As Bubba the Clown Departs, the Hour of the Prig Descends

1) An Epiphany in Jumbo’s Clown Room

Who is that clown? I’m staring at the face of a porcelain clown head, all shiny, rouged and red-nosed. And I’m thinking: I know that clown.

The kandy-kolored clown head I’m fixated on is one of dozens of porcelain and plastic clown heads that line the back shelves of the bar and give this low-key metalhead strip club on a seedy stretch of Hollywood Boulevard its improbably jolly name: Jumbo’s Clown Room.

It’s not some glitzy lap-dance palace; it’s far from the silicone groves of the suddenly controversial Playboy Mansion–more a low-key down-home hang for bikers, no-label bands, tattoo artists and the girlfriends who support their artist careers dancing with the enthusiasm of non-pros for a crowd that seems more into beer than boobs, judging from the somewhat stingy tips tossed onto the small stage. Owned and run by women, Jumbo’s is semi-legendary as the place where Courtney Love got her start as a stripper. Where David Lynch used to sit and write at the bar (remember the kandy-kolored clown in Blue Velvet?).

I came out here to L.A. for my book tour and stayed on to cover the Democratic National Convention, when my friend Claudia suggested we stop by Jumbo’s; there’s a birthday party here tonight for her friend Heidi, a night-shift hostess at Jumbo’s. Heidi’s radiant tonight in a gleaming gilt birthday tiara. It’s that kind of place, not a hard-core den of iniquity but rather an NC-rated Cheers for the proles of Tinseltown.

Still, an aura of impending doom seems to hang over Jumbo’s and even its porcelain clowns tonight. (Who is that clown, the one I’m staring at? I know that clown.) After all, this is the night the idiot virtue-crats running Al Gore’s convention will cruelly and stupidly yank a rising-star Hispanic Congresswoman, Representative Loretta Sanchez, off the convention schedule, gag and bind her because she wouldn’t call off a Latino-issues fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion. The beginning of a stupid and brutal campaign that ultimately succeeded in browbeating Representative Sanchez into submission.

Tell me, someone: Which is more shameful and demeaning to women (and to Al Gore): this disgraceful treatment of a bright young woman, or the possibility that Al Gore might indirectly be associated with a house associated with a magazine that features nudity?

The one who’s really naked and indecent in this episode is Al Gore, and frankly I prefer hanging out with the latter-day Day of the Locust types at Jumbo’s Clown Room to the Legion of Decency clowns our Presidential-ticket prigs are promoting. I mean both tickets–four prigs and at least two prig wives. (George W. evidently didn’t start out like one, but he’s become a born-again prig.)

Prig: Perhaps it’s time we revive this useful and expressive word. Somehow it captures, in its clipped, purse-lipped monosyllable, something more pompous than “prude” or “Puritan.” Puritan has at least the dignity of a serious spiritual heritage. True Puritans at least struggle honestly with their own sense of sin; prigs merely vaunt their own sense of virtue. Prig expresses the snotty pridefulness of someone who not only disapproves of your conduct, but makes a point of letting you know how much he approves of his own.

Joe Lieberman, alas, was not satisfied with expressing legitimate joy and pride in his selection as Vice Presidential nominee. No, he had to proclaim that God Himself took time out of His busy schedule to make this “miracle” for Joe. In other words, a God who was apparently too busy to save a single one of the million children murdered in the death camps thought it merited special effort to give Joe Lieberman a promotion.

I find this practice (one engaged in just as strenuously by priggish Christians) of claiming God as your personal tooth fairy both childish and offensive–even bordering on the obscene. Because if you accept its implicit vision of a deity who micromanages the world’s rewards and punishments, then a prig’s ascription of his good fortune to God’s special concern implies God also ordained all the sorrows and horrors of the less fortunate (and presumably less virtuous). Like the idiot Sephardic Rabbi in Israel who recently claimed that Holocaust victims died for some God-ordained purpose of exorcising past sins.

If you believe God made the “miracle” of Joe Lieberman’s nomination, as Joe Lieberman apparently does, you must believe also that God wanted my hero, Yitzhak Rabin, murdered. Don’t get me wrong: I was deeply moved by the way the Lieberman nomination broke a symbolic barrier of exclusion. Just sad to see him profess such a simple-minded tooth-fairy version of his faith.

But to return to that clown I was staring at. That red-nosed, rouged and grinning porcelain clown head. Suddenly–well, after a couple of beers, anyway–I knew why it looked so familiar, why I felt I knew that clown. It looked like Bill Clinton!

