July 19, 2012

"Composite?"/"Compost heap's more like it."

We were watching "A Face in the Crowd" last night. TMC was making a night of Andy Griffith films, and I settled in to watch the Elia Kazan movie that I'd heard about but never seen. I've only watched the first half, partly because I usually watch movies in 2 parts — I have a 1-hour attention span — and partly because it started annoying me — too many absurd leaps forward in the story as our forgotten man "Lonesome" Rhodes becomes a media sensation by cutting through the bullshit and sexing up the ladies. That is, he rejects the bullshit of the sexless men who surround him and spins out his own sort of bullshit, e.g., promoting the inert pill "Vitajex" as some proto-Viagra.

Anyway, I wrote down something that reminded me of Obama. No, not his special appeal for women. It was this passage of dialogue:
Marcia Jeffries: You always drink like that?
Lonesome Rhodes: Not always. Back in Riddle they was pretty strict. Didn't allow us to touch hard liquor till we was 10 or 11.
Marcia Jeffries: Now is there really a town called Riddle?
Lonesome Rhodes: Well, tell you the flat truth, it's just a sort of a whatchacallit, a...
Marcia Jeffries: ... Composite?
Lonesome Rhodes: Compost heap's more like it. 
Composite!  Marcia Jeffries, the woman who discovers him for her radio show called "A Face in the Crowd" offers him the word "composite" to dignify his bullshit, and he does a little word play that rejects euphemism.

Obama's use of "composites" is well-discussed in the David Maraniss biography:

In his introduction [to Dreams from My Father] Obama states, “For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” There is more to it than that. The character creations and rearrangements of the book are not merely a matter of style, devices of compression, but are also substantive. The themes of the book control character and chronology. Time and again the narrative accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles in his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happened to be white. Sometimes the composites are even more complex; there are a few instances where black figures in the book have characteristics and histories that Obama took from white friends. The racial scene in his family history that is most familiar to the public, the time when he overheard his grandparents in Hawaii argue because his grandmother was afraid of a black man at the bus stop, also happens to be among those he pulled out of its real chronology and fit into a place where it might have more literary resonance. Like many other riffs in the book, it explored the parameters and frustrations of his blackness....

For a few years, in ninth and tenth grade, he shared his frustrations with a student two grades ahead of him named Keith Kakugawa. 178 In his memoir, he reinvented Kakugawa as a character called Ray who served a literary function as a symbol of young blackness, a mix of hot anger and cool detachment, the provocateur of hip, vulgar, get-real dialogues. In fact, Kakugawa was another hapa student, with a black and Native American mother and a Japanese father. Somewhere between pseudonymous and fictitious, Ray was the first of several distorted or composite characters employed in Dreams from My Father for similar purposes. Kakugawa was never in Barry’s closest gang of friends, but they did hang out now and then for those two years, and Barry felt freer to let down his guard around him, enjoying “his warmth and brash humor.” In the memoir Barry and Ray could be heard complaining about how rich white haole girls would never date them. In fact, neither had much trouble in that regard; Kakugawa dated an admiral’s daughter from the officers’ housing near Pearl Harbor and had the keys to her car, which he often drove around with “the Kid,” as he called Barry. In the book, Ray complained about “white folks this or white folks that,” a phrase that Barry found “uncomfortable” in his mouth because he unavoidably thought of his mother’s smile. But the Kid could grouse about his mother nonetheless. “If anyone heard a word from him when he was upset, I did,” Kakugawa recalled. “If I was mad at something he was mad at something. What was upsetting him— that his mother took off again. Seems like she never has time for him anymore— that kind of thing.”

In a less visceral and more lighthearted intellectual fashion, Barry also shared some of his inner thoughts with Tony Peterson, a graduating senior during Barry’s freshman year. 179 Peterson, who came from a military family at Schofield Barracks, was the only black student in his 1976 class and one of a handful at Punahou, counting the hapa students like Kakugawa, Obama, and Rik Smith, whose mother was Indian. (Joella Edwards, who was in Barry’s class, left Punahou in ninth grade.) When Peterson first heard that the black Ray in Obama’s memoir was Kakugawa, he was surprised. “When I think of the black kids at Punahou, I don’t think of Keith because he was half Japanese,” he said later. By his real name or any other, Peterson did not make Obama’s book, although some characteristics of a composite character in the college section fit him. He first met Barry on the basketball court before school, and soon started a regular session with him and Rik Smith that they jokingly called Ethnic Corner....

In his memoir Obama would tell a different story about one of the key moments in his gradual transformation from Barry to Barack. He wrote that he was talking to friends named Marcus and Regina. Marcus, portrayed as Afrocentric, had ridiculed him for reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Obama had defended himself by saying that he was reading it to understand “just what it is that makes white people so afraid.” After Marcus left, Regina— rendered in the memoir as astute and comfortable in her black identity— asked Obama what Marcus had called him, some African name. Barack, he told her. She said she thought his name was Barry. Barack was his given name, he explained. His father’s name. His father was Kenyan. Barack meant “blessed” in Arabic. His grandfather was Muslim. “It’s beautiful,” Regina responded, according to the memoir. “Mind if I call you Barack?” Not as long as she pronounced it right, he said.

Eric Moore was not in Dreams from My Father, nor could he recognize precisely who Marcus and Regina were. Hasan Chandoo, who was portrayed in the book (and, in a rare instance, was given his real name), was not sure either. He himself was accurately depicted, but to him the other composites, he said good-naturedly, seemed like “mumbo-jumbo.” At some places in the memoir, the characters were taken from real life but given pseudonyms. At other times they were composites. Marcus and Regina were composites, inspired in part by two upperclassmen, Earl Chew and Sarah Etta-Harris, but displaying characteristics from many other people as well as from the searching, divided soul of Obama himself. Like Regina in the book, Etta-Harris had studied abroad, winning a Thomas Watson fellowship to spend a year in Andalusia in Spain. But in his memoir Obama gave Regina a family history in Chicago, and that did not fit her. Rather, that aspect of Regina was an early iteration of someone Obama had not met at Oxy and would not know for another ten years, Michelle Robinson, to whom he was married by the time he wrote the memoir in the early 1990s. It was not precisely Michelle’s story, but close in many respects, as Obama had Regina telling him about her South Side memories: people so hot in the summer they went out by Lake Michigan to sleep; a vibrant community of taverns, pool halls, churches, kitchen nights with cousins, uncles, grandparents. “A vision,” he wrote, “that filled me with longing— a longing for place, and a fixed and definite history.” When he told Regina that he envied her, she scoffed. “For what?” she asked. “Memories,” he said. That response, Obama wrote, made her laugh and say she wished she had grown up in Hawaii.

This was one of the more telling paragraphs in the book, revealing what Obama thought he had missed out on in his young life and what he so dearly longed for. Though he was writing it in retrospect, long after his Oxy days and after he had finally made his way to Chicago, the early Regina, who existed mostly in his mind, helped trace what would become the arc of his life toward family and home.

Along with Etta-Harris and Michelle Robinson, the Regina character also incorporated a third real-life model. Some of Obama’s scenes of Regina reflected incidents that involved Caroline Boss, who was white. The name Regina itself likely came out of Obama’s discussions with Boss. Regina was the name of her Swiss grandmother, who came up in their discussions about class, race, and gender. Boss was a formidable figure at Oxy, queen of the Cooler rats, star pupil of the school’s noted political science professor, Roger Boesche. As leader of the Democratic Socialist Alliance on campus, she viewed politics from a class-conscious socialist perspective. Boss told Obama that her grandmother Regina spent her life scrubbing floors and doing laundry for the banking community in the small Swiss town of Interlaken. “So when we talked about race and class,” Boss said of her discussions with Obama, “I of course took the position that class was a significant feature.… The class thing really affects the entire population, regardless of race and gender.” Obama incorporated this idea into his memoir. His Regina was black, not white, yet he wrote about “Regina’s grandmother somewhere, her back bent, the flesh of her arms shaking as she scrubbed an endless floor. Slowly, the old woman lifted her head to look straight at me, and in her sagging face I saw that what bound us together went beyond anger or despair or pity.” He went on to link Regina’s grandmother to all women who struggle against the power structure, from the Mexican maids who cleaned up the mess created by the boys at the Haines Hall Annex to his own grandmother, Tut, who rose before dawn every morning to ride the bus to work. “My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there,” he wrote.
Composite/compost heap?

31 comments:

Hagar said...

The Professor is catching on at last?

ndspinelli said...

A great movie w/ a horseshit post about it. They all can't be My Dinner w/ Andre, can they Althouse?

yashu said...

"The Truth Team"

EMD said...

too many absurd leaps forward in the story as our forgotten man "Lonesome" Rhodes becomes a media sensation by cutting through the bullshit and sexing up the ladies.

It's called a montage.

chickelit said...

How old was Obama again when he emerged from the wilderness of his misspent youth? 35 or so?

I am fed up with the idolatry of this man. Fucking grow up, people.

elkh1 said...

Julia, from cradle-to-grave govt-supported compost heap junkie.

Where is she now?

edutcher said...

"Obama had defended himself by saying that he was reading it to understand 'just what it is that makes white people so afraid.'"

Sounds like so many of our trolls, don't it?

Not much original thought on the Left.

wyo sis said...

It sounds exactly like a self-indulgent teen age rage filtered through a social justice opportunist like Ayers story would sound.

Michael K said...

I doubt Obama knows who he is yet. He is enjoying the riff he is on, though.

As long as he stays on teleprompter, he gets away with it. If he goes impromptu, he gets into trouble because his real thoughts, such as they are appear.

yashu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
traditionalguy said...

That was a great exposition of the Obama, Professor. Obama knew somehow that he was entitled to recieve adulation, but wanted to please the mother that had abandoned him to live out her marxist roles.

That personality is powerful, but it is not a friend to women except to use them to give him adulation that his mother deprived him of.

Sotomayor and Kagen are Obama's type of women. But he misses their true strengths which actually exceed his narrow survival instincts that lead from behind. They know the law and use it skillfully. Obama just divides groups and claims rule over the disasters that induces.

yashu said...

"Composite but accurate"

In essence, Obama's memoirs are fables (in every sense of the term). The "autobiographical" episodes in them are parables and allegories.

Gabriel Hanna said...

I'm not saying Obama didn't deliberately write his biography this way, let's just get that out of the way.

My own autobiography, if I wrote it, would be honest, but probably not truthful. Memory is not a camera, memories changes as they are accessed. Life doesn't make sense, and we are always trying to force events into a narrative, deliberately or not.

I am routinely surprised by how unreliable some of my memories are. An example: I remember seeing an ad for South Park when I was in high school, and watching it as a college freshman. I can describe the room, where I was, what else I was doing. But it didn't happen, because when I looked up the year South Park was first on the air, it wasn't until several years after that.

The memories make sense in terms of the narrative of my high/school college years (I watched a lot more TV then than I do now, among other things). But they just didn't happen that way.

So, if I ever write a book about my life, I'll be looking a lot of stuff up. Too many studies have shown how unreliable memories are, especially long after the fact, when you've done a lot of talking and thinking about them.

prairie wind said...

Obama's memoirs are fables (in every sense of the term).

Fables have animals for characters so at first I was thinking you were wrong about "every sense of the term."

And then, I thought, No, a jackass is too an animal.

EMD said...

TL;DR

sydney said...

Definitely a compost heap.

ndspinelli said...

Gabriel Hanna, You make a superb point about memory. I would interview people about events that occurred years past. Many of the witnesses had no vested interest and were very sincere in trying to remember details. It's just very difficult, but the skills I developed helped people pull up these memories. Women and men generally remember details differently.

However, when a person has a vested interest in past events and details that will muddy the water even more. That's where investigation helps clear the waters. Maraniss is a good investigator. He's the type of guy people trust and he easy to talk to. Those are invaluable skills that any good investigator must have to get people to open up and try to remember.

PatCA said...

Any Griffith in that movie gives me the willies. Nightmarish. I never could see him as any other character after that.

ndspinelli said...

