indie rock the news

June 30, 2009

This is a song I recorded today called “indie rock the news,” which is obv. the indie rock version of Auto-Tune the News.  I don’t know how nobody has thought of this joke before.  I was just reading the news today and it was depressing and I was like, “Oh man,” and then the song was written, basically.  Unlike hip hop, which is allowed to be topical and ephemeral (i.e. “mixtapes” and “ringtones”), indie rock should be “authentic” and “express things” so that’s what I tried to do with this song, srsly.  I would have made a funny video like that Auto-Tune guy but making funny videos is a lot of work and I already made you guys the song and stuff, so maybe you can like just imagine in your mind what the news looks like while you listen to the song and that will make it more funny and entertaining and etc.  Maybe you can do some DSOTM/Wizard of Oz kind of thing with the CNN Youtube page, whatever, I don’t know, are you bored yet?

indie rock the news (2:30)

(update: the bass was way too loud on the first mix, sorry)

planet hollywood

June 29, 2009

I don’t really understand about aquariums and I never have.  I was swimming in the ocean today and there were a lot of things to look at and I did look at the things, since looking is what I do and things are what I do it with.  The ocean is clear here, clear enough that if it’s a sunny day you can see your individual toenails even when you’re chest deep, can distinguish toe from nail from ocean floor as well as see clearly and in great detail all the various shells, weeds, and tiny creatures that are bountiful and plenty all around.  Waves are nonexistent in most weather patterns; light shimmers in the pockets of ripples; gulls land on the skin of the water and then take off again, fishless.  On weekend afternoons, single-engine planes strafe the coast trailing screen-printed bottles of Patrón and strings of black text which read “PLAY LOTTO WIN A MILLION” and “2NITE AT MANSION: LLOYD.” Girls in bikinis turn striped towels in line with the sun; women in straw hats chase children and apply lotion to their wet backs.  Illicit dogs draw occasional citations but mostly envy; from a distance, jet skis sound like photocopiers, slicing through sheets of surf.  This afternoon, a helicopter flew right over my head from the south and a man sitting in the open door looked down at me looking up at him; he was wearing a helmet with a microphone and some kind of uniform but I couldn’t tell what kind.  Later, swimming along a stretch of beach where there is no public access and so there is often no public, I noticed a group of teenage girls in the water maybe a hundred feet ahead of me, eight or nine of them giggling and splashing in a ring of froth and chatter.  As I swam farther, a matching group of teenage boys on the shore began yelling at the girls, all of them jumping up and down at the edge of the water and waving their arms, screaming, “Shark! Get outta there! Shark! Come here!”  The girls twisted and shouted momentarily and then made for the shore and fast, breaststroking and dogpaddling through the shallows and into the waiting arms of their sunbaked almost Romeos.  The sexes reunited, I continued to swim the same line I had been swimming, up the coast in the direction of the supposed shark, personally thinking that the boys were likely lying about the shark and just wanted to see the girls rising out of the water in their dripping swimsuits but not particularly worried about the off chance that they were actually telling the truth its existence, maybe even a little excited by the prospect, to be honest.

When I’m swimming in the ocean and looking at things, I also think about things, or at least that’s what I think I’m doing.  Sometimes I think about things I’m writing, like this paragraph, and sometimes I think about things I have to do later in the day, like go to the grocery store, and sometimes I think about precious and dear memories, like sitting outside a brick building with a girl at dusk, but most often I think about being attacked by a shark and what the ensuing media narrative would be like if I were attacked by a shark.  Not killed, of course, not even maimed, no facial scars or complex internal injuries, god no, but I often think that I would probably sacrifice a hand or foot to go on the Today Show as a shark attack victim.  I would really prefer to lose a foot, since I would hate to not be able to play the guitar or touch type and even though I’m also a runner, I think I could still run fairly agreeably with a bionic foot; you see people on television doing such things all the time, we have the technology.  I imagine myself as a shark attack victim on the Today Show, me and Matt Lauer at the top of the hour, the first segment, me sitting on the couch opposite him and looking handsome and brave in a sharply cut suit with the rounded end of my missing hand or foot displayed in a prominent position for the camera, perhaps resting on some kind of clear glass stand.  I think about all the possible postures I could play out in my interview and how they would affect the trajectory of my newfound fame — would I go all hemped-out and born-again beach bum, espousing cosmic love for the shark that had bitten me and angling for a Travel Channel series in which I visited various tropical locales, sampled exotic delicacies, and played whispery nylon string ballads amid the local flora and fauna?  Maybe instead I would take the media critique angle, stopping Matt in the middle of an innocuous question about my pain to deliver an explosive Network style monologue about the fear mongering of “the media” and how rare shark attacks actually are and how there is more important news for everyone to be covering, dammit.  This would, of course, not be a genuine reaction but simply a way to change my narrative from victim to attacker, to give myself the kind of agency that gets you an agent.  Could I express a religious conversion, a water-logged version of the “cross in the dirt story,” some sandy Solzenhenitzen?  Or maybe something more salty and Hemingwayesque?  Perhaps instead I would go with performance art:  Today could do a location shoot at MOMA where I would shatter The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living with a sledgehammer or pickaxe, the clear liquid and shards of broken glass running all over the gallery floor, the shark deflated like a plastic pool toy.  Maybe I would be genuinely traumatized by my injury, waking up at odd hours after having seen in dreams the dark shape of the shark coming near, and maybe because of this genuine trauma when I was on the Today show I would just give the same dull, sad interview that most victims appearing on television talk shows do, the interview that they don’t in fact give but instead receive, but this is an unpleasant fantasy for me to think of and I don’t allow myself to think of it and if I do think of it, I just open my eyes and look at the various things in and around the ocean until my brain is as empty and clear as the blue sky above.

I don’t understand about aquariums, though.  I like looking at things in the ocean but that’s because I’m in the ocean to swim, I’m already there; I don’t go to the ocean for the looking at things, it’s a bonus, value-added.  I understand aquariums as a place to take bored or fussy children, I guess, since if a child is bored or fussy you move it around to different settings in order to make it less bored or fussy, that is parenting, I understand that, but what contemporary grown adult person chooses to visit an aquarium of his or her own volition?  I can’t imagine such a person.  Even children these days seem to be weaned on screens sufficiently enough that some of their requisite changes of setting might be better achieved as virtual trips rather than actual ones.  To me, aquariums are completely irrelevant in the age of large screen high definition televisions and Blu-Ray players.  What do you do at an aquarium?  You look at things through glass.  You walk around on carpet with other people through a darkened space and you stare through different panes of thick glass at different things floating around in blue water, things which are alive and which sometimes do amusing things for your enjoyment and other times just float there being themselves and not entertaining you in any particular way.  Sometimes the things come close to the glass, making it easy to look at them, and other times the things swim away, making it hard to look at them.  If the things do amusing things or if they come close to the glass, sometimes people take pictures of the things and their camera flashes echo off the glass through the dark room and bounce into your eyes, making it hard to look at the things.  There are often rules posted against this but people are too busy looking at things in water through glass to read them.  Stray children run about the carpet, squealing, and sometimes there are corn dogs and sometimes there are ice creams in the shape of a whale and often there is vomit.  That’s basically the experience as I know it.  I don’t understand about aquariums, I really don’t.  In this day and age?  What I think is someone should take a top of the line HD camera package and a good lighting rig and go around getting video of all the very best fish in all of the very best aquariums all around the world, putting the big lens of the camera right up against the panes of glass and shooting things through them at a high frame rate.  This way, people could buy the DVDs and have the experience of the aquarium from the comfort of their own homes.  If the people have multiple televisions in their homes, they could even put different discs from the set in each television and walk their children through the dark house in sock feet to visit all the fish in their individual wide screen habitats.  What would the difference be?  What would be lost?   Aquariums aren’t like roller coasters or other amusement rides, which are about wind and force and noise and so would lose a certain something in DVD form, and they aren’t like museums, where the focus is always on learning and facts and edification — aquariums are about looking at things through glass, just like television.  There has never been a more realistic computer screensaver than the aquarium.  What could be lost in the process of digitization?  I think the films would actually be an improvement over real aquariums, where the lighting is often awful and the fish aren’t even color corrected.