And suddenly it all seemed to make sense: Bubba is our Jumbo, and for eight years we’ve all lived, metaphorically, in Jumbo’s Clown Room. And now this week he’s come to L.A. for one last Jumbo fling with the rich and famous clowns of Hollywood. Because the hour of the prig has come, and they’ve come to shut the Clown Rooms of America down.

2) Supernerd Comes to the Costco: Al Gore and the Eminem Apocalypse

There are many things to admire about Norman Mailer’s groundbreaking piece about the epochal 1960 Democratic Convention held here in Los Angeles, the convention that nominated John F. Kennedy: the way Mr. Mailer broke the form of conventional convention coverage; his prophetic intuition that American mass culture had reached critical mass; the intimation of the nuclear power of celebrity that J.F.K. embodied and exploited; the link being forged between Hollywood and politics; J.F.K., the first politician as movie star.

But perhaps the most memorable aspect of Mr. Mailer’s piece may have been the title–its brilliant haiku-like perfection, its incantatory compression of political celebrity and mass culture: “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.”

Superman comes to the supermarket, Mr. Mailer wrote, because the “essence of the new postwar SuperAmerica is found nowhere so perfectly as in Los Angeles … in this land of the pretty-pretty, the virility is in the barbarisms, the vulgarities, it is in the huge billboards, the screamers of the neon lighting … the monster drug stores.… ”

Those monster stores … I had my first Costco experience this pre-convention week in L.A. My first visit to this new breed of super-meta-hyper-monster-market. For those of you in Manhattan who have never been to a Costco, it’s the size of an aircraft hangar, or maybe an aircraft carrier. It sells huge, containerized cargo-ship-palate-sized cases of Cheerios, waist-high cans of vegetables. Sam’s Club on steroids. A gigantic metaphor for the global triumph of the American Market. Yes, Mr. Mailer’s supermarket has grown, hyper-inflated, since that 1960 L.A. convention, but its Superman has shrunk. Al Gore’s imminent arrival is Supernerd comes to the Costco.

I have to admit: I loved Costco. While I embrace the critique of market culture in Tom Frank’s brilliant forthcoming book, One Market Under God (see my column of July 31), still I’m a child of pop culture, whose emotional life is a creation of rock ‘n’ roll as much as Dickens and Shakespeare. I don’t think pop culture and high culture are necessarily in conflict: The rare great moments in the history of culture are the ones in which high culture was pop culture and vice versa: Elizabethan theater; 70’s Hollywood New Wave films; 80’s disco (just kidding about that last one).

I found myself thinking about these things a lot in that pre-convention week, found myself forced to rise to a defense of pop culture on an NPR show against the assault of a priggish host apparently convinced that Eminem and the Wayans Brothers represented the advance guard of the apocalypse. I found myself thinking about it, and thinking about the secret dynamic of the public’s apparent distaste for Al Gore: They know he disdains, he just doesn’t get the genius of American popular culture.

They can sense his condescension to their intelligence, the cynical sycophancy of his mantra about “working families,” that pollster-crafted phrase for the great unwashed he can’t otherwise relate to, but feels he can manipulate by uttering the right slogans. They can sense he’d walk into a Costco and scarcely be able to conceal his Cambridge-bred contempt for its glorious monstrousness. They can sense that, when it comes to popular culture, he’s a Denier, not an Embracer–at best, a faker. They can sense that, at heart, Al Gore is a prig.

3) Elvis Won the Cold War! A mad rant in defense of pop culture on NPR

They’d asked me to tape a show in connection with the publication of my new book (The Secret Parts of Fortune), which includes a number of contrarian essays on pop-culture figures from Elvis and Mr. Whipple to J.D. Salinger and Rosanne Cash, Bill Gates and Oliver Stone (can I mention my favorite cover blurb for the book, the one from Oliver Stone: “You made me look like a f––g lunatic!”) Anyway, they wanted me to talk about pop culture in the context of concern about Eminem, about the allegedly terrifying new vulgarity in movies, and Joe Lieberman’s alliance with Bill Bennett in threatening Hollywood to clean up its act.

