a fancier of crack cocaine. From there the story has taken various crazy directions, veering wildly from allegedly misogynist statements to a physical clash with a female councilor. Mayor Ford has even gone so far as to wear an Argonauts football jersey to speak before the Toronto council. He distinguished the moment with profanity. The Mayor is a dream come true for our increasingly sensationalized national and international media. He’s the gift that keeps on giving.

The follies of Rob Ford illustrate the need for skepticism when thinking about democratic political systems. The promise of democracy is the notion that the people are really the rulers. Politicians work for the voters, it is said, and so if a particular politician turns out to be an embarrassment, he or she can be banished to a deserved obscurity. Certainly it would seem that when an avalanche of disgrace descends upon a politician’s head the way it has in Mayor Ford’s case, the outcry must become so deafening that the individual becomes quickly unemployed. So it would seem.

But let’s look closely at the Ford model because it teaches us a lesson that contradicts many of the democratic precepts with which we’ve grown up. The best way to study the Mayor is to compare him with the man for whom he is nearly a physical dead ringer, Auric Goldfinger, the highest ranking villain of the James Bond novel and film series. Goldfinger was silky smooth, always moving under the radar. Rob Ford has all the subtlety of a team of intoxicated circus clowns. Goldfinger was intensely focused and goal oriented; he was a master planner. Rob Ford, if a Hefty bag (XL of course) were suddenly lowered over him, would not be able to plan a way out. Goldfinger was a well-dressed sophisticate who knew the intricate steps necessary to the creation of a correct mint julep. Rob Ford projects the appearance of a bumpkin, preferring crack to a julep, and a sports jersey to the impeccably tailored tweeds in which Goldfinger adorned himself. Finally, Goldfinger treated his employees well, earning their unwavering loyalty. Rob Ford has fired many of his employees for the offense of trying to advise him toward moderation.

Rob Ford’s similarities to Goldfinger are as striking as the differences. Goldfinger certainly did not know how to treat a lady, and apparently neither does Ford. In fact, the Mayor had his unfortunate wife appear beside him for one of his embarrassing recent appearances. More interestingly, bad things happened to Goldfinger’s enemies, and a number of Ford opponents have become the targets of Toronto gangsters. This has resulted in beatings and murders for Ford’s foes.
Gert FrobeRob FordDoppelgangers: Gert Frobe as Goldfinger and Rob Ford as Rob Ford

There is even a police investigation underway concerning Ford’s activities, and the Toronto council has stripped him of all but his ceremonial powers. Yet he’s still there, and that’s the lesson. Nowhere is change more difficult to achieve than in the realm of government. Think of the taxes that have been unveiled as temporary necessities, and have lasted longer than the legislators who imposed them. Consider the government programs that once instituted become untouchable even to attempts at making them more efficient. Maybe Rob Ford is a type of Uncle Sam, a symbol of the fact that when it comes to government, once it’s there, it’s there.

JFK: American Antigone

American pop culture has been gradually working its way toward the predictable overflow of JFK coverage to accompany the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination. Media pages online and in print have been awash with the all too familiar colorful pictures of that sunny day in Dallas on the afternoon of 22 November, 1963. The President and Mrs. Kennedy are either at the airport surrounded by enthusiastic crowds or in the motorcade smiling and waving, seconds before the crisp fall air is pierced with the sound of gunfire.

The various pieces being written about the anniversary largely question why Americans never seem to move on, why they continue to contemplate this single, chaotic moment. One writer even contended that in the mind of the American public, Jackie Kennedy is forever frozen in her pink suit and pillbox hat; the motorcade is eternally held in place in that last moment of normalcy. In the span of seconds the Kennedy Camelot was replaced by the Johnson hoedown. Had LBJ remained safely confined to the vice-presidency, there never would have been those embarrassing pictures of the President of the United States baying with his hound in the oval office or pulling up his shirt to show the surgical scar on his furrowed belly.

When journalists are not pretending that public interest in the assassination is a mystery, they are rehashing the conspiracy theories. The CIA and the military orchestrated it; the mob ordered it; the Secret Service deliberately pulled back; pro-Castro forces did it; anti-Castro forces did it. One author devoted an entire book to reasons why LBJ arranged it. Didn’t LBJ crave the presidency for himself and wasn’t there friction between him and the Kennedys? Didn’t Texas give LBJ a home field advantage?

As we engage in the countdown to Friday, let us not imagine that the iconic status of 22 November is one of history’s mysteries. We’ll never know whether or not average people would finally stop talking about it if the media stopped rehearsing it, because that isn’t going to happen. Jack Kennedy and his family were enormously photogenic people who exuded optimistic energy. It was natural for the media to find the charismatic Kennedys fascinating after covering the grandfatherly President Eisenhower and his grandmotherly wife, Mamie. And JFK remains the model for presidential glamour. Every one of his successors has been compared to him by various media commentators, not in terms of substance but in terms of presentation. Is it we or the media that won’t let go.
JFK and Jackie in Dallas

Further, we have never been satisfied with the Warren Report, attributing the assassination to the work of a lone psycho, Lee Harvey Oswald. We may have no idea what happened that day, but we’re pretty sure that it’s more complicated than the official story would lead us to believe, even if Bill O’Reilly insists otherwise. And we almost like it that way, because we have affection for puzzles. A tint of the unknown rescues events from the open and shut dreariness that characterizes so much of life. Many believe that John Wilkes Booth got away, that it wasn’t John Dillinger whom the Feds executed back in ’34, that Superman actor George Reeves had some help with his 1959 suicide. For that matter, are we content with the official account of what happened in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen on that night in 1968?

