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Moonbeam Over Marin: “California Uber Alles” and Jerry Brown

by Chris Randle

During my transition from a teenager who played competitive Magic: The Gathering to a teenager with dubious facial piercings, I rode the subway downtown to a cavernous vintage store on Queen Street West. The scruffy nave of local music and art in the 1980s, that neighbourhood has since become almost totally gentrified, but it felt like Weimar Berlin after coming from my leafy, ultra-middle-class corner of Toronto. The thrift shop clung on – still does – by hawking beat-up trenchcoats and black punk-band shirts. My favourite T circa Grade 10 featured a militaristic, sinister-looking emblem in lurid colours. The stark text “DEAD KENNEDYS” soon appeared in its owner’s passport photo, although that was a dumb oversight on my part rather than an attempt at radicalizing airport security.

I don’t remember exactly when I became a fan of the band, but I do remember how: “California Uber Alles.” The menace created by East Bay Ray’s guitar (surf rock for the sharks) and Jello Biafra’s manic sneer of a voice was intoxicating. I didn’t follow all the lyrics – I understood they were mocking some long-gone California governor with New Age leanings. Surely he must have been better than Reagan? But I got the joke. The notion of a serenely Zen fascist leader was just plausible enough for its indelible absurdism to work. Hippie hatred unites punks and neoconservatives like nothing else. It only serves the interests of the latter.

Jerry Brown, the DKs’ day-glo Fuhrer, made an unlikely comeback as governor of California this week. My teenage self probably would’ve been nonplussed, but now the news is a delight. That doesn’t have much to do with policy proposals (though Brown will be far, far better on that score than the billionaire cipher he defeated), and it doesn’t make up for the depressing loss of Sen. Russ Feingold in this grim midterm vote. Brown’s return appeals to me on a symbolic, even sentimental level. It implies that hopeless eccentrics can still get elected in a major U.S. state. The governor-to-be has never lived his life as if worried about potential attack ads.

That notorious oddness is sometimes exaggerated, and not just by a certain hardcore anthem. Brown acquired the inescapable nickname “Governor Moonbeam” when he suggested launching California’s own communications satellite – a crazy-sounding idea in the 1970s, a visionary one now. (Like Tony Benn on the left of Britain’s Labour Party, Brown was a starry-eyed futurist.) He did appoint a Beat poet to the California Arts Council, though, and espoused Buddhist economics, and lived in a commune for a time after leaving office. Later he interviewed Noam Chomsky for Spin: “The economists have a word, ‘autarchy,’ which they use to denigrate the notion of local self-reliance.”

It’s not surprising that Jello Biafra praised Brown’s insurgent campaign against Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic primary, lamenting the caricature he’d helped create. They had way too much in common. (Maybe Biafra also realized that some conservatives would take the idea of “liberal fascism” all too seriously.) The ’92 Moonbeam backed campaign-finance reform and condemned free-trade deals. If indie rock was succeeding punk as a centre of countercultural attention, he knew the kids better than Jello did; Brown stumped econo, refusing to take contributions higher than $100. Most came through a 1-800 number. He would hold it up during debates, deadpan, like he was selling OK Soda.

This lefty populist nonetheless championed a regressive flat tax designed by supply-side guru Arthur Laffer. That wasn’t especially surprising either. Brown has always been slippery ideologically, yet his weird mysticism makes the fluidity seem authentic, the core of his aura (in Walter Benjamin’s sense). As one right-wing admirer put it: “Nearly every politician dreams of being all things to all people; Brown found a way to treat that inconstancy as an Aquarian virtue.”

He was a contradictory governor of a contradictory state. California, epicentre of the New Left, is also distinguished by the virulence of its right. In Before the Storm, his book about Barry Goldwater and the American conservative movement, Rick Perlstein notes that Orange County alone swelled to 38 John Birch Society chapters, plus a Bircher congressman. When he ran for re-election in 1978, Jerry Brown carried Orange County.

