May 13th, 2009 18:45 EST
"Down Home" Speech and Truth: What is the Difference?
Sometimes as I look back on the Bush-Cheney years I feel like someone who has been in a coma. What happened?
Last night, wrestling with insomnia, I happened on the 1957 movie A Face In the Crowd with Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal.
As I watched Griffith`s hypnotic, guitar-playing Arkansas drifter "he hadn`t yet captivated the country as the sheriff of the imaginary Mayberry, North Carolina "I realized how the use of plain speech for dark purposes can dupe the masses.
Lonesome Rhodes, the Griffith character, has an abysmal mean streak, but his pleasant hick accent and homespun humor disguise it. For a while. Too long a while. He doesn`t mean a thing he says. But the people love him because he seems to be telling them the simple truth as opposed to the varnished rhetoric of a ruling elite. He appeals to their common sense and individualism.
Lonesome reminds his audiences of Will Rogers, first on radio and then on television. But unlike Rogers, Lonesome doesn`t give a damn about anybody. He knows that a country boy with a wholesome humor can charm the skin off a snake in a nation that has mythologized country virtue and demonized city manners "a country that persists in demonizing half its own self, the growing half.
He knows how to play the people like his gee-tar. And so he does until the long-suffering Patricia Neal, who discovered him, in a fit of remorse lets his audience hear him mock them at the end of a broadcast when he thinks he`s off the air.
When I joined the Navy from Manhattan back when the Silent Generation had just reached adulthood I encountered rural Southerners for the first time in boot camp. Some of them would become dear friends. I loved their near-perfect way of saying things that couldn`t be said any other way: not hardly, for example. There`s simply no other way to express that sentiment. I reveled in the musicality of their Southern accents. And I recognized, as a young poet, that Southern speech, particularly when it has an Appalachian twang, can convey a conviction that goes a long way towards persuading people of anything.
It wasn`t uncommon then (or now) to hear Southerners say that Yankees in suits prompt them to check their wallets. But many a Southerner might be surprised to know that a Southern country boy in New York often elicits the same distrust in people who presuppose his manner of speech to be disingenuous, meant to beguile and allay.
I wound up in Rhode Island when I was in the Navy, and when I was discharged I went to work as a reporter for The Providence Journal. It amused and amazed me when some of my Navy buddies from the South told me they had been in some New England town and seen a big statue dedicated to an unknown soldier of the Grand Army of the Republic. It took me some while to understand that they thought Southern towns had somehow cornered the market on patriotism, and I had a hard time convincing them not to fly the Confederate battle flag while cruising through New England towns. I told them it was kind of like cruising by a speed trap in a red Corvette.
Their surprise that Yankees might harbor some suspicions of Southerners did not seem to me to be regionalism or provincialism. I thought of it as the great power of a mystique, the same mystique with which Lonesome Rhodes convinced even the Yankees that when he said something it was true because he didn`t talk like those fancy . . . well, anyone you want to denigrate. It`s always when we believe our own mystique that we`re most likely to buy a lemon.
I thought of George W. Bush, a highly privileged Yale graduate, a man served all his life by swells in suits, affecting a rural Texas accent so that we would believe that he is a man of the people, a man who sees through the hypocrisy and evil intent of all those big bad slick guys with briefcases. He didn`t strum a guitar, but he sure did strum our prejudices and fears for a while, and he left us with a battered and polarized country. Promising to bring us together, he whipped us into armed cultural and regional camps.
Here we are, a fast-urbanizing country, with a predisposition to believe country speech because of the myth of its moral superiority over city speech. I know of no reason in my experience "and I have lived in the country and the city "that a man from Hope, Arkansas, or Crawford, Texas, should be believed over a man from Hell`s Kitchen or Canarsie, New York, simply because of the sound of his words. Liars and snake oil salesmen abound on farms and in city back alleys alike. But so do men and women of integrity and honesty.
A Face In the Crowd, a black and white film directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Shulberg, is a reminder that down-home manners, whether genuine or mock, are no guarantee of honesty. Lonesome Rhodes, like Adolph Hitler, knew that a little truth could be bent into a huge lie. Yes, the German masses were oppressed by a haughty elite that didn`t give a damned about them, but it wasn`t the Jews. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a bad ass, but he didn`t attack the Twin Towers or the Pentagon and he wasn`t in cahoots with Al Qaeda. Yes, Big Pharma deserved the ridicule Lonesome heaped on it, but Lonesome was a loathsome scoundrel and shouldn`t have been followed to the corner store, much less to the pinnacle of fame and fortune.
It`s a movie that thankfully wasn`t made in color, because color would have masked the sleaze and stench of the mean hobo and his exploiters. The black and white film is a constant rebuke of Lonesome`s colorful slang and fake charm. Kazan and Shulberg make the black and white film their collaborator, and it`s as much a Greek chorus as Walter Matthau`s ironic presence.
The most memorable face in that crowd, by the way, is that of the young Lee Remick, playing a cheerleader and radiating such beauty and sexual heat it almost derails the story line. Once you spot her in that crowd you don`t care if the Second Coming is around the corner. She`s out to seduce Lonesome, who hands her a cheerleading crown, and she recognizes a fellow seducer. The pudgy trickster and the seventeen-year-old cheerleader fall on each other like starved coyotes. This is her moment and she knows it, just as Lonesome knew his when he saw it.
What we`re left to decide, always left to decide, is whether their moment is any good for the rest of us, whether anyone so seductive is good for anyone else.
In the movie Shulberg is himself the Greek chorus. I suppose the American electorate in the 2008 election was that chorus, but it came almost too late and at the cost of too much life, limb and liberty.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller`s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.