The Rapture, and Left Behind: a sort of movie review

I do not believe in space aliens. I have, however, seen many many entertaining movies based on the premise that space aliens exist. I do not believe in vampires, or in werewolves, or in zombies. But I’m a big fan of movies about vampires, werewolves and zombies. And so, though I do not believe in the Rapture, I ought to be able to enjoy a movie based on that particular end-of-times premise. What gets tricky is seeing a movie that appears to take its own fictional premise really really seriously, a movie made from the perspective that a space alien invasion, or zombie apocalypse–or the Rapture–is something that’s going to happen, probably pretty soon, and that there are specific things we need to be doing about it. That’s when your movie viewing experience moves from ‘enjoyable’ to ‘trapped in an elevator with a Jehovah’s Witness and an Amway salesman’ levels of embarrassment and unpleasantness.

The first Left Behind movie, based on the Jerry Jenkins/Tim LeHaye novels, was made in 2000, and starred Kirk Cameron. It cost $4 million to make, and made its nut, barely, but my guess is sold a butt-load of DVDs. This one cost $16 million and stars Nicolas Cage. It’s made back its investment; who knows about ancillaries. But seen simply as a sci-fi mystery/adventure film, it’s not half bad, honestly. Cage’s performance is creditable, and the other two leads were quite good. I saw it in our local dollar theater, and felt like I got my money’s worth. But, of course, the point wasn’t just to make an entertaining movie, was it?

Okay, briefly, Nic Cage is Ray, an airline pilot, flying New York Kennedy to London Heathrow, and planning on some hanky-panky with a hot blonde flight attendant, Hattie (Nicky Whelan). His marriage has gone sour due to his wife (Lea Thompson, of Back to the Future fame) who has converted to evangelical Christianity. Their college age daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), is similarly put off by Mom’s preachiness, but is aware of Hattie, and pretty ticked at dear-old-Dad as well. She meets at the airport (and rescues from a super preachy Christian woman) a TV reporter, Cameron “Buck” Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who is also on Dad’s flight.

So mid-flight, the Rapture hits. A bunch of passengers just disappear, leaving behind their neatly folded clothing, watches, jewelry (apparently, we’re all naked in heaven), and including all children everywhere. Ray’s co-pilot and one flight attendant also vanish. Understandably, everyone freaks out. Back in New York, people freak out even worse, and Chloe’s car is hit by an out-of-control, suddenly pilot-less Cessna, so she has to walk home from Kennedy, dodging looters all the way. Another pilot-less plane clips Ray’s plane, and now he’s got to try to land a crippled plane, out of fuel, with Kennedy airport in complete chaos and no air traffic control, apparently. But Chloe’s phone has a ‘find-abandoned-highway’ app, and her cell works just opportunely enough to get the plane down safely.

Okay, so that’s the plot. Meanwhile, of course, Ray and Chloe and Buck and Hattie are all trying separately to figure out what-the-heck, and are able to explain to the audience just what the Rapture’s about, without ever using the word Rapture. The world’s gone all wicked, and all that Matthew 24, Joel, Daniel, Revelation, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse scary stuff is about to go down. So 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18: God will rapture his Elect the heck out of here to heaven, and also rapture all kids everywhere. So He can protect them all from the Last Days destruction and death.

And of course, the Rapture is mostly about airplanes. Pilot-less airplanes. Not sure why, but it does strike a chord–we’re all a little freaked out by airplanes, after all, the flying of which really does basically feel more like magic than physics.

But, here’s the thing. I have no problem encompassing in my theology the idea of a God that allows, for His own inscrutable purposes, crashing airplanes. I have a problem, however, with a God that crashes them Himself. I just don’t believe in it. And of course ‘Rapture’ is a contested term in contemporary Christian discourse. Some denominations believe that ‘rapture’ simply means the general resurrection of the dead, after the tribulations described in various scriptures. Others, though, think it’s going to happen before all those tribulations, as in this movie.

What do Mormons believe? I don’t have the faintest idea. We basically never talk about it. Certainly we never, and I mean never, use the word ‘rapture,’ not in either of its Christian senses.  Do we get caught up to heaven to meet Jesus? I’m pretty sure that no LDS General Authority has talked about anything like this in my lifetime. It maybe gets whispered about in Sunday School. There’s some ‘people caught up from fields’ iconography. I don’t know if this is a Mormon belief. I do know that I, a Mormon, do not believe in it.

Whenever I travel, if I have some time to kill, I go looking for bookstores. I remember with great fondness a Christian bookstore in Monroe Louisiana, where I went browsing once. It featured two very popular sections: Left Behind, with books and DVDs and posters. The only display equal in size was the Dale Earnhardt table. Best of all was a very popular poster combining both themes: Dale Earnhardt being Raptured out of his smashed up #3 car. So the Rapture’s a big deal in some parts of this great nation of ours, is my point. Almost as big a deal as NASCAR, it would seem. The Rapture is central, I think, to a lot of Christian preachifying.

But for evangelical Christians, it makes sense. Some Christian denominations do divide the world into two categories: Christians, who are saved, who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior, and people who are not saved, people who may well be decent, good people (Buck and Chloe are what we would call ‘good people’ in the movie), but who do not believe in Jesus, or at least not enough.  And nothing could point that up more starkly than a world-wide event in which all the Christians are instantly zapped away to heaven, leaving everyone else to cope with the aftermath. It fits a certain evangelical world-view.

And that’s a world-view that Mormons do not share, not really. Joseph Smith did away entirely with the Christian heresy of geographic salvation. We believe that everyone can be baptized, that even people who have died can posthumously accept Jesus, and gain eternal life. We do tend to divide the world into Mormons and non-Mormons (and even Mormons into ‘active’ and ‘less active’), but we really do believe that works matter. A good guy, like Buck in this movie, would be in line to be saved. There’s a Muslim character in the movie, one of the passengers on the plane, who is the one genuinely and consistently compassionate character in the film. The evangelical worldview is that he’s ‘left behind.’ Mormons wouldn’t agree.

So it makes sense to me that the Rapture would be central to evangelical preaching, and that it wouldn’t be something Mormons ever ever talk about, and is probably something at least some of us don’t believe in. Again, I certainly don’t believe in it. And I wish I could say that it made for an interesting movie.

But it didn’t. Ultimately, the movie falls apart, because we sympathize with the wrong people.  The fact is, we only meet two Christians in the early scenes of the movie, only two people who are established as real characters, and who get subsequenly Raptured. One is the annoying woman who pesters Buck in the airport about his (supposed) agnosticism in the face of a tsunami he’d covered. The other is Lea Thompson’s character, Chloe’s Mom, a woman, we’re told, who is such a fanatic that she’s systematically alienated her entire family. They’re our role models? That’s what we’re supposed to strive for, so we don’t get Left Behind? Sorry, but no. I’d rather stay behind and dodge falling airplanes. We come to genuinely care about the people in Ray’s plane, good, but freaked out folks who try their best to comfort each other and whose survival is what the movie is about.  We like Ray, we like Buck, we like Chloe. If they’re what gets Left Behind, count me in.

The true meaning of Christmas

To all pastors, ministers, priests, bishops and elders, of whatever Christian denomination:

I’m asking you, please: do not denounce, decry, disparage, lament, condemn, attack or rail against the commercialization of Christmas. Do not complain about Black Friday, or Christmas advertising. Christmas excess and Christmas commerce can make for tempting subjects for sermonizing. Resist that temptation.

