Is American culture dead as Bush looms large?

[I’m off to New York this weekend – wheeeeee! – so the following piece from the Reuters wire seemed particularly appropriate. Within three months I’ll be living permanently in the country he describes… Can’t wait! :-)]

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Morris Berman has a good idea what he will do if George W. Bush is elected U.S. president in November: run to the toilet and get sick at the thought that Americans could elect a man he calls “as dumb as a stick.” Berman says it is a tough call, but he thinks if Bush wins he would be the dumbest man ever to hold the highest office in the land. He does not believe the Texas governor has ever read an intellectually challenging book and sees him as the poster boy for everything that is wrong with an America where being an intellectual is taboo.

But then Berman has been pretty angst-ridden about America lately. The Johns Hopkins University teacher, who calls himself a Marxist idealist, has just published his latest book, The Twilight of American Culture, and his prognosis is bleak. Most people cannot read, never mind spell, he says. Bill Gates and his billionaire buddies seem to have all the money, while the greatest country on Earth, which used to export ideals like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, now flogs fried chicken and mind-numbing sitcoms. Spirituality is dead, Americans are Prozac-popping and directionless, families are falling apart and, even in the hallowed Oval Office, the business of nations has been put on hold for peccadilloes with interns.

It is a question of culture, of style as well as substance, and, for Berman at least, American culture is dead — if not totally dead, then twitching on the emergency-room floor with no health insurance and nary a doctor in sight. Berman sees Bush as the poster child for America’s collapse, which he likens to the fall of the Roman Empire. “I’m guessing George W. Bush has never read a serious book in his entire life. What does it say that we have a serious candidate for president in this country that is literally as dumb as a stick?” Berman asked rhetorically. “He can’t write a grammatical sentence and he can’t give a grammatical speech unless it’s written by somebody else and he’s reading it off a teleprompter. And the American public will probably elect him president.”

Berman, a fan of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, recalled a recent article in an Illinois newspaper that asked people if Bush was intelligent enough to be president. “One woman said, ‘He’s pretty smart, but he doesn’t know very much.’ She’s the perfect Bush voter, and there are millions of her out there,” he said in mock horror. Berman, who talks in a Woody Allen-like patter, recalled a litany of statistics from his book that point to the demise of America as a home for middle-class intellectuals: The number of people reading a daily newspaper has halved since 1965. A 1995 survey showed 40 percent of adults could not name America’s Second World War enemies. About 120 million Americans read and write English at no better than an 11-year-old’s level.

As for the popularity of self-help books, don’t get him started on that one. “Self-help books are essentially watered-down sayings on tea bags that have been made into books. Chicken Soup for the Soul — every other book is ‘the soul.’ Why did we get so preoccupied with the soul? Because we are so dumb we can’t think of anything else,” he said. But it was not always like this. Back in the 1960s, Berman believes, America was different: “There was an allegiance to the basic notion that somehow the United States was a force for good in the world, that it really was doing valuable things in terms of democracy and the economy,” he said. “Now there is a spiritual apathy and a feeling that regardless of who you elect the government is corrupt. It’s become materialism for its own sake, as if there were no other purpose in life except to make money.”

Part of the blame for reading and being an intellectual falling from grace in America can be laid at Hollywood’s doorstep, Berman said. “In the case of Cheers, all the people that have any intellectual interests whatsoever are portrayed as pompous, full of themselves and pretentious,” he said of the TV comedy that enjoyed huge ratings for more than a decade. And the people (in Cheers) who basically don’t know their ass from their elbow are warm and authentic and the real grit of America, but they basically can’t spell a word like pretentious correctly.”

America’s malaise is not something that can be remedied with a Band-Aid or even a brilliant president. Things have gone too far for that, Berman believes. He predicts America will fall into a deep economic depression leading to a “dark age” like none before. “Every civilization in the history of the world comes to an end. There are no exceptions,” he said. “We are not going to beat the odds, American hubris and optimism aside.” Is there no hope — not even a glimmer? No happy, Hollywood ending? “Twilight implies a dawn,” he said. “So in some ways this book is a clarion call to people to do acts of preservation of the culture and leave a memory trace that then will get picked up maybe 200 years from how in terms of a cultural revival.” But there is some consolation: He does not expect the dark age to start until late in this century when, thankfully, most of us will have shuffled off this mortal coil.

Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1984

Never mind Big Brother watching us, at times it seems that we are all watching Big Brother. Or everyone else at least, since the fifteen minutes I’ve caught of it have failed to pique my interest in the slightest. On the TC entertainment scale, watching dull and irritating people attempt to learn semaphore falls slightly below shampooing the budgie. But I think it is very interesting from a social phenomena point of view: this morning, I missed my train to work, because I couldn’t believe that the breakfast news had a lengthy report on Nick’s eviction. And this wasn’t even on the home of the brain-damaged, the Big Breakfast, it was the BBC. Clearly Something is Going On.

I feel a certain parental interest, having raised a flag about Big Brother, in its Dutch incarnation, all the way back in December 1999. It was clear then that it had the potential to go supernova, and this has been the case wherever it has been shown. However, it’s obvious that – as usual – the tabloid press are building their own castles. Even if 5 million people are watching, that means 50 million of us have better things to do. Though it’s impossible to avoid. At least until the football season starts again, coffee-machine talk here revolves around the exploits of the not-so-magnificent seven…no, make that six. Even people who wouldn’t touch Eastenders or Coronation Street with someone else’s barge-pole are touting its merits because it’s “real”. I suggest they try watching WWF wrestling instead – it’s patently bleedin’ obvious that the people in the house are playing roles every bit as artificial as The Rock or Triple H.

The show has been condemned in some circles – usually liberal, bleeding-heart papers like The Guardian – as “cruel” or “voyeuristic” – and it may well be so. However, I have very little problem engaging in cruel voyeurism, under scientifically controlled conditions, of course – such is human nature. A couple of thousand years ago, we’d have gone down the Circus Maximus watching people fighting wild animals. Nowadays, we go down the multiplexus and watch Russell Crowe fight computer-generated wild animals. This is what they call progress. We all like to experience other people’s lives; however, if you can’t find anyone’s better than a lesbian ex-nun, you perhaps do need to get out a lot more.

Say what you like about the people in the house – and if that was “they’re a bunch of annoying bastards whom you’d actively avoid in the pub”, you’re probably close to the mark – they’re taking part of their own free will. It appears to be a shock to some commentators, but give people enough incentive, and they will do virtually anything. In this case, I don’t think the money is particularly important: indeed, it may even be counter-productive, since the real loonies would do it for free. And real loonies = good television. Indeed, The man behind Big Brother has already got his next show sorted: Chains of Love. In this, a woman selects four men from 100 prospects to be chained to her wrists and ankles for a week, before she selects her dream date.

The question is not whether people want to watch such shows, for there’s obviously a market. The question is more whether the authorities will let them. The main news story which Nick’s departure drove from the front pages was the sunk Russian submarine – imagine if it had cameras inside, and pictures were broadcast over the Internet, 24/7. Would it get high ratings figures? Would you watch, right up until the last breath flickered out? You may not like the answers to these questions.

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Supergirl

Dir: Jeannot Szwarc
Star: Helen Slater, Peter Cook, Faye Dunaway, Peter O’Toole.

“Supernatural forces of malevolent evil are seeking to bring the Earth to its knees. Only the summoning to the planet of a true superhero can save us from demonic control.”

Thus begin the strikingly po-faced UK trailer for Supergirl as voiced by Patrick Allen, best known perhaps as the man who “narrated” Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes. But as full-on nuclear holocausts go, the film probably trumps even “the last voice you will ever hear”. Oh, you can see how it could have made sense at the time, after three successful (albeit increasingly wobbly) installments of the Superman franchise. It’s just the startlingly bad execution which amazes.

