Director to Brad Pitt: “Cue audio for deep-fat cultural self-destruction”

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Our Sunday Comics columnist on TV cook Paula Deen's racist comments, the true nature of Southern gentility, and the zombie hordes threatening to climb the walls

Jim Gabour
30 June 2013

“World War Z” made $66 million this past weekend, a career-high first week for Brad Pitt, and an esoteric economic boon compared to the opening takes for the more mainstream “Man of Steel” and “Iron Man 3”.  Though $66 mill gets put in perspective when you consider that “WWZ” cost $290 million to produce and market into the streets.

Interestingly enough, each of these gigantic action movies, engineered for summer audiences with more time on their hands than in other seasons, carries conscious and/or unconscious subtext messages.  In the most blatant, the newest version of the Superman persona is depicted onscreen as a Messianic character.  The producers pushed the envelope, even pre-screening “Man of Steel” for religious leaders, with the New York Times critic noting that the film “hits the Jesus angle amusingly hard, primarily in a later scene in which Superman — framed by a stained-glass tableau of a supplicating Jesus draped in a red robe — consults with a priest in a church”.  

I myself just spent two hours immersed in World War Z.  I can testify that, as a secondary result, “WWZ” has left me with serious next-day neck pain and insistent ear ringing.  My bad.  I was forced by my own late arrival to sit in a row way too close to the towering  screen and gigantic THX speakers, and consequently was forced to absorb a subsequent 116 minutes of high-level AV pounding.  But, oddly, this particular action film seems to have been coincidentally positioned for reinforcement of even subtler intellectual triggers across the board.  

In the Z world, Mr Pitt is blackmailed into quite literally searching the globe for the source of a virus that is causing the entire population of the earth to be mutated into zombie-like creatures, throbbing masses of wobbly knees and crooked teeth seemingly in search of living orthodontists.  They are also amazingly fast critters, and are obsessively insistent on gobbling the non-infected.  None too pretty on all counts.  Brad tries for a first answer in Korea, flying across America and the Pacific to land in the dark driving rain.  No go. Everybody dies and, in passing, point elsewhere for clues.  So he props a further semi-globe’s distance to sunny Israel.  Which happens to be one of the last remaining safe nations on earth by virtue of a 150-foot wall the country built on the premonition of an imminent threat to the country’s existence.   There was some zombie prescience in the Knesset, it seems.  The creatures, even in their violently agitated and physically reinforced human bodies, cannot quite beat this wall concept. 

But there is a plot point inserted here:  we are told incidentally that these same zombies are hugely sensitive to sound – noise of any sort makes them go crazy, activates their most aggressive natures.  So when a misguided woman harbored in the safety of Jerusalem’s walls grabs a vendors’ amplified microphone and starts leading the “safe” crowds in an extremely loud celebratory song taunting the bad guys, the zombies outside are enraged beyond belief.  Indeed, they become so frenzied that they form huge pyramids with their bodies, scale the walls and overrun the country.  At this action I yelled “holy shit!” quite loudly in the theatre, but was happily ignored as it seems most of the audience yelled the exact same thing.  Needless to say, everybody left inside the walls of Jerusalem was instantly in deep trouble.  

I will not be the ultra-spoiler and go any further in plot description, other than to say that the movie proceeds from that point in a highly entertaining, enlightened, and fascinatingly gory manner.  Modern fun, I suppose.  I am still vibrating from the thrill ride, and recommend it.

But the thought of an audio trigger for madness remained with me the morning after, and then suddenly resonated when I remembered what had been happening the very day the movie was being released. A dimwitted, syrupy-accented, bleached-blonde Kitchen Cracker was admitting name-calling to a court of law, setting the equally obtuse American public aflame for the woman’s testifying to voicing two syllables.  

Now let us all vocalize along with the Paula Deen as she makes the sounds. She said (carefully now):  “nih-grrrrr”.   

Anyone die out there from the reverberation?

The actual word is a grotesque, nightmare-laden remnant of a former oppressive culture, and I personally do not like hearing it.  Cannot imagine saying it.  Though many less-enlightened African-Americans daily employ it, quite emphatically and as a matter of course, totally rendering it neutral in their own culture.  But if a non-black individual voices the same two syllables, civilizations are expected to come tumbling down.  Now referred to by PC-correct politicians and media indirectly as the “N-word”, and the more appropriate-to-this-story phrase “N-bomb”, I have to wonder:   is this the new Holy Word?   Or is this just the loud noise that makes the bad guys angrier?

I can remember writing an undergraduate paper many years ago proposing “fuck” as a holy word.  Vocalizing “fuck” in those prim days caused people to sit up and listen, and comic philosophers like George Carlin and Richard Pryor vouched for that single sound as part of a truly meaningful language. But in 2013 the word has been reduced to little or no more power to excite. Over the last years I have watched a number of short films produced my more creatively-challenged students that used the word like a comma, so much so that I have come to ban it entirely from class screenplays.  Simply, less talented individuals used the word like salt to enliven and mask what was otherwise a totally flavorless idea.  But face it, kids, Tarantino wore it out. Every R-rated pottymouth breast-baring post-teen angst movie wore it out. The word is voiced as a supposed shocker. But sorry, “fuck” has become boring. Boring.