During the Christmas season, people are subjected to tremendous cultural pressure to buy lots of stuff for their friends and loved ones. Merchants plan on this. They base sales projections, bonuses, advertising budgets, work schedules around it. Many small businesses rely on the Christmas season for their very survival.

If people don’t buy things during the holiday season, it could destroy the economy. In a destroyed economy, human suffering increases ten-fold. The poor are hammered. Even in a diminished or weakened economy, people suffer, people are harmed. Homelessness increases. Starvation can result. I say this with some confidence: Jesus does not want for any of that to happen.

Commerce is not evil. Commerce is good. People buying and other people selling; all are positive, good activities. A robust commercial season increases employment, allows more people to support themselves and their families. Encourage people to shop, to spend. As robustly as their budgets will allow.

I am a Mormon. The LDS Church recently invested in the building of a new, downtown, Salt Lake City shopping mall. I know some people criticized this. I didn’t, and don’t. That investment spurred economic growth. It rejuvenated the downtown. It led to the creation of businesses, to new jobs.  It allowed people who had been unemployed to find employment.

We’re urged, at Christmas, to contemplate the True Meaning of Christmas. Indeed, we should do precisely that. We should give to local food banks and homeless shelters. We should increase our charitable giving; of course we should. And we should remember that the Christmas narrative involved the giving of gifts, really expensive ones, which undoubtedly came in handy for Joseph and Mary, poor young people from Nazareth, a tiny, impoverished village.

You say that Christmas advertising is tacky. The key words at Christmas are “Peace,” “Love” and “Joy”. Peace and love don’t lend themselves to ads, but ‘joy’ sure does. And so we see ads describing ‘the Joy of Fleece,” “the Joy of Chocolate,” “the Joy of Earthen Bakeware.” To describe Christmas ads as ‘tacky’ is to make an aesthetic, not a moral judgment. If tackiness moves product, then tackiness is likewise a social good, and should be applauded. Snicker, but buy.

Can Christmas shopping be overdone? Of course it can be. Anything good can be. Should we put ourselves massively in debt for expensive gifts? Certainly not. That doesn’t mean we should neglect dear old Aunt Mildred, or leave out our daughter’s step-kids. Be generous. Remember Scrooge, who discovered the true meaning of Christmas, and did what? Bought gifts for people!

And children! Christmas is about the birth of a Child, and it’s the holiday most beloved by children. And certainly a lot of Christmas advertising is aimed at kids, and certainly the toys aren’t always of the highest quality. But kids love opening presents. Is there anything inherently un-Christian about making children happy, even if only for a moment? I say no. Brave the lines at Toys R Us! Shop for your kids, all the kids in your life!  It’s good for the economy, and believe me, we want the economy to prosper. Because kids are the first ones hurt when it doesn’t.

Every year, we hear it. “The commercialization of Christmas.” Or sermons attacking Santa. Thank heavens no one pays the least attention. Have a Merry Christmas! Buy stuff! Lots of it!  Celebrate this holiday season! Shop!

Interstellar: Movie Review

I’m going to assume that many of you have already seen Interstellar. It’s a big budget, well-marketed movie, written and directed by one of the hottest and most exciting big-deal directors in the business: Christopher Nolan. And it’s been out since the beginning of November. Here it is, almost Thanksgiving. And it’s taken me til now to get  my sorry butt to the movie theater, and subsequently in front of a computer? What’s wrong with me?

Plus, since it came out, I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had this experience; I run into a friend, and we chat, and the conversation winds around to movies, and they say ‘have you seen Interstellar?’ With that peculiar eagerness that some movies seem to provoke, where everyone who sees it absolutely has to talk to someone about it. It’s that kind of big popular culture phenomenon, where seeing it isn’t enough, where you also have to engage in subsequent conversation.

So here’s my initial reaction: it’s a really good movie. It’s exceptionally well filmed, well acted, well written. Not surprising, since it’s a Christopher Nolan film, and he really does seem to be one of those directors who knows what he’s doing. Matthew McConaughey is great in it. This is not surprising, because he’s a terrific actor, but he’s particularly good in this. Anne Hathaway, not really my go-to actress to play a scientist, is completely convincing in the role. So is Jessica Chastain. So is SPOILER ALERT, the Big Movie Star who shows up two thirds of the way in, dominates maybe fifteen minutes of the movie, and then disappears forever. I enjoyed it. I’m glad I saw it. I was on the edge of my seat. I was moved, at times, and scared at times for the characters, and emotionally engaged in their fates, all of them, the whole movie. Pity+Fear=Catharsis; Aristotle would have been blown away by it, not least because it’s all science-y and A-dog was the pre-eminent scientist of the 4th century BCE.  Two thumbs up. Positive movie-going experience. All that.

But.

The next morning?

Okay, if you haven’t seen it, and are only reading this so you can decide if you want to see it, read no more, and go see it. It’s still in town, will be for weeks, and you’ll enjoy it. You’ll get your money’s worth. Honestly, it’s a really good movie.

So: warning, it’s nothing but SPOILERS from here on in. Because it really is the kind of movie that you want to talk about with people afterwards, and to some extent, I think, those post-viewing conversations work maybe a little bit to the movie experience’s detriment. I’m not sure it’s a movie that wears all that well.  And here’s why.

Okay, so, a crop-destroying plague is slowly choking off life on planet Earth. McConaughey plays Cooper, former pilot/astronaut turned farmer, with two kids, Tom, the boy, Murph, the girl. Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain later on in the movie, played by two kids earlier. Tom loves farming, and is good at it; Murph is super-bright, and wants to study science. Her room, she thinks, is haunted by ghosts. Stuff happens, books fall off shelves, dust settles unsettlingly. She isn’t frightened by her ghosts; she’s just a little kid, but she studies the ghostly phenomena methodically. She persuades her father to take her research seriously, and he figures out that the ‘ghost’ is sending them signals; map coordinates. And he and Murph follow those coordinates, and find a secret NASA lab, which is sending manned missions to a worm-hole out by Saturn, and from there, on a search to find habitable planets, Earth having been spoiled environmentally.

They’re aware that it’s all just too coincidental. Gravitational anomalies giving map coordinates to a NASA lab, one that just happens not to have any trained pilots/astronauts for a mission that absolutely requires one. Also, this nifty worm-hole appearing out of nowhere. Also the worm hole leading to several possibly habitable worlds. Someone is helping mankind out. Who?

Okay, so Cooper and Brand (Hathaway) and the two other astronaut guys (who are not given enough to do and die too soon) make it to the first planet, awfully close to the black hole that caused the worm hole, and with lots of water and truly amazing black hole-proximity-tsunamis. A surfer’s dream of a planet, honestly, if you don’t mind having no beaches, and also don’t mind relativity causing you to age way too quickly.  And the relative aging of the astronauts and the earthlings they’ve left behind is seriously problematic, not just because their families are aging rapidly in relation to their aging, but also because Earth, they know, can’t sustain life all that much longer. So a one-hour equals-ten-years-on-Earth planet does them no good. Especially since it’s uninhabitable.

So, the clock is ticking. They can’t just find an inhabitable planet; they have to find an inhabitable planet while there’s still a human race left to transport there. In the back of their minds, though, they remember how some kind of kindly-disposed cosmic entity has seemed to have been helping them out. And they know that in the black hole is some kind of singularity, where Time and Space may represent only two of many dimensions. Is, therefore, time travel possible? Is their survival possible? The answers may be found in the black hole singularity, presuming that whoever or whatever’s been helping them can be persuaded to do so again.

Okay, Waterworld have proven disappointing, they have to choose between two other planets. They’ve been getting positive reports from one of them; the other is further away, but Brand (Hathaway) thinks it’s a better choice, plus she’s in love with the earlier astronaut sent to it. And this becomes a theme in the movie, how love, human love, is a force in the universe.  So do we go to Matt Damon Planet (Cooper’s choice, because it’s closer, and therefore easier to explore in a time frame that might enable him to see/save his kids), or do we go to Anne Hathaway’s Boyfriend’s Planet (her choice, for lots of good science-y reasons, plus her boyfriend’s there)? Cooper decides; ultimately, they have to follow someone’s heart, and it’s going to be his, because he’s in charge.

So we meet Matt Damon, and it turns out he’s a creep and a worm. He represents self-love; he represents cowardice. He feels a little bad about trying to murder Cooper, but he does it anyway. He’s been lying to them about the life-sustaining possibilities of his planet, because that was the only chance he had of being rescued by someone. He tries to steal their space ship. His entirely unheroic love, however, can’t save anyone. Not even him, turns out.

And here’s where the movie turns all gooey for me. Cooper goes into the black hole singularity thing. He has a vision, of seeing his daughter in her bedroom, with him shoving books onto the floor hoping she’ll notice. He transmits data to her through a watch he once gave her.  In other words, the mysterious cosmic beings who have been helping humanity’s quest to survive are . . . human beings, driven by love. The person communicating with Murph is Cooper, her Dad. Well, Future Cooper.

It’s a time-travel paradox movie. Some mysterious being communicates with Cooper. It turns out to be Future Cooper, communicating with Past Cooper. It’s all circular. Our Future Selves communicated with our Past Selves, to save humanity, so that Future Us could survive. If you could travel back in time, would you go to 1923 and kill Hitler? Not sure? Okay, how about this: if you could travel back in time, would you go back to 1905, and whisper “E=MC squared” into Einstein’s ear? Knowing it would lead to a series of insights and discoveries that would eventually make it possible for Future You to travel back in time to 1905 and meet Einstein?  Or, if you’re Marty McFly, would you get in that DeLorean, would you make sure your parents kissed at the prom? Would you trust the flux capacitor? Knowing if you didn’t, there’d be no Marty McFly?

Interstellar‘s a very cool, state-of-the-art, awesome, well-made movie that ultimately just resurrects the hoariest of sci-fi plots; the time travel paradox plot. And it locates the power of time travel in the love of a father for a daughter. Which honestly feels maybe just a trifle gooey.

I think ultimately it’s a really cool movie, exceptionally well made, that, at its heart, is pretty sentimental. Daddy’s love will conquer all! Including plague, including space-time, including black holes, including relativity itself?  Color me skeptical.

 

Charlie’s marriage

I wouldn’t say that the news ‘broke’ the internet, but it certainly put a nasty dent in it: Charles Manson has applied for a marriage license. Charlie Manson, age 80. Announcing his ‘engagement’ to one Afton Elaine Burton, age 26, who now goes by the name ‘Star,’ considers herself already married to him, and maintains a website insisting on his innocence. (Which I will NOT link to–I’m not driving traffic to Charlie freaking Manson’s site). Burton’s Mom, by the way, is fine with it. Says the couple shares a commitment to environmentalism. Grantland’s Molly Lambert’s story about it can’t really be improved on; see the link for details.

What’s interesting to me about this is the way in which Charlie Manson still does have the capacity to capture our attention. This was big news. And, as always with Manson, we read it with a little frisson of oh-so-delicious fear. Charles Manson, the most mesmeric, the most charismatic, the most Satanic human being on earth, was up to his old tricks once again. Fascinating young people (mostly young women); bending them to his will.

Remember the watch thing? Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put Manson away, wrote a best-selling book about it, Helter Skelter. In the book, he describes a time when Manson stopped his watch by just staring at it. In the first Helter Skelter made-for-TV-movie, the 1976 one with Steve Railsback as Manson, George DiCenzo (as Bugliosi) notices his watch has stopped, looks over at Manson, and we see Railsback give him a creepy grin. So that’s part of the lore; Charlie Manson can make a watch stop.

Of course, he couldn’t. Bugliosi’s book is very compelling, but its hero is Bugliosi; the courageous prosecutor who put Charlie Manson away, and the more evil and Satanic Manson was, the greater Bugliosi’s triumph over him. I don’t much trust it. I rather suspect that if Charlie Manson had the ability to stop watches, he would also have had the ability to open prison doors. But what he did have was a kind of crazed charisma. He persuaded a group of lost runaway hippie kids (most of them girls) to form a ‘Family’ and commit horrible atrocities, and he persuaded Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys to fund ‘Family’ activities for months. He’s regarded as one of the worst mass murderers in history, and he never actually personally killed anyone. Not for lack of trying; the Family’s first victim, Bernard Crowe, was shot by Manson in Crowe’s apartment in June of ’69, two months before the Sharon Tate killings. But Crowe survived.

And then, on August 9th, 1969, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel murdered Sharon Tate and four other guests in her home, and also a delivery guy, on Manson’s orders. The next night, joined by Manson himself, and with two other Family members, Leslie Van Houten and Clem Grogan, the same four murdered Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their home. Manson directed the killings, but did not kill himself. Several subsequent killings have been linked to Manson’s Family members. And in 1975, Manson Family member Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to murder Gerald Ford, the President of the United States.

Fromme’s attempt took place in Sacramento. She and Sandra Good had moved there to be closer to Manson while he served out his sentence at Folsom Prison. In 1987, Fromme escaped from prison in West Virginia. She was apprehended within a few days, as she headed west, towards California. She wanted to be close to Charlie, who she heard was suffering from cancer. This is also typical of Manson Family members; even while incarcerated, they seem to crave physical closeness to their prophet/guru. Afton “Star” Burton has also moved, to Corcoran California, out in the desert, so she can be ‘closer to Charlie.’  Sandra Good maintains a pro-Charlie website, which competes with Burton’s.

And we’ve never lost our fascination with this guy, this career criminal, failed musician, this man who seems to have had one great gift in life, the ability to attract young women to believe in him, and at times, to kill for him. Two made-for-TV movies. Several documentaries. Several major TV interviews, with Diane Sawyer, Tom Snyder, Charlie Rose, Geraldo Rivera, Ron Reagan Jr.

The myth of the sixties’ counter-culture was a myth of innocence, a myth of invincible virtue, opposing Establishment Evil. Hippies were peaceful idealists, devoted to non-violent protest and positive world-change. Hippies stopped the war in Vietnam, ended racism, fought the good fight against ‘the man.’ It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. “Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,” Coven sang, describing, see, the Establishment’s hypocrisy, embellishing the irony with achingly pure intentions and ferocious self-righteousness–“one tin soldier rides away”; the song punctuated the message of peace-lovin’ martial artist Billy Jack.  Nick Lowe asked, with aching sincerity, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding. Punk answered back, always more honest; Lowe’s song was bitterly deconstructed by Elvis Costello.  (Elvis: the King of Rock and Roll. Costello: half of the comedy duo who asked Who’s On First. Even his name functioned as satire).

Charlie Manson did us this one great favor: he showed us the lie at the heart of hippie idealism and blissed out mellow. Teenage runaways, escaping the dreariness of square middle-class hypocrisy, crowding the streets of Haight-Ashbury, could easily fall for predators. Hippies could, turns out, kill. So could drugs. So could casual sex. And so could rock and roll, as Dennis Wilson bankrolled The Family, and Charlie grotesquely misread the Beatles.