“California Uber Alles” kept moving too. Dead Kennedys recorded an angrier version about Ronald Reagan in 1982, calling it “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” That could almost pass for contrition by hardcore standards. Numerous covers followed, each one diminishing the original’s effect. Biafra himself remade the song after the recall putsch of Governor Arnold, comic-Nazi accent and all, but Schwarzenegger lacked the earlier targets’ surrealism or extremism; he was just laughable, a celebrity feebly pantomiming the big persona, kind of like Jello Biafra.

I don’t mean to pit one subculture against another, hippie politician versus punk warbler. That game is boring. (We won’t even mention the H-word.) Fraught, tangled lineage is a more accurate framework. My friend Jonny Dovercourt once argued that indie rockers hate hippies because “they remind us of our embarrassing younger selves…Indie kids are descended from punks, who are descended from hippies.” A “crushing sense of disappointment” has been passed down through each semi-failed movement. Maybe he was right. What else could Dead Kennedys’ name signify? Groovy RFK, tribune of the ’60s New Politics, bleeding out at Nixon’s victory party.

During his rambling acceptance speech this week, Jerry Brown said: “While I’m really into this politics thing, I still carry with me that missionary zeal to transform the world…I’m hoping and praying that this breakdown that we’ve been witnessing paves the way for a breakthrough.” I could close by quoting my blog comrade here: “Punk is easy, adulthood is hard.” But I’ll be mercurial and cite Crass instead: “I’m the same old monkey in the same old zoo / Same old message trying to get through.”

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Redemption (2010), Directed by Katie Wolfe, Written by Tim Balme, Renae Maihi & Katie Wolfe, Based on a short story by Phil Kawana

By Margaux Williamson

(I went to a program of shorts called “Moonshine” at the ImagineNative Film Festival with my friend Kerry Barber who was in town from the Yukon. We sat in the middle of the seats at the Jewish Community Centre. The program was a mix of funny and serious. This movie was on the serious side. Something the filmmaker said in the Q&A afterwards stuck with me for awhile.)


Two older Maoris teenagers sit on a couch. They are in a dark run-down room. Outside the windows, in bright light, we see a rural community that also looks run-down. We are guessing the “Redemption” in the title refers to a whole troubled community here, somewhere in New Zealand. The teenagers speak intimately with each other. They are kind and gentle with each other. They have already taken some drug that they are waiting to kick in and are now smoking joints. They don’t seem like the partying kind of drugs, more like the kind of drugs that are paradoxically used for survival. The lighting and camera movements are seductive as are the two actors. A man walks in while they are smoking a joint. He is wearing jogging clothes. He looks at them with disappointment. They look back at him with a bit of shame. They soon go outside to the very bright outdoors and then back into another dark structure. This is probably the girl’s bedroom. 

The first thing they do is cover all of the windows with blankets. The girl does some more drugs. Then they get on the bed. On the bed, they take off each other’s clothes. It looks like something they have done many times before. Then they begin an elaborate ritual where they each take turns blowing gentle on each other’s wounds and scars. The girl has them all over her back and the boy, all over his legs. This also looks like something they have done many times before.

Other things happen and then morning comes. The boy wakes up and runs across to the kitchen in the blinding light of the outdoors. He makes tea. The kitchen is also very bright. At the last second, he thinks to put the teacup on a saucer and walks back out. Back in the bedroom, he sees that the girl hasn’t made it through the night. She has died, presumably from too many drugs. After some time, the boy cuts across the skin over his heart with a piece of the saucer that he had broken earlier and says goodbye by putting a touch of his blood on her lips. He goes back outside like this to tell the man in the jogging suit what has happened.

During the Q&A that followed the screening, the director, Katie Wolfe, mentioned that the man in the jogging suit was in the movie because the people funding the project thought that there needed to be more hope in the movie. She said that she had added this man who wasn’t doing drugs and who was jogging as a concession to this request.

Her answer seemed funny to me – and she seemed to find it a bit funny too. It seemed funny to me because hope was the primary element at the heart of the teenager’s story. The hope involved two people who think that they might be able to heal each other through this secret ritual of blowing on each other’s wounds. It isn’t the most practical act of healing, but it’s certainly the most elaborate act that a child could dream of. It involves two people who don’t know how to fix each other but who are trying very hard to do so. It almost seems like it could work – if they concentrate hard enough.

