Museum of International Propaganda

The building that houses the Museum of International Propaganda in downtown San Rafael used to be a children’s store where I would get shoes when I was a little kid. Now it’s eye catching entryway no longer displays the latest in children’s footwear, but rather a modernist banner announcing the museum’s name as well as startling artifacts like a bust of Stalin and a t-shirt of Barak Obama depicted as a Maoist. How times change.

This museum, opened in 2016, is run by Tom and Lilka Areton, who have traveled the world collecting an amazing and diverse assortment of propaganda art, which is now organized and displayed thematically in this small but incredibly compelling space. Tom grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and his wife spent time in the Soviet Union, so they know a thing or two about totalitarian regimes and their use of propaganda.

I had been trying to visit The Museum of International Propaganda since it opened, but because of its irregular hours, it wasn’t until recently that I was successful in actually getting inside. The occasion was a Thursday night lecture on 1970’s Italian leftist poster art, featuring film maker Lou Dematteis and Italian journalist Enrico Deaglio. The event was very well attended by a group of about 40 people, so things were quite crowded, but more than worth the price of admission, which only consists of a suggested donation.

Before the lecture, my friend and I wandered around the museum for a bit, looking at the truly jaw-dropping examples of propaganda art that are part of the permanent collection. In addition to the sorts of things you’d expect to find – like Maoist posters, Nazi statuary, and Soviet art – there are some unexpected and eye-opening artifacts – like a 9/11 themed Islamic prayer rug, a series of posters extolling the superiority of American culture, and politically themed Russian nesting dolls. In the back room, next to a poster depicting a post-revolutionary Chinese utopia, there is a wall-sized reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece Guernica, painted by the museum’s curator. The collection contains a good mixture of old and new propaganda from both the West and the East, reinforcing the message that propaganda is everywhere, and that we in the US are just as subject to its effects as people from other times and places.

The evening’s lecture began at around 7:30 with remarks from Tom, the owner, a really charismatic and funny guy, who shared some of his own memories of hitch-hiking in Italy during the 1970’s. He recalled when he and his wife were picked up by some friendly Italians, and in order to pass the time and entertain their driver, the two of them sang the Italian communist propaganda song Bandiera Rossa (The Scarlet Banner).  The driver thanked them and reciprocated by treating them to his own rendition of another song, which Tom and Lilka did not recognize. When they asked him what the song was, the driver laughingly replied that it was an Italian fascist propaganda song! I guess hitchhiking really does bring different kinds of people together.

After Tom’s remarks, the curator of the exhibition (whose name I unfortunately cannot remember) talked about his own experience as a college student in 1970’s Italy. He described a 15 day long communist festival where thousands of people were treated to free food and drink, as well as art, music and dancing. As he put it, it was, “Pasta, music and girls.” All of this was related to an upsurge in the popularity of the Italian communist party, which that year had garnered 37% of the vote in national elections. His vivid description of the festivities was eye opening, as I don’t normally associate communists with fun. I would expect anarchists to be behind something like this.

Lou Dematteis and Enrico Deaglio were up next, describing the radical political change that Italy has undergone in the years since the 1970’s. While the communist party and various socialist groups had tremendous support in the 1970’s, currently it is the far-right, neo-fascists who have risen to power. Much like in the US, authoritarianism is on the upswing, with the government tacitly lending its support to groups promoting xenophobia, nationalism and racism.

It was interesting to hear that Italy has been, until recently, a country with little immigration, but a lot of emigration. It used to be a place people wanted to leave rather than settle in. Most of the “immigration” issues in the past had to do with southern Italians migrating to the north, where they were treated as an unwanted presence. This kind of internal immigration has recently been overtaken by immigration from Africa, and consequently a racist element has developed which sees Africans as criminals and dangerous drug dealers (sound familiar?) Deaglio told of a recent incident in Rome in which a young woman’s body was found dismembered, and it was rumored that she had been murdered by African drug dealers. In retaliation, a flag-draped Italian fascist drove into the town square where her body was found and shot 8 dark skinned people, as well as firing his pistol into black owned businesses. Afterward, the government forbade any protests or anti-fascist demonstrations.

All of this, Deaglio pointed out, currently promotes an atmosphere directly contrary to that which prevailed in Italy during the 1970’s. Referring to the various examples of socialist and communist political posters on display behind him, he talked about an atmosphere of optimism that now seems to have disappeared from Italian politics. In the 1970’s, he claims, it felt as if Italy was moving in the direction of embracing the values of the left, with class consciousness, feminism and anti-racist sentiments being the norm. The posters on display gave illustration to this feeling, with images of women waving hammer and sickle flags, and groups of friendly looking young people embracing one another and smiling. These are not the sorts of posters that I normally associate with communist propaganda. There were no guns, no soldiers, no supreme leaders in sight. Deaglio said that this was, of course, all part of the calculation. There was a concerted attempt to put a friendly face on socialism and communism during the 1970’s, making Italians feel as if they had nothing to fear from it, and that it represented a progressive, young person’s movement. This all changed when in 1978 The Red Brigade kidnapped and then murdered Aldo Moro, Italy’s former Prime Minister and President of the Christian Democratic Party. There was no way to put a friendly face on that.

It was really fascinating to hear these first-hand accounts of a time gone by. I kept feeling, however, that what I was listening to was not mere history, but the description of a political cycle, a changing of the guard, giving insight into what we in the US are currently experiencing.

Propaganda is all around us, and after visiting the Museum of International Propaganda you will become more aware of the methods and techniques that continue to be used in order to manipulate people in the service of all sorts of political ends, both right and left.

Carsick

I was appropriately shocked when I first saw John Water’s film Pink Flamingos at a midnight screening in Berkeley sometime in the 1980’s. I was with my girlfriend, and I recall wanting to walk out during a scene when Divine gives a blow job to her son, Crackers. Funny how that was that part of the movie that made me so uncomfortable. It wasn’t the part where a chicken was crushed to death between two people having sex. It want’t the famous “singing asshole” scene. I wasn’t even that freaked out when Divine ate a pile of dog shit. It was the blow job. That was just too much.

Since then, John Waters has become something of a hero to me. I’ve seen all of his movies, read most of his books, and have attended his live stage show This Filthy World. He makes me laugh with his sardonic perspective on American culture, and I love how he challenges mainstream moral values and aesthetic sensibilities in his own peculiar, good natured way. I think what I appreciate most about Waters, however, is what I perceive as his weird and charming detachment from the twisted world that he inhabits. While associating with criminals and junkies, strippers and prostitutes, Waters has always seemed to me to stand above and apart from the decadence. I see him as a spectator who, while being lovingly fascinated by filth, perversion and obscenity, does not really take part in it himself. Though he lives, works and plays shoulder-to-shoulder with dangerous outsiders, I never had the impression that Waters himself was at all dangerous or threatening. In this way, perhaps I have tended to see something of myself reflected in him; someone who lives in this freakish world but is not of it.

This feeling was somewhat sabotaged for me when I recently read John Water’s Carsick. I found a remaindered copy at our local anarchist bookshop and eagerly dived into it, expecting to really like the book. While there is a lot of funny material in it, there is also much of Carsick that struck me as slapdash and at points even tediously annoying. With apologies to my hero, let me explain.

Carsick is divided into three sections. Part one, “The Best That Could Happen,” is the author’s fantasy about his imagined, best possible hitchhiking experience. Part two, “The Worst That Could Happen,” imagines the worst possible scenario. These first two sections are fictional while only the last section tells John Waters’ actual, real-life experience hitchhiking across the country.

My favorite episode appears at the end of part one when Waters imagines developing a temporarily magic asshole after being anally raped by aliens. His enchanted farts allow him to levitate, inflate flat tires, and bring Connie Francis out of an Alzheimer’s-like stupor! When Waters himself is magically farted on by his ride, Johnny Davenport, he grows a full head of hair. This all made me laugh out loud.

Perhaps the most touching chapter in part one has John Waters picturing himself being picked up by Edith Massey, who in real life died in 1984. He cries in joy when he discovers that she faked her own death to escape show biz and is now 94 years old “and still kickin'” (p. 48). Now running a second-hand pharmacy outside of St. Louis, Edith leads a quiet, happy life with her cat. Edith and John get a final chance to tell one another “I love you,” before Waters continues on his hitchhiking journey. I found this chapter to be very sweet, giving me the John Waters that I really like; a sensitive guy who loves his weird, freakish friends.