So we didn’t. Do any of that; we didn’t. We weren’t significant; we weren’t important. I mean, we really didn’t: in the national election of 1972, 18-21 year olds could vote for the first time. George McGovern, whose entire campaign was built on ending the war in Vietnam, was on the ballot. He got crunched, and the Youth Vote went heavily to Richard Nixon. Nixon was right about that silent majority thing. Sixties and Seventies, we youthful idealists, we didn’t end Vietnam or racism or sexism. I wasn’t a hippie–too young for the movement–but I loved the music and was attracted to the ideals, and I wish earnestness and sincerity really could change the world. It can’t. What does change the world is hard work, compromise, working daily at the endlessly boring and crucially important details of legislation.Line upon line, idea upon idea. A hard grind.

Good music is good music, and then the song is over. And that sort-of-interestingly-dangerous, compelling hippie man is saying lovely attractive things about revolutions and race riots and the White Album, and he wrote this nice song about me, and I even got to meet one of the Beach Boys! And then he’s handing me a knife and telling me to kill total strangers. And hey, why not, they’re just establishment pigs, right? Viva la whatever.

That’s who Manson was, the worm in the apple, the snake in the garden, the ugly violence at the heart of ideology. The sad game, played by naive fools. Now he’s got another one, another follower, another ‘wife’ for his ‘Family.’ So happy for them both.

 

Madlibs news

You know the game Mad libs? It involves a story of some kind, but with details missing. “_____ and ______ ______ to the ______, where they’re attacked by a savage_____.” And you say to your friend, ‘give me someone’s name. Now a noun. Next, an active verb. Followed by a noun.’ And they go ‘Iggy Azalea. Daffodil. Brick. Zip. Aardvark.’  And you fill in the blanks: “Iggy Azalea and a daffodil breathe to the brick where they’re attacked by a savage aardvark.” (Answers, in this case, provided by my wife). And we all laugh. And, in this case, root for the aardvark.

Well, watching some of the Sunday news programs, it occurred to me that the news cycle has become a big game of Madlibs. It goes like this: “___a___ is a huge problem. It poses an existential threat to the continuing existence of the __b____. But ___c___ has not _____d_____. Instead, President Obama has ___e____.  As a result, ____f___.  What’s needed now is ____g_____.” Everything’s always an emergency, and the threat level is always high. And that very last blank, the correct answer is always “Presidential leadership.” Which, in every instance, has been inadequate. That’s the game; that’s how the story is shaped.

Let’s play. a) has included, in recent months, Syria, Ukraine, Putin, ISIS, and Ebola. b) is pretty much always The United States, unless it’s The Planet. c) is always ‘current polices’ and d) is ‘have not succeeded. e) is pretty much always ‘has not formed a policy,’ or ‘been indecisive,’ unless we watch Fox, in which case it’s ‘has been playing golf.’  f) changes depending on the story; it could be ‘Syria remains a trouble spot,’ or ‘Ukraine’s government is endangered,’ or ‘we’re all going to die of Ebola.’ g), of course, is ‘Presidential leadership.’ It’s always Presidential leadership that’s lacking, is needed, has not been forthcoming. It’s pretty much always Obama’s fault.

The national, mainstream media loves this storyline. ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC; they all rely on the same script.  It’s dramatic. It can be sustained indefinitely. It turns every situation, domestic or international, into a crisis. They imagine us, home watching television, shaking in our boots. (Mostly, we’re not. Me, I’ve been watching the World Series). And of course, all those news organizations pretty much have to do this to justify their existence. They are competing for audience share, and the shows with which they’re competing are similarly expert in creating a breathless sense of drama and urgency and crisis. Will the cops on CSI catch the serial killer? Will the Walking Dead folks get turned into zombies? Will Tom Brady win another ring?  Will Penny dump Leonard, will Sheldon get a clue about Amy? Will Isis attack Manhattan, will Ebola kill us all?

The answer to those last two questions, of course, is no. Emphatically, definitively no. Isis controls part of northern Syria and western Iraq, and are primarily a threat to the Kurds and to Yazidi Christians. Isis poses a humanitarian threat, of course, and if the Iraqi army is unable to cope with them–and so far, the Iraqi army’s response has been tragi-comically inadequate, though Kurdish forces have been far more effective–there may be further steps that the international community, most especially the UN, may have to take. But the notion that ISIS poses a genuine threat to the United States is preposterous. We know what ISIS wants–to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate. That goal is entirely unachievable. There are a few things the US can properly do about ISIS. For the most part, President Obama has done them.

As for Ebola, well, it’s a terrible disease, in West Africa. There have been approximately thirteen thousand reported cases, mostly in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and to a lesser degree, Guinea. Around five thousand people have died. That’s awful. Five thousand of our fellow human beings, dead. What a dreadful thing for those people, those communities, those families.  The World Health Organization has been highly (and properly) critical of the inadequacy of the international response to the disease, insisting that proper quarantine measures could completely contain the outbreak. Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control has been working on a possible treatment, and Doctors Without Borders’ medical personnel have been absolutely heroic.

But here? In the US? Have you heard the joke about Ebola? I’m not going to tell it; you won’t get it. (rimshot). There is no Ebola crisis in the United States. It’s not an easy disease to catch, and if you haven’t been working in close proximity to Ebola patients, in personal contact with their bodily emissions, you’re not going to get sick with it. Watch; the next big story is going to be people getting the flu, and panicking, because they’re sure it’s Ebola. The national news has been ridiculously irresponsible in their reporting of this issue. It’s not a crisis.

But Madlibs news is pretty much always irresponsible. It’s always interesting to watch ABC’s This Week news program. The New York Marathon took place yesterday. ABC previewed the race. What was their focus? The possibility of a terrorist attack. Of course. Terrorists are scary.

And so these oh-so-serious journalists interview actual terrorism experts, and ask serious questions about the serious security measures in place during the race, and it all sounds really seriously dangerous. And the people they interview take the possibility of terrorism seriously—that’s their job. They can’t very well say ‘look, there’s essentially no chance of a terrorist attack at this race.’ They’d look terrible if there were an attack. But they ran the race, and there was no attack, and honestly, that’s about what we should all have expected.  Our reaction shouldn’t be ‘whew. Dodged a bullet there.’ It should be, ‘life goes on. Nice job, Wilson Kipsang.’ He’s the dude that won it.  Good for him. Amazing athlete. Make him the story.

Human beings are terrible at risk assessment. We really are pathetically bad at it. We’re terrified of an exotic foreign disease, while munching down Big Macs, blithely ignoring the fact that nobody in the US has died of Ebola, and 600,000 of us die annually of heart disease. We freak out over the possibility of an airplane crash, but drive ourselves to the airport in our cars, quite forgetting that the drive is much more dangerous than the plane ride. And, of course, terrorism has us terrorized. While 30,000 people die a year from gun violence.

The Madlibs approach to news has, of course, political implications. President Obama’s approval ratings are very low right now. In Utah’s hottest Congressional race right now (and one in which I, alas, can’t vote, because I don’t live in that district), Mia Love will probably beat Doug Owens. Her ad campaign is breathtaking in its simplicity–she shows a picture of Doug Owens and a picture of President Obama. Boom. As much as the Republican House is loathed nationally, most Republican incumbents are going to win reelection, and Democrats are in trouble. Why? Because President Obama hasn’t ‘done anything’ about ‘all those crises.’ Because he ‘hasn’t shown Presidential leadership.’  Fill in the Madlibs blanks. Old people vote Republican, old people watch the news, and old people scare easily. And voting’s hard. You have to, like, stand in line. It’s going to be a landslide.

