This is no dream, this is really happening
Welcome, friends, to another edition of the Dr Frank Weakly Reader. Part re-cap / digest and part newsletter. Nobody reads it, I know. But as those Dummy Room guys said in their podcast (see below) I’m trying to make sure you don’t forget. This is the best I can do.
Note: you may have noticed that I’ve switched around the title and subtitle in this “edition”, just to see if it will work out better that way. I think it is easy to get lost in all those nearly identically-titled posts, and I also want to indicate, without necessarily having to spell it out, that there’s new “content” here as well as a round-up. Maybe more people will click and read through. (Even a few would be enough “more,” to be perfectly honest.) Maybe not. I figured it was worth a shot.
Anyhow, in this edition there’s an essay about ambiguity and double entendre in Rosemary’s Baby (film and novel), just below, as well as some extended thoughts on tolerance, “cancel culture,” ochlocracy, and the madness of crowds (down the page, in the IN THE NEWS section.) Along with the usual annotated links and pretty, sometimes unsafe and scandalous, illustrations.
What “really happened” in Rosemary’s Baby
I hope you had a good Hallowe’en. I love Hallowe’en and it doesn’t take much to make it work for me.
By way of celebration, as so often, I watched Rosemary’s Baby again (for the, what is it, maybe fiftieth time?) It is still, by my lights, the perfect film, never surpassed as a horror movie, as the absolute ideal of novel adaptation, as a psychological portrait, as a naturalistic depiction of 1960s New York and of 1960s American “manners” — never surpassed, in fact, in nearly every relevant category I can think of. Every time I view it I notice at least a few more subtle touches. It is a work of astonishing artistic depth and breadth.
One tantalizing thing I always wonder about is what it might have been like to see the film or to read the Ira Levin novel from which it is adapted without already knowing the plot and conclusion. The book carefully and deftly cultivates an ambiguity: is this Satanic plot real, or a paranoid delusion? And it keeps it up right to the end, and even then… well it’s still possible to imagine that the ambiguity persists even after Rosemary beholds the devil baby’s yellow eyes as she pulls away the Satanic bassinet’s veil. Perhaps it’s still a delusion, born of the anguish and soul-breaking despair of losing a child, an elaborate, paranoid, “therapeutic” fantasy of the Operators and Things sort: in short, an alternate, symbol-laden reality conjured by a broken mind. (Such delusions certainly do happen, or have been thought to have happened, or have been… caused to happen.)
As such it is a brilliantly conceived dramatic and, dare I say, philosophical set-up. Even when you (think you) know what’s really going on, the tension between mundane reality and fanciful, perhaps delusional, terror, is the very essence of “horror” at its best; and it is also one reason why this film (like the book which the screenplay very closely follows) feels so “real” despite the outrageous, fantastic content. It is always anchored in a plausible, concrete reality, with the result that the rather extravagantly preposterous horror plot that emerges rings true, somehow, to actual experience in a way matched by few, if any, other horror films.
I have no doubt that that was the intentional plan of the novel. The ambiguity is woven into the narrative, and much effort is devoted to sustaining it. (Levin’s rather ill-advised, practically unreadable sequel, Son of Rosemary, published and set in the late ‘90s, continues the equivocation, sort of, though clumsily and with far, far less subtlety: the titular child grows up to become a kind of self-help celebrity Antichrist who destroys all life on earth with a deadly virus, after which Satan comes to earth and drags Rosemary down to Hell… after which, Rosemary awakens from a deep sleep and it’s 1965 again before the events of either book have taken place — it was, in fact, all a dream. After which, however, Hutch’s putatively sinister remarks about candles and a reference to yet another anagram — “roast mules,” whose significance is unexplained — along with some time-logic disjunctions involving the Beatles, ultimately give one to wonder: was it really a such a dream after all?)
At any rate, the film, I believe, up till the end, is acted and directed that way as well, each scene more or less plausibly functioning as an effective double entendre. But film is more concrete than literature, the images more direct and tangible, even when couched in dream sequences and what-not. Everyone knows, now, what “really happened” in Rosemary’s Baby. It’s not possible to view the film without knowing it, from the beginning. It’s just too famous. The artful ambiguity has been so effectively flattened by this fame and by prejudicial awareness of what story is being told that it is all but impossible to see.
But in 1967? There had to have been people who read that book — and even some who saw the subsequent film, before it became common knowledge what it was, allegedly, “about” — who didn’t quite know for sure what to think till the final scene, and even then, perhaps, who may have wondered, just a little.
It’s an interesting experiment to try to force oneself to watch the film that way, as though it is a story about a young woman’s descent into madness rather than a straightforward, literal story about a true Satanic cult of elderly people who summon the Devil to impregnate her and steal the resulting half-human half-devil baby only to be discovered via a secret passage into the Devil-worshippers’ apartment where they are all having a big party. It is just possible, or nearly possible, if you try, to view it that way.
And it is like watching a whole different film. Try it.
These are coming up:
— Friday December 6: MTX with the Queers and the Capitalist Kids, at Three Links, 2704 Elm St, Dallas, TX, 75226. Get tix here.