You can’t knock the star power, right from the off. Peter O’Toole is Zoltar, creator of Argo City, some kind of extra-terrestrial hippy commune, going by the floaty dresses and wall-hangings favoured by the inhabitants, and his hang-dog expression suggests he saw the writing on the wall for the movie early. He is using the power source for the city, the Omegahedron, to…well, I’m not quite sure what, but it seems to involve making bad sculptures of trees. Supergirl (Helen Slater – sister of the then equally-unknown Christian) gazes enviously on, possibly contemplating the masturbatory potential in the rotating stick of sugar cane he wields for his tree-making. An clumsy and unfortunate incident sends the Omegahedron through a time-warp, and Supergirl follows in a sequence which combines the visual worst of 2001‘s climax and the opening of Doctor Who.

In one of those amazing flukes which tend to power Incredibly Bad movies, the Omegahedron, looking like a cloisonne paperweight, lands in the picnic of chief-villainess Selena (Faye Dunaway). What are the odds against that? Dunaway, while not looking round for scenery to chew (“Such a pretty world. I can’t wait until it’s all mine”), uses it to power the car radio, and abandons her sidekick, Nigel (Peter Cook). Supergirl turns up in the same spot, now in costume, and discovers her powers by crushing a rock to dust. Cue a montage of her flying cross-country, chasing second-unit footage of horses and sweeping over mountains in such a melodramatic manner, you expect her to break into, “The hills are alive…” Note that her skirt appears to be velcro’d to her thighs, to prevent it from ever rising more than an inch..

Selena’s lair is decorated in zebra skins and Turkish brothel off-casts, and one wonders whether she’s a lesbian, since the precise nature of her relationship with her assistant Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro) seems open to question. Indeed, the whole film sinks with surprising frequency into something bordering on the sordid, such as when Supergirl is menaced by two truckers. She escapes with the help of her breath power; I am tempted to make some kind of ‘blow-job’ comment at this point, but will refrain. The next morning, she wakes up next to a rabbit, and for one glorious minute, I thought it was going to go the same way as the rock, two paragraphs back. Sadly not, but Supergirl is soon disguised as a mousy schoolgirl, whose educational establishment just happens, by pure chance, to be the one where Nigel teaches maths. What are the odds against that? And if your credulity is not already snapping, she ends up rooming with Lucy Lane…yep, the sister of Lois. What are the odds, etc. etc.

Supergirl’s powers don’t win her any friends there, despite her lack of knowledge about bras. Meanwhile, Selena tests out a love-potion on Ethan, a handily-passing hunk, triggering a sequence that tries to be psychedelic, and fails miserably. He has to be rescued by Supergirl from a runaway digger — well, ‘walkaway’ is perhaps closer to the truth, since he could have saved himself with anything more than a sluggish amble. Mind you, the presence of Howard Jones on the soundtrack more than makes up for this. Viewers should also note the extremely obvious wires as Supergirl lowers the digger to the ground. Ethan falls in love with her instead, thanks to the love potion, which kicks in at just the right moment. It’s a good job the film isn’t set in Portsmouth, where drooling over schoolgirls tends to get you a brick through the window.

A miffed Selena unleashes an invisible monster, which speeds through the forest, Evil Dead-like, felling trees as Supergirl undresses, before dragging her into the woods where she is raped by the trees. Well, okay, I made the last bit up: she opens the window, says “Leave this place and do no harm”, and uses an electrically-charged lamp-post to zap the monster, in a scene nicked from Forbidden Planet, and its monsters from the id. After a brief pause for Ethan to spout some iambic pentameter – I guess that’s love for you – and get taken flying by Supergirl (whom he doesn’t realise is the same person as the mousy teenager with which he’s in love).

She has brought Nigel back into the fold, needing his knowledge of occult…things. Such as the Burundi Wand, which is “pure, unadulterated evil” (in stick form). Nigel shakes it. Ethan and Supergirl get it on, and he realises the connection to the object of his affections, proving that you can change the colour of your hair, but you can’t change the taste of your tonsils. A mountain has mysteriously appeared in the middle of town, with a castle on top — I presume the Burundi Wand had summat to do with this. To no-one surprise bar Supergirl’s, it’s a trap, and she gets imprisoned in a place with rocks even she can’t crush. She rapidly finds herself up to her neck in black tar, a sequence to gladden the heart of every lover of quicksand [you know who you are…] — oddly, the next time we see her, she’s all clean again. I presume the ‘hosedown sequence’ is in the director’s cut.

Selena installs a martial dictatorship, ruthlessly suppressing all demonstration – though since this more or less consists of Lucy Lane waving a placard, it’s not a major task. Supergirl teams up with Zoltar, who has been sent to the same place for losing the Octahedron (it’s nice to see that even super-advanced civilization prefer incarceration to rehabilitation). There is, inevitably, an escape route: the quantium vortex, which is a Wizard of Oz-like double tornado, resembling red and blue candy floss. Zoltar dies, but Supergirl makes it out, crashing back into Selena’s castle where the rest of the cast are enduring “the old dangling-in-a-cage routine”, as Nigel puts it.

The scene is thus set for a climactic battle between Selena and Supergirl, who looks a bit like Buffy – or maybe it’s just that all blonde, arse-kicking girls, look like Buffy. Will Supergirl defeat her evil nemesis, save the world and, most importantly of all, point towards a sequel? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out…

Any hopes of a sequel proved frighteningly optimistic – looking at it now, it’s hard to see how anyone could ever have released this and expected it to make money in the first place. The script never works out whether it is taking itself seriously, and while the cast is high-profile, they largely appear to be auditioning for panto. The two Peter’s, Cook and O’Toole, in particular have the same “I’d rather not be here” look seen on Gielgud and Mirren in Caligula. Rarely can hopes have been so high, not least for the previously-unknown Helen Slater, plucked from obscurity. One can only feel sympathy for her, a career sunk before it started, contaminated beyond all hope of recovery by one of the all-time turkeys. In the documentary about the movie, one of the creators says that Slater’s life will change after making Supergirl. I imagine that was likely very true: it probably had a great deal more laughing and pointing afterwards.


  • Keep an eye out for Matt (Max Headroom) Frewer, as one of the truckers who try to ravish Supergirl, and Sandra (Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) Dickinson as a guest at Selena’s party.
  • One of Supergirl’s costumes sold for $12,925 in May 2000 — I don’t know whether the velcro was included…
  • Director Jeannot Szwarc’s career didn’t exactly take off as a result either; subsequent work such as Santa Claus: The Movie would suggest that a lot of the blame can be laid at his feet.
  • The version reviewed is the 124-minute international version; a 138-minute director’s cut is also available, but there are some sacrifices I am not prepared to make.

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Panther Squad

Dir: Peter Knight
Star: Sybil Danning, Jack Taylor, Karin Schubert

When I bought this for $3.99, Chris suggested that my selection of it had been influenced by Sybil Danning’s breasts rather than any intrinsic qualities. While acknowledging their charm, I rejected this claim completely, and confidently expressed the belief that Panther Squad would extend Sybil’s long and distinguished track record of quality B-movies such as Reform School Girls and L.A. Bounty.

Ok, I admit it: I was wrong. Horribly wrong. For it is actually a dismal piece of jaw-droppingly bad dreck which makes dire mis-steps in Danning’s career such as The Howling II look like Oscar-calibre material. Before watching it, my original plan had been to review it in the upcoming Trash City, as part of the A-Z of action heroines (a sequel to a similar piece in TC22), but it was simply deemed too bad – yes, falling short, even of the low standards of Model By Day.

It may only be 77 minutes long, but long before that, the prospect of being savaged by a large member of the cat family will seem like paradise in comparison. It struggles from the get-go, beginning with stock footage of a rocket taking off, part of a new space initiative led by NOON, the New Organisation Of Nations, a UN-like group who have nicked the flag of the European Union and are headed by a Henry Kissinger lookalike. But the craft is hijacked by ‘Clean Space’ (a group dedicated to…well, clean space), despite the best efforts of Noon’s space centre, which consists of about four people in a power station, saying things like “Move from H to 6” while alarms make wheeee-wheeee noises. Clean Space also kidnap backup astronaut Jane Dantine, followed shortly after by the most pathetically-staged car crash I’ve ever seen, largely consisting of waving the camera about while pointing it at some trees.