Many other episodes in the first part of the book left me with uncomfortable feelings. Waters writes a lot about his own sexual fantasies, which involve him giving a hand job to an outlaw demolition derby driver and getting all lustful over a bank robber who has a perpetual hard-on. It’s not that this material offended me, but it did violate my image of Waters as the detached, ironic observer. Instead of poking fun at the filthy decadence around him, in these parts Waters reveals a bit too much of his own lustful desires. It’s not that I am so naive as to believe that he doesn’t have lustful feelings, it’s just that by expressing them in the first person, my image of him as a gentle, harmless onlooker was replaced with an uneasy sense that he had become an old man on the prowl for younger men.

The second fictional part of the book chronicles Water’s worst imagined hitchhiking experiences, including psychotic fans, an involuntary tattoo, jail time, a goiter, and his death by decapitation, ending with eternal damnation in Hell. In the abstract, part two works better for me than it does in its concrete execution. Here we get all of the author’s worst possible fears, crammed together one after the other, and when I consider it as a whole, it strikes me at once as more funny and more solemn than it seemed when I was actually reading it. The material is absurd, but the ideas that Waters is working with here are quite serious: his own fears and insecurities about aging, his health, his fans, his sexuality and the vulnerabilities of being an old man.

It is interesting that Water’s desires (as expressed in part one) and his fears (as expressed in part two) often seem to be rooted in the same things. For instance, in part one he imagines being recognized by loving fans who take him on various absurd adventures, while in part two he imagines being threateningly pursued by a crazy fan who won’t stop reciting lines from all of his most infamous films. In part one he lustfully imagines gay encounters with some of the men who give him rides, while in part two, he fearfully imagines being picked up by a psychotically anti-heterosexual gay man named Blossom who forces him to participate in a crime spree. In part one he imagines being picked up by a police officer who sniffs poppers and loves the movie Hairspray, while in part two he imagines being thrown in jail by abusive police. Water’s desires and fears seem intermingled. He desires the very things that he fears, and he fears the very things that he desires.

The last, non-fictional section of the book is a little over 100 pages long, chronicling Water’s actual, real-life hitchhiking journey from Baltimore to San Francisco. A lot of people have commented on the possibility that the first two sections may have been included in order to beef up what would otherwise have been a very short and, honestly, unexciting travelogue. I don’t know if that is true or not. One thing that does come through, and that continues a consistent thread with the earlier sections,  is a focus on Water’s own fears and desires. In this third, real-life section of the book, his fears turn out to be largely empty and his desires are unfulfilled. He is never attacked or abused by anyone he gets a ride with, and although he lusts after some of the people who pick him up, nothing ever comes of it. All of the people that he hitches rides with turn out to be very nice, even though most of them have no idea of who he is. Assuming that he is just an elderly homeless man, all of these people are kind and generous to him. Others, like an indie band on tour, an ex-marine, and a middle-aged couple on vacation with their dog, do recognize him and are thrilled to pick him up. In contrast to the outrageousness of the first two sections of the book, however, nothing all that exciting really happens in this final part. Waters doesn’t even make the effort to explore the towns that he passes through on his adventure. Instead, he stays at chain motels, eats at chain restaurants and goes to the movies once. He is consistently anxious and uncomfortable, more concerned with his lack of expensive hand lotion than he is with meeting American outsiders. During his entire real-life hitchhiking adventure Waters seems more eager to get the journey over with than he is with observing and documenting the underbelly of America. This third section, thus, feels to me like a missed opportunity for the king of filth to explore American culture as it exists along Interstate 70.

The idea of John Waters hitchhiking across America is funnier than what is actually chronicled in this book. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the fictional parts of this story more than the real-life part. In the first two sections, the absurdity that transpires is more Waters-esque than the mundane, real life journey Waters takes in the last section. I also found myself unsettled to read about Water’s own lustful feelings; especially in the final section when he is wondering (in real life) if he is going to hook up with the men that he gets rides from. I know its normal for people to think these things, but in the case of John Waters, I hate to think of him as an old man on the prowl. I prefer to think of him as a detached observer and admirer of this filthy world.

But I suppose that has more to do with me and my own hang-ups than it has to do with John Waters, who, by the way, still remains one of my heros.