I understand that my beliefs about aquariums are atypical, which there’s a medical excuse for, maybe.  Since I was born, I’ve had problems with my left eye, problems with looking at things through it; it’s a lazy eye, is what you call it.  I’ve worn glasses as long as I can remember, always looking at things through glass my whole life, but by the time I was walking and talking, a doctor proposed patching as a possible remedy for my problem.  The idea was for me to wear a patch over my strong right eye for extended periods, making it so I could only look at things through my lazy left eye.  By not looking at things through my strong eye, the idea was, I would make my lazy eye less lazy, as if all the looking would convince my eye that there really were things in the world worth working hard enough to see.  I didn’t wear a black pirate’s patch with a strap as you might imagine; instead, disposable flesh colored stickers were adhered to my face every morning.  On each day’s patch, my father would draw an image of an eye — often realistic and painterly, occasionally abstract, in pencil or ink or magic marker.  The representations of good eyes stuck over my bad eye didn’t make seeing any easier but they did make being seen somewhat less traumatic.  In terms of improving my vision, though, the patch experiment was a spectacular waste of time and energy and self consciousness and to this day I can’t see particularly well out of my left eye and live in constant subconscious fear of anything ever happening to the right one that would prevent me from looking at things in the future.  The fact that my lazy eye doesn’t see well, has, I think, predisposed me to privilege the image over the actual in some fundamental ways.  My lazy eye and its marriage to my good eye means that my depth perception is hazy and I have some trouble gauging where exactly things are in space.  This is not drastic or life-affecting and mostly manifests itself in me bumping into things.  When the space is not actually space, however, but is a simulation, a representation of space contained in a flat plane, like a screen of glass or a piece of paper, I have no problem perceiving it perfectly.  When I was trying to learn to drive, I (literally) hit the broad side of our house with a station wagon but later in life I was able to destroy anyone at Mario Kart even through multiple layers of intoxication and with my glasses off.  The only other thing I really missed out on because of my eye’s laziness, besides the ability to catch small balls, were those paper and cellophane 3D glasses given out for special comic books and movies.  It may seem stupid, but that was so crushing as a child, the idea that the magic glasses that worked for everyone else to make images real wouldn’t work for me, that I couldn’t see the world in 3D.  When I put them on, all I saw was one color.

I realized the other day that I haven’t really been in an art museum since I was in the seventh grade.  In college, I went to openings at galleries and group shows and parties where there were objets d’art sloppily tacked to the walls and et cetera but everyone knows those sort of things aren’t about art for anyone except the artists or people who have no one attractive to talk to at the moment.  I’m a person who’s read The Tradition Of The New and On Photography and who at one point or another wrote on 3X5 index cards the artist, date, style, and medium of seemingly every masterwork from Lascaux to Lichtenstein, who knows Manet from Monet, so to speak, but I haven’t been to an art museum in the daytime for learning and edification and looking at things since I was in the seventh grade.  This is not a thing I did on purpose, like last year when I realized I hadn’t ever been in a Starbucks and so stubbornly stood outside in the cold while the people I was hanging out with bought hot and elaborate coffees that smelled like love; I just haven’t felt the need to go, I guess.  Susan once talked about the necessity of an erotics of art and I thought it was sexy when she said it, or at least when I read it, late at night in a worn, borrowed library book, but I guess I’ve always been pleased enough by the pornographics of art, reproductions printed in miniature on glossy pages in thick books or projected giant size on screens in dark classrooms, images of images and representations of representations.  When I was in the seventh grade, we took a class trip to Washington DC and my visited, among other locations ,the National Gallery.  I think I saw a Van Gogh there, sunflowers or stars, I’m not sure, we didn’t stay long and mostly went for the gift shop, to buy postcards of Old Masters.  The only thing I really remember from the trip is eating lunch at Planet Hollywood, having a big cheeseburger there at a round table in the midst of the memorabilia, all the famous things to look at while I ate.

Last night there was a thunderstorm over the ocean and the dog came into my room around midnight, looking for me.  I was in bed, looking at a book.  The dog is supposed to sleep in the living room, on an improvised bed made from an ottoman cushion and a leopard print blanket which sits next to the entertainment center.  She does this most nights but when there’s a thunderstorm, things change.  This is because the dog is afraid of thunderstorms.  The last dog we had wasn’t afraid of thunderstorms, but this one, who looks almost exactly the same as the last dog we had, is afraid of thunderstorms.  Appearances can be deceiving.  When there’s a thunderstorm, the dog nuzzles open my door and comes to my bed, hooking the crook of her neck over its edge so that her entire head rests on my fitted sheet.  Her eyes look up at me, begging.  I don’t let the dog in my bed because I think boundaries are important and also she smells.   When the dog first started begging in thunderstorms, I would rub her head for a minute and then, whispering in a soft tone, would walk her back out to the living room to sleep.  This didn’t work, though, and this is because the dog is afraid of thunderstorms and so by the next crash of thunder, before I could even get settled again, the dog would be back at my bed, hooked, begging.  This was annoying because I’ve always liked falling asleep to the sound of storms at night; I never dream better than when it’s terrible outside.  When I was a child, my parents had tapes of sounds from around the world on top of the boombox in their bedroom.  They had a tape that sounded like the rainforest and they had a tape that sounded like the ocean and they had a tape that sounded like a thunderstorm.  The tapes were designed to help my parents sleep by replacing the sounds of the actual world with the sounds of virtual worlds that were more peaceful and serene, more natural, places where things did not honk or slam or clatter.  The tapes didn’t work for my parents but sometimes my brother and I would use them as aids to play, to better create the illusion that we were in the rainforest or the ocean or a thunderstorm, fighting some imagined evil.  The dog is afraid of the sound of thunderstorms so the tape wouldn’t work for her, of course, it would be virtual torture, except as a dog she doesn’t understand distinctions between the virtual and actual, so it would just be torture, plain and simple.  One night, half-dreaming, I thought about making her a tape of the sounds of the average evening, the muffled tones of television hosts and forks scraping against plates and pages turning and occasional laughter, a recording of domestic calm that could mask thunderstorms in its veil, but I don’t think my microphones and speakers can capture and reproduce the right frequencies to soothe her adequately.  Perhaps earmuffs would work better, but my dog doesn’t like wearing clothes, as is natural.  Sometimes I think it would be nice to be my dog, to just be able to look at things without thinking about them so much or trying to understand them or writing a long essay about them, but then I realize that I would also have to be afraid of thunderstorms, which would be horrible, so I guess it’s kind of a trade-off.  Last night, as is now procedure, I dragged the dog’s bed from the living room down the corridor to my bedroom, stray hairs shooting off the cushion like sparks from a broken muffler.  After settling her down and telling her that everything was going to be okay, I turned off my lamp and closed the two layers of thick curtains around the windows, the curtains that I always otherwise leave open.  I closed them so that the dog wouldn’t be able to look at the lightning strikes or connect them in her mind to the crashes of thunder that she was hearing, in order to shield her from the sights since I couldn’t stop the sounds.  In the dark, there was nothing to look at so I went to sleep.


June 22, 2009

I watched the movie Armageddon on TV the other night and I cried twice.  I hadn’t seen the movie Armageddon since it came out and didn’t have much of a desire to ever see it again, even though I’ve seen one of Michael Bay’s other movies, The Rock, about ten times and will almost always turn to it when it’s airing on cable, which is almost always.  There was nothing on TV the other night, though, not The Rock or even something starring the Rock.  My dad and I had been watching Olbermann for lack of anything else but we weren’t even really watching it, it was just “on,” and Olbermann was ranting about the bitchy e-mails of some congressional staffer and boring me and so I flipped over to Armageddon, since I figured if there wasn’t something exploding when I landed on Armageddon, something would probably explode within about thirty seconds or so after that and I wanted to see something explode.  I was that kind of bored the other night, the kind of bored where you want to see things explode.  The first time I saw the movie Armageddon, I saw it in a movie theater, which is of course because of technical reasons the best place to see things explode, the loudness of the speakers and the largeness of the screen more realistically representing what an explosion feels like than the average television set, or at least I assume so, having never actually felt an actual explosion in real life myself.  I only expected to watch Armageddon for a couple of minutes before changing the channel back to the live feed of the news of the world, but instead I stayed on the channel the whole time until the movie ended and I cried, twice.

The first part of the movie Armageddon that made me cry is the part that’s supposed to make you cry, that is calibrated with ball bearings and string sections and focus groups to make you cry, which is the part when Bruce Willis’s character heroically sacrifices himself to save not only his son-in-law-to-be and the rest of the ragtag band of outsiders who he calls friends but the whole human race, really, the part when he stays on the runaway asteroid about to collide with the Earth in order to deliver a lengthy and maudlin monologue via satellite to his daughter Liv Tyler and then trigger the nuclear device which will destroy the asteroid and save humanity and allow the triumphant Aerosmith song to be played.  The first time I cried was at some point during the lengthy and maudlin monologue delivered via satellite to Liv Tyler, which, again, I would be worried about myself if I didn’t cry then, since not crying in the face of such a masterful onslaught of mise-en-scène would mean that there was something wrong with my nervous system or tear ducts, like if a doctor hit your knee with that little hammer and you didn’t kick.