I like that Katie Wolfe was obliging and added the jogger. I think she used it to the movie’s advantage even if it doesn’t technically add what was perceived to be missing. I like the idea that if the heart of a project is truthful and strong, you don’t need to vigilantly protect it from new or foreign elements.

Here, the jogger mainly benefits the story by adding a bit of contrast and a small amount of comic relief. The jogger always looks a bit upset and irritated. His body is frustratingly less beautiful than the teenagers who are not exercising. His jogging outfits are somewhat defiant and… well… everything about him is less dramatic. He is also engaged in an activity of hope, just a more practical and grounded one – but no less difficult. His presence mainly reminds us that hope is the main activity all around.

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Mansfield Park (1999) – Written and Directed by Patricia Rozema, Based on Jane Austen’s novel

By Margaux Williamson

(I was having a great leisurely day and I went to the video store wanting something familiar and expensive. I picked out Mansfield Park, a movie by Patricia Rozema based on the Jane Austen book of the same name. The characters in Jane Austen’s work spend most of their time having complicated thoughts about intellect, about how to judge others and about their own emotions (how to have them, how to control them). I didn’t read a Jane Austen novel till I was 21. Prior to that I had always figured that most people have virtues and flaws in equal measure, even if the specifics of those virtues and flaws are very different. I figured the good and the bad are just highlighted or more deeply shadowed in different contexts. So from that logic, it seemed reasonable for people to move around a bit, till they find the best place to stand. Somehow it really had never occurred to me how much value or worthlessness one can ascribe to another human being until Jane Austen came along. The books are always a bit foreign to me, but they are always a complicated pleasure.

There was something wrong with the DVD or my DVD player and near the end of the movie – the top of the image went askew. So for about 15 crucial minutes of the movie, people’s heads were pretty far away from their bodies. It was pretty distracting.)



Fanny Price is sent off at the age of ten on a horse-drawn carriage, away from poverty and towards a mansion. When she arrives at the mansion, she starts a new life as a half relative/ half servant to her mother’s extended family, the Bertrams. The only person who is kind to her is her cousin Edmund Bertram, a virtuous young man who will eventually become a clergyman.

Fanny Price, and her four Bertram cousins all grow up together at Mansfield Park. In the day-to-day Fanny is often overlooked and disrespected (because of her different class background and unremarkable looks). It is easy to feel for her and the injustice of her specific situation, and easy to see that, though overlooked, she is intelligent and is watching everything. The bulk of the action takes place in 1808 when Fanny and her cousins are young adults. The narrative primarily involves other people in and around the household taking action and making mistakes. Fanny Price, however, takes no action and makes no mistakes. Fanny Price’s greatest virtue, in the end, is that she is the last one standing, having made no grave mistakes at all. Like a pay-off from a Hollywood movie, all of Fanny Price’s judgments and suspicions regarding the failings of others’ characters are proven to be sound.

Needless to say, she is difficult to fall in love with. In this movie, she continues to be difficult to fall in love with. In the book, Fanny Price is a bit dull, morbidly shy, pious and reserved with her compliments. Here in the movie, Fanny Price is stronger, more modern, less dull and more confident. I can imagine Rozema wanting to make Fanny Price more of a contemporary feminist hero, but the new qualities placed in the same frame create some weird side effects.

Now that she is more confident (and so therefore, more like the other young adults around) Fanny Price’s judgments (regarding love-choices, the worthiness of the arts, the vanity of women, the faults of people’s pasts) seem more harsh and also more confusing. Here, when we see her reserved pleasure at the eventual misfortune of others (valueless characters who were once cruel to her) we think: fair enough. Though now that here we can see her smile, and the modern glint in her eye, it all looks a little bit more like revenge.

To complicate matters, this Fanny Price comes into contact with damning information regarding her uncle’s involvement in the slave trade (in the book, it is more of a cryptic and passing reference). Now, the small protest Fanny Price musters for this occasion seems so inadequate and out of proportion to the clever judgments she formed against an adulterer, a snob, a cynical woman and a lovesick idiot.

