Sure, I’m a Marxist

During the 50s and 60s, my grandmother’s television, a small black-and-white model perched on a metal stand, played constantly, both day and night, commencing with Dave Garraway’s Today Show and ending with Jack Paar’s Tonight Show[1]

When I spent the night with Mama Blanton, she allowed me stay up as long as I could keep my stinging eyes open. As a young child, I fought sleep as if it were an enemy, as if it were death itself. At home, I had to be in bed by 7:30 on weekdays and nine on weekends, so I always looked forward to staying over at Mama Blanton’s on Saturday nights and watching those old black-and-white movies, which seemed in my naivety ancient artifacts from a more glorious age.[2]

When I was five or six, I recall watching a Marx Brothers movie – probably Duck Soup – and making it past midnight. The Brothers’ antics enthralled me, especially horn-honking Harpo. I struggled mightily that night to stay awake but eventually succumbed to the Sandman’s strangle hold. Mama Blanton let me sleep on the couch until the movie ended, then led me, shuffling like a blind boy, to bed. I can’t recall if I realized then that the Groucho in the movie was the same Groucho (now twenty years older) who hosted the gameshow You Bet Your Life. However, I do I remember some time after the movie purchasing one of those Groucho masks featuring glasses, nose, eyebrows, and mustache.

I didn’t see another Marx Brothers’ film until college when my high school friend and Citadel cadet Gene Limehouse visited USC for a weekend.  High on whatever, we decided to catch a matinee screening of A Night at the Opera at the Russell House theater in the student union building. Fifteen or so years had passed since that first taste of manic Marx Brothers madness at Mama Blanton’s, but once again, I was laughing out loud, though now appreciating more than the slapstick, taking note of the verbal cleverness and also the mockery of the upper classes, most deliciously, Groucho’s offering a tuxedoed opera attendee a tip for retrieving his top hat that had fallen from the balcony. “Go buy yourself a stogie,” Groucho says, leaning over the railing and offering the fuddy-duddy a coin, which he refuses in a huff.

Yet another fifteen years later when I taught AP English and we studied Marxian criticism, I’d show A Night at the Opera on the week of Porter-Gaud’s musical, offering exhausted students a reprieve of sorts. I’d explain how the promotion of the impoverished tenor, the rollicking fun the peasant passengers below deck enjoy on the trans-Atlantic voyage (as opposed to the stiff stiltedness of the first-class passengers), and the Marx Brothers’ revolutionary takeover of the performance of La Traviata conform to Karl Marx’s theories.

Although students back then – perhaps still do – balked at anything in black-and-white, the classes eventually got into it, sometimes applauding at the film’s conclusion.

A Night at the Opera, Marx Brothers’ movie with a Marxian message.

At any rate, I appreciate my grandmother’s liberality in allowing me to wander into her late-night adult world and watch movies not not necessarily suited for children, a benefit I passed along to my boys when they were growing up. 

Despite the clucking of a few disapproving tongues at the time, I’d say we turned out okay.

[1] I remember the local NBC station’s signing off with the National Anthem, followed by a short film featuring the poem “High Flight,” and then an announcer’s canned spiel about kilowatts and licensing. That done, the Indian head test pattern appeared with its accompanying high-pitched whine. Finally, exactly at one a.m., a blizzard of static would obliterate the test patten. Time to go nighty-night.

[2] Ironically, many had been filmed during the Depression.

A Man Called Adam, a Mensch Called Satchmo

Last night on TCM, Caroline and I watched the 1966 film A Man Called Adam. In the introduction, host Eddie Muller mentioned that the film’s protagonist Adam Johnston, played by Sammy Davis, Jr., was based “very loosely” on Miles Davis. Muller didn’t mention that in 1966 Miles Davis was alive (if not well)[1] and had started a relationship with Cicely Tyson, who interestingly enough, plays Adam Johnson’s love interest.

The movie features Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong portraying a fictional character, Willie “Sweet Daddy” Ferguson. Ossie Davis, and Frank Sinatra, Jr. also co-star. In addition, Mel Tormé bops in for a number, which, for me, is the highlight of several superb musical performances, including one featuring Satchmo himself. Benny Carter composed songs for the movie and served as musical director and conductor.

Although some of the acting isn’t exactly topnotch (Frank Sinatra, Jr. was not nominated for an academy award), those above-mentioned performances, interesting racial dynamics, and its pivotal place in the timeline of civil right make the movie worth watching.  It’s a period of transition: some characters look ‘50s with their skinny black ties, others ‘70s with afros and pointy sideburns. For the most part, white and blacks dig each other, whether they be musicians or audience members in the jazz clubs.

Adam, like Miles himself, is a demon-haunted trumpeter. Years before, he drunkenly crashed his car, killing his wife and child. In addition, society’s underlying racial injustice stokes his anger.  He alchemizes this heartache and rage, blows them out of his horn in soaring, anguished, increasingly frenetic solos, syncopated banshee wails that can raise the hair on your arms (if you haven’t waxed them away).

Oh yes, he’s harassed by the police who want to see his arms, because, after all, being black is a sure sign of heroin addiction. Adam doesn’t take shit from anyone – though he does dump bulldozer loads on his agents, friends, and fellow musicians  –  and for a diminutive man gives the cops a fairly good fight.[2]

Ultimately, though, I don’t dig Adam. Genius, in my book, doesn’t excuse you from treating non-geniuses like lesser beings, doesn’t give you a license to shatter time-honored traditions of civilized decorum, not to mention nearly full whiskey bottles.

No, give me Louis Armstrong, who rose from poverty, did delinquent time at the Colored Waif’s Home in New Orleans, rose to prominence, became an international ambassador for jazz, but was no Uncle Tom. He called President Eisenhower “two-faced” and gutless” during Little Rock’s desegregation and cancelled a State Department tour to the Soviet Union. “The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said as he pulled out of the show.

Anyway, if you’re into jazz or civil rights history, check it out. 

[1] In ’66 Miles spent three months in a hospital because of a liver infection. 

[2] Perhaps not coincidentally, Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of the noir 1953 novel I’m now reading, also gets worked over by the cops. Hmmmmm. 

The Allure of Vampires: Secret, Unfriendly, Pale, Possessed


Sexual repression isn’t exactly a hallmark of the Late Empire, an era in which conservative moms who advocate abstinence-only sex education sit smiling in studio audiences and applaud their daughters’ sexualized performances.  This aging ethnologist purposely skipped Bristol’s Palin’s much ballyhooed tango with whomever on Dancing with the Stars a few years back*; however, I trust conservative Palin-hater Andrew Sullivan wasn’t far off the mark when he described the couple’s gyrations as “dry humping.”  

*There’s a limit to the suffering I’m willing to endure for the sake of science.

Given that so much is so out in the open nowadays (and so instantaneously available), it seems counterintuitive that vampires are all the rage.  After all, adolescents (not to mention their tween siblings) can with a white lie and a click of a mouse peep through any number of prurient holes and so forego the tiresome teasing cliche-ridden tropes of genre.  

I won’t hazard to guess how many billions of dollars these virulent bat-morphed blood sucking late sleepers (I’m talking about vampires, not teenagers) have generated in the last few decades.  The catalogue of works is Homeric – The Vampire Diaries, Buffy, Twilight, HBO’s True Blood, Crucible of the Vampire, – just to name a few – in addition to collateral consumer products like comic books, Halloween costumes, retractable fangs, etc.

dracula comic

Supposedly, Lord Byron, the most successful club-footed sexual swashbuckler on record,** served as the model for English prose’s first vampire, Lord Ruthven, a suave, insatiable, stalker. Another early bloodsucker was Carmillia, a lesbian predator who appeared in Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel of the same name.  Le Fanu’s rendering heavily influenced fellow Irishman’s Bram Stroker’s Dracula, the so called “master work” of the genre. (I’ll let some Dublin based anthropologist unravel the political/social implications of two Irishmen creating the English-speaking world’s most beloved monsters).***

** Okay, the only club-footed sexual swashbuckler on record.

*** There is also something vampiric about Irishman Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey.



These Victorian vampires – essentially sublimated sex fiends – glide into the bedrooms of virgins, go all Freudian with their fangs, infect the innocent with their insatiable lust (for blood)  – a repressed-friendly form of eroticism for puritans. 