And the one thing you can’t say is the simple truth. ISIS is not a crisis. Ukraine is not a crisis. Ebola, for heaven’s sake, is absolutely no crisis at all. President Obama has handled all those situations exactly appropriately, because in each case, there wasn’t much to be done. The ‘lack of leadership’ meme is a phony, fake narrative, drummed up for the sake of ratings by news organizations desperate for relevancy. ____a_____ is actually ___b_____. The only thing we have to ___c____ is ______d_____ itself. Fill in the blanks. a) America. b) doing fine. c) fear. d) fear.

 

Obama Jokes

So I was watching last night’s Daily Show this morning, and Jon’s guest was Zach Galifianakis. They got to talking about President Obama’s appearance on Galifianakis’ parody web series Between Two Ferns. (That appearance was great, incredibly funny, BTW, in that peculiarly funny Obama way.)  Galifianakis talked about what the experience was like, coming to the White House and meeting with the President and eating in the White House lunch room. He said the food there was terrific, (and free), and they even had a dessert menu.  And on the menu was an item called Chocolate Freedom. And Galifianakis said to the waiter, ‘that has to be what you guys call the President, right?’ And Jon Stewart lost it.

It was a funny Obama joke. And it coincided with this idiotic debate I found myself in on the internets, you know, the way you do, arguing with total strangers over really stupid issues, and feeling like a total doofus for getting caught up in something that dumb. The issue, as it happens, was over a not-funny Obama joke. To wit:

President Obama, Phil Mickelson and Andre Agassi are in line at a bank, each of them trying to cash a check. And Agassi gets to the front, and he doesn’t have any ID. The bank teller asks, ‘how can I be sure you’re Andre Agassi.’ And Agassi says, ‘how about this?’ And he takes a tennis racket, and hits a perfect forehand winner out the door of the bank. And the teller is impressed, and cashes the check. Mickelson gets up there and again the teller asks, ‘how can I be sure you’re Phil Mickelson?’ And Mickelson says, ‘how about this?’ and he hits a perfect nine-iron out the door of the bank. And again the teller cashes his check. Obama gets to the teller, and is asked ‘how can I be sure you’re Barack Obama?’ And Obama responds, ‘I don’t have a clue.’  And the teller says, ‘will you have that in tens or twenties, Mr. President.’

This is a joke that Mitt Romney has been telling a lot lately, on the campaign trail for the mid-term elections. I think that’s significant. Anyway, a conservative blogger I know had put this joke on his blog, said he thought it was both funny and true, funny, in fact, precisely because it’s true. I said that I thought it was neither funny or true. It’s a joke about how hopelessly incompetent Obama is. That’s a favorite Fox News/talk radio/conservative blogger meme. Obama’s in over his head, not up to the job, clueless.  So it’s a joke that plays on that notion. I reject the meme, and therefore don’t think the joke is funny. And so we went back and forth, arguing over whether or not a joke was funny. Yes, it is. No, it isn’t. Yes, it is!  NO, IT ISN’T!!!!  Not my finest hour.

The reality is, though, there are lots of Obama jokes out there, and mostly they’re not funny at all. Some are dumb, some are mean-spirited, some just don’t make sense. Very few are genuinely clever, and most aren’t remotely true. And truth is what’s funny. Sort of.

The difficulty with Mitt Romney’s Obama joke (quoted at length above) is that it’s Mitt Romney giving it. It’s white male privilege yucking it up at the expense of an unprivileged person.  It’s a joke that relies on a shared presumption of Obama incompetence. And it can look like a rich white guy chortling at the presumption of a black guy thinking he can do a job better done by rich white guys. Obama came to office with the only qualification he needed to become President; he won an election. But you can look at his resume and see deficiencies; little executive experience, had never run a big organization, had only served in the Senate a few years. He would never get hired as a CEO. His credentials were unimpressive. And for a successful former executive like Romney, watching Obama win reelection had to be infuriating.

I would suggest that Barack Obama had impressive credentials of a different sort. A community organizer/law professor, combining street smarts with academics. He’s a different kind of cat. He’s cooler. In fact, he’s cooler in a McLuhanesque sense. Marshall McLuhan contrasted ‘hot media’ (like movies) with ‘cool’ media (like television). Cool media are about reflection and contemplation, require more of viewers, involve us in both intellectual ways. Hot media are simpler, and affect us more directly and emotionally.  I would suggest that Obama almost instinctively engages in cool ways with cool media. I would suggest that Fox News, and other conservative media, are by instinct hotter, more immediately emotionally engaging, but also, in a sense, at odds with their own medium. The incongruity of that interaction of the medium and message distort both. Fox takes everything way more seriously than cooler voices and heads do, and every crisis is the greatest ever, and with every decision, civilization as we know it is at stake. Obama tries not to get caught up in those sorts of games. The difference between Obama and his conservative detractors is in part stylistic. And he’s great at deflecting criticism, at flicking it off his shoulders.

That’s Obama. Hip-hop, but also Foucault. Reflective and deflective. Dispassionate and rational and funny in a self-parodying way. Ironic. In short, he’s cool. And so Romney’s joke falls flat, seems not so much unfunny as irrelevant. Uncool. (Reminds me of a tee shirt I saw recently.  “Keep Provo awkward.”)

John McCain is old. George W. Bush is stupid. Clinton was terminally horny, and Mitch McConnell sounds like a cartoon turtle when he speaks. And Barack Obama is full of himself, and bad at his job. Lazy comedians can always rely on those few tried-and-tested formulas for easy laughs.But those aren’t jokes that advance political discourse, of course. They’re not that different from jokes based on ethnic stereotypes–Polish jokes, Italian jokes, Irish jokes, Swedish jokes (if you’re Norwegian), or Norwegian jokes (if you’re a Swede.)

I wonder if Obama jokes would be funnier if we went a different route; if we went for anti-humor.  Anti-humor consists of jokes that don’t even try to be funny, which is what makes them funny.  My son gets a lot of comedic mileage out of Latvian jokes. Latvian jokes are deliberately, intentionally unfunny, told in a mock-Eastern-European accent, spoken in tones of unwavering despair. “Knock knock. Who there? Me. Am very cold. Also hungry.” Or this one: “Man has two potatoes. Sorry. Premise of joke ridiculous. Who have two potatoes?” These sorts of anti-jokes, these deliberate parodies of ethnic jokes generally, are funny because they are so absolutely, horribly not funny. For example, this: “What do you call a black guy in the cockpit of an airplane?  (Assuming an expression of outraged offense), “the pilot!  What are you, racist?!?!?”  An anti-joke that mocks self-righteous political correctness.  Or try this one: “How many potatoes does it take to kill an Irishman? Zero.”

That’s right, an Irish potato famine joke.  Too soon?

Or this: Ayn Rand, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan walk into a bar. They each order a martini. Then they die, because without regulations, contaminated alcohol was served.

It’s a perfect anti-joke. It’s self-righteous and partisan, but it simultaneously mocks self-righteous partisanship. It’s sort of true, and therefore funny, but it’s also ironic, a parody. It’s therefore also cool.

So: Barack Obama won the nomination for President by promising to get us out of Iraq. And he succeeded in doing so, despite dire warnings from mainstream news media. But now he has to send troops back there, because ISIL beheads journalists.

Not funny. An anti-joke. And therefore an Obama joke that might work, a little.

