The Sound of Music, Lady Gaga, and the Oscars

Last night was the annual Academy Awards broadcast, and as always, it was bloated and self-congratulatory and unfunny and often sort of weird. I liked it anyway. I always do. Neil Patrick Harris was a perfectly adequate host, a movie I liked a lot won Best Picture, lots of total strangers shared with the world the happiest moments of their professional careers, while the orchestra rudely played them off the stage, John Travolta seems to have thought that the way to apologize to Idina Menzel was to paw at her face disconcertingly, lots of people wore horrifically unflattering clothing, and Jennifer Lopez’s dress, heroically, managed, barely, to not fall off her. It was an Oscar night. As Bette Midler (bless her) once put it: ‘betcha didn’t think it was possible to overdress for this occasion.’

There were, as always, several musical numbers. Most of them were quite forgettable, but three in particular that stood out. First, the frenetically choreographed number for ‘Everything is Awesome,’ that fabulous song from The Legos Movie. The biggest Oscar travesty of the year is that TLM didn’t even get nominated in its category, Best Animated Feature. It was just too inventive and amazing and fun and funny and smart; can’t have that! Anyway, I liked the number; love Tegan and Sara. Second, I really liked the performance of ‘Glory,’ the song from Selma, John Legend and Common. One of the pre-Oscars’ narratives had to do with that movie, and how its director and star were both snubbed. The song and performance were powerful, as was John Legend’s comments after it won best song.

And then Lady Gaga performed a medley of songs from The Sound of Music. She sang very very well, and then introduced the still-radiant Julie Andrews. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of that film, and apparently it’s being re-released. And I said something rude about it on Facebook. And lots of friends told me, kindly and with great forbearance, that I am an idiot. I probably am. Still, let me explain myself.

The Sound of Music. It’s the most uplifting, triumph of the human spirit, relentlessly upbeat movie ever made. Fresh faced, incandescently talented young Julie Andrews and her mob of well-scrubbed adorable urchins. ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ Grouchy Captain van Trapp healed by the power of True Love. The heroic escape from evil Nazis. ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer.’ All those kindly nuns worrying about how to solve a problem like Maria. ‘The lonely goatherd.’ What kind of grinch wouldn’t like The Sound of Music? The great Pauline Kael was supposedly fired from McCall’s because she gave it a bad review. (Not true; she was fired because she gave every big popular movie a bad review.) Serves her right, you might think. (And apparently, most of my friends do think).

Let me be clear: I don’t think Art has to be a downer. I don’t think that Art shouldn’t be happy, cheerful and uplifting. I have no objection to art that is upbeat and positive. Art can be anything: gloomy, sad, tragic, funny, mean, crushing, and also buoyant, jaunty, merry, fun. I love ‘Anything is Awesome,’ a song so relentlessly cheery it burrows into your brain like a remora into a shark’s hide. I just think that there’s something strange about a movie musical being as upbeat as The Sound of Music when its subject matter is the German annexation of Austria, the Anschluss. I think the shadow of the Holocaust darkened everything about that time and place.  Don’t you think maybe Liesl’s Nazi boyfriend, Rolfe, could sing something a trifle darker than that condescending ‘sixteen going on seventeen’ number?

Other cheerful happy musicals managed it. Take the musical 1776. A fun show about our Founding Fathers and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Charming cute songs. But then there’s the song ‘Molasses to Rum to Slaves.’ The South Carolina delegate, Rutledge (otherwise a minor enough character), sings it, attacking the hypocrisy of the North over the slave trade, pointing out how they benefit from it too. The shadow of slavery darkened those deliberations, and although it’s a fun musical, an upbeat musical, that shadow is given a face and voice and point of view. Or South Pacific, with the song ‘They’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Or the dream ballet in Oklahoma, where Laurie imagines the death of her lover. You can do dark, amidst cheerful.

More to the point, the actual story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers is essentially ignored in the stage musical and film. For example, Maria did not want to marry Georg von Trapp. She wasn’t in love with him, and she really, genuinely wanted to be a nun. She was ordered to marry him by her Mother Superior. She says she went through the entire wedding ceremony seething with resentment towards him, the Church, and God. ‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’til, you, find, your, dream!’ Not so much the case. More like ‘Do what you’re told girl, do as I say, ignore your real feelings, obey, obey, obey, o-bey!’