Less obvious sublimations lurk.  Not only is Count Dracula undead, but he’s also a foreigner, which makes his deflowering all the more menacing with its dark undertones of alien infiltration and conversion.  After all, vampires’ victims assume the (non)lifestyles of their seducers, those “outside agitators” who introduce them to alternative lifestyles. 

Mike Pence would not approve.

However, if you can detach yourself from what has become so familiar via Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Tom Cruise, etc. the concept of vampires is creepy in a way that out-creeps even that peculiar-bachelor-uncle kind of creepiness.  

No one is particularly found of mosquitoes or bats, but here’s a preposterously popular sub genre that features undead human beings transforming into flying rodents, flitting through windows (and no doubt shitting blood all over those priceless Persian floor coverings), then transforming back into fang-sporting bipeds who slip into the boudoir of a Prudence or Victoria, supine on her bed and radiant in gorgeous, semi-diaphanous lingerie.  Baring these beauties’ necks, the bloodsucker drains the victims of their blood, perhaps copping a feel as he produces the hickey that is forever and forever and forever.


2008 was a particularly potent year for the genre with Twilight and True Blood both making their debuts.  Once again, I can’t give you first hand knowledge, but both seemed to be more about romance than blood-thirst. 

In True Blood, from what I can gather, 1) the the sex wasn’t sublimated and 2) the series confronted the alien aspect of vampirism by having these bayou vampires seeking equal rights [a pharmaceutical company has engineered some sort of methadone-like substitute for human blood so that vampires can lead somewhat normal lives (if you consider living a deathless existence even approaching “normal”)].

At any rate, producers are still cranking them out.  The website TheCinemaholic (sic) ranks the ten best vampire movies of 2018, the best being, according to them is Vamp, a Russian film set in the 18th century; however, the one that caught my eye was With a Kiss I Die, the title an allusion to Romeo’s last words.

Here’s TheCinemaholic’s synopsis:

The tragic story of William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ended when both the protagonists died in a romantically heart-breaking way. That was the end for Romeo, but not for Juliet. After she stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger and dies right by his side, she wakes up as a vampire. Dejected by the fact that the love of her life has been lost to her and is never coming back, she spends her days waiting for death to come to get her for good. She is a unique vampire, though. Because she has never killed anyone, because she hasn’t tasted blood yet, the limitation of the sun has not been placed upon her. Unlike others of her kind, she is free to walk about during the day with as much ease as she walks during the night. And it is on a day that she meets a woman who makes her re-evaluate her thought that true love is once in a lifetime thing. Juliet falls in love with this woman but secretly fears that like her first love, this might as well end in a tragedy. And she is not being paranoid. The other vampires are trying to bring Juliet to the dark side and they will not hesitate from using her new love to their advantage.


Alas, I must leave you without solving the mystery of vampirism’s popularity among sexually liberated late capitalists.  Certainly, forbidden sex has always had its allure, and the genre still features plenty of that, though openly now, and the modern bias against body hair essentially rules out werewolves as desirable partners. Then there’s the idea of vampire as crazy mixed-up exotic outsider, a rebel if you will, but let’s face it, mass conformity is really the hallmark of the Late Empire with its manufactured ripped jeans, the ubiquity of tattooing, the umbilical connection of the cellphone.  