To crack this tough case, they need “the toughest cookie in our job”, Ilona (Sybil Danning, of course), as we learn in a barely coherent section which leaps from location to location, and character to character without explanation, punctuated by shots of Ilona with binoculars. “Wander around – you could learn some stuff,” someone tells her, so Ilona wanders around, and Ilona learns some stuff, despite being involved in a fight scene, which occasionally switches into slow-mo for no real reason, and is intercut with a sublimely pointless shot of the now totally-empty room she just left.

Ilona teams up with local agent Frank Randall (Jack Taylor), to whom I couldn’t help warming, since he is laidback to the point of being almost horizontal – largely through alcoholic consumption – and fond of saying things like “Beautiful women are my favourite pastime.” The root-beer drinking Ilona isn’t impressed. The jeep carrying Jane (remember her?) gets stuck in mud, and she escapes. briefly. To no point at all. Oh, well. Frank and Ilona meet a contact in a restaurant which features the least-convincing guitar playing of all time. Their contact – “the one with the Julio Iglesias haircut” – gets killed by someone who looks like a dwarf version of Danny Trejo, but inevitably passes on crucial information to Ilona. She has had enough, and brings in the rest of the ‘Panther Squad’. Seeing them clad in hotpants, halter tops and mini-skirts, I had to agree with Frank: “The Dallas Cowboys must be in town.”

Some confusion occurs here, as the name of the enemy group seems to change from ‘Clean Space’ to ‘The Circus’. Or perhaps they are an entirely different evil force; by this stage, you may well have had to adopt ‘defensive apathy’ with regard to such things, purely to survive. Whatever they’re called, they launch an attack on the bungalow, but since any count of the attackers would stop at round about…well, two, it’s not very effective. While Sybil watches through her binoculars (yes, the same shot used in the earlier scene), the Panther Squad set out to investigate a boat that seems to be involved, but their professionalism seems to leave a bit to be desired: they take out the guards okay, but leave them their guns… “Oh, I’ve been captured”, as Eddie Izzard would say.

The rest of the team head for the bad guys’ base, who are now obviously ready. Says one, “the two guys keeping watch have been attacked” – which is odd when I counted at least four. Never mind. However, the villains’ accents are so heavy, they are near-impossible to understand, so a mere inability to keep count in English may be forgiven. Less acceptable is the way all their guards relentless fall for the oldest ruses in the book, whether it’s Ilona pretending to be a tourist, or the dumb “lobbing a stone behind you” trick, and they respond with the reaction speed of slugs on Valium. How did this lot ever manage to become a threat to the world?

“The insects are bad here, but we’ll need more than Raid to kill off that pest”, says Ilona in a somewhat bemusing one-liner before her amazons attack. Jane (still remember her?) is spirited away, and the girls give chase, pausing only to ask the conveniently-passing Frank for directions. He shrugs and has a drink, perhaps wondering why they prefer to jog off down the road on foot, rather than taking his car. Ah, but they manage to get transport from somewhere, as they are next seen in a car being chased by a helicopter: they get out, the car is strafed, Frank turns up, Frank gets strafed too. “Think we might need some guns”, says Ilona, somewhat superfluously. Luckily, Frank has some in the back of his car. The helicopter crashes in a blaze of stock footage depicting an explosion on a mountain, using totally different film-stock.

From here, it’s off to Government HQ, though before heading there, Frank gives Ilona a parcel she’d sent for for Sybil. At the HQ, a mad general is giving a banquet. “There is nothing and no-one to stop me now. I will be the lord and master of the world. Their so-called gate-posts will be reduced to slavery.” Gate-posts? Gate-posts? After four rewinds, I eventually realised that he meant “great powers”, but was burdened with the same dreadful accent as the rest of the crew. I say again, how did this lot ever manage to become a threat to the world? The guns the Panther Squad had in the previous scene have now vanished, and their opponents are too busy shooting them in the air, happy at the prospect of world domination, as their leader makes largely-inaudible threats which appear to involve nuclear power stations.

So, it’s off to the Space Centre, with Ilona now riding a motorbike — though there are two obvious proofs that it’s not her on the bike… The surprisingly loosly-guarded space centre prepares to, er, do bad things to nuclear power stations and…okay, I’m going to write this down exactly as I did at the time. Ilona’s parcel has a gun that makes a jeep invisible. The Space Centre sparks briefly, but is otherwise unharmed. The space program can continue and mankind’s new age of space has begun. Hoorah. You are now every bit as bemused as I was, watching it: “I need a drink”, says Frank, and not for the first time, I find myself in total agreement.