What bothers me about this isn’t the fictionalizing. I get that in the late fifties-early sixties, you couldn’t have authority figures be wrong. A Mother Superior had to be portrayed as kindly and wise; mainstream audiences of the time wouldn’t stand for any of that commie subversion-of-authority stuff. I get that. No, what bothers me is that the real story is so much better. It’s a much more compelling, honest, powerful, human conflict. By turning truth into uplift, they cheapened the power of actual human experience. Maria was raised an atheist. She was converted by the music of Bach. So include some Bach in the film!  Maria von Trapp became the powerful matriarch of a family choir (and the loving wife of the Captain) through sheer force of will. She made herself strong and independent. You could say that she obeyed, and was rewarded for her obedience. But I see it as the triumph of someone who made the best of terrible circumstances.

Like starting a family choir. Which she did out of sheer necessity. That lovely huge home in Austria where they all live in the movie? They lived in a much smaller house, and took in borders. Captain von Trapp lost his shirt in the great depression. They sang to put food on the table. They were not a wealthy family. And again, that’s a more interesting story. You couldn’t have all that in the early sixties either; fathers were all-wise patriarchs, not spend-thrift ne’er-do-wells.

Nor was Captain von Trapp a distant, brooding father. Nor was Maria a freespirited young woman. She was moody and a strict disciplinarian; he was charming and fun and very close to his children. He liked singing with them, but found the prospect of earning money from their music embarrassing.

They also didn’t sneak off with their musical instruments and suitcases in the middle of the night, hiding in a cemetery so the Nazis wouldn’t catch them. They carefully weighed the offers they got from the Nazis (which were more lucrative than the fees they earned initially in the US), and decided, on balance, it would be better for their kids if they left. They told everyone they were leaving, and left on a train, their papers in order and fares properly paid. And they didn’t sneak off to Switzerland. They went to Italy, and from there, to America, all arranged by their agent. That’s, again, a better story; not fake persecution, but adults, coolly and thoughtfully weighing their options, making the right decision for their kids.

Anyway. I really can’t stand The Sound of Music. It’s nothing but compromises, fake moral uplift, phony conflicts and ludicrous character depictions. And the von Trapps hated it too, especially the portrayal of stern and distant Captain von Trapp.

But there’s the music. Those songs are really famous and really pretty. And Gaga does have an impressive set of pipes. I get why she might want to sing those songs, and I thought Julie Andrews’ appearance last night was lovely. But it grated, it really did. I mean, I get why Elvis Costello made an album with Burt Bacharach. And Lady Gaga has recorded with Tony Bennett. And that’s fine. And Gaga’s career has stalled, and she’s getting married, and wanted, perhaps, to go back to her roots, in musical theatre. Still. It felt tone-deaf, after the Selma song.  It felt like a white girl celebrating whiteness. It felt . . . off. Someone as relentlessly avant-garde and post-modern and intentionally transgressive as Lady Gaga should probably use the Oscars to do, I don’t know, something radically transgressive. It felt like (and I hate this, I genuinely hate this), a sell-out.

And I’m sorry if I offended even more people. I just don’t like that musical very much.

Super Bowl XLIX: A Night of Poor Decisions

At my Super Bowl party last night, the room erupted four times. I mean, erupted, anguished/delighted/horrified shouts of ‘nooooooo!’ We’re generally a sedate bunch, my family and my best friend Wayne; we’re not emotionally volatile, generally speaking. Four times, we went nuts. And only one of those outbursts had anything to do with football.

Here’s how we watch the Super Bowl: we mute the TV during the actual football parts, then turn up the sound for the commercials and the half-time show. Only two of us, me and Wayne, actually like football all that much. My son, Tucker, likes sports, but American football is his least favorite (big soccer fan, though). Other family members are there for the conversation (hence the muting), the commercials, and the theatrical spectacle at half-time.

So when I say ‘we watched The Super Bowl,’ I don’t mean ‘a football game,’ but an entire televisual experience. And when you count the commercials, the evening was almost spectacularly ill-conceived. The themes of the night were dead-or-endangered children, terrible parenting, bad family dynamics, and false religion. Misguided patriotism and patriarchy.  It was a night of bad decisions. The half-time show, quite literally, jumped the shark. And the evening culminated in the worst play call in the history of professional football.

For starters, there was this:

Seriously? Are you kidding me? It’s the Superbowl, for freak’s sake. We’re watching it, on TV, with our families. We don’t want, or need, to see a commercial about a cute kid getting crushed by a TV set. (Unless he drowned in a bathtub. The commercial raises that possibility too).

