Monday, May 29, 2017

The Wannabe Conqueror of the Fourth Estate

On May 24, 2017, Montana's newest congressman, Greg “The Body-Slammer” Gianforte, followed suit with President Donald Trump's campaign trail boast to do with the willingness of Republican voters to shrug off his vulgar, even thuggish manner – “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

Ever the Trump loyalist, it seems Gianforte was also following through on Trump's Feb. 24, 2017, comment labeling the press in the USA as the “enemy of the people.” At this desk it isn't known how many votes Gianforte won, or lost, by roughing up a reporter and then lying about the incident ... before offering up a tepid apology after he won the election.

Given his many other over-the-top statements deriding and threatening the fourth estate in the USA, it has become clear to me that Trump's "enemy of the people" quip was tantamount to declaring war on the working press, itself.

More importantly, I've no doubt Trump plans to win this war. Furthermore, I see no reason to hope he's merely trying to manipulate the news media – tame them, so to speak. No. When it comes to any kind of battle, or contest of any kind, there's just no way Trump means to come out of it as less than the greatest winner, ever!

Biggest ever! A conqueror.

On the other hand, if freedom of the press continues on as we've known it to be, as guaranteed by the Constitution, President Trump probably can't become emperor of all he surveys. Thus, the free press has to go. Truth goes with it.

Trump may not win the war on the truth, but he probably won't fail because he didn't give it his best effort. Of course many people will disagree with my analysis, because they like Trump. Or maybe they can't imagine he could covet more power than he already has. Well, I can.

Whether the focus groups that guided Trump's campaign were run by propagandists from Madison Avenue or the Kremlin, or both, perish the notion that he was doing all of it on the fly. Trump and his PR team may not understand how governments work, but they know plenty about propaganda.

Trump sees a time in which the mainstream media are cowed. Some well-known publishers and journalists will be in jail. Marshall law will be in effect to prevent terrorist attacks. The resistance will have become an outlaw underground movement. In that environment the social media will be dominant and zillions of the nation's adverting dollars will be spent there.  

In other words, I'm imagining that the legit press can't lose this war.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Propaganda in Bronze

Lee Monument on Monument Avenue (2007).

Note: "Propaganda in Bronze" (as edited) by STYLE Weekly can be seen here. It was the Mar. 16, 2016, issue's Back Page. What appears below is the copy I submitted. (The differences are small but real.)


Officials in New Orleans, Baltimore and Austin recently came to the realization that monuments glorifying the Confederate States of America (1861-65) may no longer have a proper place on public property. Consequently, in those three cities a few statues honoring the Confederacy are in the process of being removed.

On Mar. 7, by passing HB587, a proactive group of legislators in the General Assembly moved to prevent that trend from spreading to Virginia. The bill empowered the state government to seize control over the fate of war-related monuments standing on public property. It wasn't immediately clear whether the bill's language would also block historically accurate signage from being placed near the statues of Confederate heroes on Monument Ave, as has been suggested by some Richmonders as a way of providing a context for the memorials.

Given what had happened in the three aforementioned cities, it seems Virginia's lawmakers decided it was time to take the “public” out of public art. Anyway, whatever their intentions were, for the immediate future that won't matter. Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed HB587 on Mar. 10.

Nonetheless, going forward, the discussion over what to do about Confederate memorials on public property is hardly going away. Virginians still tethered to yesterday's thinking about the Civil War might not like it, but times have changed. The propriety of making heroes out of men who are now seen by many as having been traitors in their day is being questioned like never before.

What was once unthinkable in Central Virginia is now possible. Want proof?

Henrico County just decided to take Sen. Harry F. Byrd's name off the front of a public school. Some people will surely squawk, saying the renaming of the middle school amounts to rewriting history. But given Byrd's association with the Massive Resistance movement of the 1950s and '60s, that move may have been long overdue.

Most of the monuments honoring the Confederacy that stand today in at least 20 states were put in place during the late-1800s/early-1900s. It was an era in which Lost Cause misinformation was being promulgated by stubborn sympathizers of the Confederacy. Plainly, they sought to paint over the haunting politics of the Civil War. Which was a propaganda campaign, if there ever was one.

Fast-forward to 2016: Whether it's in Richmond or New Orleans, propaganda cast in bronze is still propaganda. Today that propaganda's useful life as a political tool has faded into the mists. Now Monument Avenue's row of statues have to stand on their own as worthwhile art that has outlived its original purpose. That's one of the differences between the statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson F. Davis.

The solemn Lee Monument passes the art test, even for many who have no warm regard for the sentiments of Lost Cause thinking. Whereas, for me, the awkward assemblage that is the Davis Monument represents bad medicine.

It should be remembered that the three Confederate generals with statues on Monument Avenue – Lee, Stuart and Jackson – were Virginians. Say what you will about the Civil War, they served their home state. However, since Davis was not a Virginian, the main reason to honor him in Richmond is that he served as the president of the Confederacy. More than anything else, doesn't the Davis Monument celebrate the Confederate States of America, itself?

Speaking of public art and politics, the simmering brouhaha over removing a beloved live oak tree from its home at the triangular intersection of Adams St., Brook Rd. and Broad St., in order to place a statue of Maggie L. Walker there, is another example of how public art can get entangled with politics. Mayor Dwight Jones apparently wants it done, pronto, but there are plenty of locals who oppose him.

