“The little jail was crowded with Sicilians, whose low, receding foreheads, dark skin, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal nature.” – newspaper report about the 1891 lynching of Italians in New Orleans.
Sound like a pack of animalistic criminals…or those overcoiffed wastes of space on a certain new show on MTV?
MTV’s “Jersey Shore” is not one of my favorite shows. The fact that every clown featured on this show is Italian-American does bother me, a lot. Old stereotypes of greasy, illiterate and violent “guidos” have come raging back to the surface—stereotypes that should have been buried with the last episode of “The Sopranos.” Would it kill these idiots to put on Brooks Brothers suits and take diction lessons once in a while—they got the money for it, after all.
Lastly, there’s a problem with nomenclature. I’m sorry, Snooki, but “guido” is not a term used with pride. Along with “guinea”, “wop” and “greaseball”, it denotes a time when Italians were treated as second-class citizens, often discriminated and seldom respected until we gradually assimilated into American society.
Yet I’m not here to bury the show. Snooki and The Situation can use all the sunscreen they want. It makes no sense to knock on a show that has gained a loyal following, albeit a slightly depraved following.
Instead, I’m here to offer a more proactive, positive solution to this problem. Instead of violent thugs and lecherous buffoons in hair gel, let’s provide Hollywood with positive stories about the struggles and achievements of Italians—ones that are not in the Mafia, affiliated with the Mafia, aspire to look like Mafiosi ,nor entertainers whose benefactors may or may not be Mafiosi. This covers just about everyone from Al Capone to Frank Sinatra.
Part of the problem is the lack of suitable subjects. If you take away the Sopranos, the Corleone family, Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever, the pickings get a little slim. Yet there are other Italians that would make excellent movie material. Here are some examples so that Hollywood producers don’t have to think too much:
Giuseppe Garibaldi – I don’t know why Hollywood hasn’t done a film about Garibaldi, because his life is tailor-made for an epic. Leader of revolutionary movements in Brazil, Uruguay and Italy, Garibaldi is considered Italy’s greatest national hero for his daring military exploits—often against incredible odds. The British historian A.J.P. Taylor called him “the only wholly admirable figure in modern history,” and was the symbol of Italians worldwide in the 19th century. He was even considered to lead the Union Army during the American Civil War. All without hair gel or gold chains.
Maria Montessori – Maria’s great for that gritty classroom drama, “Blackboard Jungle” Italian-style. This groundbreaking educator and writer still impacts classrooms today. Project-based learning, cognitive development, differentiated instruction: all have some influence from Montessori’s work with poor children in Rome in the late 19th and early 20th century. Her work is especially timely since many of the “Jersey Shore” folks suffer from a decided lack of schooling. If you have any doubt, read Snooki’s expletive-laced tirade against the sponsors who dropped her show.
Philip Mazzei – this Italian scientist and liberal thinker could make a great biopic involving the American Revolution. In 1773, Mazzei and a group of Italians go to Virginia to introduce Mediterranean crops like grapes and olives. He develops a close relationship with Thomas Jefferson, so much so that the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence was lifted almost verbatim from Mazzei’s writings. He also served as a secret agent, smuggling arms to Virginia through the Revolution. He also wrote one of the first histories of the American war of independence, published only two years after the end of the war.
Enrico Fermi – If John Nash got the Hollywood treatment, then Fermi’s definitely due. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who created the first nuclear chain reaction, was an incredibly compelling personality. He excelled in experiments and in the classroom. His work on the atomic bomb stemmed from his own experience fleeing Fascist Italy due to government persecution and new anti-Semitic laws (his wife was Jewish). Lastly, the guy knew that his work on nuclear reaction meant a premature death, which he accepted with humility and humor. It’s got Oscar written all over it.
Let’s work to give our people the role models they deserve. At the very least, let’s show the morons on “Jersey Shore” that Italians can do a lot more beside cause holes in the ozone layer with their hair products.
The “Matrix” of History-The problem with “America: The Story of Us”
Every basic cable channel in America can be summed up in one sentence.
They consist of hours of reality programming punctuated by hours of reruns of popular programs that have little, if anything, to do with the stated theme of the channel.
I’ve just described Arts & Entertainment (A&E), Bravo, Music Television (MTV), VH1, The Food Network, The Travel Channel, Fine Living Channel, Discovery, Lifetime, TLC, Home and Garden Television (HGTV), and finally The History Channel.
Oh, I’m sorry, it’s now called simply History—as its original glorious programming is relegated to the ash heap of said place.
To understand how far this warhorse of a channel has fallen, look at its most popular programs: Ice Road Truckers, Modern Marvels, and Pawn Stars. They are, in point of fact, pretty good shows. Yet with the exception of the last one, how in the hell does any history fit into them? Did the ice road truckers find fossils to substantiate the Land Bridge theory of Native migration some 10,000 years ago? How exactly does American civilization benefit from knowing how a Pop-Tart is made?