I get that they’re promoting, not insuring your kid (you know, so you can afford to bury him, because that’s going to be your priority), but their child-safety website. But do they really think that the parents of America are indifferent to the well-being of their kids? And that what we need is a website to give us more things to be paranoid about?

A Superbowl commercial about, say, the dangers of your kid getting a concussion if he plays youth football, that might have seemed sort of borderline appropriate. But Nationwide needs to take whoever in Marketing thought this commercial was a good idea, and kindly, gently, show him the door. You’re Nationwide. You sell insurance. This commercial makes us hate you and your product. You spent 4.5 million dollars to make us hate you.

But that wasn’t all. No indeed. Not by a long-shot:

Okay, it’s a Nissan commercial, and it’s about a race car driver, and he’s trying to be a good Dad, but he’s gone a lot, and what he does for a living essentially terrifies his wife, but his kid wants to follow in Daddy’s footsteps, so at the end, he and Dad get into the family Nissan together. Happy ending.Yay, Nissan. And race car driving.

Except the song in the commercial is Harry Chapin’s ‘Cat’s in the Cradle.’ Which is a song, specifically and explicitly, about being a terrible father. I mean, it’s not subtle. It’s an emotionally manipulative song about a Dad neglecting his kid. I’m a Dad, and every time I hear that song I feel horrible about what a bad Dad I am. And I’m not, I think, a bad Dad at all. Which is why I loathe that song. So that’s the message of the song: ‘Buy a Nissan, suck as a parent.’ Again, it’s a song THAT MAKES US HATE YOU. Which strikes me as perhaps not great advertising. (And it’s ninety seconds long. At a cost of 4.5 million per 30 second spot. Multiply 4.5 by 3, and you’ve got . . . uh, carry the 7, uh, a very large amount of money! To make us hate you! Why?)

Later in the evening, there was a ‘tortoise and hare’ commercial for Lexus cars, in which the tortoise wins by driving a Lexus. The previous commercials had been so horrific, I was honestly surprised when the Lexus didn’t squish the bunny. So those are just swell commercials. But it’s not enough for a commercial to make us hate the product being advertised. It’s quite another thing to make a commercial that makes us hate ourselves:

We’re watching this commercial, remember, during the Super Bowl. We’re having a Super Bowl party. I look over at our family room coffee table; I see nachos, dip, three kinds of cookies, M&Ms, a yummie peanut butter brownie trifle. We’re Americans; we know perfectly well we’re fat, and that we’re fat because we eat garbage. Like, for example, we do at Super Bowl parties. Which we’re at. And where we just now saw an ad for Carl’s Jr. So, all you chubbos, you morbidly obese disgusting pigs. Eat yourself into a stupor, then collapse face first on your sofa. We’re Weightwatchers. We care.

But don’t worry. The Super Bowl didn’t just have secular answers to life’s problems. No, there are spiritual solutions available as well. For one thing, the Scientologists ran a commercial, ’cause, see, their faith is both ‘spiritual’ but also ‘scientific.’ I’m persuaded: sign me up.

But there’s also McDonald’s, abandoning the pursuit of filthy lucre, and paying for your oh-so-healthy food (see previous rant) with Troo Luv:

But, no. That’s just love. And while McDonald’s is convinced, like the Beatles, that love is all we need, something still is lacking. What we really need is a genuine spiritual panacea, a way to end cyber-bullying and hyper-partisanship and bring the whole planet together, once and for all. What’s needed, in short, is for someone to dump a Coke into a computer server.

Of course, the Super Bowl, America’s one universally recognized religious holiday, promotes all sorts of religious values. Like cars. Buy the right car: find eternal bliss. We had cars recommended by old people, cars driven by para-athletes, cars driven by Lindsay Lohan, cars infused with viagra, and for true ‘Murricans, trucks, which, apparently, women find the drivers of particularly sexy.

Beer also bestows us with magical powers. It enables horses to defend their doggie friends from wolves, for example. It turns guys into Pac Man. This must be because of its Beechwood aging. Candy, on the other hand, is bad for you. Skittles can give you freakishly muscular arms, while Snickers can turn mild-mannered Brady family members into Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi.

Ah, the mixed messages. They weren’t all bad. I liked the odd-ball ones; the commercial from Always about empowering young girls, the Loctite Glue commercial, the commercial that came out, strongly and without equivocation, against that national scourge, toenail fungus. Mostly, though, it was a bad year for SB commercials. Terrific football game, awful commercials.