 

 

 

Divas

My parents are in town this week, visiting, and my Dad and I had a long chat this morning, him reminiscing about his career in opera. My Dad was never an opera star, as stars go. He was like a good Triple A catcher; the best player on a high minor league team, with a long career and multiple call-ups to the majors. He sang at New York City Opera, at Chicago Lyric, at Boston Lyric, but he didn’t have a long European career, nor a career at the Met. He could have; I don’t have any doubt of that. He was a terrific bass-baritone, with a voice strong enough for Wagner, but lyrical enough for Mozart. And he was a fine actor.  So if the Scarpio got sick (in Tosca), New York City Opera could call my Dad, and he’d fly in and sing the role at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, he had regular gigs with Kentucky Opera, back when, under the direction of Moritz von Bomhard, it was one of the best regional opera houses in the country.

But Dad never wanted a European career, or a career at the Met. He taught voice at Indiana University (back when it was either number one or two in any listing of American music schools), and loved teaching. He loved his life in Indiana, playing catch with my brothers and me, sailing on Lake Monroe, camping and hiking and enjoying his family. I don’t want to say that he wasn’t ambitious, exactly, just that his ambitions revolved around family and teaching and the Church, not opera stardom. As a singer and performer, he would rather be good than famous. People who mattered to him knew the high level of excellence his work regularly achieved. And personally, he was kind of a blue-collar guy. He’d been a sheet metal worker, and was a dab hand with a set of carpenter’s tools. And he brought that work ethic and lack of ego to his opera career. He was never a diva.

But boy did he know some.

And that’s what made this morning so fun. Mom and Dad and I sat together in our family room, and he told stories of the great opera singers he knew, both at Indiana and in his career, and how preposterous their ego demands could become. I’ve worked professionally in theatre for over thirty years, and I’ve known some egotistical and demanding actors. And I’ve stood in the wings and snickered with fellow cast members at the antics of diva-esque stars. But theatre divas can’t even begin to compare with opera divas.

Case in point: Madame M—-, a singer Dad knew at IU who turned to teaching after a long career at the Met. She didn’t have a car, or any means of transportation, so she took cabs everywhere. She’d call the cab company and she’d say, in her heavy German accent, “Peek me opp.”  And, sure enough, the cab would show up. She’d take the cab to wherever she was going, and then she’d sweep regally out, saying to the cabbie, “zank you very much.”  The cab company would then send a bill to the Dean’s office at the Music school, where one poor secretary had the responsibility of paying this singer’s bills for her, carefully deducting them from her paycheck. She did the same thing at clothing stores. She’d select a few dresses and walk out with them, with an aristocratic smile for the clerks at the store, who would follow her around, keep of track of what she took, and send the Dean the bill.

Dad told a new Madame M—- story, one I hadn’t heard before. Apparently, a colleague followed her into a lady’s room, and heard, coming out of Madame M—–‘s stall, a most spectacular, lengthy and melodious fart. Then, after a moment, Madame M—– said, almost reverently, this: “schön.”

Dad told of the tenor who was singing the demanding title role in Verdi’s Otello.  As was often the case back in the day, he didn’t show up until the week the opera was to open; he’d walk through a dress rehearsal, then perform the next night. He showed up–the set completely built, the opera entirely staged, and saw that the door for his first entrance was stage left. He called for the stage director, and said, ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’ The stage director pointed out that the set was completed, that there was no door stage right, and that he had been staged entering from the left. The tenor responded ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’  And that was it. Tickets had been sold to an audience expecting to see this particular star. There was nothing to do except to completely rebuild the set that night, to give him a stage right entrance.

Another story, a favorite of mine: a soprano, arriving in Los Angeles for a gig, called her agent in New York and woke him from a sound sleep to demand that he call the driver of the limo she was sitting in to tell him to turn down the air conditioning. Obviously, she couldn’t be expected to, you know, actually talk to the limo driver herself. There are people who do those jobs.

A few years ago, I remember, my wife and I went to an opera. And before it began, we heard this pre-show announcement: “Miss _______ (the leading soprano) is ill, and not in good voice tonight. She has nonetheless consented to perform.”  I try to imagine, I don’t know, an actor like Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart or Michael Gambon doing that. “Mr. Gambon is ill tonight. Nonetheless, he has consented to perform.”  The best actors I know would honestly rather die than let you know they were under the weather some night. The show must go on, and every audience for which you perform deserves your very best. That’s the theatre ethic. Not this opera singer. What if she cracked on a high note? Better for us all to know how courageous she was even performing.

Dad did, of course, also sing with other big stars who weren’t remotely divas.  He was good friends with James King, for example, a splendid tenor and a fine actor and complete professional. One of my favorite roles of my Dad’s was his John the Baptist in the Richard Strauss opera Salome, with the wonderful Nancy Shade in the title role. Most opera stars are perfectly reasonable people, dedicated to their craft and easy to work with.

But sometimes, a combination of ego, insecurity and selfishness leads performers to misbehave. And this was the final point my Dad made, chatting about divas this morning. He said he saw this over and over; a diva opera star would perform, and during the curtain call, you’d hear thunderous applause for all the other performers, and then, for the diva, a big fall-off.  “You can’t fool audiences,” he said. “They can always tell a phony.  They see through them every time.”  I’ve seen that too. The diva’s mask may look, initially, comic. But it’s pure tragedy every time.

 

 

The weirdest acting gig in showbiz

Wendy has a boyfriend. You’ve probably noticed; she brought him to meet the family, and he panicked when she mentioned they were having Gouda cheese with chicken. Made him think he’d severely underdressed, so he grabbed some flowers out of a convenient flower pot, handed them to Wendy’s Mom. Awkward; they were having a new Wendy’s Gouda chicken sandwich thing. Very informal. But also normal; in Wendy-land, nobody eats anything but Wendy’s sandwiches.  Ever. This is, BTW, at least her second boyfriend that we know about; she used to date LDS actor Kirby Heyborne. I don’t know why they broke up; maybe because he was kinda cheap. But I don’t think she would have minded cheap. She only eats at Wendy’s, after all. (Though, in fact, she doesn’t. She’s never taken a bite from any Wendy’s sandwich in any commercial).

Still, Wendy has a life. She has friends she hangs out with. She has friends with boyfriend issues. She has office cubicle type job, and a nerdy co-worker who’s into her. And of course, that’s the point. She’s a nice, normal, girl-next-door kind of friendly person, who really really likes Wendy’s food.  That’s how they’re selling her, and thereby selling sandwiches.

Wendy is actually Morgan Smith Goodwin, an actress from Alabama, now based in New York. She’s apparently done a lot of stage work, but only two short films.  Mostly, she just plays Wendy, the red-haired girl in the Wendy’s commercials. And that, actually, has made her kind of famous. She also did a webseries called Just Us Girls, in which she’s one of a group of socially awkward computer nerd girls.

But Wendy, man, that’s a boss gig. I have no idea how much she’s paid, but it has to be pretty substantial. And it’s become her career. My guess is that her contract with Wendy’s prohibits her playing, you know, the perp’s ex-wife on CSI or something. She’s Wendy, for at least the foreseeable future. (And for the rest of her life, she can’t ever ever ever tell anyone that she actually prefers Burger King. Or that she’s vegan).

This thing, creating fictional characters for a series of commercials, is nothing new. Gordon Jump, a fine LDS actor, played the Maytag Repairman for years. Dick Wilson,played grocery store manager Mr. Whipple for twenty-one years, relentlessly scolding women not to squeeze the Charmin. Remember Joe Isuzu, from all those Isuzu ads? Played by David Leisure, who parlayed his gift for playing smarmy creeps into a long sit-com career.

