Thursday, October 01, 2020

Book News: Leatherface vs. Tricky Dick: ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ as Political Satire

Not long ago I appeared on The Poker Zoo podcast to talk about my book Poker & Pop Culture as well as other things concerning the state of the game today. It was a fun conversation covering a lot of topics, including the history and current state of poker blogs.

Near the beginning of the show I gave a quick summary of how this blog came about and where it fit into the larger story of poker blogs circa 2006. I talked about how blogs began to fade away, particularly after Black Friday (April 2011) when this big, global online "community" of poker players to which we all belonged suddenly became fractured, especially from the perspective of those of us in the U.S.

I persisted with Hard-Boiled Poker, however, continuing to post every weekday for another five years or so, then still posting quite frequently after that before slowing down to begin working in earnest on Poker & Pop Culture.

As we talked about on the podcast, writing P&PC is what really more or less moved me off the blog, as I didn't have the time or mental fuel to write about poker both for the book and here. (And the book is a monster, by the way -- 432 pages, 160,000 words.) As I have noted here before, I can't help but view Poker & Pop Culture as kind of a culmination of my poker writing, bringing together a lot of what I was sharing here on the blog and elsewhere over 12 or so years of writing about the game.

I was eager after that to write about something not poker. I had another novel in mind, and in fact was starting to work on it when the novel coronavirus emerged to distract. But by then I already had a different project in the works... and extra motivation, too, thanks to a deal with a house to publish it.

That book is now finished and in "pre-production," you might say. Editing, proofing, formatting, etc. The current schedule has it coming out either end of 2020 or early 2021.

I mentioned the book at the end of another enjoyable interview I did for Club Poker a while back. When mentioning the book there I suggested that with my next project I had decided to follow the "pop culture" path rather than the "poker" one.

In the past, starting a few years before my poker writing, I did some more "academic" writing while teaching full-time. Some of that writing was about horror films, and I placed articles in a few different publications including Film Literature and the Journal of Popular Culture. One of those articles was about The Blair Witch Project. Another concerned The Stepfather and its relationship to an episode in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.

Another focused on Halloween III: Season of the Witch and modern horror franchises, more generally speaking. If you're curious what I say in that article, here is a post I wrote for another blog that explains it a bit. You can also check the Wikipedia page for H3 to see a reference to one of the arguments I make in that article.

For a time I was considering a book-length project about horror movies. However that was around the time poker stepped in to create a big life detour that included leaving that idea to the side.

Readers of the blog know I've also had a significant interest in poker-playing presidents, in particular Richard Nixon who earned a lot of space in the "Poker in the White House" chapter in P&PC. Several years ago I began teaching a second American Studies class at UNC Charlotte that focuses on Nixon alongside my "Poker in American Film and Culture" class. In fact, for a while I thought I might write a short book about Nixon, examining his strange and remarkable political career through the lens of his poker playing.

I tell you all of that to help explain how I ended up spending a good part of the last year writing this new book, one that combines my interest in horror films and in Richard Nixon. The book focuses on the 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the title gives a good idea of the book's approach:

Leatherface vs. Tricky Dick: 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' as Political Satire.

The idea for Chain Saw first came to director Tobe Hooper near the end of 1972. The film finally premiered on October 1, 1974 (46 years ago today). In other words, the movie was conceived, written, shot, edited, and ultimately premiered exactly as the Watergate scandal unfolded, with Nixon resigning (and getting pardoned) shortly before the first audiences got to see Chain Saw.

Over the years Hooper in interviews frequently made reference to the film's many social and political subtexts, including directly citing Watergate as having "inspired" Chain Saw. His partner and co-writer Kim Henkel has also made reference to the filmmakers' awareness of the contemporary political context when making the movie. Meanwhile the film itself includes many moments and details that further encourage a reading of the movie as a kind of commentary on Watergate, if you can stop being frightened enough to notice them.

My book does a deep dive into those details, providing a minute-by-minute analysis of the movie in order to explore its numerous political messages, many of which pertain to Watergate.

I don't argue away other interpretations of the film, or deny other intentions of those who made Chain Saw (including the primary one to scare the hell out of you). Nor do I suggest the film presents a consistent, ongoing "allegory" of Watergate, although I do often liken Leatherface and his murderous family to Nixon and all the president's men.

It was a very fun book to write, and I'm hopeful readers will enjoy it when it appears. I think fans of Chain Saw should like it, as should those interested in presidential politics and political satire. Speaking of the latter, I delve quite a bit into other examples of Watergate satire along the way (other films, books, columns, comedy records) as I show how Chain Saw also takes a similar, indirect and (darkly) humorous approach in its criticism of Nixon and his administration.

For a film that has been picked over as much as Chain Saw, I do think I was able to cover some new ground with my analysis and comparison of the film to the political horror show happening while it was being made. I also hope the book helps readers understand just how villainous a character Nixon was, and how at the time the film premiered it wasn't at all outrageous to compare him to a mask-wearing, chainsaw-wielding maniac. 

I will be sharing more details here soon regarding a publication date for Leatherface vs. Tricky Dick and how to get it. I also look forward to sharing the fantastic cover created by my publisher, Headpress, which is a scream. Stay tuned!

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