Before I go, thought I’d share with you the full version of Richard Wilbur’s “The Undead,” no doubt the best poem ever written about vampires:

The Undead

Even as children they were late sleepers,

Preferring their dreams, even when quick with monsters,

To the world with all its breakable toys,

Its compacts with the dying;

From the stretched arms of withered trees

They turned, fearing contagion of the mortal,

And even under the plums of summer

Drifted like winter moons.

Secret, unfriendly, pale, possessed

Of the one wish, the thirst for mere survival,

They came, as all extremists do

In time, to a sort of grandeur:

Now, to their Balkan battlements

Above the vulgar town of their first lives,

They rise at the moon’s rising. Strange

That their utter self-concern

Should, in the end, have left them selfless:

Mirrors fail to perceive them as they float

Through the great hall and up the staircase;

Nor are the cobwebs broken.

Into the pallid night emerging, 

Wrapped in their flapping capes, routinely maddened

By a wolf’s cry, they stand for a moment

Stoking the mind’s eye

With lewd thoughts of the pressed flowers

And bric-a-brac of rooms with something to lose,–

Of love-dismembered dolls, and children

Buried in quilted sleep.

Then they are off in a negative frenzy,

Their black shapes cropped into sudden bats

That swarm, burst, and are gone. Thinking

Of a thrush cold in the leaves

Who has sung his few summers truly,

Or an old scholar resting his eyes at last,

We cannot be much impressed with vampires,

Colorful though they are;

Nevertheless, their pain is real,

And requires our pity. Think how sad it must be

To thirst always for a scorned elixir,

The salt quotidian blood

Which, if mistrusted, has no savor;

To prey on life forever and not possess it,

As rock-hollows, tide after tide,

Glassily strand the sea.

Pulp Fiction Aficionado: the Genre of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

A few critics have panned Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in  . . . Hollywood because it affectionately depicts a past that predates political correctness. For example, Richard Brody of The New Yorker notes that some have called the movie “Tarantino’s most personal film,” then adds, “and that may well be true—it’s far more revealing about Tarantino than about Hollywood itself, and his vision of the times in question turns out to be obscenely regressive.”

Never mind that Tarantino’s Jackie Brown features a working class African-American heroine as protagonist, Once Upon a Time, in Brody’s words, “reserves the glory moments of actorly allure, swagger, and charisma for male actors: when [character Sharon]Tate blithely admires herself, it’s for the role of the ‘klutz’ who falls on her ass for Dean Martin’s amusement and titillation.”

Brody ends his review with this observation: “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is about a world in which the characters, with Tarantino’s help, fabricate the sublime illusions that embody their virtues and redeem their failings—and then perform acts of real-life heroism to justify them again. Its star moments have a nearly sacred aura, in their revelation of the heroes that, he suggests, really do walk among us; his closed system of cinematic faith bears the blinkered fanaticism of a cult.”

C’mon, there ain’t nothing “real life” about Once Upon a Time, as the first four words of its title suggest.  It’s a comedy dressed up like a spaghetti western, often cartoonish. We have essentially two protagonists a la a buddy film, Rick Dalton, an actor, and his best friend, Clint Booth, his stunt double. When stunt double Rick repairs his pal Clint’s roof TV antenna, he foregoes a ladder, acrobatically propelling himself skyward, leaping from roof to roof like a ninja. It’s supposed to be funny, not realistic. Speaking of ninjas, Clint also out-martial-arts Bruce Lee with some spectacular kung fu fighting on a movie set. Unlikely to say the least. Oh yeah, Rick happens keeps a flamethrower at his hill top ranch house, which comes in very handy in the climactic scene. Think the Marx Brothers, not Joan Didion.

In other words, Tarantino’s goal is to entertain us, not to provide a commentary on the ‘60s.  So what if the protagonists don’t like hippies (and I was one sort of back then); most people didn’t.  Anyway, Tarantino doesn’t view the world through the annals history; he views it through what appeared on movie screens throughout the history of the cinema.

He’s not a social critic; he’s a pulp fiction aficionado.