But that’s part of what’s new today. Gordon Jump was better known as the station manager on WKRP in Cincinatti.  Dick Wilson was a regular on Bewitched, and David Leisure, of course, was on a number of popular shows. Today, though, the trend is to hire an unknown actress, and let her build a character. (They’re not all female characters, I suppose; AT&T’s doing a new series with a couple of computer network installers, one of them incurably romantic. But mostly, these commercial characters are women). The newest is Lily Adams, a hyper-competent AT&T saleswoman. She’s played by actress Milana Vayntrub, who is, turns out, from Uzbekistan. She’s a hoot; I love this short film she wrote, directed, and starred in, about an actress who has built an entire career out of playing dead people.

Of course, the superstar of all commercial actresses today has to be Stephanie Courtney, who has played Flo in over fifty of those Progressive Insurance ads.  Courtney’s from upstate New York, moved into the city and went to acting school, spent years pounding the pavement trying to get acting gigs, then moved over to standup. Here’s her act. Then she landed Flo. She’s been Flo for six years now. I think a lot of Flo’s appeal is that she’s so relentlessly upbeat about selling car insurance. Lately, though, Flo’s gone kind of post-modern, moving out of that relentlessly white futurist office and into settings inspired by film noir, romantic comedies, or biker movies. It gets weird, though. Surf the ‘net for Flo, and you’ll find all sorts of strange things, like a line of sexy Flo-style Halloween costumes. (“Is Flo hot?” is apparently quite a popular internet meme).

But the worst of it is that Flo is now the face of Progressive Insurance. And when Progressive refused to pay a claim, Flo’s avatar was used to defend the company. I have to think that would be awkward, to have a company use your image and likeness to defend itself against malfeasance they committed. Obviously, none of this is the fault of Stephanie Courtney, who is simply an actress playing a character. But note that Flo’s entire pitch is about the affordability of Progressive Insurance.  It’s obviously not her fault if the company turns out to be dodgy. But it must feel . . . unsettling.

I have an actress friend who has become the public spokesperson for a product line. In her case, the product is poo pourri. The commercials are remarkably funny, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Still, it is poo pourri.

My point is this. These actors are interesting people, talented people. I think it’s awesome that they’re making a living in this incredibly difficult profession. But there’s also a downside. I don’t think playing Lily or Wendy or Flo is likely to lead to much else, in part for contractual reasons. I suppose Morgan Smith Goodwin might parlay Wendy into a TV series or rom-com or, more likely, a quirky indie film. But she’s been Wendy for three years and it hasn’t happened yet. And Stephanie Courtney has to sit there and watch Flo, her character, (or at least an avatar of it) defend a sleazy insurance company. Flo’s not to blame for Progressive’s misdeeds (and their misdeeds were confirmed in court), anymore than Wendy can be blamed for me getting fatter every time I mow down a Baconator.  But those roles weren’t why they went into show biz.

And not every fan of Flo, Wendy or Lily is . . . benign. Researching this, I stumbled into some insanely creepy websites and chat rooms, with literally hundreds of posts, all from guys, that I felt like I had to take a shower after reading. Incredibly disgusting, in that human-cockroach sort of way only the Internet brings to the surface. For all of them, for Wendy (or Red, as she’s generally known), and Flo, and Lily. I don’t know what kind of security these actresses receive, but I hope it’s considerable. Weird, but lucrative sub-set of acting gigs, then, with considerable downside and a scary fan base. And this profession is tough enough that I hardly know a single actor who wouldn’t jump to be the next Flo. Hardly one.

 

 

What’s news?

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched Anchorman II, astoundingly silly Will Ferrell turn as a newsman. Also this morning, as is my wont, I watched last night’s The Daily Show, getting my Jon Stewart fix, and followed it with my Stephen Colbert fix. Also watched some Rachel Maddow, and caught a little news, some on Fox and some on MSNBC. And then, finally got to Sunday’s John Oliver show.

John Oliver got his start on Jon Stewart, and filled in one summer when Jon was off making a movie. He was so good that HBO gave him his own show, Last Week Tonight.  It’s amazing. Of all the fake news shows out there, from Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update (“Francisco Franco is still dead!”) to Bill Maher to Stewart and Colbert, Oliver’s show is, IMHO, the best. Oliver does still laugh at his own jokes, which can be annoying. But because he’s only on once a week, he’s able to dig deepest, focus on just a few issues, really take some risks.

Anyway, on his show last Sunday, he did this story, about the Miss America Pageant (warning: the clip has some bad language). It’s hard to imagine anything more ridiculous than the Miss America Pageant, or more anachronistic. As Oliver put it in his opening, “how the &$^$^(@ is this still happening?”  It’s the year 2014. How does an event, in which a fully clothed male stands in front of a line of half-naked women, so they can be judged, still be a part of American culture?

Okay, it was a funny bit. But then Oliver dug deeper. First, he showed the ridiculous questions the contestants get asked, and then showed one young woman, in 20 seconds, give a thoughtful, intelligent, nuanced response to a question about ISIS. His point is clear: yeah, it’s a beauty contest, but these are some exceptionally sharp young women. It’s heartbreaking, in fact, to think that these bright and talented women have to parade about in swim suits to earn a college scholarship.

But of course, Miss America is a scholarship pageant. That’s what’s at stake. These women are competing in an organization that prides itself on being the biggest provider of scholarships specifically for women in the world.  And they probably are. At least, Oliver and his staff researched the question, and couldn’t find anyone else providing more money.

And then they dug deeper. The pageant claims that it ‘makes available’ 45 million dollars annually. That’s a lot of money. Is it true? Oliver and his staff dug deeper. The Miss America pageant is a non-profit organization, required to file publicly accessible financial reports with the government. Oliver’s staff dug through those records, and found that the pageant actually gave out $482,000 in scholarship funds. So they pulled the tax forms from every state level competition in the country.

What they discovered was that the 45 million dollar claim is basically bogus, that Miss America reached that number by counting every scholarship any affiliated school might possibly offer.  If a young woman is eligible for scholarships at one of four Pennsylvania schools, for example, Miss America counts the total value of all four school scholarships, though obviously Miss Pennsylvania is only going to attend one of them.  That kind of thing. Miss America does not provide 45 million dollars in scholarship funds.

It was a very funny comedy routine. But it was also informative, well researched, and quite probably true. The Miss America pageant felt it necessary to respond. So did other scholarship programs for women. And nobody really disputed Oliver’s research. His story was funny, yes, but it was also truthful, accurate and disturbing.

So how was it not journalism?

And that’s the point. The line between fake journalism and real journalism, between the way comedians deconstruct the news and the often preposterous sideshow 24 hour news has become is, at the very least, very thin indeed.  If it exists at all. I know people who get all their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They don’t necessarily strike me as ill-informed.

I wish more people read newspapers. But newspapers are dying. I look nostalgically back to the days when news was delivered by the Cronkites and Huntleys and Brinkleys of the world. But that time is long past.  What we have is. . . well, what we have is this.

Anchorman 2 is an incredibly silly movie. The characters are buffoons and fools, selfish and self-centered. That’s why they’re so funny. (In fact, the one genuinely human moment of connection in the film is the relationship between Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig, who play a weatherman and a secretary, both of them dumb as bricks). But it’s also an incisive and intelligent satire on the news industry, on 24 hour news networks, who try to bring people “the news they want to hear, not the news they need to hear,” as Ron Burgundy puts it. This means overt calls to patriotism. Car chases. Soft-core titillation. Weather people buffeted about by hurricane winds (because how can you report a hurricane without putting some poor schmuck in the middle of one). A lot of the movie is pretty flabby, honestly, but in middle of it is some pretty sharp satire.