Her uncle switches his business to the tobacco industry, and life at Mansfield Park pretty much continues as normal. I’m not sure if it’s the early 19th century time period or the jarring of two different time periods that make this forgiving and forgetting feel so morally confusing and foreign.

These criticisms made me think of Jane Austen in a new way. It made me think more about what resources are possible if one’s mobility is taken away by societal restraints or by one’s own fear of displacement. Suddenly it seemed as though trees would be the most judgmental but forgiving, and the ocean the most generous but fleeting. If you are not free to go, maybe the ability to judge is one of your rare weapons – and forgiveness, a necessity.

Fanny Price marries the soon-to-be clergyman Edmund Bertam, the only person she seems to like. In the last scene of the movie, they walk arm in arm across the garden and into a house – still contained within the boundaries of Mansfield Park. Edmund suggests to Fanny a title for the book she has been working on (in this movie, Fanny Price is a writer). After he suggests a title, Fanny Price laughs, “That’s a terrible title” she says as they get smaller on the screen and the credits start to rise. Good luck Edmund! I think to myself.

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Backyard (1984) – directed by Ross McElwee, starring Ross McElwee and Dr. Ross McElwee

by Margaux Williamson

(I had the south on my brain – I felt like sitting in the south, outside, for a bit. I thought of Ross McElwee, who made the pretty great Sherman’s March. I poked around the library and found another movie of his whose title also refers to a specific location in the south,“Backyard”. )

Ross McElwee, returning from a northern college, is back at the family home in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has brought his moving picture camera with him.

The movie begins with a still picture of the Ross McElwee, who is the director of “Backyard”, and his father, Dr. Ross McElwee. The doctor is wearing a pale southern suit and has graying hair. Ross is wearing running shoes and has a beard. They look good and kind of like the same white man playing two very different parts. Ross is holding his camera in the picture. He’s holding it like some people, in still pictures, hold a fish or a gun or a baby – like an important piece of information. The two men are, ever so slightly, leaning away from each other.

Over the still image, Ross tells us that his father disapproves of his career path – a career path that involves that moving image camera. I think about the doctor sending his son off to college in the north and then the son returns with a camera – a camera that is, for the most part, pointed directly at the doctor’s face. It is hard to match up values sometimes.

After the still photos, we move in real time around the house, the backyard, the country club, the hospital. Ross films himself and other people who work or reside around these places. There are banal activities, racism, celebrations, rides on golf carts and work. There is not much talking or explaining so we mostly get to know people by what they do.

The doctor goes to work a lot. At work, he cuts into people’s bodies and fixes their organs. It is hard to argue against the value of that career. When the doctor comes home, he sees his son sitting in a chair filming his backyard.

There is the African American couple, the Staffords. Lucille Stafford cooks and cleans for the McElwees and Melvin Stafford takes care out their backyard. We see them working more than the doctor works since “the backyard” is where they work. The Staffords seem more comfortable being filmed that the young white people who periodically show up in he frame, whose working lives are not shown but who often request sandwiches. I think they are students.

There is a neighbour seated on a chair in a thicket behind a fence. He is wearing a suit. His self-appointed job is to keep himself hidden and his eyes on a house in the distance. He is anticipating a mid-day break-in. There have been a few break-ins around the affluent neighborhood in the backyard and he thinks he might catch the criminals if he waits. His job is the one that, technically, most resembles Ross’s job.

It is not an easy day in the south, but it is intimate and complicated and quiet and interesting. All of these good things were established right away in the first moving image scene of the movie. In this scene, Ross films himself, alone, playing the family piano. The piano is out of tune and Ross plays it kind of badly. It is not like he has his tongue sticking while he tries to make an ugly face – it is him trying to be good and failing. It’s pleasurable and even strangely soothing to watch him play with sincerity and mistakes and without frustration. It is not an apologetic scene – just one with a lot of information about Ross and maybe of what is to follow. If there is bad behavior or human mistakes caught with his moving picture camera, it will not be too surprising if some of them are his.

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