Culture Clash

'86–'95: From Evangelicals to Trannies, the First Gulf War to Tupac Shakur

What's Stranger Than Paradise?

Or, How We Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the 'Burbs
By J. Hoberman

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For years we have been taught not to like things. Finally somebody said it was OK to like things. This was a great relief. It was getting hard to go around not liking everything. —David Byrne, True Stories (the book)

June 30, 1987

Who taught us not to like things? And who finally told us it was okay? Was it David Byrne? Andy Warhol? Ronald Reagan? (Was it . . . Satan?) Capping a trend that's been percolating for most of the decade, a new obsession with the strangeness—even the Otherness—of the American heartland characterizes a remarkable number of recent movies.

Call it Kitschy Kool or Americana rama, Jetsonism or the Hayseed Renaissance, the New Patriotism or Neo-Regional Backlash, Middle American Grotesque or Shopping Mall Chic, such disparate films as Blue Velvet and Raising Arizona, Something Wild and True Stories, Making Mr. Right and Crimes of the Heart, Peggy Sue Got Married and Down by Law, Heaven, The Stepfather, and Sherman's March are all transfixed—if not stupefied—by the American Way of Life. Coming in the wake of cult items as diverse as Stranger Than Paradise, Blood Simple, Repo Man, UFOria, Static, The Atomic Cafe, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and even E.T., this trend has the force of a cultural upheaval.

The themes of these movies are as obsessive as their souvenir-stand iconography: the pathos of received ideas, the triumph of the ersatz, the wonder of bad taste, the dreamlike superimposition of the '50s over the '80s, the sense of Middle America as a kitsch theme park. That national "new morning" proclaimed by Ronald Reagan three years ago must be getting on toward high noon: True Stories celebrates small town American life with an exaggerated, shadowless clarity. Or maybe it's really later than we think. Blue Velvet defamiliarizes a similar landscape with the most sinister of twilights.

Are these films condescending or accepting? Do they reek of alienation or burble with self-love? Is there a new confidence in being American? Or a panicky realization that "America" is all we've got? Just what is it that makes the norms of American life seem so wonderfully exotic, if not downright bizarre? In retrospect, the key scene in recent American films occurs 20 minutes into Stranger Than Paradise when, interrogated by his greenhorn cousin, John Lurie launches into an impassioned defense of the TV dinner—a gag leaving the viewer to wonder if the Swanson's in question was not simply defrosted from the freezer but exhumed intact from a pharaoh's tomb. . . .

AmeriKitsch has analogues in almost every field—the quizzical irony of performance artist Mike Smith's "everyman," the hermetic solemnity of William Eggleston's Graceland photos, the prurient, candy-colored surfaces of Frederick Barthelme's New Yorker stories, the adolescent hostility of California hard-core or neo-underground comix like Neat Stuff and Road Kill—not to mention a raft of book-length paeans:Amazing America, Roadside America, Thomas Hine's Populuxe, a lavish celebration of American vernacular design between the wars (Korea and Vietnam). But the most resonant manifestations have appeared in the art world: Eric Fischl's suburban grotesques, Laurie Simmons's staged photographs, the naked commodities of Group Material's "Americana" installation at the '85 Whitney Biennial, Jeff Koons's vacuum-sealed vacuum cleaners.
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Sanctifying the Evangelical Vote

By James Ridgeway

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June 17, 1986

The major political event of 1986 has been the emergence of the Christian right as a disciplined voting bloc within the Republican Party. While television evangelist Pat Robertson may be its initial beneficiary, the ride of these white fundamentalist Christians could help push the Republicans further along the road toward majority party status. And in the process it broadens the ideological base for the right, some of whose leaders have been identified with fundamentalism and who have been the stalwarts of the Reagan Revolution.

Inspired by Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority (recently renamed the Liberty Federation), and unscathed by derisory press, the Christian right has shown itself to be a disciplined political machine this spring. Recently, Christian candidates in Michigan loyal to Pat Robertson outnumbered those pledged to George Bush. The caucuses are the first step in picking delegates to the Republican national convention in 1988. After the Michigan vote, Robertson and Bush were roughly even in delegate strength—about 30 to 40 per cent. Robertson campaigned as if he were in the final stage of a presidential election, making half a dozen personal appearances and spending $100,000 to stage a political rally that was televised across the state. Overall, Robertson's supporters spent far more than his rivals. . . .

The term evangelical encompasses Protestant individuals and groups with different political views who share a belief in the authority of the Scriptures. Some are Republicans, some are Democrats. There are significant groups of evangelicals in the South and Midwest. And within these communities, right-wing, white Christian fundamentalists of the Robertson stripe account for a small but active bloc.

If it could ever be organized, the so far amorphous and conflicted evangelical vote could be an important factor in politics. Twenty years ago the Gallup poll, which probes evangelism, found that 20 per cent of the public claimed to have had a born-again experience (the gauge of evangelism used by Gallup). In 1984, the figure rose to 34 per cent. If accurate, this means there are more than 65 million adult evangelicals and potential voters. And while these figures often are dismissed as too high, they may actually underplay the strength of the evangelical movement. Two-thirds or more Americans side with Christian fundamentalists in favor of tougher teaching in public schools, and in the belief that prayer is important, according to Gallup. Over 50 per cent were opposed to abortion. All of these have been hotly debated issues on the campaign trail this spring.
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Victimizer or Victim?

Was Kelly Michaels Unjustly Convicted?
By Debbie Nathan
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