PatCa, Griffith was very good but he's no Andre Gregory.

Tim said...

So, Althouse posts a lot on Obama.

Ironically, what's interesting about Obama isn't Obama, at all - it is what Obama says of us.

Had Obama been completely white, he never would have been elected to the Illinois State Senate. His "accomplishments" would have been easy grist for whomever he ran against.

Yet because of his identity, the absence of real accomplishments didn't matter, at all. He ends up on the HOV lane of politics, zipping past everyone else to the right for no good reason but his identity.

And when, despite all reason, he ends up as the Democrat nominee for president, 53% of the electorate stupidly, foolishly, irresponsibly looked past the obvious lack of experience, the obvious lack of accomplishment, the obvious disconnect with the ideological center point of American politics and irrationally imbued Obama with skills, talents, abilities and capabilities he never had or will ever have and decided he should be president.

Well, hooray for them and fuck the rest of us. They gave us exactly what he was always going to be: a failed president. It was entirely predictable, with any thought whatsoever.

Some day, if the academy can rescue itself from political correctness (a highly doubtful proposition, but one can hope), social scientists will examine this period of American politics and suss out why a majority of American voters went insane for an inexperienced cypher of no known accomplishments of note ("...present...") and made him president.

Until then, the critical question is, are enough Obama voters smart enough to figure out they made a mistake in '08? My guess is no - epic stupidity like that is more likely doubled down on than fixed - but I sincerely hope I am wrong.

Ann Althouse said...

"It's called a montage."

Uh, yeah... thanks. It had that "Citizen Kane" March-of-Time advancement of the story line... but without enough material.

I got fed up when Lonesome Rhodes burst in on the NYC advertising guys and completely bossed them all around and took over the advertising business. The tone of the movie turned into something that was more like "I Love Lucy" than the reasonably serious movie it had been.

I will finish watching the movie, but I needed a break because I suffered a break in my suspension of disbelief.

virgil xenophon said...

@Tim/

The answer to your question is very simple and has been alluded to many times before both here and by others: First, it was/is a given that Comandante Zero would get 95%+ of the Black vote as a tribal lock for the first "Black President (apologies to WJC);second, those whites who voted for Obama out of "White Guilt" hoping to expiate America's "sins" over slavery, Jim Crow, etc., was/is predictably huge for all the sociocultural reasons Shelby Steel listed in his book of that name; thirdly, the woman's vote (think "Julia") was/is going to be predictably huge for all the reasons mentioned in current discussions about Obama's "Julia." A three-legged stool that will be hard to dismantle..

tim in vermont said...

If you want a real comparison to Obama, try "The Music Man"

The economy is going to start working any day now on the "Think System." And it is librarians who keep him from getting run out of town on a rail.

LarryK said...

Even though A Face in the Crowd is pretty over the top, I like it because of the performances of Andy Griffith and Lee Remick. I think that was Lee Remick's first role, and she was stunning.

hillbilly said...

I have a feeling that the real Andy Griffith was a lot closer to being Lonesome Rhodes than he was to being Sheriff Andy Taylor.

wyo sis said...

virgil
Electing Jessie Ventura was a similar thing. I remember thinking that very early in the last election cycle. It just gives voters a thrill to vote in a novelty act.

harkin said...

First half of the film - terrific.
Second half of the film - unrealistic, anti-common man liberal porn.

Ann Althouse said...

"First half of the film - terrific.
Second half of the film - unrealistic, anti-common man liberal porn."

Okay, then! That's how it felt to me.

Ann Althouse said...

The first half did have a cartoonish quality, but in a good way. The portrayal of sexless men, one sexual but out-of-control men, and all these women who were longing to burst out sexually... that was great.

The stuff about advertising was less interesting to me. There are so many movies and TV shows about advertising. It's a good topic, but... I didn't think this was too insightful about advertising.

ndspinelli said...

There are meds for adult ADD.

Chip Ahoy said...

Hey eyeballs stop doing that you're going too fast woosh woosh woosh woosh.

Whew.

Okay what?