And then Katy Perry came in, singing “Roar” and riding a puppet lion (first appearance of a Lion in a Super Bowl! Sorry, Detroit. . . .). And she was at her effervescent, cartoon-y best. I did think it was odd to have Lenny Kravitz join her for, of all songs, “I kissed a girl” (a song that’s so much less transgressive when sung by a dude). And when you’re Katy Perry, with that thin voice and general dance clumpiness, it’s risky to share the stage with a performer as on-fire as Missy Elliott. But Katy is generous that way, and frankly, I think she’s a doll. I didn’t even mind that she had girls in bathing suits dancing with sharks. I thought her whole set was pop fizziness incarnate; great fun. I could go on and on about the aesthetics of excessiveness; mostly, though, I just enjoyed.

Then back to the football game, and more bad decision-making. Twenty seconds left, second down at the one-foot line, Seattle has Marshawn Lynch, the best short-yardage running back in all of football on their team, with one time-out left in case he didn’t make it. (In fact, on the play before, Lynch darn near did score, and would have except for a brilliant play by Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, which the announcers completely missed). Instead, Seahawks offensive coordinator went with a slant pass to their fifth best receiver. Which an unheralded rookie free agent named Malcolm Butler intercepted, to seal the unlikely Patriots win. A night of bad decisions, ending with an inexcusably terrible play call.

Next year, the Super Bowl will be designated 50. Just that: 50, not L–no more Roman numerals, ever, apparently. I’ve seen, I think, 46 of them. Last night, my family teased me for my overuse of the word ‘orgy.’ The commercials were ‘an orgy of idiocy,’ that kind of thing. But ‘orgy’ works, and not just because of the Romanized numbering. The whole thing’s overblown, overdone, self-indulgent. Katy Perry is too scrubbed-clean to inspire words like ‘orgy,’ but no one can say her half-time show erred on the side of tasteful restraint. The hyper-patriotism, the jets overhead, the fireworks, the obligatory pre-game songs (“America the Beautiful” PLUS the “Star-Spangled Banner” (well-sung, this year, by Adele Dazeem), PLUS the big Carrie Underwood diva number). PLUS a big deal ceremonial for the coin toss. And when it was over, we got Kurt Warner carrying in the Lombarbi trophy like a religious icon, reverently, solemnly; touched, adoringly, by teary-eyed Patriots, with portentous music, like high Mass at Notre Dame. (Better make that St. Peter’s). And then the trophy was handed to Roger Goodell, to present to Robert Kraft. Like, nothing’s official until it’s blessed by rich old white guys. (Who spent this last week sniping at each other, and now had to be freezingly polite: comedy enough).

There’s just nothing funnier on earth than the Super Bowl. Bad taste, bad commerce, bad religion, all rolled into one. Nothing, nothing is funnier.

 

 

The State of the Union

Before last night’s State of the Union address, Vox.com’s Ezra Klein published this piece: “What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest.” If you don’t want to bother with the link above, let me summarize: our politics is sufficiently broken that nothing of consequence can be accomplished, even by intelligent, patriotic men and women of good will. Politics is not like a family and it’s not like a business, both of which have built-in incentives for people to get along and institutions in place for important decisions to get made. Politics is like football. For one side to win, the other must lose. If a pass is thrown, the receiver and the defensive back can’t agree to compromise regarding it; either the ball will be caught (good for the receiver) or it won’t be caught (good for the defender). If John Boehner–who I genuinely do believe to be an intelligent, patriotic and capable man–were to endorse and try to pass every piece of legislation President Obama proposes, the only thing he would accomplish would be to lose his job.

So the State of the Union becomes an exercise in futility, something to which the only really sensible response is that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 81 year-old Supreme Court Justice, who seems to have used it as an excuse for a nap.  Pretty much every time President Obama said anything even remotely consequential, the Democrats in the chamber gave him a standing ovation. And Republicans looked dour. The two guys I feel sorriest for are Boehner and Joe Biden, both of whom have massive acting challenges. I mean, they’re right there, right behind the President, on camera the whole speech. Biden has to look, alternately, seriously contemplative and utterly delighted. And Boehner has to look pensive and a bit incredulous. (Mostly he just looked dyspeptic.)

Of course, for the most part, the President gets to talk about how well the country is doing right now (quite well, actually, for a change), and propose lots of first-rate policies that could make things even better, none of which will ever get enacted. And of course, all the language has been carefully tested: the new phrase du jour seems to be ‘middle-class economics.’ But then the President shifted into a different gear for the last quarter of his speech:

You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America, but a United States of America. . .  Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.