And now there remains this lingering “nigger” obsession.  Have no doubt, I am no admirer of people who use the word, but I find it interesting to trace the sources of its power.  Two audio bumps that can inflame so much aggressive unrest is intriguing to me.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was the driving force behind enabling American civil rights, had a hard time with the source of the word himself, pronouncing “negro” as “nih-gruh” in the majority of his most enlightened recorded speeches.   But the great liberator  was quoted in private conversations as often using the less enlightened version.  Another of his more mush-mouthed fellow Texans even got all jumbled up around the newer, politically-correct “African-American” designation.  “African-American” was way too many syllables for George W Bush, who often rendered it “Affun-‘mercan”.  Indeed, here was a man who possessed the power to destroy the world with a weapon he could not even pronounce.  In Bush’s mouth, “nuclear” was always “new-kew-lahr”.  Another audio cue that could destroy, irrevocably and globally.

And now, now comes a meaningless TV food show host, a flagrant self-promoter who has proclaimed – and sold -- herself over and over as the pre-eminent spokesperson for Southern cooking, and once again it is N-bomb time.   The Food Network in Manhattan no longer plays the Confederate anthem “Dixie” on its office ceiling muzak, and Paula Deen is theoretically hitchhiking back to her native Georgia to continue hawking snap beans and chicken-fried possum .  Even the global pork-producing company Smithfield Foods has dropped her.  So much for her bacon-and-egg doughnut sandwiches.

Deen reportedly said in her defense. “I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”  Whoa.  But she made the sounds, and now the -- possibly diabetic -- zombies are scaling the walls.

“Diabetic” needs explaining.  Last year, Deen revealed that she had been suffering from Type-2 diabetes for three years, all the while she was promoting high-fat, high-sugar recipes like deep-fried cheesecake.  No kidding.

But the capper was that she offered a presskit revealing her ongoing disease just as she simultaneously announced that she had signed on as the monetarily-compensated spokesperson for a diabetes drug company.  Deen lost forty pounds after she began treatment for her illness, and started advising that fatty, sugary, buttery recipes be eaten only in moderation.  But then, as yet another twist of steps in her financially-profitable dance with the truth, she introduced a new line of Wal-Mart-distributed plastic tubs filled with “finishing butters”.  Her diabetes-slimmed face is pictured on each container.

Her sound bites during this period were already reaching the high level of screech.

Back to the word, the audio cue.  Many past interviews with Deen have proven problematic about race, especially the Huffington Post article which cites her discussing “a black employee of hers named Hollis Johnson.  She says that he's become very dear to her in the 18 years she's known him, which is plenty sweet. But then she says points to the jet-colored backdrop behind her and says he's ‘black as this board.’ She proceeds to call out to him in the audience and ask him to come on stage, telling him, ‘We can't see you standing in front of that dark board!’ The audience roars with laughter. Severson [the host], shocked, says, ‘Welcome to New York.’ And Paula, characteristically, responds, ‘Welcome to the South.’”

Noise.  Noise coming from a mouth.  And the zombies are becoming more and more agitated.  Climbing the walls of a cable TV-laden LED screen to get at big-box chain store advertising credibility.  Tubs of disease-infused butter sloshing about in their rotting undead hands.

A similarly unreal vocalization might be understandable in dislocated creatures like Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin.  And have been.  Those two, while of course not alone, are prime examples of the unrooted and self-inflated citizens of the U.S. cultural badlands.  They live in Nowhere, America. But then here is this Deen woman who makes a living off claiming to be representative of her home region, reinforcing the worst of what is continually imagined cinematically as the Southern stereotype.

The irony is that, in spite of suffering from pockets of much the same bigotry and discrimination that runs amok in all areas of the world, Southerners are as a whole a quiet, polite people, and are often faulted for that same trait.  I have spoken before about the most brutal dressing-down I have ever received from another supposedly civilized human being, five full minutes of screaming, the harangue of a well-dressed female on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, delivered because I had had the effrontery to hold a door open for the lady.  She was animated in vaguely zombie-ish fashion, possibly Alexander McQueen, but I had not made the slightest sound to encourage such an attack.

Then there was my grandfather’s joke, spoken to me in my teens as actual advice on approaching the opposite sex amidst the ritual manners of the Deep South.  

“Jimmie,” he said, “before you go talking to them, you got to know the how the ladies down here think.”  

“OK,” I nodded.  

“Do you know why Southern girls don’t participate in group sex?  Why they don’t like to get involved in orgies?”

“No,” I admitted.

“It’s because they hate taking the time afterwards to send out all those little ‘thank-you’ notes,” intoned the wise man, chuckling.  Forgive me, but I love retelling this story.  And on my grandfather’s advice, have mostly avoided too-obvious orgies.

Unlike the audio cues spun off by the viral creature Paula Deen, who is now hopefully done in the public eye, the people with whom I co-exist on a daily basis are, to a fault, polite.   They are not much into riling the undead creature hordes, other than at the occasional crawfish boil.

Maybe that gracious cultural trait is why Brad Pitt and his famous family now live here in New Orleans, about eight blocks from my own house.  While I have yet to meet him, I hear that he also is a quiet sort of gent.  And I can myself now testify that in “World War Z” he is among the most genteel of characters.  When he is not smashing zombie heads with a crowbar.

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