— Saturday December 7: MTX with the Queers and the Capitalist Kids, at the Barracuda, 611 East 7th Street, Austin, TX 78701. Tix here.
See you there?
— Mtx forever: as reported last week, the pressing plant refused to press the Mtx forever side that included the song “Danny Partridge” because of the audio intro. The latest is that the master of the “Danny Partridge” side (side B) has been re-edited to exclude the “problematic” snip. (I hated to do it, but it was the only way under the circumstances.)
It’s a good thing it was so easy to chop out: otherwise we’d have had to bake the 8 track master, find an 8 track 1/2" machine to play it, do a transfer, and remix it, somehow. (I’m not ruling out doing that in the future for its own sake, but it would be a can of worms to do it now and would have delayed things much, much further.) We are looking at a mid-March release at this stage, though, as I’m learning, with vinyl these days you never really know.
— Odin: this week’s Song for Odin was MTX doing “Somebody Who Cares” at the Rivoli in Toronto in October of 1997.
“Minor secrets,” mostly about the unsatisfactory state of the Our Bodies Our Selves tape archive, but also including a sort of analysis of the song, are here. Songs for Odin playlist is here. And for those who like stats, this is the 107th Song for Odin entry, of the 92nd song (it’s different because there are multiple entries on some songs and a couple of entries without specific songs.)
— …and your Friday morning “…Hitler…” (yes, it’s back) from Brian on bandcamp. (I began this “feature” by posting a cover of this song each week; then I ran out of “Hitlers” and moved on to other songs; now that I’ve branched out past YouTube, I’ve found a few more.)
As this is not on YouTube, I can’t add it to my YouTube covers playlist obviously, but if you’d like to hear other such covers found on the internet you can follow that link and find some.
THE DOCTOR IS IN / OUT
— The Dummy Room: I had a pleasant conversation with those guys last week, on songwriting, tapes, re-issue challenges, etc., and they turned it into a podcast. Check it out here. They said “stop by anytime” and I’d be up for that. It was a good time. At one point in the intro they say, about me and my activities, the videos, the re-issues, etc.: “he’s making sure that we don’t forget.” That is, indeed, the idea.
The Dummy Room #78 - Dr. Frank (Mr. T Experience)
This week we're joined by Dr. Frank. That means we talk about the Mr. T Experience and that is pretty awesome. Check it…
One thing I neglected to mention about that Hallowe’en Ne’er-Do-Wells story is: I’d expected to have to explain to the band why I was carrying a pitchfork, and was trying to figure out a good way of explaining it. In fact, though, no one even asked. They took it in stride. Such is rock and roll I suppose.
— Dept. of bon mots: “Good photography is all about lightning and angels.”
— Virtual media’s greatest strength is also its biggest flaw: you can’t trip over it. Easily stored, easily forgotten. Speaking of bon mots, if bon mots is the word I want that still-bon one is from an old essay of mine on creating objects that can be tripped over and excavated, plus a tribute to the golden age of music blogs. Still my program.
I am an Anglican, who takes the historical view that the Nazi revolution of 1559, and the miserable complications which ensued, deprived me of part of my native inheritance as an English Catholic. — Frances Yates, in a startling post-script to a 1942 letter to the historian Philip Hughes, quoted in Marjorie G. Jones’s Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition.
By the revolution of 1559 she means the Elizabethan Religious Settlement; by “nazi” I suppose she means to attribute the Anglican reformist dispensation to extremist nationalism, or perhaps even to proto-totalitarianism, all the more striking in that it was written the midst of the Second World War. Always an unorthodox thinker, a trenchant yet allusive and imaginative writer, and a fierce British patriot and opponent of nationalism, Dame Frances is, as ever, reliably provocative.
— A skeleton reading one of my books at a public library: here.
— Super mature and unsafe: Jaws by Peter Benchley
— …and finally:
IN THE NEWS
— Democracy dies in darkness: the Washington Post had a banner week, with its headline description of the now-dead ISIS founder as an “austere religious scholar” in its obituary, followed by an editorial averring that criticism of “cancel culture” can only stem from a hatred of democracy, and thence by an op-ed that dares to dream of an America with speech laws more in line with those of Saudi Arabia.
A few thoughts:
“The phenomenon derided as ‘cancel culture’ [runs the Washington Post’s ‘cancel culture’ article’s sub-head] is nothing more than a large group of people choosing who and what they want to watch, read, and listen to.”
In other words, everything’s fine.
It’s ignored here, and arguably rather pointedly so, but the victims of internet mobbery include ordinary innocent nobodies as well as the famous and powerful (who, in this mode of thinking, apparently deserve all they get, whatever it is, justified or not.) And most of the nobodies, unlike many of the somebodies, are ill-equipped simply to ride it out. One of the primary aims of such excommunication campaigns is to get people fired from their jobs, and most people are not “too big to fail.”
“Cancel culture” springs from an unfortunate and singularly distressing feature of human nature. To wit, human beings are vicious, irrational, heartless bastards, and are worse by orders of magnitude when they feel a part of a righteous group doing the Lord’s vengeance against subhuman “scum.”
