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GOP Convention and “The Magic Christian”

Man Ray's "Observatory Time"

The grandees of the ruling class are submerged in an artificial reality in which comic horrors overtake happy illusions of social supremacy. Such was the Republican National Convention. It was also the hilarious late scene in Terry Southern’s 1969 satire, The Magic Christian.

Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand. Ringo Starr is his adopted son, Youngman Grand. The pair use Grand’s fortune to explode the regal myth’s of the proper and the rich. The inaugural voyage of the luxury cruise ship, The Magic Christian, is the social event of the season. It’s there that the two Grands stage their greatest piece of performance art. All hell breaks loose. Dracula stalks the passengers. The drunk captain is attacked by the Vampire and a gorilla. The ship’s going down! Passengers head for the lifeboats. In the end the assembled voyagers discover they’ve never even left the port. It was all a fantasy paid for by Sir Guy and Youngman.

Which brings me to Clint Eastwood and the Chair. For Republicans, the problem with Eastwood’s shtick wasn’t that he rambled rather incoherently or used some off-color humor. Rather, Eastwood was reality intruding into the fabricated fairyland of the Republican convention.

Eastwood’s routine was a perfect example of Bertold Brecht’s “distancing effect.” A distancing effect, Brecht wrote:

…prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer.

Now, an audience of consciously critical observers is pretty much the last thing the convention’s producers wanted. However unintentionally, Eastwood blew the trumpet like Joshua at Jericho and the Fourth Wall came tumbling down. Following Eastwood, GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s stiff phoniness was much more obvious.

This is why I can agree in part with Bill Maher’s praise of Eastwood. Maher said:

People have been saying for years: these conventions are too scripted, they’re too slick, they’re too overproduced. A guy who went up there who wasn’t slick … and killed with the crowd? I gotta give him props for that.

Modern stand-up comics have been using something like Brecht’s distancing effect at least since Lenny Bruce. They use shock, irony and surprise to puncture destructive cultural myths. This wasn’t Eastwood’s intention, but it sure was his effect. No wonder Maher admires it.

The Republican convention, of course, was built upon lies (who built it?). The surreal relationship of the speakers to facts of the universe made me think of the disembodied lips in May Ray’s “Observatory Time: The Lovers.” The speaker’s perjured themselves with every whisper and shout that escaped their lips floating there above the podium.

Jon Stewart fairly lost it when describing one of the biggest lies of all, Mitt Romney’s claim that he had hoped President Obama would succeed. The Republicans had from the day of Obama’s inauguration launched a strategy to obstruct Obama, no matter the consequences to the country. Just think of the debt ceiling fiasco in which the Republicans in Congress cost the nation its credit rating.

There was another truth that emerged from the Eastwood performance: the President Obama the Republicans are running against doesn’t exist any more than the invisible Obama in Eastwood’s chair. The Kenyan socialist gun-confiscating economy wrecker is obviously the disturbed fantasy of right-wingers lost in paranoia and the cynical propagandists who exploit them. That Obama is no more real than Christopher Lee’s comic Dracula in The Magic Christian.

The good news about the Republican convention is that by the time it was over, reality remained the same. It was a horrorshow to live through, but in the end, America hadn’t really drifted away from the port. Here’s the scene from The Magic Christian. To the lifeboats!

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith