The Blogathon is GO —
David Ehrenstein visits the land of THE DEAD here. The last John Huston.
I try to consider the merits of BUDDY BUDDY in five-line verse at Limerwrecks. The last Billy Wilder.
But here on Shadowplay, the very-much still active Matthew Wilder considers the not-quite-last effort of Herschell Gordon Lewis and finds it TIMELY —
TWO HUNDRED MILLION MANIACS! by Matthew Wilder
Why, just this morning Donald Trump and Marco Rubio were trying to out-harsh each other in coming up with “Muslim registry” scenarios—the crescent moon perhaps subbing for the yellow Star of David. At the same moment, there was some question as to who it was that Ben Carson was calling “rabid dogs”—bad apples among the Syrian refugees (not sure who that might be) or just Muslims generally? In any case, the top three Republican options as of Nov. 20, 2015, were Trump, Carson, and Carly Fiorina—the unsuccessful CEO of Hewlett Packard who has successfully marketed herself as a mixture of Sheryl Sandberg and old-time religion. (Her dominant campaign meme is a description of a late-term abortion that appears never to have existed.) It’s clear that showmanship trumps substance—or is it? Are voters aware of what they want, and wish to “act out” more than act? (That’s what all the Occupy protesters, save maybe a few in New York, did.) Are Americans being sold a bill of goods, or are they, as per this interactive economy, writing their bill of goods themselves?
The most trenchant movie analysis of the politics of 2015 comes from 1972. And no, it’s not Michael Ritchie’s THE CANDIDATE, an inquiry into the bake-off nature of modern American politics that still entertains; nor is it TOUT VA BIEN, Jean-Luc Godard’s and J.P. Gorin’s whirlwind farce about strikers and bosses and the delirium in between. Instead, it’s a little, almost lost movie called THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! by one Herschell Gordon Lewis. Now—is this “late style,” you ask? Well, it literally is: HGL abandoned the cinema full time after THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO!, and went, oh so tellingly, into the world of marketing. (People in the world of marketing tell me that Herschell Gordon Lewis is a known name—and not for his splatter movies.) What is appealing about THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! is that it deconstructs the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of the contemporary marketing of candidates in strangely hyperreal, real-time terms: there are moments as literal-minded as the key scenes of PRIMARY or THE WAR ROOM or other classic campaign docs. One expects cartoonish buffoonery from Herschell Gordon Lewis, but instead he paints a queasily familiar world.
A giant riff on the Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg A FACE IN THE CROWD, YAHOO is less histrionic, less preachment-filled and more convincing. Here, a group of party consultants—the 1972 ancestors of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove—tell the powers that be that their candidate (who remains off camera, but is described as a Mitt Romney-like dullard) just ain’t gonna cut it. The incumbent is a liberal as gray and anemic as Gore Vidal in BOB ROBERTS, maybe a little more so: as played by Robert Swain, this Senator Burwell looks like a cross between Robert Lowell and the mad-doctor character from REPO MAN. Anticipating the Reagan revolution to come, the party analysts see that Burwell can be beat. The incumbent Governor has a long list of hacks to put up against Burwell, but the analysts aren’t having it—they want a pop star.
One of the glories of THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! is that it never moves in the direction you expect. When the string-pullers decide they want a country singer, we expect Hank Jackson (Claude King) to be a grinning, manipulative ape like Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes in FACE IN THE CROWD. Instead, our first glimpse of him at work shows him wowing a crowd with a Goth-dark slice of psychedelic country that rhymes “no hope” with “rope”: Jackson and his band are like the Joy Division of Nashville. Soon enough, in a brilliant touch of Lewis-ian irony, Hank’s gloom song has been repurposed as a campaign song…for a commercial where the word HOPE hangs in space like a mothership filled with Obama t shirts.
Shot, like all Lewis’ movies up to this point, in the rancid, postcard color of Educational Films, YAHOO! never quite reaches the level of frenzy of, say, HGL’s equally exclamation-pointed TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! But what fascinates about it is how Lewis’ fascination with the mechanics of marketing drives him to render the making-of-a-fascist scenes in eerie, unfurling microdetail. In one dazzlingly virtuosic scene, the main handler, Hollywood-born Sid Angelo (played by terrifying HGL veteran Ray Sager) shows his chops: Hank Jackson plays before an adoring throng who, when he announces he is running for the Senate, shriek and crash the stage in a giant mob. Sid calls “Cut!”—jarring us out of what seemed like a plausible case of spontaneous hysteria—and then directs the mob in how to be spontaneous and hysterical, drumming beat after beat into their thick skulls like a factory foreman. The movie is a relentless deconstruction of every kind of emotion-stirring political image, yet its invention never flags—Lewis always has some fresh weirdness in the wings.
THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! marks the point where governance ended and spectacle began. It was shot at the moment when Richard Nixon, still smarting from the first Watergate revelations, won a staggering landslide victory over George McGovern: Nixon’s Silent Majority theatrics overwhelmed McGovern’s almost unimaginably indie campaign slogan—“Come Home, America.” (If you’re gonna go down, go down like a saint, seemed to be McGovern’s motto.) YAHOO anticipates our present moment, where candidates have moved from being objects of fantasy projection, like Ronald Reagan, to the kind of magnetizing sheer trainwrecks seen on reality TV—one doesn’t want to be them, one wants to watch them writhe and squirm. This is a new phase of devolution: Voters want not to identify with a candidate and play make-believe, but rather want to sit and passively watch a nutjob’s antics, the more grotesque the better. In an age of the real-time Internet, all politics is as remote and creepily giggle-inducing as webcam porn. It’s not really meant to stir a fiery mob, it’s designed to be passively consumed by a supine spectator on a laptop.
YAHOO is the origin story of the depoliticization of politics—and somehow it’s eerily perfect that it was one of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ drive-in movies and not a sober, inside-baseball work of mature satire like Ritchie’s THE CANDIDATE. It also seems right that this augury of a post-ideological future was essentially HGL’s kissoff to the directing life. (He has been roused out of retirement a couple times in recent years to direct features that pay homage to his sixties splatter self.) It ends on a hopeful note—with a character who could’ve popped out of Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH as an ironic victor—but Herschell isn’t fooling anybody: tomorrow belongs to him.