Monday, November 10, 2008

"As long as the Arctic stays cold"

Movie trivia time.

Anyone out there remember what movie ended with the line above?

The year was 1958 and movie studios had discovered that horror movies made money. So Valley Forge Films, needing to fill the coffers for other, more esoteric films produced by its parent company, Good News Productions -- although IMDB (Internet Movie Database) lists the film company as Fairway Productions -- came up with this screamer.

Burt Bacharach and Ralph Carmichael each contributed to the music. The lead actor opted to take a $3,000 flat fee instead of $150 + 10% -- and the film ended up grossing millions.

In 2008, the film was nominated for TV Land's Best Movie to Watch at the Drive-In award.

And a new book, The Family: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet, called a journalist because he is a contributor to several magazines, including Harper's and Rolling Stone, and creator of a couple of blogs purporting to monitor "America's secret theocrats," suggests that this movie was a fundamentalist Christian group's deliberate attempt to sway public sentiment by making the monster a metaphor for Communism.

There may be, however, just one or two tiny problems having to do with accuracy.

Rudy Nelson, associate professor of English at the University of Albany and "Third Assistant Director in Charge of Daily Script Revision" on the film in question, explores the discrepancies in Sharlet's article in his own article . . . but to put the name of Nelson's article here would give away the title of the movie.

Before I do that, here's what Sharlet emailed Nelson after Nelson emailed Sharlet with what Nelson says was a "low-intensity (and good-natured, I hope) correction of the misinformation, not really expecting a reply."

Nelson says Sharlet "thanks me for my message, offers apologies if he's misunderstood [the movie], and then goes on to point out, with several apt illustrations, that art can take on meanings not intended by its creators."

This is true to a point. As a dramatist and writer of fiction, I'm sometimes startled by what actors/readers take from my work.

But to charge intent is different from art taking on "meanings not intended by its creators."

I wouldn't think Sharlet can have it both ways.

Ah well. Read the articles for yourself. You decide. That's what a free, unbiased press is all about, right?

The actor? Steve McQueen.

The movie? The Blob.

Nelson's article? "The Blob and I" in the most recent issue of Books and Culture, published by Christianity Today.

The last line of the movie? Let's not even go there. At least not in this entry.

Note dated December 17, 2008: Corrected grammar in paragraph six.


Jeff Sharlet said...

Hi. I'm guilty of vanity googling, looking around to see what people have to say about the book. For the record: I'm "called a journalist" because I commit journalism -- for Harper's and Rolling Stone, and also, over the years, newspapers, magazines, and radio. I've also taught journalism at NYU. Whether the journalism is any good is another question.

I don't, however, maintain any blogs designed to monitor "America's secret theocrats." If you were more familiar with, um, journalism, you'd know that magazine writers don't write their headlines. I didn't write that one. And, in fact, I've emphasized in literally dozens of interviews that I don't believe there's any kind of creeping theocracy in America. But even if I did, "The Revealer" and "Call Me Ishmael" would be lousy places to find out about it. The Revealer moniters media representations of all religion. It was created with a grant from the conservative Pew Charitable Trust. "Call Me Ishmael," as stated at the top of the page, is a place where I write about anything about "theocrats," secret or otherwise. Yes, I linked to my book; sue me. Mostly, though, it's about comic books, movies, poetry, music.

As for The Blob: Rudy Nelson's hardly a reliable source. Nelson broke basic journalistic ethics by publishing private correspondence. He didn't ask me his tough questions. He went fishing for a quote. I'm fine with what he quoted -- but not how he got it. If he'd been interested in accuracy, he would have let me know that Kate Phillips -- who takes credit for writing the Blob and is given that credit in the film -- was overstating the case, and that Shorty Yeaworth, evangelical filmmaker, was actually the son of Shorty Yeaworth, evangelical minister. I had to ask my publisher to almost stop the presses to get those corrections into the paperback when Nelson's article came out. He was interested in scoring points, not correcting the record.

As for his contention about the meaning of The Blob: Yeaworth, the filmmaker, moved in a world of very active anticommunist work. And Phillips herself claimed that the film sprang from connections forged in that world. Whether Yeaworth sat down and said, "Let's make a metaphor!" or simply created a film that many viewers agree functions as one is a question I'll leave to his biographer. I discuss the film -- in two paragraphs of a 460 page, heavily footnoted book -- as the metaphor I perceive it to be. I'll stand by that reading.

Anne said...

I don't blame you a bit for vanity googling -- makes sense in this cyberworld of ours to monitor the Web in the same way people used to hire others to clip newspaper articles that mentioned them.

You're right -- I should have dug deeper and at least posted links to The Revealer and also to Killing the Buddha. I also should have read more of your blog.

I downloaded the article to which I referred, "Jesus Plus Nothing: Undercover among America's Secret Theocrats," with the intention of exploring it more fully . . . which is still on my to-do list. Apologies.

And, yes, of course, often others come up with the headlines for what we write. Got to admit, though, we're stuck with what they write -- and I've found they sometimes capture something present in our writing that we were only subliminally aware was there. Then again, sometimes they're out in left field picking daisies as they're labeling our work.

What disturbed me about my initial reading of the article -- was the subjective voice. Granted, you were recording your own observations but they were the observations of an outsider. You may have captured the exact words and actions of the people you observed and with whom you interacted, but you captured them with a particular set of preconceptions in mind. It can't be helped -- we all do it.

So while you may have been accurate in recording your observations, you may not have been right in what you observed. And I'm not sure you allowed for that.

For the record: I'm also called a journalist because I've written for The St. Petersburg Times (although if you search their site you won't find much of what I've written for them -- it was for their marketing department's special sections and apparently didn't get archived), The Anniston Star, Tampa Bay Newspapers, and other publications and recently earned a masters through the University of Alabama as a Knight Foundation Fellow in Community Journalism.

The questions of "What is journalism" and "Who are real journalists" were ones we explored formally this past year, ones that I've struggled with for years and probably will continue to do so until I run out of ink -- or toner. Ours is such a nebulous profession -- are we diarists or are we reporters or are we interpreters or are we merely voyeuristic egoists ?

You may not believe there's "any kind of creeping theocracy in America," but I wouldn't be surprised. If you haven't read C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, one of his novels, you ought to. The Bible warns in several places of people who misuse religion for various types of personal gain, including power over others, culminating in the Anti-Christ and False Prophet of Revelation.

In any case, thank you for taking the time to respond. It was in your interests, of course, to do so, but I appreciate your providing additional information.