A few years ago, some friends of mine and I rented a movie called Cutthroat Island. The only way Cutthroat Island could have been worse is if it were a Scientologist-funded tale about an Earth thrown into slavery by the evil psychos. Oh, wait, that’s John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth, currently on cable and mesmerizing me with its consistent awfulness.
Anyway, Cutthroat Island, while no Battlefield Earth, is really, really bad. But my friends and I knew this going in. Indeed, we decided the way to make the best out of a bad movie was to turn it into an opportunity to use it as a heuristic device in pursuit of homoerotic imagery in modern American cinema. No, no, just kidding. We turned it into a drinking game (keep in mind these were the same fellas who helped come up with the Marion Barry shooter. See “Make it a State?“).
What we did was to write down every pirate-movie cliché we could think of on little pieces of paper. The items on the slips included, “Walking the plank,” “eye-patched pirate,” any use of the phrase “Avast, ye mateys,” and, of course, the “skull and bones flag.” We then drew these slips from a hat. Whenever a cliché corresponding with your slip appeared in the film, you had to drink a beer.
Alas, the movie’s opening scene features something like a peg-legged pirate, with a parrot on his shoulder, walking the plank off a ship with a skull and bones flag. Poor Tom (last name withheld to protect the sketchy) had drawn all of these.
Anyway, I bring this up because I was particularly proud of one of the clichés I had come up with: “The anachronistic black man.” By this I am of course referring to the increasingly popular habit in movies of portraying black folks in specific historical settings, in unrealistically flattering ways. Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s just fine when Hollywood portrays blacks as doctors, lawyers, presidents, or anything else in movies about contemporary situations. But in period pieces, the eagerness to show blacks in a positive light sometimes causes producers to cut some serious corners in terms of believability.
I can’t remember what made the black guy in “Cutthroat Island” anachronistic, but he was. But an even better and more recent example of this phenomenon can be found in the WWII submarine movie U-235. In U-235, the only black guy on the American sub is the galley cook. This is believable, since segregation in the Navy pretty much only allowed blacks to work in such positions on white ships. We can even forgive the fact that he’s a wise-cracking guy who tells the white sailors what to do. But where I drew the line is when we discovered that this galley cook also happened to know how to pilot not just a sub, but a German sub — without the slightest tutorial.
Of course, this game can be played with pretty much any trendy minority. Modern feminist women, for example, can be found throughout our cinematic past. In the film Tombstone, we see ladies demanding “Equal Work for Equal Pay” in 1870s Wyoming — 3,000 miles and a little less than 100 years away from where that phrase was born.
I throw all of this out for discussion because I have to write a piece for National Review OnDeadTree about stereotypes. According to documents first obtained by the Washington Post, the Bush administration is apparently pondering an initiative to “promote movies that do not further racial stereotypes.”
Now I’ll tell you right here and now, I think this is an unbelievably dumb idea. How is the White House going to do this? Give tax credits to Dreamworks every time it shows a black guy behaving lawfully and speaking proper English? How condescending — and maybe even racist — is that? Oh, sure, if the idea is to have Bush come out and say he liked The Nutty Professor II, that’s fine with me. But if this is an idea with some actual policies — i.e., money — behind it, I think it’s absurd. And any conservatives who think it isn’t, I’d simply challenge them to ask themselves what they’d have said if the former Commander-out-of-Pants had proposed something similar (For more on this, see my current syndicated column, “Bush Gets Potomac Fever.”
But there’s a larger question. What do I think about stereotypes in general? I mean, I do find stereotypes of Jews and conservatives to be, if not always offensive, always tiresome or annoying. And I certainly don’t blame blacks for their peeves about what Hollywood and the music industry put out. And since I get at least one tutorial a day from an Angry Asian American about my entirely fictional anti-Asian bigotry, I am certainly aware that there are strong feelings out there on that subject.
Well, I have some ideas about stereotypes, but they aren’t solidified yet. They include the fact that I’m opposed to anything that feels like propaganda, and that positive stereotypes — like the U-Boat driving black man — can often seem like agitprop to me. Also, I think the best way to combat stereotypes is to make fun of them (like they do in The Simpsons), not make up new ones. But because, just as there’s a fine line between stupid and clever, there’s also a thin wall between humility and hackery, I don’t know for sure what I think.
Indeed, I am so swamped with wedding, honeymoon, and road-trip plans — as well as getting work done in advance so I can actually have the wedding, honeymoon, and road trips as planned — I do not have the brain power to figure out these weighty issues (see announcement below, please).
So I leave it to anyone out there with something interesting to say, or for me to read on the subject of stereotypes as pertains to the proposed Bush idea. As I have no research staff, I must rely on the kindness of strangers and flying monkeys.
Thank God, there’s no cause out there that would require me to contemplate becoming a suicide-bomber (though if MSNBC carries Mitch Albom for much longer, all bets are off). Still, as I understand the motivation of suicide bombers in the Middle East, the idea is that they get to go to paradise for their murderous acts. Indeed, from what I understand, Islamic paradise sounds pretty nice. The ground is made of saffron. You get 10,000 servants, a gold house, and other cool things, such as that you no longer need to sleep, and all of your burps will smell good. While that sounds very nice, I’m a bit more humble. In fact, apparently there’s this place in Iowa called the Amana Smokehouse, which sounds just fine to me — and, thankfully, it’s on this plane of existence (besides, I think it’s more than a bit cowardly to murder people simply for the reward, whether it’s in this life or the next).
The Amana Smokehouse, I’m told, hosts the Millstream Brewing Company, which produces some allegedly outstanding ales. They also make their own assorted sausages, jerky, and smoked cheese. There’s a beer garden where you can sit in the shade of hops vines (who knew hops grew on vines?) and sample the fare. I don’t know if they will permit Cosmo the Wonderdog — who very much likes sausage, jerky, and cheese (smoked and unsmoked), and who would behave himself — to come in. But we intend to find out.
I learned about this place from Dennis (last name withheld because I don’t have permission to publish it). Dennis, like hundreds of other readers, has sent me an unbelievable number of tips for places to go and things to do (and not to do) on my trip out West to get married, and for my trip back East to begin a life of order-following — er, I mean, paradise.
The problem for me is that, as I get closer to the Big Trip to the Big Day, time becomes fleeting. And while I’ve read most of these e-mails, I haven’t had a chance to act or digest them all, and I am terrified I will miss another Amana Smokehouse. So if you could do me a favor, my friend, groomsman, and co-pilot Doug Anderson is the navigator for this trip. Doug’s tastes are remarkably similar to mine — jerky, cured meats generally, beer, etc. — though he’s a fanatic about Nebraska football and I am not. I’ve forwarded him many of the best e-mails from readers on this subject, and he’s put them in our itinerary. But if you feel some places are especially worth pointing out, and you think I might have missed a suggestion, please feel free to repeat yourself to Doug. Also, keep in mind I will be bringing my digital camera, so think photogenic. Doug’s email address is Dander131@yahoo.com. I’d ask Cosmo to do this, but, well, he chews on the mouse whenever he uses my computer. Anyway, Doug’s been warned there may be a lot of suggestions. Also keep in mind, this is only for the drive out. I will be coming back with Cosmo alone after the honeymoon.
And lastly, my apologies if this road-trip and wedding stuff is becoming the column-equivalent of Don Imus’s endless ranch chatter.