Harryette Mullen: "Sick of this American Kitsch": Working with Sheila M. Sofian on Waving the Flag

Fall '08 TOC

In my workshop at Naropa this week, “Utopia Begins with You,” we’ve been discussing our creative habits as individuals as well as how we connect to others through creative collaboration. I am by nature a solitary person, and it’s not my habit to work collaboratively. On the occasions when I’ve done so, it was more a result of serendipity than anything else. Each time I can recall feeling anxiety about working with another person. Yet in each case when I’ve followed through and actually completed a project with an artist, writer, or composer, it has given me unexpected pleasure. I’ve learned by watching how other people work; and the process has pushed me to think of my own work in new ways. So I thought for today’s panel, “Language as a Dangerous Toy,” I would talk about an experience of collaboration and its unexpected consequences.

In 2006 I worked with Sheila Sofian, an animation artist who teaches at University of Southern California. Sheila and I didn’t know each other before we were invited to participate in a project that paired writers and animation artists as collaborators. So we got together and decided that we wanted to make some comment about the way patriotism was being defined in the post–9/11 period of the second Gulf War. I wrote and performed the text, which borrows an idea from Lee Ann Brown’s Polyverse; and Sheila created the images using digital animation technology. I was especially pleased that my nephew, William O. Darity, a student at Oberlin Music Conservatory, agreed to contribute a music track that Sheila used for the opening and closing frames of the video.
Our collaboration resulted in a five-minute animation video titled Waving the Flag that was screened in Los Angeles in a program sponsored by the New Town Foundation. Although I thought the satirical statement we had made was rather mild, and definitely in the tradition of artistic free speech, I can remember actually shivering in my seat when I first saw the video in its finished form on a big screen with an audience at, of all places, the Gene Autry Museum. But it was, after all, an audience of pretty artsy people, and most of the comments I heard were positive. I did have an encounter with one of Sheila’s students from USC who asked me, in a half-joking, half-serious way, “Now really, you don’t hate America, do you?” I replied, “I don’t always love America, but I do believe in the ideals of freedom and equality that America is supposed to stand for, including the right to criticize America.”

Sheila and I laughed about it afterwards. Some of her students, she said, were a bit conservative. Then, a few days later, she sent me an article about a creative writing teacher at Shippensburg University who was reported as a terrorist suspect when he was seen hauling a box of old poetry manuscripts to a campus recycling bin. The bomb squad and the state police arrived because an ROTC student had called in a report of a Middle-Eastern-looking man with a suspicious-looking package. It gave me pause, considering that my image appears in the video. That animated figure looks like me, but literally isn’t me. It’s a character I performed, with Sheila’s enthusiastic direction urging me to be “louder and angrier” for dramatic effect.

Some interpret the sardonic message as my personal opinion about the U.S. flag and all it represents. One viewer wanted to know if I had lost a family member in Iraq or Afghanistan. Fortunately not, although my African-American family has a history of military service dating back to the Civil War; and one of my Irish-American ancestors appears on the roster of Revolutionary War soldiers and patriots. As a pacifist, I am torn between my identification with my country and my personal conviction that war is not the answer to the problems that plague humanity. My intent in Waving the Flag was to present a continuum of uneasy responses to the use of the flag as a logo of consumer-oriented patriotism driven by fear.

Sheila Sofian subsequently entered Waving the Flag in several video, film, and animation festivals in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. PBS selected it as a winner of its Independent Lens Online Shorts Festival, so it was shown on the PBS website. Sheila forwarded along to me a message she received from a friend of hers who used to live in the former Soviet Union. It’s the most detailed response to this little video collaboration that I’ve seen; and I saved it, because it relates to my thoughts about this panel’s topic, the pleasures and dangers of language.

Sheila, I got the DVD and watched it right away. While watching it, I felt like I was in on some transgressive act. I even felt vaguely guilty just by virtue of the fact that something this subversive was playing on my TV screen. I think this has to do with the emotional and political power of the flag and the kind of paranoid, self-censoring media culture we live in. My old memories of communism might have kicked in, too.

My 10-year-old son was watching along with me. When it was over, he said, “This was dumb.” I was shocked because he’s a well-indoctrinated young liberal, so I asked why. “Because she said the flag was great.” This reaction really bothered me so I gave it some thought while he was at his piano lesson later in the day and I took a walk. I realized—or choose to believe—that his misunderstanding of the film has less to do with his limited visual literacy but precisely with the connotations of the theme, the American flag. In other words, it’s not because he’s generally unable to read irony that he missed the discrepancy between the visuals and the words.

Rather the reason may be that the flag is almost always used precisely in the overblown, almost cartoonishly inflated, tear-jerking, emotion-eliciting manner that the film so successfully mocks. I think that’s why [my son] thought it was “real.” Because “real” representations of the flag are almost always propagandistic, even when also commercial (no neat separation between the commercial and the political, as you make clear) employing the same images of toughness, masculinity, the presidential office, guns, etc. that you use in the film. To me, this incessant expectation to worship the flag is always inches away from the ridiculous, from self-mockery and self-destruction. But for [my son’s] 10-year-old perception a film about the flag is probably like my bumper sticker is to a lot of people: at a distance it looks like the flag, but the stars are dollar signs and the caption under it says: “Imperialism: a way of life worth bombing for.” And another thing: to me (adults) the African-American female voice is the most important clue as to the sarcastic intent of the commentary. But since the usual commercial-political overuse of the flag heavily depends on token images and voices of multiculturalism, even this may sound familiar to [my son] from “real” flag worship.

Anyway, what I want to draw out of this quick reflection is that the success of the film—from an ideological POV, which I think is fair given that it’s a tendentious piece, right?—is in the subtlety with which it approaches all the viciousness and hypocrisy that’s wrapped into obligatory flag worship. That it’s so close in its aesthetic to actual flag propaganda. A film that attacks the flag head on or turns it into the object of a roaring joke would have been less effective at illustrating the power invested in the flag. Which is a scary amount of power.

My thought, in conclusion: Even considering the power of the flag as a national symbol, perhaps the riskiest
thing about this little video is not that it questions patriotism, parodies the Pledge of Allegiance, or maligns
Old Glory; but that it combines sarcastic speech and subversive images in a way that leaves interpretation open
to the audience.

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Not Enough Night
Not Enough Night
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