I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.

I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best. I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates from New York to California; and our newest officers at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and New London. I’ve mourned with grieving families in Tucson and Newtown; in Boston, West, Texas, and West Virginia. I’ve watched Americans beat back adversity from the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains; from Midwest assembly lines to the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.

So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.

Understand — a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.

A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.

That’s a longish chunk, and I’m sorry about that, but I think it deserves to be quoted at length. Because I go back to that Ezra Klein article on Vox, and I think he’s right in his cynicism, but I also think President Obama is right in his optimism. Because Klein is describing our nation right now. And the President is describing our nation as it can become.

One thing that I like about this President (and you all know that I have been very critical of him too), is that he has often taken a longer view than current political arguments would allow. Take, for example, Obamacare. The ACA is a flawed piece of legislation. It’s not as bad as some Republicans make it out to be, and it’s not as great as some Democrats seem to think it is in defending it. It’s flawed. But is that really important? Isn’t it more important to establish, as a principle, the idea that everyone in America, rich or poor, should have access to competent, affordable health care? I also watched Joni Ernst’s Republican response to Obama’s SOTU, and I noticed that when she talked about Obamacare, she talked about ‘repeal and replace.’ Now, in fact, I don’t think Republicans will be able to repeal it, and I don’t think they have a sensible program they could replace it with, but that doesn’t matter. ‘Repeal and replace’ is the language they’ve adopted. They have come to accept that expanding health care access is here to stay, that the American people won’t go along with efforts to take it away. Eventually, the ACA will be improved and expanded. It may take twenty years, but it’s inevitable. Long-term, Obama’s vision will prevail.

Right now, yes, our politics is hopelessly partisan and ineffective and inefficient and broken. But it’s not going to stay that way. President Obama talked about expanding access to higher education, proposing that the federal government pay community college tuition for Americans who meet certain criteria. That won’t happen in this term of Congress. But the idea is inevitable; eventually, we’ll figure out that asking young people to bankrupt themselves to attend college is bad public policy. The President talked about raising the minimum wage. Well, that’s happening state by state, and sooner or later, people are going to notice that states with higher minimum wages also have faster growing economies and hiring rates. The minimum wage is going up. The President talked about immigration reform. And right now, that’s a tremendously contentious issue, and it’s unlikely much will come of it legislatively. But long-term, a solution is inevitable. American nativism is a constant in our history, but history also tells us that it never wins.

When the President first talked about the ACA, the metaphor used by Republicans was that of a camel sticking his nose in the tent in a sandstorm. Obamacare was that camel’s nose, and if we’re not careful, that camel’s taking over the tent. (Conservatives love slippery slope (or camel-tent-takeover) imagery). And so I’m saying, well, yeah, that camel’s nose is in the tent, and also his mouth and ears. With, I suspect, more to come. But you can’t cross a desert without a camel.

Poor Joni Ernst’s response talk was Primary President sincere. She was battling bad optics, (what was behind her–flags, a shuttered window, bathroom tiles?) and she didn’t know what to do with her hands, but she did fine. But her talk seemed so . . . mundane. Puny. She talked about the Keystone XL pipeline, and the ‘thousands of new jobs’ it will create. Well, that’s a contentious partisan issue right now, so she weighed in, but it doesn’t matter; there are lots of pipelines between the US and Canada; it’s just that this one became politicized. The real issue is alternative fuel, the real fight is against greenhouse gasses, the real battle is over climate change. Accepting that is inevitable.

Liberals are right to want change; conservatives are right to resist it happening too rapidly. Liberals say ‘let’s try this!’ and conservatives respond, quite properly, ‘are we sure we know what we’re doing?’  Our ship of state needs both port and starboard crews, all hands on deck. Right now, America has a functioning economy that doesn’t serve all its citizens, and a completely non-functioning politics that doesn’t serve anyone at all.  President Obama, optimistic as always, thinks we can do better. I think so too.

 

On global warming

I just read a very good book, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. It’s exceptionally well researched, compelling in its argument and in the evidence it musters to support that argument. It’s passionately and persuasively written.  It’s also completely bonkers. Which is why I’m a really bad liberal.