  • The final credits give “Special thanks to the Aerospatiale”; one suspects this may be because whatever “aerospatiale” it was, thought it best to remain anonymous.
  • Did Jess Franco have a hand in this? This site details the evidence.
  • It’s kinda hard to tell where this film was shot. Bits look like Belgium, bits look like Spain, and bits are Japan — but that’s just the stock footage of a Japanese rocket taking off, so may safely be ignored…
  • ‘Peter Knight’ is a pseudonym for (and, indeed a literal translation of) Pierre Chevalier, and was the last movie in a dubious career including such work as La vie amoureuse de l’homme invisible, which is pretty much what it sounds like.
  • Sybil also co-produced the film. What was she thinking…
  • If you’re wondering what happened to Sybil, her ‘agent’, the late, largely unlamented SC Dacy, appears to have been a significant reason. I vaguely recall some correspondence with him, trying to get an interview with Sybil in the early days of TC. I think communications were abruptly ended after he took offense at a sentence in an article which he perceived as being critical of her. I was unimpressed, shall we say.

“What are they going to do – fire me?”

On Monday, I quit my job. Regular readers will know this is no surprise, and has been in the pipeline for ages as part of plans to move across to America before the end of the year. But to finally hand over that sheet of paper to my boss was both simultaneously uplifting and scary. The former, because I can look forward to three months of…well, let’s just say that the threat of being sacked no longer has any great hold over me. But it’s sobering too, in that this is really the first irrevocable step towards departure. It’s one thing to talk about emigration; it’s quite another to take a leap into the dark and give up your employment for the past 11 years, without any idea what your next one will be.

The clock is now ticking, and I suddenly realised that I’d better get on with the next TC, before I lose access to all my spiffy hi-tech apparatus. The past week has thus been a bit of a blizzard of activity, as I start laying out some articles, hand over others to minions, and get stuck into reviewing material (no…please…not another Carmen Electra movie!). At the moment, I am optimistic, though perversely, I suspect that as the deadline of the end of my employment approaches, I’ll be spending more time in the office. I can see them carting me out of the building on October 31st, as I shriek, “Just five more minutes!” [And here seems as good a place as any to include the traditional mantra: “Oi, Lino! Where are the ‘zine reviews?”]

At least one potential distraction has been largely removed, as my Playstation appears to be succumbing to wear and tear (I’m sure it has nothing to do with the pique-induced slapping it took after a particularly irritating LMA Manager loss). From a TC point of view, this is good. However, having struggled through most of Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, I feel an odd sense of loss that I’ll never get to finish them. There’s not much point in buying a new machine, given my imminent departure, and I have no interest in starting from the beginning again!

On the other hand, it will be one less item to ship. For I’m already looking (albeit in a vague way) at the prospect of packing all my stuff up. Fortunately, I don’t have much in the way of possessions – at least, not ones without plugs on the end – and most of what I do have, there’s no point in taking over. I like my bed, but my research suggests they have perfectly adequate ones in America. Apart from that, it’s mostly software of various forms, and will provide a good opportunity to engage in some hard-core pruning. For example, do I bother taking any LPs with me? Part of me is going “But…but…but I can’t leave them behind!”, while a rather more realistic part enquires politely when was the last time I even saw my record-player. Keeping stuff is all very well, but paying to ship it does concentrate the mind.

Especially as I’ve got a good seven years of accumulated junk to sort out, thanks to my non-nomadic lifestyle. When you move home frequently, there is inevitably regular winnowing of the dross. Not having this means entire rooms to be gone through and the dreck discarded (I’ve got most of the first 100 issues of Empire if anyone wants to come round and pick them up!). If previous experience is anything to go by, these sessions will degenerate into me sitting in the middle of a bomb-zone, reading books I’d forgotten I had, while listening to CDs that had fallen down behind said books. Actually, I’m quite looking forward to this…