President Kennedy is our American Antigone. Like the Greek tragedy that never became tiresome to loyal audiences, the Kennedy saga is replayed endlessly in major motion pictures and on television. In this story line we have the key elements of ancient drama. There is the attractive protagonist who possesses fatal flaws but nevertheless rises to heady heights. There are the romanticized days in leadership over a great kingdom followed by the unsatisfying sudden demise. Such a murky ending inspires lofty musings about what might have been. Our imaginations love to fill in the unfinished.

We can’t predict what lies ahead for this oft retold tale, but we can understand the reasons for its recurring potency.

Miss Universe and the Diversity Dilemma

     The new Miss Universe has been crowned.  We would offer our congratulations if it were possible to identify her from the other contestants.  Despite the increasing self-congratulation of Western Civilization regarding its perceived progress in achieving diversity, the international beauty pageant is a venue that looks anything but international.  There appear to be two conflicting worlds in play.  One is the world we know, the world whose people have uniqueness in ethnicity and culture.  The other is the homogenized world that features a monolithic population.  In this latter world, there is room for only slight variations on a single theme.  There appear to be one culture, one thought stream, and even one race.

     The picture of the latest Miss Universe crowning tells which of the competing worlds has triumphed (at least in the realm of high profile beauty competitions).  In the real world, it is hard to conceive a way in which Miss Venezuela might closely resemble Miss Great Britain or how Miss Vietnam might be practically a doppelganger for Miss Poland.  Prior to the contest, one internet news site featured photos of every young woman who would be competing for the title.  While scanning the parade of faces, you might have found it all too easy to lose your place.  If the phone rang while you were viewing Miss Korea, you might return to the gallery, stumble on Miss Australia, and believe that was where you left off.  Thailand, Cambodia, Brazil or Nicaragua, the look was essentially the same.  Only the slightest shades of hair and skin tone separated one from the other.  And this goes for Miss Nairobi as well.  She was difficult to distinguish from Miss China. The effect was that of a multicultural Barbie collection in which the same face is repeated in different tones.

     So when you are told that the world has progressed from that unhappy Stone Age in which a single race and a single cultural mindset ruled the world, be skeptical.  Ask Miss Universe – ask ANY Miss Universe – and you’ll probably get a single, calming reply in a familiar – too familiar, in fact – vocal tone and style. 

I Heart Sanity

We live in the age of the sequel.  If a young adult book sells big, you can bet its author will revisit the plot, and crank out at least one follow-up.  Movies that catch box office fire often inspire subsequent installments.  Now it appears that even quirky social awareness movements are capable of producing offspring.  According to a recent news release, an old protest that might be called The Armband Uprising is finally being followed by The Battle of the Bracelet. 

 Back in the late ‘60’s, Mary Beth Tinker, her older brother, John, and their friend, Christopher Eckhardt, started wearing black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War.  There was nothing daring or original about protesting Vietnam.  In fact, it was the cool thing to do.  Unfortunately, the principals of Des Moines, Iowa where these students lived decided to make a big deal of the little protest, and ended up catapulting the three students into history. 

     The American Civil Liberties Union, apparently having nothing better to do with its time and resources, took up the students’ cause.  Soon their pictures were plastered everywhere, soberly wearing their beloved armbands as though they were prophets of a new enlightenment.  The fight led to the landmark Supreme Court decision known as Tinker v. Des Moines (apparently, Chris Eckhardt was edged out of top billing somewhere along the line).  The Court decreed that the protest was not disruptive, and three young people who would otherwise never have been known by anyone outside the narrow borders of their community were blown into civil rights icons.

Now, 44 years later, we’ve got the sequel.  Kayla Martinez and Brianna Hawk, the latest beneficiaries of ACLU crusaders, have usurped their way into cultural fame by their insistence on wearing ‘I Heart Boobies’ bracelets to school.  Supposedly, the bracelets are designed to heighten breast cancer awareness, but some have argued that they also heighten more base types of awareness.  

     This time, the action is in Pennsylvania where the young ladies were suspended for defying the policy of their middle school against booby-themed apparel and accessories.  The somber black and white images of the Tinkers and their parents and the black armbands are replaced by splashy shots of the big, cartoonish bracelets dangling in colorful clusters on youthful wrists. And once again, obscure young people are enjoying sudden celebrity.I Heart Boobies

     But a nagging question keeps popping up in my mind.  Isn’t there something better to do?  Yes, Vietnam was a serious issue as is breast cancer, BUT. . . Would the Tinkers have spent their own money to take their armbands to the Supreme Court?  Would the booby bracelet brigade be in court now if the legal bills were being sent to their home addresses?  How much of these matters is more emotional high than substantive social debate?  As liberal Justice Hugo Black observed in his dissent to the Tinker decision, maybe it’s not a bad thing for students in school to “keep their minds on their own schoolwork.”