Whenever my Dad comes to visit, he and my daughter engage in a debate over climate change. She is convinced, as am I, that climate change is a real phenomenon, caused by the behavior of human beings in an industrialized world, that the release of carbon gases into the atmosphere could have serious consequences for people and cultures all over the planet. My father does not trust those scientists who have reached those conclusions, nor is he troubled by the consensus most such scientists have reached, nor by the peer reviewed literature summarizing their research. He thinks they’re alarmists. I think he’s wrong. I would rather that he were right. Here’s why:

Okay, that clip is from The Newsroom, and its an odd segment in an excessively weird episode. It’s also pretty funny, especially all the reaction shots in the control room. I love the moment when Will (the anchor) lists various steps that might reduce the likelihood of continued climate devastation, and the scientist’s response is ‘that would have been great!’ Twenty years ago. It’s quite possible that Aaron Sorkin (the writer of this show) might be right. I would rather that he weren’t.

So, Naomi Klein. And her book argues that the science of climate change should be greeted as terrific news. It gives us the opportunity, she argues, to completely re-order our society. More mass transit; fewer (or no) automobiles. More apartments, fewer (or no) suburban homes. Greatly restricted air travel. We can develop a greater sense of community and interdependence, she argues. We can walk more, or bicycle. Stop burning coal (and destroying mountains looking for it). Stop fracking (and pumping dangerous chemicals into groundwater). Stop, above all, corporatization and neo-liberal economics. If you want a good summation of her arguments, read this excellent review.

Here’s why I call the book ‘bonkers,’ and also why I’m a terrible liberal: it’s never going to happen. Human beings are not capable of remaking society in the ways she describes. Human beings have created political institutions that will block any effort to institute these sorts of changes. We like our cars, we like air travel, we like crappy food and we like doing our Christmas shopping on-line, requiring UPS trucks to drive all day playing Santa.

I tend to think that future generations will come to regard Naomi Klein as prophetic, and that episode of Newsroom as prescient. I think it’s very likely that I, an old white guy, am leaving my children and grandchildren a much diminished planet. I think the early bits of Interstellar may well be regarded as hopelessly naive and optimistic, assuming there’s anyone around to watch movies in the future.

Or maybe climate scientists really are all wrong about this stuff and maybe the situation isn’t actually dire. I hope so. Gosh, that would be great.

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.

 

Two kinds of crazy

Anita Sarkeesian is a well known and well respected feminist scholar and critic.  Here’s her Wikipedia page. She specializes in studying how women are portrayed in various kinds of popular media, and especially in video games. She’s perhaps best known for a video series on Youtube, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Check it out. It’s great stuff, matter-of-fact, sensible, well researched.

She was invited to speak at Utah State University on Wednesday this past week. On Monday, though, a death threat was sent via email to university officials. The threat was specific and terrifying. I’m not going to quote it here, but it called Sarkeesian “everything wrong with the feminist woman,” and threatened not only her, but anyone who attended her lecture. Its author claimed to have pipe bombs, pistols and semi-automatic weapons. The email also referred to Marc Lepine, a gunman who murdered fourteen women in Canada in 1989.

I can’t begin to describe how incredibly troubling all this is. Sarkeesian’s videos are sensible, intelligent, informed, sort of fun, not terribly ideological. They do make the entirely reasonable point that women are objectified in video games. This is so obviously true, I can’t imagine it being a point of contention. Apparently there are men who feel terribly threatened–emasculated even–by feminism. Apparently lots of those men are also gamers. Who knew?

But as I researched this stuff, the misogyny embedded in so many video game texts, the ferocity of the rhetoric in so much of the so-called ‘men’s movement,’ I became completely disheartened. I wanted to post this yesterday, and couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I don’t want to research gamergate. I don’t even know what MRM stands for, aside from Men’s Right’s Movement. I read the MRM Wikipedia page, and found the MRM arguments incomprehensible.  I don’t want to follow the Red Pill subreddit. (I’m not even going to link to it. It’s on reddit, it’s not hard to find. I refuse to drive traffic there). I spent twenty minutes on Red Pill yesterday, and felt like I needed a shower.  I am a man, proud of being a man, proud to be male, fulfilled in my marriage and edified by the friendships and professional relationships with women I have always enjoyed. I’m a feminist, and proud of it. I don’t get this anti-women nonsense.

And death threats? Seriously, death threats?

And then came a (to be fair) entirely inadvertent interaction with a second group of crazy people.

And this gets tricky, because I have family members who are gun owners and gun defenders and I don’t want to call people I love ‘crazy.’