Finally, how the hell is there so much 17th-19th century ordinance in Nevada? Those guys on Pawn Stars collect enough antique guns to field a squad of minutemen against the pit bosses at the Flamingo.
The old-school history-heads like myself, who loved to watch Luftwaffe dogfights ad nauseum on the old A&E before the advent of the History Channel, felt cast off and abandoned. Which is why we were so excited at the beginning of History’s new miniseries America: The Story of Us.
Yet even here, it seems that the whiz-bang pace of reality shows and video games have infiltrated American history.
I won’t go into detail about the number one offense of this show: the relentless parade of celebrities that have absolutely nothing to do with American history. Let’s show the battle of Saratoga and “poof!” out comes Michael Douglas with some platitude about the American spirit. Last night’s use of former NY Giant Michael Strahan in the 1938 Louis-Schmeling fight was particularly dreadful: the only German Strahan ever pummeled was maybe Ben Roethlisberger on a good day.
Instead, I feel the great injustice of this series is but one: the Matrix-like bullet shot.
We all are at least somewhat familiar with the Matrix series of films: a sci-fi (sort of) trilogy of films long on special effects and short on any believable plot. The defining moment of the series is a scene where the main character, Neo (played by “cough” master thespian Keanu Reeves) dodges bullets in slow motion through an acrobatic arc of his body—probably computer generated.
Ever since, the bullet shot has become a staple in action films, either missing or hitting their targets. America, to my chagrin, also decided that to lure the young, high-testosterone set required not one, but multiple shots of the Matrix-variety at a couple of points in our history.
At Lexington and Concord, for example, the low-velocity, non-spinning, handmade, misshapen musket ball is seen from the barrel, hurtling towards its target—the shoulder of a Massachusetts minuteman. Fast forward to Saratoga, and a Continental sniper fires three shots, two misses and a hit, at British general Simon Fraser. The framing, slow musket ball shots, and stop-motion zoom seem right out of a video game. Believe me, a musket ball to the chest is not as fun.
Even more insidious is the bullet shot during the Civil War scenes. Before the Minie ball flies out of the Model 1861 Springfield musket towards an unsuspecting Reb, there’s a shot of a Union soldier sighting his target as if he were using a fucking Norden bombsight. Yankee soldiers on the attack rarely had the time to scope their targets with such accuracy, especially with the crappy stick sights on the muskets.
The one point of honesty in the whole process is the computer-generated X-ray footage of what a soft lead low-velocity bullet does to the human body. The Minie ball was a little bulldozer, obliterating bone, sinew and muscle, making any real recovery impossible. To put it in comparison, a single round from a modern M16 rifle has a steel jacket at a high speed, which slices through you like a scissor. Neither of these are very pleasant, but chances are better you’ll recover from the latter.
(Modern sanitation, oodles of anesthesia and a pharmaceutical industry that doesn’t double as a distillery certainly help, too.)
Let’s face it, America: The Story of Us was an ambitious project attempting to show individual important events in the 400 years of American history. It’s a big mess. The writers can’t decide to go in depth or with a broad brush—if that brush happened to be a roller. Even as a survey of our history, it falls flat. Jamestown, then a quick 170 years later we’re in New York defending a British invasion, then we’re on the frontier with wagon trains, then the rails, then the skyscrapers: this was a dog that bit off more than it could chew.
Why the celebrities, for Chrissakes? We loved those tweedy, slightly awkward professors and historians in previous shows because not only did they provide more context, but in an interesting, fun way. Who doesn’t love Kenneth Jackson’s Tennessee drawl on the Erie Canal, or Thomas Fleming’s Jersey wharf accent as he describes the “beautiful box” that is the siege of Yorktown.
Yet above all, America fails because it attempts to get to a younger students’ level with time, visual effects and violence. Through use of “wicked cool” kill shots, America takes the long, often tedious process of 18th-19th Century warfare and accelerates fast enough so that you can collect enough lives to reach the next level before Mom sends you to bed. You may think this helps kids get a better understanding of history.
In fact, it gives them the wrong impression that historical events were lightning quick, slickly edited and awesome. There was little awesome in real history: just lots of everyday life broken up by moments of terror.
I know there’s a trend to making every subject “kid friendly” by making interactive games that move in 15-minute intervals to match the little shit’s TV-addled brain, but I’m holding the line in history. A student has to understand what time meant to early people, and thus realize how they responded to everyday life. That’s why we have so many brats that ask if George Washington is still alive (yes, I still get that question.)
Besides, if students are to become good historians (or good college students, for that matter), they have to interact with primary documents on their terms. That means put down the controller, boys and girls, and actually SIT for a period of time and READ something.
Human existence isn’t designed with a reset button and free lives. It’s a series of one-shot chances that create a long, slow, complex narrative that must be interpreted as it is—not accelerated for quicker consumption.
History is digested slowly. Let Mario and Luigi handle the easier stuff.
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