Jon Stewart has been accused by conservatives by having a liberal bias, which he freely admits is true. But his main target on the Daily Show is not in fact conservatism. It’s the same thing comedians have always made fun of: human stupidity and incompetence. Hubris and arrogance and people in power with their pants around their ankles. Fools behaving clownishly. Ron Burgundy is an idiot, of course, but his twenty-four news show is successful. There’s one sequence in the movie where Ron’s wife, a news anchor on a mainstream news show, is interviewing Yasser Arafat, a huge scoop for her (the show is set in the 80s). Ron, meanwhile, decides to follow a random car chase taking place in Milwaukee. His story gets much better ratings, of course. And it would. That’s why the scene is funny; that’s what would happen.

So if Jon Stewart is liberal, and Colbert plays a conservative idiot for laughs, and obviously John Oliver is liberal, and Bill Maher is so liberal he bleeds blue, why hasn’t there been a conservative fake news show?  There actually was one on Fox for a short while–it totally bombed. It bombed for an exceptionally good reason: because it wasn’t funny.

The real answer, of course, is that conservatives don’t just have a successful fake news show, they have an entire fake news network. CNN is funny because they’re lame; they’re funny in the same way that earnest people taking silly things seriously is always funny.  CNN is funny because CNN covers Justin Bieber the same way it covers ISIS.

Fox is funny in much the same way; that combination of earnestness and triviality is always going to be funny. But add ideology to the mix and the whole thing becomes hilarious. They’re not just earnest people taking trivial issues seriously, they’re also people who always, always have the Right Answer to any question, found in an unswerving allegiance to a specific set of ideas. The federal government: bad. Global warming: non-existent. Corporations: good. Barack Obama: Satan.

But look at they way they repackage classic comedic tropes. Take that Fox standby, the pompous, pontificating elderly authority figure. Polonius, in other words. The fathers in all of Moliere’s comedies. Pantalone in commedia dell’arte. Bill O’Reilly epitomizes the type. Remember, during the Ferguson stand-off, Bill O giving those condescending scoldings to black people? Offensive, sure. But also really really funny, as hubris always is (that is, when its not tragic). And Sean Hannity; isn’t he also a comic type? Eddie Haskell, maybe? Alex Keaton? Obsequious young suck-up?

I mean, why are all the Fox News reporters and co-anchors pretty blondes? I don’t mean to suggest that attractive blonde women can’t read the news, or that they’re universally bad at their jobs. But come on. Isn’t it at least a little funny that a news organization can’t find anyone else to hire? The Stepford Wives jokes aside, is it an accident that Fox’s demographics skew so severely old, white and male? A generation of men who grew up girl-watching? And that, simultaneously, all the news presenters are attractive young women?

I know the response from conservatives. MSNBC has a liberal bias worse than Fox’s conservative bias. Plus, so do CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN. PBS. Fox is a necessary corrective. I’ve heard all the arguments. My point, though, is that Fox is itself basically a fake news organization. They have the trappings of real news–the sets, the graphics, the anchors sitting at a desk, the field reporters–while actually sort of ducking the responsibilities and obligations of actual news reporting. And John Oliver did a real news story–dug for facts, asked tough questions, researched and reported. So what’s news? What counts anymore?

 

When institutions fail

The National Football League is a cultural institution of tremendous impact and power, an immensely profitable financial entity, and a television colossus. It’s also in big trouble. Video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, one of the stars of the league, beating up his then-fiancee (now his wife) in an elevator was so sickening that the league’s long history of sweeping domestic violence allegations by its players under the carpet became untenable. The league’s tone-deaf, contradictory, utterly clue-less reaction to the whole fiasco exacerbated the problem.  Pretty soon, the league didn’t just have a Ray Rice problem; it had a Greg Hardy problem, a Ray McDonald problem, as other players were revealed to have beaten up their wives and girlfriends.  A league superstar, a former Most Valuable Player, Adrian Peterson, was arrested for beating his four-year old with a tree branch.  Football, a sport build on violence, a sport in which speed and aggression and violence are central to its appeal, is the one sport where the public has to know that the players themselves are able to turn it on and turn it off; play hard hitting football, but also able to function as adults in civilized society. The huge majority of players are able to do precisely that, with grace and maturity.  But there have to be consequences for players who aren’t able to.

The one sports publication that seems to have the best handle on this is Bill Simmons otherwise-laddish sports-and-pop-culture site Grantland.com.  While Sports Illustrated and ESPN have proved as behind-the-eight-ball as the NFL offices on the history (with SI‘s senior football writer, Peter King, who I generally like and admire, offering a humiliating apology for not covering this story as he ought to have done), Simmons himself devoted a very long give-and-take mailbag article to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, with Simmons calling repeatedly for Goodell to resign.  Grantland’s top football guy, Bill Barnwell raised the very real possibility that the NFL might cease to exist in the near future. Best of all, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote this chilling, powerful article showing the league’s historical problems with domestic violence, and how the preferred response has always been to ignore the problem, not respond to it at all.  Because they could.  Because football fans didn’t much care.

And that’s the larger point.  Some football players (a tiny minority, to be sure) have always acted violently off the football field as well as on it.  Wives, girlfriends, children, have been beaten up for years. But the league didn’t do anything about it, because nobody in the league offices thought they needed to.  Meanwhile, the world was changing. Public awareness of domestic violence has increased. And more and more women have become football fans.  The league has, in fact, had some success marketing the game to women.

So what you had was an institution run almost entirely by old, rich, white men, comfortably complacent about the game they administered and sold, not really perceiving the occasional bad headline (usually buried on page eight in the sports’ sectIon) as any kind of serious threat to the game, or to the league itself.  Then suddenly the Ray Rice video exploded on the scene, so visceral and brutal and horrifying. And that became a catalyzing incident causing the vague discomfort felt by many fans (probably most fans), over this full-contact sport we liked to watch to expand and explode.  And the league was taken completely by surprise, and the league’s ownership and management seemed to have no idea how to respond.  And so we saw a series of ad hoc decisions, in which players were suspended, then reinstated, then suspended again by someone else.  And everyday we heard a new narrative.  Bill Simmons captured it best:

And that’s my biggest issue with Goodell — it’s not just his tone deafness and his penchant for reacting instead of acting. He’s so freaking calculated. About everything. For eight years, he’s handled his business like some father of a high school kid who’s hosting a prom party, sees some unresponsive drunk kid sprawled across the bathroom floor, then thinks to himself, Crap, I might get sued, what do I do? instead of This kid might be hurt, we have to help him!

Calculated, sure. But also utterly clue-less.  It wasn’t until Anheuser Busch threatened to withdraw their sponsorship of the league that anyone did anything meaningful about Adrian Peterson.  As Jon Stewart put it, this meant that the moral center of the league was a beer manufacturer.  A company that makes a product that can be proved to lead to domestic violence.

But that’s what happens. An organization drifts along, happily (and profitably) complacent. And meanwhile, the world changes. And the organization’s leadership finds itself baffled and confused, capable of only the most ineffectual responses.

It’s like Smith-Corona, making these great typewriters for years, and then suddenly the world changed and nobody wanted a typewriter anymore.  Or Blockbuster video, with a great business model, stores in every town, movie rentals for any occasion.  And then the world changed, and nobody wanted to traipse down an aisle looking for movies to rent anymore.  May I gently suggest that the emergence of Ordain Women might be such a catalyzing incident for the LDS Church?