But here’s what went down. Sarkeesian was still willing to give her lecture on Wednesday. She just wanted to be safe while doing it. Perfectly reasonable. She wanted back packs checked at the door; Utah State made plans to do that. She also wanted personal firearms banned, except, of course, for cops providing security.  And Utah State couldn’t do it. State law allows concealed weapon permit owners to carry their firearms anywhere, to school, on a college campus. To search backpacks and confiscate (or ban) firearms is a violation of Utah law. And apparently a number of Utah State students do have concealed weapon permits, and could therefore have attended Sarkeesian’s lecture armed. Read about it here.

Argument A: This is a prominent speaker, speaking at the university’s invitation. The threat made against her was very specific and detailed. Surely the university had an obligation to take reasonable precautions to protect her safety. And the presence of concealed weapons by students licensed to carry certainly made her feel less safe, and probably actually made her less safe. If, heaven forbid, the guy who issued the threat had in fact shown up and started shooting, a bunch of untrained people waving their guns around and firing wildly would escalate the situation exponentially. The training received by concealed weapons’ holders is risibly ineffectual. Utah is the only state in the country with guns laws that idiotic. As Sarkeesian put it: “It’s sort of mindboggling to me that they couldn’t take efforts to make sure there were no guns in an auditorium that was threatened with guns and a mass shooting.  I don’t understand how they could be so cut and dried about it.”  She’s right. I don’t get it either. And I would certainly have cancelled my appearance, just as she did.

Argument B: Nobody at the university took the threat lightly. Everybody agreed that her safety needed to be protected, as well as the safety of other lecture attendees. But the University had no choice but to follow state law.  And concealed weapon permit holders are not the problem. Indeed, they’re potentially part of the solution to the overall problem of on-campus violence. It’s completely unfair to stigmatize law-abiding citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights. Nobody wants to be called a ‘nut’, and adding the word ‘gun’ to the front of it makes things worse. Concealed weapon permit holders have a track record of responsible gun ownership and use. “Right to bear arms”, y’all.  It’s entirely possible that women, attending the lecture, may well consider themselves feminists, and may find gun ownership completely compatible with their feminism.It’s possible that if the guy had shown up, and started firing, an armed woman may have been the one to put him down. Another kick-ass, armed feminist. They do exist, and if we’re feminists, we should embrace them too. Feminism needn’t be wimpy. Guns protect women too.

I’m an Argument A guy. I do understand Argument B. They both exist, and they both have many followers. Let’s acknowledge that, at least.

Sarkeesian cancelled her lecture because she was afraid of getting caught in a cross-fire. I would be too. I think that’s an entirely reasonable fear. She was, it seems, more afraid of the cross-fire than of the guy who threatened her. I totally get that. I don’t get the gun thing. I have never understood it. I don’t want to own one, and I never have. We didn’t let our kids play in their friends’ homes if they owned guns. I think that was a reasonable stance for us to take. And I feel completely safe unarmed.

But I’m also directing a play right now, and we have lots of guns on-stage. We have a props table with maybe twenty guns on it. The cast spends most of the show waving their guns around, and at one point, they use the guns to shoot a whole bunch of zombies. Now, the guns we’re using don’t actually work. Our ‘shooting’ is a sound effect. The guns are mostly plastic. They’re completely harmless. But oh my gosh are they cool. And our actors enjoy using them.

I haven’t talked to the cast about their personal gun politics. None of my business. But I do get this about guns: they’re cool. On TV, in movies, guns are awesome.

Now, this makes me think that concealed weapon permit holders are living out movie-driven fantasies. I’m still resolutely anti-gun. But I went to rehearsal last night, and saw that our props people had created this massive machine gun, and it was the coolest prop ever, and my reaction, when I saw the thing, was a heartfelt ‘awesome!’  And then I asked the actress who uses it to stop pointing it at my head. (Not that it actually worked. It’s a toy, basically). And our show is about zombies, a popular video-game trope.  So where does fantasy end, where does reality begin, where does sexism or violence in video games lead to sexist or violent behavior in the real world, where do internet, chat room fantasies play themselves out in real life?