The internet of now has provided a field in which these unfortunate, all-too-human proclivities can be exercised quite casually on a mass scale, with the greatest of ease and with little personal risk to individual participants. (Well, little personal risk till the mob duly turns on them, which it certainly will, on at least some of them. Such is the nature of mobs. As the song goes, “you’ll start to see the flaw in being hunted like a witch as soon as it starts happening to you.”) This mob dynamic can be described various ways, but when critics of it use terms like “cancel culture” and “call-out culture” and such, that’s what they’re referring to. Many of these occurrences are, to be sure, absurdly trivial, but in the aggregate they amount to a corrosive social-cultural practice, now becoming customary, almost rote, that attacks and undermines the most important among liberal values, which is Tolerance. Or so it seems to me:
As an observer on the sidelines, I have been most repelled by the almost palpable joy, the unalloyed delight, people seem to experience in each “take down” and “pile on.” It resembles a kind of lust, really. People join mobs because tribal attacks on “the other” and on ostracized apostates are deeply pleasurable. They do it because they genuinely enjoy the suffering of others and are quite keen to revel in the spectacle of human misery and wretchedness when they can get away with it, especially when inflamed with a self-justifying moral righteousness against a hated, contemptible enemy. (For a similar reason, the carceral state isn’t going away any time soon.) Twitter mobbing is an easy, breezy, and, it seems, irresistibly entertaining way to scratch that itch. Even when the target is deserving of censure, it’s an ugly impulse. And anyone who thinks this vituperative madness can be controlled and channelled so that it afflicts only the “scum” leaving all us good, wonderful people unscathed (even granting that such discrete categories exist and that there can indeed be a reliably objective determination of who belongs in which — which I certainly don’t) — well, they cannot have observed the behavior of mobs, historical or contemporary, with much care or understanding.
It’s bad enough as it is, but it could well get worse. Those who are worried about it or repelled by it worry and are repelled not because they “hate democracy,” — that’s a vapid, silly, and self-serving fancy, from someone who has naively judged that his interests are served by celebrating it. The okhlos is not the dēmos. Ochlocracy, in fact, is feared and resisted in our current political context, by those who fear and resist it, at least in part precisely because it precludes democracy. (When it comes to elected politicians, there’s a democratic and an un-democratic way to throw the bums out, and “cancel culture” falls in the latter category.) It’s not only the specific targets and their antagonists who matter in this regard, but also the much, much greater mass of on-looking ordinary people, the vast majority of whom tend to have a “live and let live” attitude concerning most things, comprehending nothing of, and caring still less about, the twitter vigilantes’ abstruse sectarian obsessions, and whose only role in the barrage of language-policing virtual micro-crusades is to be intimidated into silence, disengagement, and conformist dissemblance. This dynamic is akin to the classic “chilling effect” on speech so often referenced in law, and was described by John Stuart Mill as “intellectual pacification” that has as its price “the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.”
I’ve heard people argue that it’s worth this price for an allegedly better-behaved populace. I disagree (and see no evidence at all of this improved social atmosphere, quite the contrary in fact.) But at least it’s an intelligible argument, in a way that “everything’s fine” is not. And perhaps these claimed ill effects are overblown, exaggerated. (In which case, well: good.) But whatever else “cancel culture” may be, it’s not, as people like the WaPo guy would have it, simply a matter of someone deciding not to watch somebody’s comedy act because he doesn’t think the jokes are funny. (For one thing, “cancel culture” wants to prevent you from watching it and thinking the jokes are funny as well.) I suspect he knows it, really.
Moral panics have a way of flaring up and flaming out just as suddenly, leaving the members of the dissipated mob standing dazed and baffled in their own wreckage, strangely unaware of their own participation in what they now can recognize as a bizarre spasm of madness. (cf. “Satanic panic,” which I’ve written about before in these terms. Most of those caught up in it at the time now have no recollection of their own participation, and even Geraldo, the public face of the hysteria for many, fails to realize which “side” he was on nowadays.) It’s a peculiar social-psychological phenomenon that I don’t suppose we’ll ever understand. I still expect this flame-out and befuddlement to happen sooner rather than later in this stupid little flare-up we’ve got going now. On the other hand, the Wars of Religion lasted two hundred years.
As for that “hate speech” op-ed, all I can say is, the idea of nullifying the First Amendment via a storm of experimental local statutes in a grand program of censorious trial and error is almost too laughable for response. You’d have to repeal the First Amendment first, you silly person (and good luck with that.) The fact that this feeble-minded, totalitarianish guy was ever in charge of anything important (he was the editor of Time and Obama’s Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs) is rather astounding and calls into question as much as anything just how meritorious our meritocracy actually is. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve read in quite a while. But, that’s how clickbait is made. Maybe that (the exigencies of clickbait) is the real explanation, for each of these journalistic misfires, and I hope it is.
And that’ll about wrap it up for the Weakly Reader this week. But for those who have made it this far down the page, and in honor of the Hallowe’en just past, here’s a nice picture of a Ouija broad: