America at Midpassage?

Of course Karl Rove was personally offended by Clint Eastwood’s halftime commercial, because it did come across as praise of President Obama’s socialization of the automobile industry back in 2009.  And of course my comrades on the Left are officially offended by the notion that automobile workers, or anybody else in Detroit, will actually benefit from the bailout, in view of where the assembly of “American” cars actually happens.

But the politics of that commercial reside in its rendering of historical time, and I deploy that last verb for all it’s worth.  Cars and workers and Detroit are approached obliquely, glancingly, even abstractly, as figures rather than real things: they actually get in our way, and so we want to look through them, we want to see the real thing, and that is Clint again in that dark underground passageway.  Cars and workers and Detroit are occasions—props, almost—for a meditation on how we might think of America in middle age, at mid-passage.

The three big moments of the Super Bowl—these happened off the field, most of us aren’t tuning in just for the game—were the Chevy apocalypse commercial, Madonna’s menopausal halftime show, and Clint’s retro ad.  Budweiser went for the long view, to be sure, reminding us that it’s been almost eighty years since the repeal of the 18th Amendment.  “What’s with all the history?” my girlfriend asked during one of Anheuser-Busch’s staged sepia shots of men, women, and minorities in bars recently liberated from Prohibition: 1933, the date matters, we know the New Deal is on trial.  GM and Chrysler did too, they were desperate to insinuate their products into an even longer view of America, as if these national brands still matter, as if the indispensable nation were still open for business.

But the Bud commercials were just boring, for all their knowing references to iconic photographs from the 1930s and 40s—nothing like the “Whassup?” breakthrough of 1999, which featured an all black cast.  No, here you get just tinted photos and funny blue bottles, to give you the impression that there’s something deep-seated, dignified, maybe even upscale about Budweiser.  Not just sleeveless hairy guys in baseball caps yelling at the TV in a sports bar—or in the stadium, where the pathos of masculinity is less excruciating, more exhilarating—no, this beer-drinking demographic includes you.

GM went for broke, and pulled it off.  “Chevy Runs Deep,” the ads concluded.  Deeper, that is, longer, than any lifetime.  Unlike you, and unlike America itself, these machines last forever.  Or is it the corporation that lasts?  If so, we’re still a country created by corporations, always wondering how the Massachusetts Bay Co. and the Virginia Co. created such different versions of the American Dream on the very same European frontier.

There are just four sources of audio after the apocalypse, as the Original Driver’s Chevy truck busts out of a huge pile of debris: Barry Manilow’s “Looks Like We Made it,” the dog in the backseat of the pickup barking, the dialogue when OD meets his three Chevy buddies—“Twinkie?” the black guy asks—and the concluding voice-over by Tim Allen, he of “Home Improvement” and “Toy Story” (whether a building trades purveyor or an astronaut, a man’s man): “From the beginning of your workday until the end of the world, Chevy runs deep.”

“Where’s Dave?” OD asks when he gets to what must be a previously determined rendezvous point.  The grizzled elder explains that Dave didn’t make it because he drove a Ford.  The reverse shot shows OD shrugging, saying “of course” without words, and then he notices the Twinkies.  In the last three shots (there are only 25 total), frogs are falling from the heavens, in keeping with the eschatological vision of Revelations.

So Chevy trucks and Twinkies last forever.  Hamburgers don’t count—we’ve already seen the toppled Big Boy statue in an alley—and neither do cars, they’re just wreckage; two emblems of postwar American prosperity (and masculinity) are thus dispatched without captions.  Martians don’t count either, you know this because a lot of flying saucers litter this beautifully ravaged landscape.  There goes another reliable reference to those “Happy Days,” when GM was good for America, food got fast, and science fiction came of atomic age.  The War of the Worlds is over, and so are the good old days.

And yet love abides, at least among truck-driving men and their dogs.  The remains of this very last day are, then, man’s best friend, brotherly love, battered pickup trucks, and Twinkies.

So GM scripted the perfect set-up for both Madonna and Clint Eastwood at halftime.  Perhaps they colluded.  It’s more likely that the writers tried to tap into a near-universal feeling of dread—a fear of the future that cuts across every ideological divide.  This truck commercial captures and caricatures the sense of an ending that all of us feel at a time of global economic crisis, political paralysis, and emotional exhaustion.  It asks a serious question in a comic frame: What if the worst happens, and the American Dream is over, what then?  Madonna and Clint answered that question, and they, too, engaged the politics of time.

Madonna said, discover, anoint, and nurture successors, younger people who can keep the beat.  During her strangely quiet set, which got us from Cleopatra to Gospel and hip-hop dance grooves in about five minutes, she kept deferring to other performers, letting them take center stage and sing a lot more than harmony.  She seemed to deflect attention from her past personae, portraying herself as a middle-aged woman with pretty good skills, neither an unpredictable babe nor a material girl: the convener of a tradition rather than its culmination.  So this show—still her show—demonstrated the possible continuity of musical generations, or rather the continuity of historical time as it can be gathered and performed in these American musics.

Clint Eastwood went her one better, without trying to situate his pep talk—yeah, he sounded like a coach toward the end there—in the whole stretch of time we call recorded history, from the Pharoahs of antiquity to the court poets of plutocracy who preside over the present.  “It’s halftime in America” he rasps, and we can see as he approaches that it’s dark down there in the depths of an unprecedented economic crisis—we know we’re underground.  Eastwood himself appears as a shadow, almost an apparition, as he moves deliberately toward a camera that’s retreating: he looks and sounds like a querulous ghost out of Elizabethan tragedy, an “old mole” like Hamlet’s dead father, there to remind us of that our patrimony indentures us to a future, and obliges us to put right a time that is out of joint—to restore a lost continuity.

We’re “hurting,” he says, “we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.”  These are “tough times.”  But we know what to do: pull together, “act as one,” knowing “all that matters is what lies ahead.”  A bankrupt automobile industry (Detroit) did it, so the rest of us can too.  Still, he asks questions: How do we “come from behind,” come together, “how do we win?”

Wait a minute, is there a scoreboard, so we can tell how far down we are?  Win at what, manufacturing?  Automobile production?  Manhood?  The American Dream is a game after all?  These are academic rhetorical questions, because the answer is yes, of course.

It’s Halftime in America.  Because the last 15 seconds of the commercial revert to the opening metaphor of the football game, we’re confused by all the poignant pictures that have come before.  But the “old mole,” the 81-year old auteur, knows what he’s doing.  This is a suture of the American past, present, and future: “coming together” means refitting these pieces of historical time, and by doing so, affirming the continuity of the American experience.

The Super Bowl’s commercial armature proves the most basic proposition about that experience: because Americans don’t share a national origin or linguistic affinity or racial stock, they live by what’s left, the songs and the stories that bind them to a usable past and open onto a plausible future.  It’s all metaphor, all the way down: to be an American is to argue about what it means to be an American.

To get into that conversation, though, you have to think historically, where the politics of time matter, where conflict or consensus isn’t just the silly either/or proposition of the new social historians.  GM, Chrysler, Madonna, and Clint Eastwood, aging icons all, did that thinking at least as well as any living historian, by persuading their viewers without argument that making it new has always been the American way.

 

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5 responses to “America at Midpassage?

  1. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

  2. Mike

    http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/2012/02/the-clint-eastwood-chrysler-commercial-controversy-and-the-doctored-wisconsin-footage/ Michael Shaw couldn’t disagree more with your reading of the Clint Eastwood ad. He and others suggest the whole thing was a set up and Eastwood is nothing but a tool. That Karl Rove has comprehension problems, they say, only bolsters their point.
    The Madonna show got me thinking though: Remember what a scandal “Like a Prayer” was when it came out? 25 years later it brings the house down at The Festival of Middle-American Values. Clearly the culture wars are over and we won.
    Speaking of “making it new”, how about the staging for that song? The rip-off of Bono’s “Rattle and Hum” gospel choir thing brought back the original juxtapositions of the original “Like a Prayer” video – only this time in a Black Baptist, rather than Catholic church. By doing so the violence and retribution of the original video were replaced by hope and celebration — what was a melancholy plea became an anthem. And Madonna did stage the whole show for the newer, younger (not coincidentally Black) voices around her. It was, in that sense, as political and timely a performance as I’ve seen.

    The fact that the Republican Party is in chaos had a lot to do with my feeling about the Madonna show — it had a lot to do with all of our readings (Karl Rove’s especially) of the Clint Eastwood commercial I’m sure. But the clown show that is the Republicans isn’t an accident or a coincidence either. They are as convinced as we are that the culture wars are over and they have lost.

    The 9C Prop H8 ruling — in which the Right offered no actual arguments for their case, the Komen Foundation fiasco, the Catholic Bishops stepping on their dicks and then laying them out for Obama to step on again, the fact that a mixture of fecal matter and butt lube in a sweater vest is the leading Republican in the polls.
    So, yeah . . . all these things kind of came together at once, and it made for a good show.

  3. It’s funny that you’d use that word “disagree,” because I think my reading contains Shaw’s. I mean that mine is consistent with his in this sense: he can be right about the commercial only if he can convict the writers (and the sponsor) of an evil rather than an inclusive intention. Of course they’re trying to get as many Americans as possible to identify with the (corporate) brand, but they also want us to identify with Detroit–the stand-in (synecdoche) for a bettered America–and beyond even that, with domestic manufacturing and, yes, its attendant labor force. We’d be embarrassed if the stakes were lower, because we’d be wondering why Clint took this sorry gig. Shaw never gets around to what he claims is his purpose, the comprehension of visual idioms. He just wants to debunk the ad–strike through the mask and all that–and so he misses the semiotic point.

  4. Rob

    This is the best post-game analysis of the Super Bowl I’ve come across; wish I had read it in February.

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