I don’t know. I like Anita Sarkeesian, enjoy her video series, and wish I could have heard her lecture. She seems like my kind of people. And I’m unapologetically feminist, and don’t get MRM at all.  And I desperately hope they catch the guy, Sarkeesian’s threatener, before he acts out his fantasies. And . . . I think that machine gun is wicked awesome.  So it’s all maybe at least a little bit complicated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

Gay mormons: two opportunities for conversation

When I was a kid, every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Fourth of July, we’d have a big family dinner, and, in addition to my folks and my brothers, we’d invite another man, Mr. Carl Fuerstner.  He was a musician friend of my Dad’s; a brilliant pianist, an accompanist and coach.  Whenever my Dad had a new opera role to learn, he’d call on Mr. Fuerstner to help him with it.  Mr. Fuerstner was short, balding, and very German, with a thick accent and abrupt manner.  He had small hands and short, stubby fingers, I remember, which amazed me because he was such an amazing pianist.  I would watch him and wonder at how he could move his fingers so quickly.  Anyway, I grew up thinking of Mr. Fuerstner as a kind of bad-tempered, generous, funny, Teutonic uncle.

He was also really bad at things like keeping up his house and lawn and car.  His car was always a wreck, and he never mowed his lawn.  He’d call my brother and I, and we’d get the gig of mowing it, but he waited until it was essentially a hay field, and took forever to mow properly.  But he did pay pretty well, as I recall.  It was just part of who he was; a brilliant musician, with a big lawn he never mowed.

And Mr. Fuerstner was also gay.  And we also knew that about him, that he was Dad’s gay musician friend.  He always had a guy living in his house with him (usually a much younger guy, and never anyone with lawn care skills), and that was also just part of who he was.  We didn’t think anything of it.  Mr. Fuerstner was German, a great pianist, bad at lawnmowing, and gay.

So when I was in high school, and my friends would engage in the thoughtless, routine homophobia of insecure adolescents in the mid-1970s, I was always pretty puzzled by their vehemence.  Gay people=Mr. Fuerstner.  A harmless old German guy.  Not a threat to anyone or anything.

I’m a Mormon, and for a long time, that same reflexive homophobia I remembered from high school has been part of mainstream Mormon culture.  I remember the seminary lessons: San Francisco was the latter-day Sodom, and God had only refrained from destroying it because of a handful of righteous Mormons.  That kind of nonsense. And I’ve also seen Mormon culture change, at least some, to, at least, a recognition that sexual orientation isn’t something people choose.  And I think that the change of attitudes we’re seeing is, in part, because more Mormons know more gay people.  If you’re a Mormon, and someone you love dearly is gay, it’s harder to cling to attitudes filled with hatred.

Dialogue’s a good thing.  Talking to people, in a respectful, non-judgmental way, is a good thing.  So I want to tell you about two opportunities to engage with a dialogue about and between Mormons and the LGTB community.

The first is a film, a documentary: Far Between. It’s being made by my friends Kendall Wilcox and Bianca Morrison Dillard, and it’s full of wonderful interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  Please check out their website.  They’re trying to raise money to finish the film via a Kickstarter campaign, and are close to making their goal.  From what I’ve seen of the film, it’s wonderful, honest and real and decent.  Please, if you can support Kendall and Bianca, there’s a link. Help them change the conversation.

At the heart of Kendall and Bianca’s film are interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  That’s also at the heart of Ben Abbott’s wonderful play Questions of the Heart.  I’d like to be able to say that Ben is a good friend of mine, or that I’ve seen his play and thought it was wonderful.  In fact, though, we’ve never met (except on Facebook), and I haven’t seen his play.  So why am I recommending it, why am I calling it ‘wonderful’?  Because many many many mutual friends, people I trust, have seen it, and not a single one hasn’t found it wonderful.  When an old friend from Indiana (and a person of taste, education, intelligence and sophistication) calls me out of the blue and talks for forty-five minutes about how great this play is that she just saw, I take that seriously.

Ben’s play, like Kendall and Bianca’s documentary, is built on a foundation of interviews.  Ben’s approach strikes me as similar to that of Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright/actress/activist who used interviews to create such marvelous works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In the latter play, she interviewed various people involved in the Rodney King riots, and created a play around those interviews, playing all the various characters herself.  (West Wing fans probably remember Smith best for her role as Nancy McNally, President Bartlett’s National Security Advisor).  Anyway, Ben does that too; plays the Interviewer, and then each of the characters.

Ben Abbott is touring Questions of the Heart this fall.  Here’s his website. He’s starting the tour in Laramie, Wyoming, but you can see from the itinerary where else he’s playing.  So far, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a Utah performance, but maybe we can find a date and venue for him here.

I applaud Kendall and Bianca, and I applaud Ben.  I think both of these projects are tremendous, and well worth supporting.  Anything that can advance this important conversation is worth doing.  I hope you can join me in giving your support to both.