What I tried to say is that American popular culture is like a vast mutating, shape-shifting, insanely inventive living entity capable of producing works of genius and dreck. But if you try to suppress the dreck, cut out nasty parts, you’ll destroy the vitality that produces the genius, bleed to death an entity with the astounding power to excite the senses, touch the hearts, and change the history of billions on the planet across every national and cultural divide. Sometimes for the worse, but often for the better. You could make the argument (as I tried to, to a doubtful NPR host) that the Cold War was won not so much because the Soviet leaders feared our missiles, but rather because the Soviet people wanted our pop culture. That Elvis and other pop stars did as much or more to bring down the Berlin Wall than Reagan and Star Wars. The Wall came down because the West had something the East wanted: the kind of culture that flourished free of censorship. And now the prigs want to censor it.

And here’s what the prigs don’t understand: You can’t say, “I just want the good parts of American culture–the nice parts, the parts I like–and let’s suppress the parts I don’t like.” It doesn’t work that way. Would taking the nasty bits, the many obscene parts out of Shakespeare make it “better”? No; it would eviscerate a vision of the world that encompassed everything from the very bottom (in every sense of the word and name) up. Would taking the “nasty” parts out of human beings, the parts that engage in nasty, obscene and messy acts, make a better human being? Evisceration equals death. Let Bill Bennett and the other prigs run American culture, let them remove the bits they don’t approve of, and you’d never have had an Elvis. The Bill Bennetts of his time condemned Elvis as an obscene threat to morals, an inciter of riot and license, a mixer of races in his music. If we’d listened to the prigs of that time, we’d have lost the Cold War and millions would still be enslaved by the Soviet system. Do you want to be responsible for that, I asked the concerned NPR host.

Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but the point is prigs like the Gores are clueless about the genius of American culture because they’re too stuck on a simple-minded notion of high culture as only the elevating and the ennobling. They don’t get that you can love both Shakespeare and the Marx Brothers without conflict. That one doesn’t threaten the other, but deepens the experience for all but the intellectually insecure. And I’m not talking Al and Tipper pretending to be down with the Dead.

4) In Which a Lost Scene From Chinatown Surfaces to Explain it All.

If L.A. is a Rorschach for attitudes to American culture itself, Chinatown is its defining myth, its emblematic labyrinth. I may be the East Coast’s biggest fan of L.A. lit, of Chandler and Cain, of The Day of the Locust, of latter-day L.A. noir classics like Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (with its famous freeway-cruising sequences) and Bruce Wagner’s stunningly black-hearted two novels, Force Majeure and I’m Losing You.

Maybe I love Chinatown because it’s the purest distillation, the quintessence of the toxic noir spirit of L.A. lit. But I do love Chinatown perhaps more than any other American movie. I was knocked out the first time I saw it, and it’s grown every one of the many times I’ve re-seen it over the past quarter century. It still speaks to me even if I still haven’t figured out the twisted labyrinth of its plot. For instance, can anyone answer this question for me: What’s the elided off-screen sequence of events between the moment Jake Gittes gives away his snooping presence at the El Macombo and the very next scene, a day later, when he’s in the barber shop looking at the front-page headlines and the photos he took? How did the photos get into the paper?

This may be the secret hallmark of classic L.A. noir, this cryptic indecipherability: Even William Faulkner, who wrote the screenplay for the movie version of The Big Sleep, couldn’t figure out the plot twists that Raymond Chandler wove into the novel.

I was cruising the freeways down to San Pedro (the San Diego to the Santa Monica to the Harbor Freeway south to the Pedro docks), hoping I’d get a chance to ask this and some other questions I had of Robert Towne. The legendary, reclusive Chinatown screenwriter was supposed to be appearing on a panel on the film before a screening of Chinatown at the cathedral-like old Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro. The harbor district was a setting (Curly’s house) for Chinatown. In fact, Mr. Towne grew up in San Pedro; his father ran a lingerie shop right across the street from the Warner Grand.

So I was disappointed when Towne turned out to be a no-show, but then the substitute guest, Chinatown cinematographer John Alonzo, turned out to have an absolutely amazing revelation to make–a bombshell. About a lost scene from Chinatown, one that was filmed but had to be dropped. But one that, to my mind, offers a powerfully eloquent, beautifully oblique expression of its vision. One that speaks to the war of the prigs against popular culture as well.

The way Mr. Alonzo describes it, the lost scene was part of a sequence late in the film, I believe the one in which Jack Nicholson, as private dick Jake Gittes, confronts John Huston, as the obscenely rich, richly obscene Noah Cross, that monster of terror and appetite beneath the facade of rough-hewn elegance. According to Mr. Alonzo, the lost scene had Huston telling Nicholson to kneel down in the driveway as he gestures toward a mound of recently deposited equine excrement. At which point Huston says:

“This is horseshit, sir. But in the morning it rises with such power!”