Some want to protect the tree. Others would like to see a Walker memorial created, but placed elsewhere. Which leads me to ask: How about where the Davis Monument sits today?

Maybe putting a Walker statue on the fringe of Jackson Ward is best. Still, I'm not the only one who thinks new monuments should be added to Monument Avenue. Moreover, if putting a Walker Monument on Richmond's most famous street would feel like a righteous step toward atonement for Richmond's role in a war to protect the slave market business that once thrived here, what's wrong with that?

The story of the unveiling of such a statue on Monument Avenue would make worldwide news. It would be good news about how Richmond is changing. And, why stop with Maggie Walker? Surely there are other Virginians who deserve to be considered. How about Justice F. Lewis Powell?

Finally, let's stiff-arm the absurd notion that dismantling an old statue, to ship to it off to a museum, amounts to rewriting history. No one is suggesting that Jefferson Davis should be banished from history books. Davis was a key player in an important period of American history. Still, the public's view of his worthiness to be elevated to the status of a hero is just not the same in 2016 as it was when the Davis Monument was unveiled in 1907.

New Orleans already did the right thing. So did Baltimore and Austin. How long will Richmond's City Council members wait to face the music? In the meantime, thank you, Gov. McAuliffe.

-- My words and photo.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

After-hours screening of 'The Harder They Come'

Ed. Note: What follows is an episode of Biograph Times, which is a work-in-progress that hopes to one day become a book. The Biograph (1972-87) was an independent repertory cinema, located at 814 West Grace Street in Richmond, Virginia. It opened in an era that seemed ready to give the baby boomers, who were becoming adults, whatever they wanted.


Still of Jimmy Cliff as Ivan.
In the fall of 1973, David Levy, then the most active managing partner/owner of the Biograph Theatres in Georgetown and Richmond, asked me to look at a film to evaluate its potential. From time to time he did that for various reasons. In this case he had a new 35mm print of “The Harder They Come” shipped to me. I managed the Biograph in Richmond.

In those days we had frequent after-hours screenings of films we came by, one way or another. Usually on short notice, the word would go out that we would be watching a movie at a certain time. These gatherings were essentially impromptu movie parties. A couple of times it was 1940s and '50s 16mm boxing films from a private collection.

Sometimes prints of films that were in town to play at another venue, say a film society, would mysteriously appear in our booth. In such cases the borrowed flicks were always returned before they were missed ... so I was told.

Although I don’t remember any moments, in particular, from that first screening of “The Harder They Come”, I do recall the gist of my telephone conversation with Levy the next day. After telling him how much I liked the Jamaican movie, he asked me how I would promote it.

Well, I was ready for that question. I had smoked it over thoroughly with a few friends during and after the screening. So, I told David we ought to have a free, open-to-the-public, sneak preview of the movie. Most importantly, we should use radio exclusively to promote the screening. Because of the significance of the radio campaigns for the Biograph's midnight shows, over the last year, he liked the idea right away.

In this time, long before the era of giant corporations owning hundreds of stations, a locally-programmed daytime radio station with a weak signal played a significant role in what success was enjoyed at the Biograph. For a while we had a sweet deal -- a dollar-a-holler -- with WGOE-AM, the most popular station for the under-35 set in the Fan District and environs. In the first half of the 1970s, the station at the top of the dial, 1590, owned the hippie market. 

Subsequently, on a Friday morning in November the DJs at WGOE began reading announcements of a free showing of “The Harder They Come” that would take place at the Biograph that afternoon at 3 p.m. Then they would play a cut by Jimmy Cliff, the film’s star, from the soundtrack. This pattern was continued maybe three times an hour, leading up to the time of the screening.

Ed. Note: “The Harder They Come” (1972): 120 minutes. Color. Directed by Perry Henzell; Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw. In this Jamaican production, Cliff plays Ivan, a pop star/criminal on the lam. The music of Cliff, The Maytals, The Melodians and Desmond Dekker is featured.

Of course, Reggae music was being heard in Richmond before our free screening, but it was still on the periphery of popular culture. As I recall, some 300 people showed up for the screening and the movie was extremely well received.

In previous runs in other markets, “The Harder They Come” had been treated more or less as an underground movie. As it was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for its American distribution, it had a grainy, documentary look to it that added to its allure. Upon hearing about the test-audience's approval, Levy got excited and wanted to book it to run as a regular feature, rather than as a midnight show.

While it didn’t set any records for attendance, “The Harder They Come” did fairly well and returned to play several more dates at the Biograph, at regular hours and as a midnight show. 

Levy became a sub-distributor for “The Harder They Come.” When he rented it to theaters in other cities within his region, he advised them to use the same radio-promoted, free-screening tactic.

Forty-four years ago, watching a virtually unknown low-budget Jamaican film after hours in the Biograph had seemed edgy, almost exotic. That night we had no idea how popular Reggae music was about to become.

Over the next few years Reggae music smoothly crossed over from niche to mainstream to ubiquitous. Bob Marley (1945-81), dead for over 30 years, still has a huge following to this day. Reggae's acceptance opened the door for the popularity of the still-fresh fusion sound of the 2 Tone bands, like The Selecter, The Specials, the (English) Beat, Madness, and so forth, in the early-1980s.

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