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Working-Class Hero

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THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Renny Harlin

Written by Daniel Waters, James Cappe, and David Arnott

With Andrew Dice Clay, Priscilla Presley, and Wayne Newton.

The most eloquent testimony to the perversity of American politics is that the politicians and parties who have made the most overt appeals to the working class since 1968 have been on the right. Because leadership on the mainstream left has generally been reserved for members of the upper classes, liberal politicians have been squeamish about bringing up the notion of class privilege for fear of opening a discussion about their own privileges--and so their discussions of class relations, or even the existence of class distinctions, never grow too loud or too involved.

That leaves the field open to those who want to make cheap appeals to the honest feelings of patriotism among white working-class people. And so Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Wall Street's best friends since Calvin Coolidge, made such appeals knowing that their status as corporate fronts would never become an issue. Nixon of course was a red-baiting Wall Street attorney, and the only paychecks the union-busting Reagan ever cashed that were not from Hollywood or the government were from GE. Michael Dukakis briefly questioned whether the country needed an ex-oilman and hereditary millionaire in charge but quickly retreated when George Bush accused him of being divisive. The right reserves the prerogative of manipulating working-class discontent for itself.

This phenomenon is not confined to politics. Outside such self-limiting circles as the labor movement, catering to the working class is largely done by the right. Rupert Murdoch's newspapers--in the United States, England, Australia, and, one presumes, Hungary, where the media baron has just purchased part of a newspaper group--aim "down market," whipping up sensationalized packages of gossip, crime, and right-wing politics for the pleasure of blue-collar readers. (One wonders how they are referred to in the papers' circulation departments: the masses? the crowd?) The beautiful, if terrifying, logic of the New York Post, the Boston Herald, and the London Sun is that every department--from the power worship of the news section to the awed celebrity coverage of the social section to the personality orientation of the sports section--pushes a pyramid notion of society, presenting on each page a picture of elites running one show after another as if that were the natural order of things.

Balancing the endorsement of the status quo is a violent scapegoating of symbolic outsiders such as New York's Reverend Al Sharpton or gays. The message that runs under their coverage is: of course you have problems, and these are the people who cause those problems. Not everyone the papers mean to address falls for this garbage. Aside from the people who don't even pick the papers up, a large proportion of readers must take their newsprint with a large sprinkling of salt (if the Post's readers voted in lockstep, Ed Koch would still be mayor).

Although I have never heard an entire Andrew Dice Clay concert--I don't need the aggravation--it seems pretty obvious that he is the first major show-biz sensation to base his appeal on this kind of emotional manipulation of white working-class anxieties. Every segment of society seems to have its own comedian now, from the nouveau riche (Joan Rivers) to yuppies (about a thousand) to black women (Marsha Warfield). It's not that these comedians don't appeal to a wider band of the mass audience--they do. But they also represent at some level the biases and prejudices of their origins (those biases can be surprisingly sharp or cruel--watch David Letterman shower contempt on working people during his man-on-the-street segments).

However, until Clay worked up his Dice Man routine, no one (outside of heavy-metal rockers) was making a direct pitch to young, white, urban males. Standing in the spotlight, putting down women, gays, and minorities, the Dice Man is doing little more than embellishing the epithets heard on street corners from South Boston to Brooklyn, from Cicero, Illinois, to Glendale, California. It's hard to say who's exploiting who here. The Dice Man is caught up in a matrix of exploitation--he's exploiting his working-class background, and at the same time promoters and producers are exploiting him.

So maybe it's not surprising that The Adventures of Ford Fairlane is produced by another Rupert Murdoch entity, 20th Century Fox. Like a tabloid, Clay speaks in screaming, punchy headlines that reduce an incomprehensible world to simple, not to mention simplistic, formulations. Also like a tabloid, Clay is deplored as much as he is believed--even by his intended audience. No other entertainer has encountered the kind of censure Clay has over the last few months, and at a time when people are complaining about censorship from the right, everyone from feminists to the MPAA ratings board is seriously suggesting that Clay be denied access to the airwaves and movie theaters. In fact, a recent newspaper report indicates that Clay's recently wrapped concert film won't be released at all, since in these times it is doomed to receive an "X" and major studios don't release X-rated films.

