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Mr. Eastwood’s Planet

November 24, 2008

Some thought Saul Bellow’s deeply pessimistic Mr. Sammler’s Planet to be the work of a tired, cranky old man upon its release in 1970.  Was Saul Bellow a misogynist and a racist?  And depressed?  Geez, there’s a negro pickpocket right there at the beginning ripping off the white folks on a Broadway bus on the upper West Side and then the guy whips it out, brandishes it like a burning spear mere months before Mel Brooks and Cleavon Little scare the entire cast of Blazing Saddles amidst great hilarity—and Cleavon’s Sheriff Bart didn’t even…whip it out! 

Though Bellow’s thief was terribly well dressed, presenting a black man as a confirmation of mugging stereotype prompted limousine-John-Lindsay-liberals (show of hands, please?) of the early ‘70s squirm uncomfortably. And then we see the elegant, old Mr. Sammler, a Holocaust survivor—which automatically grants him all kinds of slack, he’s got very serious scars and gashes from his horrific past—railing on about the young and his various wastrel nieces, nephews and other spoiled, upscale New York characters.  And the reader nods and can frequently see his point.  Not unlike Lawrence Black on a Daily Show rant.  Well, maybe not.

Those were times when things were indeed thought to be going to hell in a hand basket; the system was running down, kids and black folks wild in the streets, burning bras, the War, Kent State, entropy running wild.  But in yet another one of this blog’s cinematic references, I am reminded of The Enforcer (1976), in which Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callaghan carries on with the revenge fantasy of “normal folks.”  To a bunch of scary black militants (of the shadowy group known as Uhuru), Harry thanks them for some small courtesy, muttering “thanks, mighty white of you.”   Zing! 

Of course, the movie posters with Clint’s monstrous .44 Magnum under your nose in near 3D add to the fun—like Eldridge Cleaver’s contemporary real man pants which featured large, dangling black cotton-stuffed penises.  Like the pickpocket’s phallic tool—a tool that, like the Magnum, could blow your head clean off—we have an unsubtle hypertext to Bellow’s equally pessimistic vision.  Even one of the lonely upbeat events of the time, the Apollo moon landing couldn’t snap him out of it—the moon shots and Govinda Lal’s learned lunatic texts, only add to the despair.

The Dirty Harry movies were very much period pieces, carved out of the law-abiding silent majority middle class resentments that got Richard Nixon elected in 1968; a reaction against the out of control youth and black folks who, I guess, were expecting too much.   Bellow’s novel is carved out of something more complex than that.

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