Rises with such power! He’s speaking on a literal level about the steam rising off the horseshit. Apparently, according to Mr. Alonzo, it was the inability of the camera to capture the steam on film that led to the scene’s omission. Sad because, in a more metaphoric way, it’s a perfect expression of the relationship between nature and culture: Art, like that rising steam, is an etherealized emanation from the muck and ferment of human nature. Steam that rises with such power that it can change the world. It’s a metaphor as well for Chinatown’s own genesis: a work of art that arose from the steaming muck of pulp fiction, the way Chandler’s art did from the somewhat sleazy men’s detective magazines with the half-naked babes on their covers. It’s perhaps no accident that the very first frames of Chinatown are obscene–or at the very least, explicit–sexual images: the surveillance photos Jake takes of Curly’s cheating wife, legs up beneath a man wearing a hat.

The point is (to bring it back to the prigs on our Presidential tickets) if you try to clean up or sanitize the horseshit in popular culture, you’ll eliminate the steam, the emanations and distillations that evolve into some of our most brilliant works of art. Face it, Al Gore’s attempt at creative thinking–these ridiculous “metaphor diagrams”–is not going to win the next Cold War for us.

5) ‘Blackmail’ and ‘Responsible Entertainment’: In which two sinister code words for anti-Semitism and censorship emerge from the pre-convention muck

It’s the morning after the Lieberman announcement, and USA Today features a story about some paint-by-number hate group railing against the Jewish takeover of America.

Predictable and insignificant. Not so predictable and probably more significant is the way a more subtle code word for anti-Semitism surfaces this morning at an L.A. Press Club lunch for Mayor Richard Riordan at the mayor’s own restaurant, a place called the Original Pantry Café near the Staples Center, where I’d just picked up my pre-convention press credentials.

Surfaces from an unexpected source: from a member of the press itself.

Hardly anyone from the national media was there (unless you count me). And the locals present included a locally notorious cable-access sexual-advice personality who, I’m told, is referred to as “the dildo lady.”

And then there was another woman, a platinum blonde with a deep raspy voice who was repeating over and over again to a captive audience at one of the tables that the nomination of Joe Lieberman was “blackmail.”

Blackmail?

The Democrats “put Lieberman on the ticket to blackmail the Christians,” she said.

Blackmail them how?

“Into having a guilt complex if they don’t vote for him.”

A guilt complex, if I follow her logic, because if they voted against the Gore-Lieberman ticket, “Christians” might be perceived to be anti-Semitic. (But who would do the perceiving? It’s a secret ballot–unless it was something they perceived in themselves.)

If I follow the emotional logic: She wasn’t anti-Semitic, but she was angry about the damn Jews and the guilt tiara, you might say, threatening to press upon her head.

Somehow I suspect that, in the coming three months, it is not in overt hate speech but in sly, self-deluding insinuations like this (“I’m not an anti-Semite; I just don’t like being blackmailed”) that whatever residual hostility toward Jews there is in America will surface. Like steam off horseshit, you might say.

But then a couple of days later, another euphemism for blackmail surfaced. I was talking to an activist named Laura Shapiro at some cocktail party for Arianna Huffington’s Shadow Convention at Track 16, a trendy gallery in Santa Monica. She’d just learned the euphemism the Democratic Platform Committee has come up with to proclaim its solidarity with the prigs in the culture wars: “responsible entertainment.” Guess what? The Al Gore Democrats are for responsible entertainment. And they’re against irresponsible entertainment, although they don’t reveal who decides what’s “responsible” and who has the power to censor the irresponsible.

But behind the rhetoric of “responsible” entertainment is the thinly veiled blackmail threat: censorship. That became clear a couple of days later, when Joe Lieberman appeared on the Sunday morning network news shows and answered questions about his solution to the evils of Hollywood.

He is not in favor of “legal restrictions,” he averred on one of the Sunday shows, “but.…”

This is the standard rhetorical gesture of people who are in favor of censorship, a fact Mr. Lieberman basically confirmed when he went on to say he’s not in favor of censorship, but if Hollywood doesn’t clean up its act and start producing the bland product favored by Joe Lieberman, then it will face demands for censorship. In other words, make me the censor and stop doing anything I disapprove of or the really bad guys will come along and censor you, and I–someone who doesn’t “favor” censorship–won’t lift a finger to stop them from imposing it.

There’s a word for that: blackmail. This is the real blackmail, and I wonder if Mr. Lieberman is too naïve to realize that it’s blackmail directed primarily at Jews. If he’s too naïve to realize that, in the mind of much of America, as Richard Nixon once memorably put it, “the arts are Jews.”

I wonder if Mr. Lieberman is too scantily acquainted with recent history to know about Henry Ford’s vicious anti-Semitic campaign against the Jews of Hollywood in the 1920’s, in the millions of pamphlets Ford distributed under the title “The International Jew.” The ones Hitler cribbed from in Mein Kampf. The ones that blamed “Jewish Jazz” and “Jewish films” for “poisoning” American society. Anti-Semites are much addicted to metaphors of Jewish “poisoning,” dating back to allegations of “well poisoning” in the Middle Ages (that Jews caused the Black Plague by poisoning the wells of Christian villages).

I wonder if Mr. Lieberman is too deaf to hear the echo of that same rhetoric in Pat Buchanan, who explicitly denounced Hollywood in his Reform Party rump acceptance speech for “poisoning the reservoirs” of American culture. A barely laundered accusation of “Jewish well poisoning.”

I wonder if Mr. Lieberman realizes the fallacy of making Hollywood the scapegoat for bad parenting and the ineradicable sleaziness in the human soul, and what it means to make Hollywood (read “Jews”) scapegoats for this imagined moral plague.

I wonder if he realizes that it’s not his candidacy, but his own priggish anti-Hollywood scapegoat rhetoric that may do more to fuel anti-Semitism in America.

Coda: Losing My Religon

It’s Tuesday morning, the morning after Bill Clinton’s remarkable, emotional farewell address to the convention, and I’m back in New York for a different kind of emotional farewell. I had to cut short my convention coverage when I got word my mother had been rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital. She’d been in failing health for some years, but she always said she wanted to live through the year 2000 and she made it. By the time I reached her bedside in New York, she was gone.

Racing to the L.A. airport in my rental car, I turned on the radio hoping, as I often do at turning-point moments of my life, to find some inspiration or guidance in the luck of the dial, a kind of pop-culture I Ching.

And–I swear this is true–the very first thing I heard was the plangent opening chords of R.E.M.’s haunting, brilliant “Losing My Religion.” With its awestruck opening words: “Ah, life. Is bigger / Bigger than you …”

Michael Stipe once explained in an interview that “losing my religion” was not about conversion to atheism; the phrase was originally an old Southern colloquial expression for being awestruck, swept away, a spiritual coup de foudre that upsets your settled sense of yourself, your orthodoxy. Not irreligious but hyper religious, in a way.

And then I heard the words of the chorus: “I thought that I heard you laughing/ I thought that I heard you sing.… ”

The genius of pop-song synchronicity: Somehow I thought that I heard my mother laughing, I thought that I heard her sing. She and my father used to sing the pop songs of their era–”Always,” “Side by Side,” “You Are My Sunshine”–to each other and to my sister and me while standing in our kitchen. Lovely memories brought to life by R.E.M.

My mother wasn’t a swinger by any means–she probably wouldn’t have approved of my hanging out in Jumbo’s Clown Room–but she wasn’t a prig, either. And I think that, as a fiesty, independent working woman, she might have appreciated the fact that Jumbo’s was owned and run by women. And I don’t know what she thought about Bill Clinton–sadly, she’d lost the ability to communicate effectively about the time he became President–but I know she loved the Democratic Party. She’d rebelled against the family of Jewish Republicans she grew up in; she hated Nixon, loved Adlai Stevenson and J.F.K., and I think she would have forgiven Bill Clinton’s excesses for the thrashing he gave the G.O.P. And I’m beginning to feel that way myself. I was pretty harsh on Jumbo–I mean, Bubba–for his Nixonian cover-up evasions; I still think the failure of liberals to hold him to account for lying will give the next Nixon a free pass.

But I think cumulatively he’s grown into the kind of rich character Robert Penn Warren gave us with his magnificently corrupt and perversely inspiring Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, the best novel ever about American politics. Corrupt and human, at least. Now that the hour of the humorless, sanitized prig is upon us, now that it’s closing time in Bubba’s Clown Room, we’ll never see his like again.

Where have you gone, Bill Clinton? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, you big clown. As Bubba the Clown Departs, the Hour of the Prig Descends