Frankly, I think The Adventures of Ford Fairlane should be mandatory viewing for anyone seriously interested in furthering political discourse in the United States--because Clay is speaking directly to one of this country's oppressed groups, young working-class whites, and he is a guide to their anxieties and fears. Perhaps no other social group has fallen as far as a result of the past decade's union busting and deindustrialization (criminal looting, really) of American industry. Similarly, the defunding of public education at both the elementary school level and the public-university level hits hard at youths who have no private institutions within their financial grasp.

Of course, these difficulties have not fallen exclusively on these kids. As always, African Americans in the United States suffer first and most, followed closely by other racial minorities and, within those groups, women in particular. What makes Clay such a pernicious fellow is that he attacks these groups in his stand-up routine and thereby helps prevent what should be natural alliances. As long as white youths believe the message--reinforced, though surely not invented, by Clay--that they are competing with or threatened by, say, blacks, their changes of breaking out of their social trap are weakened.

In The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, however, Clay, for obvious commercial reasons, limits his objectionable remarks to women--though given the verbal abuse directed toward them, "limits" is probably not the right word. If you are a young male with little social status, one way of manufacturing it is by pushing around your girlfriend, whom society has prepared to accept a certain amount of abuse.

So, as "rock 'n' roll detective" Ford Fairlane, Clay regularly orders the squadron of beautiful airheads who eagerly jump into his bed to clean up his house, cook his meals, and generally provide him with deliberately menial service. The abuse, disguised as humor, never stops, and to liberated ears it's mighty offensive.

But women aren't just a target of Fairlane's smirking sexuality. Upon closer examination, he is both utterly dependent on and utterly terrified of them. His secretary Jazz (Lauren Holly) fulfills the old virgin-mother function, keeping his life in order and loyally hanging around until he realizes she's good for him. The client who sends Ford off on a dangerous quest is a wealthy businesswoman and widow (Priscilla Presley). Portrayed as a kind of high-toned slut, she clearly intimidates Ford with her money and her clearly enunciated sense of sexual freedom. In fact, money and sex are the primary forces in the perennially broke Ford's life, forces that he would like to control but that more often end up controlling him.

Ford is also undone by the character who turns out to be his archenemy, a record company executive played (surprisingly well) by Wayne Newton as an oily mixture of snobbery and implicit violence. Ford doesn't just resent this guy, he obviously fears him and his paid goon squad (which includes freak-show icon Robert Englund), just as any working person would fear a cruel employer and his middle-management hit men.

If enlightenment is missing from the construction of this movie, cleverness is not, and the re-creation of a working kid's oppression extends to his moments of self-assertion as well. What is sad is how pathetically short and meager these symbolic moments are. When Ford lights a cigarette, the entire process is extended to ritualistic length, each movement broken down into separate component parts: the cigarette removed from the package, put to the lips, the lighter withdrawn from its special belt loop, its top flipped open, the flint struck, each motion punctuated by a shake of the arm. Pure street bravura, the entire process screams Ford's need to bestow importance on a life devoid of external respect.

It's too bad Clay doesn't have the inclination or ability to plumb his oppressing-on-the-outside but oppressed-on-the-inside persona. But it might be that the whole notion of class consciousness is inextricably linked to his sexism. After all, aside from the handful of American filmmakers (Jonathan Kaplan, Jonathan Demme, and Paul Bartel) who started out at Roger Corman's New World studio--where the entire notion of exploitation was undoubtedly brought home to them in a very concrete way--the only contemporary filmmakers who display any interest in class are women. Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel and Sondra Locke's Impulse, though mostly apolitical psychological thrillers, linked the exploitation of their female-cop protagonists directly to the economic and social status of the men they encountered, either as overt foes or putative allies and superiors. Clearly, to deal with the social status of women is to deal with class in general. Maybe what Clay needs to clarify the source of his anxieties is to make a film with a cool, analytical personality such as Bigelow, someone who would be willing to push the Dice Man's obstreperous personality into a mind-bending role reversal. If the central movement in Bigelow's work is the hunter being stalked by the game, then Clay provides the perfect predatory quarry.

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