The second part of the movie Armageddon that made me cry, the part that really did it, was the part just after Bruce Willis triggers the nuclear device that destroys the asteroid and saves humanity.  When the nuclear device explodes, we first see it from space, this massive and perfectly geometric shock wave of blue light blooming out across the black screen in a slow motion, low frequency whoosh, so beautiful, a sublime image of destruction.  After this explosion, there’s a triumphant montage of crowds of people in locations all around the world witnessing the explosion and cheering on this explosion in the heavens that just in the nick of time has saved them and the rest of humanity from doom.  At the Taj Mahal, thousands of people see the light screaming across the sky and they jump up from the ground and cheer, all of them in perfect sync like in a Bollywood musical directed by Leni Riefenstahl.  In some vague Eastern European setting, a bearded man in an ancient doorway smiles up at the stratosphere as he explains to the adorably disheveled children around him what’s happened and how they’re all safe now, how it’s going to be okay.  Fresh-faced boys in tiny suits in a nondescript British or Irish glen point towards the clouds, excited; children in a sepia-toned rural America coast through dusty streets in pushcars painted like space shuttles while crowds of folks in their Sunday best stream out of a small church into the sunlight, smiling. One of the last shots in the montage is of a mosque in Turkey, where, as the camera slowly and reverently pushes inside, we see a great mass of worshipers cheering up through the open roof of their courtyard as the orchestral score peaks all around them.  I watched this montage, this incredibly manipulative and cheap and propangandistic montage, and I cried.

I cried, I think, because the montage reminded me of the pictures and videos of the people in Iran that we keep seeing on the Internet, the grainy, blurred photos and low resolution cell phone videos of the big crowds marching through the streets and fighting, the protesters wearing green ribbons and black scarves and red blood, all of them marching in crowds to face their enemies and win the battle.  I’ve wanted to feel something when I watched the videos or saw the pictures on the Internet but I haven’t felt anything yet — I’ve been waiting for a feeling to come, hoping for one.  When I saw Armageddon on TV, I felt something from it and cried and as I felt something and cried, I thought of the thing on the Internet, it reminded me of them, the resonance between the images, the shared aspects and characteristics.  Now, when I see the videos online, when I see the new images of pitched battles in the street that seem to stream in fresh every minute, I don’t think of their burgeoning revolution and I don’t think of a  biblical Armageddon, I think of The Matrix: Revolutions and I think of Armageddon; I think of Independence Day, I think of War of the Worlds, the crowds of people in those movies who may not seem to share many things in common but are united by the spectacle, by the watching and the looking and the viewing.  After crying twice at Armageddon, to kind of come down from such an intense experience, I watched an episode of the celebrity-biography-product-placement television series Iconoclasts starring actor/activist Sean Penn and narrative nonfiction-ist Jon Krakauer.  In one part of the episode, Sean Penn, between moments of looking scruffy and moments of looking pensive and moments of looking scruffy and pensive, described the horrors of a trip he had taken to Iraq and the things he had seen there.  He said, “If you saw the movie War of The Worlds with Tom Cruise, that’s literally what the children of Iraq have faced in the cities, is that they’ve actually seen the alien beasts coming in from the skies and killing them.”  In an interview from the same year with the website, Michael Bay, the director of Armageddon, discussed the realistic quality of movies today:

fxg: In general, are movies as good as they used to be?

MB:Things are more real now, more photo real. Look at the 70s and the 80s. Visual effects opened up a whole new world. Maybe there’s over-saturation. We’ve almost seen everything. In the 70s, Steven Spielberg invented dinosaurs. Now he’s hitting me in the leg. Why? Because he’s never seen robots doing that before. It’s hard to tell a fresh story now.

Of course, when Sean Penn is saying that life in Iraq is “literally” like the movie War of The Worlds with Tom Cruise, he doesn’t mean “literally,” and when Michael Bay is talking about our movies being “more real now, more photo real,” he’s talking about movies in which giant anthropomorphic robot cars battle with other giant anthropomorphic robot cars and interact with footage of real human actors that is shot against blue screens and composited into carefully production designed digital war zones that are texture mapped with high resolution photographs of real locations, the filmed explosions and the virtual explosions all around them blending in the frame, the real filmed footage of dirt and fire and water mixing with computer particle simulations of the same.  That “real” that Michael Bay is talking about is only real in appearance and in the emotion we feel when we watch it, real in the sense of a more perfect illusion; not “real” but realistic.  This sensibility has seeped into the “real” world that we live in today, though, and not just for Spicoli and the director of Bad Boys.  There were breathless reports last week which spread like virtual wildfire from Twitter to major bloggers and some news organizations that there were three million protesters in the streets of Tehran after the election — it now seems that figure was unrealistic and it’s more likely that the crowd numbered in the hundreds of thousands, which is still of course a significant number but not the same.  Maybe that’s propaganda but maybe it’s just the hyperbole wrought by Michael Bay and Peter Jackson and the Wachowski brothers, the hyperbole of computer generated special effects, since when the digital crowds in our popular movies can and so often do number in the millions, masses of reproduced people which swell to fill ever wider and bigger screens,  it makes us believe that they can in real life, too.  This is the art of war in the age of Transformers.

One might say that all of this stuff about aesthetics is beside the point, that to talk about stupid Hollywood action movies now, at a time when oppressed people are really dying for good and important things that they believe in, is callous and unfeeling and wrong.  I feel weird responding to that imaginary criticism that I’m throwing at myself as a rhetorical device because I do think there’s some truth to it and I feel uncomfortable saying these kinds of things and feeling these things while real people my own age die in the streets of their broken country bravely standing up for ideals and principles and beliefs, while they die in ways which maybe aren’t so complicated and maybe don’t need to be deconstructed by bourgeois assholes like me.  I feel uncomfortable about it but this thing I’m saying and doing here is all I know to say and do about “the situation” and this is what we as the wired Western middle class are supposed to do to end tyranny and support freedom, right?  This is what we’ve been told, that we’re supposed to express ourselves on our blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, we’re supposed to “try to understand the situation” and “participate in this moment” and “create a dialogue.”  I don’t really know how to do that, though, I’m not much of a follower (I’m not even on Twitter) but I’m also not Edward R. Murrow or Ghandi or Biz Stone, I’m not a revolutionary like any of them and I don’t have any fantasy of being one; I’m just a person who watches things and thinks about them too much.

When I was in college, I went to see a screening of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with one of my roommates, a Colombian-American guy with a well-worn Che Guevara t-shirt.  I’m not a very political person myself — the closest I got to activism in college was getting wasted at a Howard Dean benefit — but I thought the movie sounded interesting and it was free, so why not?   As I watched it, I was surprised by how moving it was, how powerful, the feelings that it gave me that I hadn’t been getting elsewhere.  After the movie ended, as we left the theater in the dark, I had that dark theater feeling that you have sometimes after watching a movie that moves you, that inexpressible something that makes you feel changed and different, the weight of the images assumed into your body.  When we stepped into the lobby, my roommate ran into some friends of his, a small group of South Americans or South American-Americans who I didn’t know that well but who I had seen around at parties and maybe done shots with or something, shared in the communion of bad music and warm beer and Doritos.  My roommate talked to them in Spanish for a minute and I stood there all awkward white guy with his hands in his pocket and then we left them there.  In the parking lot on the way to the car, my roommate explained to me that they were protesting the movie, that they disagreed with its heroic portrayal of Chavez, that they thought it was one-sided, that it wasn’t telling the whole truth.  We drove home in silence and the feeling that I was having then was also inexpressible and powerful but it wasn’t the good feeling I had had before, the triumphant feeling, it was something different, something worse.  I felt that I couldn’t have any real opinion of what was true or not, who was right or wrong, because I had to admit to myself that honestly all I really knew about this whole country Venezuela and all of its people and history was contained in this two hour documentary I had just seen minutes before, this documentary with images which convinced me of this one thing that I thought was the truth, that made me feel this way that felt good and true and right, but then there were these good people here saying another thing entirely, these living breathing people from my own area code who said that the images I saw were lies, and what should I believe, what could I, how could I?  It was the feeling of not knowing how to feel, of not being sure anymore, faithless.

I want to know how to feel now, I want to be sure, I don’t want to be conflicted.  I don’t want the empty faithless feeling, I want the full feeling that I see other people my age having, the full feeling that makes them change their social media accounts to Tehran time to “interfere with the government” and makes them change their profile pictures to images of hands wrapped in green ribbon, that inspires all of this passive resistance from them, maybe emphasis on the “passive” and not the resistance but I want that feeling that they have and I don’t want to be cynical about it and make stupid jokes about passive resistance and so I look at the videos on Youtube and I read the messages on Twitter, because that’s what I’m supposed to do, that’s what I’ve been told is the way to participate, to read the messages dedicated to tomorrow’s children and watch the videos being uploaded from the streets, see the truth in them.  You see the truth by watching the videos, people say on their blogs, there are thousands of the videos posted every day to Youtube and people tweet and retweet them, blog and reblog, spreading their truth like viruses.  Nico Pitney, whose Huffington Post blog is one of the most popular aggregators of information about what’s “happening” in Iran, recently posted a Youtube video from a young Iranian-American documentarian:

10:54 AM ET — Rage against the machine. An Iranian-American writes: “In my spare time, I make short documentaries and music videos, and my 22 year old cousin in Iran asked that I make a video for him with his favorite song. I just spoke with him and he told me that his friends and him are watching it before they go out to protest. He was stepping out the door to protest when I spoke with him just a few minutes ago. A lot of Iranians from Iran rely on for their information. If you could somehow post this on your website and get this out to the youth in Iran, it would mean a lot.”

I don’t know how to feel about this.  The most prominent features of the video, besides the blaring soundtrack, are the two digital effects that are kneaded through the already familiar compilation of videos and pictures of the uprising, the two effects, the flickering fake film grain and the jittery camera shake, this digital patina of faux-authenticity added to the videos after the fact by their editor, as if the footage he had pulled down off of Youtube wasn’t enough, as if the images had to be made more mythic, more powerful, more more more.   It’s both touching and frightening, this Rage Against The Machine video, it’s like it’s made in the belief that the Velvet Revolution was really all based on some songs by Lou Reed and John Cale, that power chords can be as strong as battering rams.  You imagine this guy in his bedroom trying to make this thing that his cousin has asked him for, a talisman to inspire this person he loves and make him strong and keep him safe, and the only way that he knows to do that is through the conventions of popular music videos, through this artifice and stylization, the only thing that he knows to do is make a Rage Against The Machine video on Youtube, make the best Rage Against The Machine video on Youtube, a video that his cousin and his friends can watch full screen with speakers cranked before rushing out to the barricades and fighting the Basji, a video that will protect them like armor.  Here it is, the aesthetics of Hollywood warfare not only used to describe the uprising but also to inspire it, to nurture it, to get the young fighters pumped up before they rush into the streets to do battle, Mortal Kombat before mortal combat.  The technique used in the Rage Against The Machine video is the same technique Michael Bay used in Armageddon, in the montage that made me cry the second time. Michael Bay, in that montage, appropriated a “vérité” photographic image from Robert Frank’s famous photo book The Americans but instead of using it as is, he changed it, he recast it, reshot it, colorized it, animated it, soundtracked it, added all of this extra artifice to make it more real than the real, a shot that you couldn’t be ambivalent about, a shot that would make you feel the way you were supposed to feel and no other way, none.

I want to know how to feel so I watch the videos and read the discussions, the reblogs and the retweets.  There’s been a lot of discussion through the Twitter tag #CNNFail about the failure, in the eyes of bloggers and Twitterers, of cable news to adequately cover the uprising, people complaining how this revolution was not being televised.  I think these protesters (the American, virtual protesters, not the real Iranians bleeding in their streets) are wrong, though, or at least misguided, hopped up on the buzz of their technology and distracted from the facts.  The outraged criticisms that they made through #CNNFail are based in morality but it seems to me that this is really a formal concern, this has to do with aesthetics — this revolution is not being televised because it’s not televisual.  How do you make round the clock television coverage of an event when you can’t generate any video or images of it, when you can’t go out into the streets to get soundbites, when your satellite trucks aren’t able to run and your internet connection is crippled by the government or by popular overuse, when your correspondents are expelled or arrested or live in fear of being expelled and arrested or something worse?  When all the footage you have is poor quality, provenance unknown, truth not guaranteed?  When you have to append caveats and qualifiers to everything you say and show, since you have no idea what it really means or even what it is?  How do you do create quality American television of the standards we the people and our advertisers expect in such an environment?  Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan posted what he called “The Most Staggering Footage Yet,” a video of a crowd of protesters pushing back police in the streets, a cell phone video that’s lower resolution than Youtube, a video in which you have to literally squint to even make out what’s going on.  How do you create quality American television if no one’s going to watch it?  The video that you watch and read about today is the video of Neda, Neda, everyone is talking about her, Neda, we give  her a single name as if we know her just because we saw a video of her dying (a video of her dying) and read her Wikipedia page, but the video seems too graphic to be shown on broadcast television (CNN ran a blurred out version today, the NBC Nightly News froze the frame as she started to bleed and turned the image to black and white) and even if it weren’t, what could the networks do to fill all their airtime, show their clip over and over again the way you refresh your browser window?  No, they couldn’t, it’s not television, it’s an Internet video, it operates in different ways, and this is going to sound callous and heartless and just awful but the way people are talking about watching the Neda video and how hard it is to watch and how it stays with you even when you don’t want it to…it reminds me of how people talked about “Two Girls, One Cup,” another popular internet video, another “iconic image” that was “so hard to watch.”  I know, just hate me for having this stupid, ugly, dirty thought, I hate myself for it.  I don’t know how to feel.  The video of Neda has 120,000 hits on Youtube and the video of Susan Boyle on America’s Got Talent has almost 69 million.  What if the revolution is televised and it gets horrible ratings, what then?  I watch the Neda video and I can understand how and why it’s sad but I don’t feel sad when I see it, I don’t feel anything, yet I’m still scared of The Sixth Sense, the scenes with the dead children, I never turn to that when it’s on cable, I can’t watch it, and Armageddon made me cry twice.

In a recent New York Times Magazine column entitled “Lights! Camera! Inaction!” Virginia Heffernan criticized contemporary American film and television for failing to represent the experience of technology in modern life, for not showing how completely woven computers and the Internet are through our everyday existence.  In this light, I wonder what the best movie of this Iranian uprising would look like, the most true film?  I don’t think it could be a Michael Bay production — it’s too foreign, there aren’t enough big set pieces, what role could Steve Buscemi play?  If I imagine the movie, I think part of it would involve Andrew Sullivan sitting in a captain’s chair in the middle of this gleaming white control room like in The Matri and reading aloud the poems and quotations he posts in between Twitter updates, the words of Merton and Auden and Twain and the Sufi mystics, bellowing these poems in his clipped British accent like they’re incantations, spells, the magic of language, the wonder and dread.  This footage of him, pristine wide-screen well lit HD stuff, would be intercut with all the cell phone videos we’re seeing of what it’s like there on the ground, videos randomly selected from Youtube and presented chopped into achronological fragments with little or no context given.  The videos would be in Farsi, of course, and subtitled in English, but the images and subtitles wouldn’t be all we’d be seeing on the screen, since also there would be a constant snowstorm of messages in both English and Farsi, tweets and IMs, their green text fading in and then fading out all over the picture plane — think some blend of mid-sixties Godard and It’s On With Alexa Chung.  The opacity of the images would be automated on a variable determined by how much they had been linked to and passed around — the videos that had been reblogged more would be clearer and easier to see and the other, less popular truths would blend into them, creating blurry palimpsests in which clear shapes are difficult to discern.

That doesn’t work, though, obviously, that’s not the kind of movie people will eat popcorn to and rent from Netflix or Blockbuster — I don’t think Ebert would give it the thumbs up.  The Iranian uprising is a movie in the first person plural, which is to say that it’s not a movie at all, that it appears now that it can’t adequately be rendered with the forms and conventions that we have available to us — its poetics are problematic, it’s too polyphonic, there are so many voices and so much information that our artifice can’t support it, our structures strain to hold it all together and then collapse.  There is the sense that the revolution can’t be televised or filmed, that the narrative forms we have are inadequate to represent all of the stuff that’s coming in.  Everybody who’s actively following the Iranian uprising is gripped in this hysteria of realism — not the real but the realism, the composite real, thousands of images and videos and descriptions of the real that are uploaded every day from thousands of discrete and anonymous sources and blended together in a soup of data which is fed to you from your chosen source by RSS.  A month after September 11th, James Wood wrote an essay in the Guardian called “Tell me how does it feel?”:

But this idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk-smarts – in short, the contemporary American novel in its current, triumphalist form – are novelists’ chosen sport, then they will sooner or later be outrun by their own streaking material. Fiction may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road; but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan.

For who would dare to be knowledgeable about politics and society now? Is it possible to imagine Don DeLillo today writing his novel Mao II – a novel that proposed the foolish notion that the terrorist now does what the novelist used to do, that is, “alter the inner life of the culture”? Surely, for a while, novelists will be leery of setting themselves up as analysts of society, while society bucks and charges so helplessly. Surely they will tread carefully over their generalisations. It is now very easy to look very dated very fast.

Are the forms now broken, can we no longer represent everything because there’s just too much of it, because we can’t write fast enough to not be dated?  I don’t know how to feel about anything but I don’t trust James Wood to tell me how, I do know that, thank God, I can be sure of some things, it’s a small comfort.  In his essay, James Wood made several bitchy comments about Don DeLillo’s Mao II, a novel which describes, among other things, an American woman watching live television footage of the streets of Tehran in the wake of the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini, his supporters filling the screen in a cloud of grief.  “The future belongs to crowds,” the most famous line in Mao II, comes at the end of the introductory section, after a sublime and breathless description of a mass Moonie wedding in a baseball stadium.  When DeLillo wrote that line in 1989 about the future and the crowds, it was a warning, a poetic call to alarm in the time of the fatwah against Salman Rushdie.  It was crystallized fear and loathing about the awesome and terrifying power of mass crowds amplified by mass media, kind of like the way Kierkegaard, also thinking of the crowds and the media, said in 1847,

The crowd is untruth. And I could weep, in every case I can learn to long for the eternal, whenever I think about our age’s misery, even compared with the ancient world’s greatest misery, in that the daily press and anonymity make our age even more insane with help from “the public,” which is really an abstraction, which makes a claim to be the court of last resort in relation to “the truth”; for assemblies which make this claim surely do not take place. That an anonymous person, with help from the press, day in and day out can speak however he pleases (even with respect to the intellectual, the ethical, the religious), things which he perhaps did not in the least have the courage to say personally in a particular situation; every time he opens up his gullet – one cannot call it a mouth – he can all at once address himself to thousands upon thousands; he can get ten thousand times ten thousand to repeat after him – and no one has to answer for it; in ancient times the relatively unrepentant crowd was the almighty, but now there is the absolutely unrepentant thing: No One, an anonymous person: the Author, an anonymous person: the Public, sometimes even anonymous subscribers, therefore: No One. No One!

Now, holding all of that stuff in your mind, opening the text and ideas into the different tabs of your mental browser, now juxtapose it with this fragment of Andrew Sullivan’s ecstatic essay about Twitter in the Sunday Times yesterday:

When you review the Twitter stream of the past week, it reads like a stream of constantly shifting consciousness. It is a kind of journalistic pointillism. From a distance it gains heft. It is history rendered in the collective, scattered mind and it has never happened before – millions upon millions of tiny telegram messages sent to the world.

I don’t know how to feel, there’s just too much to deal with, all I can do now is copy and paste these fragments, I don’t have my own words to describe things.  Andrew Sullivan, from his essay: “I felt last week more like a DJ than a journalist, compiling and sampling and remixing the sounds, sights, events and words streaming out of an ever-shifting drama.”  On his blog, he’s frequently used the terms “money quote” and “money shot” to describe the best words and videos he has for describing things, a usage Wikipedia tells me derives from the vocabulary of Hollywood cinema, from the big, powerful scenes in big, powerful movies like Armageddon.  I don’t know how to feel.  How can I be expected come to a conclusion about an event which has no narrative structure?  That’s not fair, I don’t know how to feel, I can’t conclude, okay, I can’t, but I want to, the desire doesn’t go away.  If the forms are broken, can we hold them together with duct tape?  I need the forms, I need the conventions, we need them, how else can meaning be made?  They’re the only things I know how to believe in, these things, please don’t take them away from me, don’t say they’re archaic or obsolete or no longer necessary, don’t say that they’re broken.  The word “iconoclast” doesn’t, in fact, come from an overly reverential Sundance Channel TV show sponsored by Grey Goose and starring Sean Penn and Jon Krakauer but is actually a term which dates to antiquity, to the time of the Byzantine Empire, when images of Christ and the Theotokos and certain saints, if created in a certain form in line with certain artistic conventions, were believed to have magical powers of healing and defense and communion.  Iconoclasm, the destruction of these images, began in the Eighth Century AD.  From a book  about this period, one in paper and ink that I’m holding in my hand:

[Emperor] Leo III seems to have believed that God was displeased with the Byzantines on account of some misdemeanor.  It was widely held at the time that Muslims were Christian heretics, worshiping the same God but in an incorrect way.  Since Muslims had chosen to eschew images in their mosques, and were extraordinarily successful in battle, it was thought that God might be punishing the Byzantines for misusing religious images and falling into idolatry.  The solution appeared simple: to ban the use of religious images in Byzantium and hope for divine approval, which would become apparent through political and military success.

In other words, maybe these iconoclasts, who we think of as image breakers, were really just getting rid of images they thought were already broken, that didn’t have any power anymore, the way that Andrew Sullivan writes on his blog that television is no longer necessary.  “Who needs it?” he writes, posting another Youtube video.  The initial period of iconoclasm actually wasn’t permanent, it was just a trend that was overruled by decree, bringing back the icons.  A few years later, iconoclasm came back into vogue and a few years later it was stopped again, the holy images created and destroyed and recreated and destroyed again as they fell in and out of favor.  In other words, just because right now we feel one way about our images and our forms doesn’t mean we won’t feel another way about them tomorrow, doesn’t mean we won’t miss them when they’re gone and want to bring them back from the dead, doesn’t mean they’re not important past, present, and future, whatever the opinion of the crowds today.

I don’t know how to feel.  At one point while I was writing all of this confused and hysterical stuff, I turned on the TV as a distraction from myself.  I just wanted something inoffensive and quiet on in the background, some white noise to fill the room.  I was in the middle of typing a sentence on my laptop when I heard the announcer say, “What happens when you tell people they can’t see something?  Exactly, they want to see it even more.”  I looked up and saw the source of the voice, a blond woman in a red dress who was talking about censorship and intellectual freedom.  The TV wasn’t on CNN or MSNBC or FOX, though, it wasn’t the news, and the announcer wasn’t talking about Tehran, the media blackout, or the information war, she wasn’t talking about any of those things, no, actually it was an introduction to the music video for “Baby Got Back” on a VH1 Classic marathon of The 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders.  I don’t know how to feel.

wanna be sedated

June 16, 2009


Woke up this morning to Alessandra Stanley’s Times review of the new hospital show Hawthorne, a show which she had already mentioned and discussed in her review last week of another new hospital show, Nurse Jackie, then clicked over to the New Yorker and on the main page saw Nancy Franklin’s reviews of two new hospital shows, one of which was the new hospital show Nurse Jackie, which as previously mentioned was also recently reviewed by Alessandra Stanley in the Times, and one of which was another new hospital show which was not the new hospital show Hawthorne which Alessandra Stanley reviewed in the Times today but was instead another new hospital show called Mental, a “mental” hospital show, snap, what a twist, and you know despite myself, since I always want to hope for the best in people, I read these reviews by Nancy Franklin, a critic who has reviewed no reality shows in 2009, who reviewed two reality shows in 2008 (a snobby, condescending pan of The Hills and a pretty interesting, smart discussion of Oprah’s Big Give), who reviewed no reality shows in 2007, who reviewed no reality shows in 2006, wow are we noticing a trend here, and, you know, I’m not asking her to actually like the shows but I do find it kind of ridiculous that engaging with one of the dominant paradigms of the medium they cover is seemingly beneath some critics, it’s like if Jeffrey Steingarten or Ruth Reichl suddenly decided that they would just never ever discuss much less praise any dishes involving chicken, would not grant a single word of description to chicken because chicken as a meat and a concept had become just far too bourgeois for their palates.  God, I hate it when bloggers rant about the mainstream media, when they obnoxiously abbreviate it to MSM, I hate all this annoying tech-evangelism about Twitter and the death of newspapers and magazines and television and blah blah blah, but, you know, I kind of understand where the cranks are coming from sometimes (God, am I going to start campaigning for Ron Paul?).  In Nancy Franklin’s pan of the new hospital show Mental, she writes:

It’s the mediocre shows that make you stop and wonder: How did this happen? What made anyone think that there was anything about this show that made it worth watching? Did anyone think that?

and, honestly, I’m sure that the show is as mediocre as she describes it to be, but reading those lines, all I could think about was her review, which I guess made an interesting enough point about television as a commodity but besides that, like, what made her think there was anything about the show worth reviewing, what made her think there was anything about her review worth reading, could anyone think that?


When I say mean things I always feel the need to say nice things as a corrective so I’ll just say that the most touching and love-filled television I’ve seen recently was the fourth episode of Kendra which aired Sunday night on E!, which, I know, I know, she was the most stupid and obnoxious cast member of The Girls Next Door and that has not changed in the least, she’s still stupid and obnoxious, her laugh is a cat screaming into a megaphone because its nails are being dragged across a blackboard, but despite this the show is really kind of wonderful because Kendra and her fiance, professional football player Hank Baskett, are absolutely adorable together — watching their rapport kind of gives you hope that there really is someone out there for everybody, no matter their (glaring, colossal) faults.  In the fourth episode which aired on Sunday (the introduction and first act are banal, just fast forward), the two of them travelled together to the small town in New Mexico where Hank was born and raised.  Driving from place to place, carefree and in love, they milked cows and talked about pet stores and played basketball together, and, after meeting his quiet, conservative parents, Kendra presented them with a signed copy of her Playboy cover, a moment which the promo played as laugh line but which was actually adorable because they accepted it so graciously, as if it was some amazing thing they were privileged to own and would treasure forever.  Then Kendra made some joke about jerking off and everybody laughed, including me.

Heidi and Spencer were on the Today Show this morning talking about I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Heidi looked well and didn’t particularly seem to be suffering from her ulcer or not ulcer or whatever it was or wasn’t or could have been — there was no discussion of illness.  The interview itself was kind of confrontational, actually, with Al Roker apparently choosing today as the day to finally become a hard-hitting investigative journalist (so glib, Matt, so glib) and repeatedly hammering Heidi and Spencer about whether or not it was all an “act,” whether or not they were proud of what they’d done on television and et cetera.  On his Twitter account later, he called their behavior “vacuous,” which is just so funny, as if Al Roker, jovial weatherman on the Today Show and host of the Food Network’s Diner Destinations and Roker on the Road, is some paragon of journalistic virtue and/or the creator of valuable and important intellectual touchstones which play an important role in elevating the culture.  As if.  In the interview’s introductory package, there was some pre-recorded footage of I’m A Celebrity… contestants Frances and Angela, who claimed that Heidi and Spencer’s performance on the show was entirely genuine, that “it’s not an act, there’s no downtime, they really do believe they are the most famous people on this planet and that that’s something that one should aspire to, yes, and that they pray to Jesus for,” and this was followed by the clip of Spencer standing in the jungle and obnoxiously screaming the name of the Lord up towards the boom mics and klieg lights and all other things man-made or natural suspended under the dome of the sky (the Frangela clip could’ve just as easily been followed by his soundbite about praying for a double date with Miley Cyrus and that prayer coming true within a month).  In the interview with Al Roker, Spencer said, grinning, that he’s not an actor, that his televised river baptism was sincere and, with regard to his “true” nature, he said, “on that show, I wanted to be a villain, but in life, I want to be a hero.  On a television show that has one winner, like a champion, like a competitive show, that’s a show where I would choose to be the villain or the bad guy because the bad guy’s the hardest part to understand…”  This dichotomy, the idea of one person authentically embodying different characters, being both a hero and a villain, is a concept Al seemed to have trouble getting his head around, which is understandable, I guess, since reality and life are complicated things which we all have trouble dealing with sometimes.  Luckily, though, there are shows which exist to teach us how to understand such things — you just have to open your eyes and watch them.

I’ve never seen anyone die in real life but I have seen someone die on television, one person, once, and the person who died was like the person Spencer described wanting to be, a villain and a hero and a winner and a champion, the person was all of those things, and, well, I didn’t actually see the person die but I was watching a live television event and the person was appearing on this live television event when he died, and I was watching his last recorded words as he spoke them to the camera and through the camera and the screen to me and then I was watching the live television event and then he died while I was still watching it so it’s kind of like I saw him die even though I didn’t really, almost but not quite, and like in my memories I actually remember seeing him die, there’s an image in my head of him falling, but verifying this against the historical record of Wikipedia and a clip of a digitized VHS tape on Youtube, I’ve realized that I didn’t see him die and I couldn’t have seen him die because his death wasn’t a thing which was aired on the live television event I watched, and anyway all of this happened or not happened or almost happened was when I was fourteen years old,

it was Sunday, the day of rest, the day of wrestling, we had ordered the monthly wrestling pay-per-view that night, God, it seems like such an archaic thing to think of now with Youtube and Youku and Hulu, to pay extra money for a couple of hours of extra television on a Sunday, to pay a premium for premium content, how historic, how outmoded, but as a teenage wrestling fan it was so important to me, it was so important not only to see the matches and the show and everything and find out who won, lost, or drew, the simple facts of the matter, but to see it on the pay-per-view on the Sunday night it aired (they were always on Sunday nights, the pay-per-views), to see it all live and unedited and authentic, the spectacle unfolding in front of my eyes like a book being written as I read it, it was so important to not have to wait until Monday night to see clips of the action and before that have kids at school spoil it by telling me what happened before I could see the images for myself, it was so important, it was so important that my brother and I would try to save our allowances to pay for it but almost all of the time we wouldn’t have enough saved by the Sunday of the pay-per-view and so on the Sunday of the pay-per-view we would end up on our knees crying and begging and pleading with our father to pay the $19.99 or $24.99 or $29.99 or whatever it cost to make the cable company flip the switch and unlock the locked channel so that we could watch the pay-per-view and this unlocking is a thing our father would do for us sometimes if our family had the money that month or if the wrestling matches on the card were exciting or star-studded or if my brother and I were being particularly “good,” which we were not a church-going family so our definition of “good” was arbitrary and secular despite all of this Sunday supplication, but regardless of this we prayed to our father and made promises about being good and what good things we would do in the near future if we could just be rewarded now with this pay-per-view, if we were allowed to watch the wrestling, and so then some nights my father would order the pay-per-view for us and some nights he wouldn’t

and on the nights that he wouldn’t, I would stay up in my room in the dark tuned into the fuzz and scramble of the locked channel, playing with the knobs on my old analog television set and pressing a combination of buttons on the cable box which I had read on some internet forum might make the images appear, flipping the channel selector up and down rapidly because every time I landed on the channel anew there would be a brief instant of clarity before the signal scrambled again, unscrewing and rescrewing the cable from the cable box ever so slightly to try to break the encryption, I did all of these things, I did them standing in front of my dresser in my pajamas, such an effort just to be able to see and hear things, images, all of this work done to be able to watch this live even as it was happening, to see through the distortion and clouds of static, to discern shapes from other shapes and trace their movements through space, to hear the faint ghost voices of the commentators through the white noise and connect their comments to images I couldn’t really see but thought I could, believed I could, and in that respect the process was kind of the same way I tried to watch pornography on cable, which was a thing I also did in my room in the dark at night, but pornography seemed to be scrambled in a more complicated and difficult way than wrestling, this was because of morality, I assumed, sex being worse than violence, and anyway there was no running color commentary on pornography to illuminate and describe the mysterious actions happening on screen, the shapes interacting with other shapes, and so it really didn’t reward the kind of almost-watching that wrestling did,

but anyway those were the times when my father did not order the pay-per-view for us, but this one live pay-per-view event when I was fourteen, a pay-per-view called Over The Edge, was a time when my father did order the pay-per-view for us and we watched it together in our living room, this live television event, and the most important thing that happened at the pay-per-view was that the person died, this wrestler, except watching at home we didn’t know that he died for almost an hour after it happened because nobody told us and after a brief intermission of fifteen minutes the show went on, the matches were fought, and for all the true things the commentators could always tell us about suplexes and somersaults, they couldn’t tell us about the person dying, this wrestler, and this was maybe because they weren’t allowed by the management to do so or maybe because the family had to be reached first or maybe because they just couldn’t find the words, I don’t know, but here is the video in which the person, this wrestler, in which he dies, it’s here if you want to watch it, of course be warned that a human being dies in the course of this 3 minutes and 41 seconds you’re going to watch, you don’t see him die or hear him die but he dies nonetheless, understand that, his death is captured in this video, it’s there, like the way people used to believe that photographs could hold souls, and so here is the video:

and one interesting thing about the video is how just before the person died, this wrestler, right before he died the segment that aired on the pay-per-view was about an injury that WWF owner Vince McMahon had suffered on camera earlier in the show, the segment was about how EMTs and an ambulance were on their way to take him to the hospital to take care of him, the people in the segment professed to be worried about him, but, of course, that injury wasn’t real and their worries weren’t real, it was just an angle, a work, and if you don’t know what those terms mean it’s okay, there are many terms in professional wrestling to describe the relative realness and fakeness of things, here are some of them: a storyline is called an “angle,” a fake or staged event is called a “work,” a real or un-staged event is called a “shoot,” an event which is fake but which is made to seem real, a “work” which is made to seem like a shoot, is called a “worked shoot,” the state of pretending for the audience that the world of wrestling is real is called “kayfabe” and to acknowledge that the world of wrestling is not real is called “breaking kayfabe,”

and all of these complicated disjunctions and overlappings of authenticity and fabrication that are created in the world of wrestling are the reason the commentator in that video of the person dying on the live television keeps saying over and over again how real this thing that’s happening is, that’s why he says, “This is not a part of the entertainment here tonight.  This is as real as real can be here,” that’s why he looks directly into the camera at us and says, “This is not your typical wrestling storyline, this is a real situation,” that’s why he breaks kayfabe so clearly and resolutely, it’s to snap us out of our trance and break the illusion or meta-illusion and make us understand that that this is not a “work” and this is not a “worked shoot,” either, this is just real, this is a real thing that’s happening in front of us, a death on live television, this wrestler,

and two last wrestling terms for you to learn are “heel” and “face,” which are easy to understand: heels are bad guys, villains, and faces are good guys, heroes, and the person who died on the live television event I watched in my living room when I was fourteen years old, this wrestler, Owen Hart, had for a long time played himself as a heel, used his own identity, and then at the time he died, he was playing this masked wrestler called the Blue Blazer, a self-deluded, wannabe superhero, an old fashioned character out of touch with the crude anti-heroes of the contemporary wrestling scene, and originally the character was intended to be a heel but the audiences began to love him, this Blue Blazer, this happy fool, and as they clapped and cheered for him more and more he turned face, he went from villain to hero on the wings of the love that the crowd had for him, and so on the night that he died after playing a villain for so long he was a hero again, a face, and what happened when he died was that he was about to make a grand entrance by being lowered from the rafters of the arena in his blue mask and flowing cape, as if he was pretending to fly, this superhero, and he was up there about to be lowered and his harness broke, it released, a shoot, not a work, a broken cable breaking kayfabe, releasing the real, and he fell, he fell 78 feet down through the air and past the lights and the cameras and into the ring and that’s where he died, in the ring, and it was so sad, it was as if instead of being paralyzed by falling off a horse, Christopher Reeve had died while trying to fly like Superman, that’s how sad, this person dying in front of an audience while trying to play a hero, a role which we all sometimes dream of playing but which we on some level know is just a cartoon fantasy, however much game Al Roker and the gang talk about “real American heroes” on the Today Show, since really we know that no person can be truly and only a hero, that we’re all part hero and villain inside but that really we’re never either of those things alone, that it would be impossible to be like that since those two sides of a character, heel and face, are always wrestling with each other inside of us to create who we are, to make the roles we play in the performance of our lives.  They’re always wrestling and so are we.

free bird

June 13, 2009

Since my failed lipogram and meta summer jam, I haven’t really made or played any music in a month.  I’ve been writing a lot which has of course been a wonderful thing but the last few days I’ve really been wanting to play, so I messed around a little and did this cover of “Free Bird.”  I originally saw it as an easy listening pop lounge sort of thing, the midpoint of Chet Baker and Jack Johnson, but recording acoustic guitars is hard and my mics suck so it kind of became this lo-fi faux-disco jam instead.  I wanted to do some heavy lead guitar fills but they just sounded crappy and really, like, why try to measure up to perfection?

free bird (lynyrd skynyrd)

all you need is hate

June 12, 2009

On Sunday, I recorded Rod Blagojevich’s appearance on Huckabee, Mike Huckabee’s self-titled talk show on Fox News, which is not a show I exactly have a Season Pass for, you know, but I was flipping through the channel guide to find Soapnet’s weekend Gilmore Girls reruns and I noticed that Blagojevich was appearing on Huckabee and I thought that if Blagojevich was appearing on Huckabee, there might be important insights into I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here and, as you can tell, I’m nothing if not devoted to causes which I find important to life and society.  Yesterday, after it sat untouched on the DVR all week, I finally watched the appearance, or, at least, I tried to watch it.  The interview segment began normally enough with Huckabee offering a thirty second summary of who Rod Blagojevich is (“will go on trial to fight corruption charges next year…Meanwhile, he’s having to play Mister Mom while his wife is in Costa Rica doing a reality show”), playing some clips of Patti eating bugs on I’m A Celebrity…, and then welcoming him to the show.  As soon as he appeared on the screen, Blagojevich smiled, nodded, and proceeded to rapidly deliver this  insane monologue (in the clip above, it’s at :40):

“Thanks for having me, Mike, I’d like to begin and tell you that you and I have at least five things in common.  First, we both come from humble origins; second, we’ve both been governors; third, you and I both run marathons; fourth, you and I both voted for Ronald Reagan; and fifth and most important, you and I are both huge Elvis fans and I want you to know and all of our fellow Elvis fans that I’ve got nothing but a whole bunch of hunka hunka burning love for all of us.”

During that last part, he also waved his hand violently at the camera to try to convince the audience of his “hunka hunka burning love” for them, and then, after the speech, sat there smiling awkwardly, waiting.  The interview proceeded on more normal grounds after this and, as it did, I found it harder and hard to keep watching it.  It’s not that it was boring (although it was boring), it’s that I found these two people so unlikeable that it was difficult just to have them on my screen talking in front of me, talking to me; it just made me feel unpleasant and gross.  I’m not a person who’s particularly interested in politics or the political fates of Blagojevich and Huckabee in particular, but I couldn’t shake this feeling for some reason.  I tried to fast forward so that I could get right to the I’m A Celebrity… soundbites without having to watch these unlikeable people any longer, but even seeing their sped-up faces jerking around didn’t seem to help, I was so overwhelmed that I had to stop the recording and delete it.  I’m always annoyed by the reflexive, easy hatred of Heidi and Spencer and other “worthless reality stars” which espoused by almost everyone who knows who they are, but if it’s a visceral, gut hatred like I was feeling for Huck and Blago, then maybe I can understand it.

One of the interesting things about reality television as a form is that it engenders and in fact depends on mass quantities of hatred: hatred between the contestants on the shows in order to create drama and narrative, of course, but, perhaps more importantly, hatred between the audience and the characters that they’re watching, so that watching reality television often involves a great deal of hatred both inside and outside the screen.  To be clear, I’m not talking about experiencing reality television through the lens of irony; I’m not talking about people who presume themselves to be too good or smart or interesting to care about reality TV yet deigning to “ironically” consume mass quantities of it with the excuse that, even though they “hate this show,” it’s “just a guilty pleasure.”  What I mean is that sincere, unironic enjoyment of reality television very often involves sincere, unironic hatred of at least some of the characters being watched.

This virtual hatred, unlike real life hatred, is not a cause of stress or pain for the audience — instead, it’s a source of joy and entertainment.  The characters that we hate on reality shows are characters that we “love to hate,” even if our love isn’t something of which we’re completely conscious or proud.  On I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, Heidi and Spencer initially fulfilled the role of hate receptacles —  Spencer himself very self consciously stated in the first episode that he was going to be taking the role of villain and quickly fulfilled that promise, creating in himself a focal point for viewers’ hatred, and, thus, the show’s narrative, since if hate is what captivates viewers and connects them to the show, producers eager to make their shows a success will stock their programs with potential targets for that hatred and will devote more screen time to those who are hated.  This is often the difference between reality shows which are popular and successful (America’s Next Top Model, with its over the top catfights and drama) and those which are not (TLC’s touching and lovely but totally declawed A Model Life or Bravo’s simply boring Make Me A Supermodel). Without Heidi and Spencer for the I’m A Celebrity… audience to hate, there would’ve been no real narrative in the entire first week of the show and, with no real stars, exciting challenges, or other appealing features, it likely would’ve done even worse ratings than it has.  When Heidi and Spencer left the show on Monday’s episode, Janice Dickinson quickly stepped in as the new villain and, therefore, the new star.  On the Wednesday and Thursday episode’s of the show, she progressed from her usual behavior, which involved basically being lazy and making bitchy comments, to new levels of hateability, doing things like stealing food won by other contestants in challenges and, in her most hate-worthy moment, urinating on the ground in the middle of her camp, just feet away from her teammates.

This hate watching of reality television is different from the way audiences experience other forms of contemporary narrative art.  One major function of modern literature is to enable readers to virtually empathize with the fictional characters they’re reading about. Despite their flaws and misdeeds, you can’t hate Raskolnikov or the Underground Man because, as you spend time reading about them, you imagine what it’s like to actually be them, you “put yourself in their shoes.”   Reading fiction in the first person involves virtually conflating your self (your “I”) with the fictional protagonist’s self (the story’s “I”).  This is a function which is both formal (the immersion caused by the reading process/point of view) and moral (the ethical benefits of empathy and accessing other human selves).   This idea of humanizing characters and creating virtual empathy has been carried over from the novel to our highest-brow and most august television dramas.  On shows like The Wire or The Sopranos, there are none of the simple “black and white” heroes and villains of comic books and genre fiction; there are only “shades of gray.”  In these shows, a murder is not (or is not only) an “evil” act; instead, it’s an event which is explainable as a result of human psychology and society’s ills and a host of other things.  As viewers, we’re supposed to recognize that characters like Tony Soprano or Avon Barksdale are not villains but instead are complicated human beings responding to a variety of pressures and forces as well as the weight of their backgrounds and history.  In realistic literature or television, if we find ourselves truly hating a character, that’s just the fault of the author, who has failed to adequately render his or her characters so as to reveal the essential humanity which is contained in all of them, which is contained in all of us.  The popular critical shorthand for all of this stuff is that the “best” characters in narrative fiction are those who are are “complex,” “rounded,” “lifelike,” and, in the most commonly used descriptor of all, “three-dimensional” (for example, Michelle Slatalla in the NYT on Wednesday praising a television show: “intricate story lines and three-dimensional characters who grow and change in such real ways that they feel like friends,” and Janet Maslin in the NYT on Thursday praising a novel: “Ms. Sullivan introduces strong, warmly believable three-dimensional characters.”).  The best realistic fictions, therefore, seem to involve an audience taking a series of representations offered by an author and using those images to create a vision of a “three-dimensional” world populated with “lifelike” and “complex” human characters with whom the reader can identify (in other words, a kind of moral fiction mimesis).

Is all this empathizing and humanizing which fiction creates necessarily a good thing, though?  Most people (including myself) would argue that yes, it is, that many of the world’s problems are caused by a lack of empathy, an inability to understand people who are different than you or recognize their humanity, and so if  the experience of fiction is a process which creates more empathy and understanding, that’s a positive and good thing.  The literature classes in American primary and secondary schools are as much about ethics as they are about aesthetics; by reading novel after novel about social issues like the Holocaust and Sexism and Racism and Poverty and putting themselves in the shoes of fictional characters who are oppressed by these things, students learn proper models for life in real society.  This is a good thing, right?  Yet at the same time, this process can have its faults because by the distortions of narrative and character and all the other false processes of fiction, there can be such a thing as over-humanizing or false empathy (I believe someone on Fox News might call this “the meaninglessness of postmodern morality”).  I recently read American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld’s fictionalized memoir of Laura Bush, and, by the end of the book, which was not even that great of a book, if still enjoyable, I found myself kind of love with George W. Bush, a person who previously I had felt no affinity for and on many occasions had in fact passionately hated.  Yet based on this novel that I read which included a fictional version of him, suddenly I seemed to think that I liked him, that he was, oh God, “a guy I would want to have a beer with.”  There’s a scene in the novel where the Karl Rove character is talking with the Laura Bush character about the self-indulgence of Rabbit Redux and I found myself thinking, just for a moment, about how funny and smart Karl Rove was.  Are you sure empathy is always a good thing?  (Or do you just think I’m stupid and shouldn’t be allowed to read books?)

For all the hatred it creates, reality television can also make us empathize and love, of course.  Thursday’s episode of I’m a Celebrity… involved the latest in a series of setpieces which seem structurally engineered and fine-tuned to humanize Patti Blagojevich and, by extension, her husband Rod.  Thursday’s installment began with the celebrities involved in a roundtable discussion of their “big breaks,” the moments when they truly became famous (these discussions, which are becoming a regular feature, are meant to seem impromptu but are obviously producer driven, although they do seem heartfelt and authentic.).  After recitations from the other celebrities, Patti was asked to speak about when she became famous and, instead, she broke down in tears and walked off the set (of course, “off the set” means “to another set where yet more cameras are taping.”  As sad music played in the background, Patti Blagojevich vented her feelings “privately” to Lou Diamond Phillips.  Holding her to his chest as she cried, he said, “I don’t think anyone can really imagine what you’re going through.  I don’t think anyone in America can imagine it, not on a personal level.  They read the headlines and they, you know, form opinions, but they don’t know, not until they know you.”  This speech, which was of course true in some sense, was, ironically, taking place during a scene which had the ultimate effect of letting viewers feel that they truly “know” Patti, that they know her on “a personal level” and “can really imagine what she’s going through.”  This scene was directly followed by another scene in which “villain” Janice Dickinson harassed Patti on her way back from the confessional, inciting even more empathy in the viewers.  Later in the episode, she talked to Rod and her children via Skype and we didn’t see her as a power-hungry politico, a modern day Lady Macbeth, no, we saw her as nothing more or less than a caring mother who missed her daughters dearly.  Watching these scenes, as well as witnessing the general portrayal of Patti Blagojevich as a reasonable, likable and hardworking person, it was hard not to feel love for her.

Yet as I’ve said, reality TV often works the opposite way, to create hatred instead of love.  If the experience of reading fiction involves the reader taking a representation and, through the process of empathy, turning that representation into some simulation of a “real” person, a three-dimensional human being, the experience of watching reality television often involves the reader taking a real person, a three-dimensional human being, and, through the process of hatred, turning them into a representation, a symbol.  When Spencer Pratt called Patti and Rod Blagojevich the “Heidi and Spencer of politics,” I was reminded of Sarah Palin who of course has in the last couple of days been angling for more screen time after a brief hiatus.  During the election, there were numerous think pieces and discussions about Sarah Palin relationship to reality television — how her candidacy represented in some ways the primacy of reality television, with all its popular and populist stupidity.  In my own thing, “The Fauxdacity of Soaps,” which started with a bit of fictionalized empathy for Bristol Palin, I compared Sarah Palin to Heidi Montag and wrote:

one of the republicans’ big talking points against obama is that he’s a “celebrity.” while i don’t think that’s a bad thing, i don’t disagree with them on one count: obama definitely is a celebrity. he’s the classic hollywood kind of celebrity, the dashing, dapper george clooney or cary grant style leading man. he’s a celebrity because of what makes him special, what makes him exceptional, what makes him better and different than all the rest of us. he’s a movie star. sarah palin is a celebrity, too, but she’s the new kind of celebrity, like heidi montag or carrie underwood. instead of being famous for what makes her special, she’s famous for what makes her normal, the girl next door who wins a date with tad hamilton. she’s a TV star. while twenty years ago that would’ve have made her no competition at all for obama (reagan hollywood blah blah), in today’s cultural climate, i’m not so sure. she’s a TV star and that’s what scares me the most about her.

It turns out, though, that I didn’t need to be so scared, because even if Sarah Palin became a vice presidential candidate and briefly captured the public’s attention by way of the mechanisms of reality television, they were also her undoing.  Her character in the election narrative quickly became the focusing point for the audience’s hatred that a complex and rounded character like John McCain never could’ve been.  Instead of voting for her, the populace voted her off the show, so to speak, decided that she was so worthy of their hatred that they didn’t want to watch her anymore.  Most of us stopped loving to hate her and proceeded to just hate her, loving our favorite contestant, Barack Obama, all the more for it.

Rod Blagojevich’s number one appeal to ethos, the most powerful rhetorical gambit he can offer, is Elvis.  He wants to tell us that he’s got a “hunka hunka burning love” for all of us.  In other words, the way he tries to make us like and understand him is via a shared taste in pop culture.  That Elvis reference that I quoted earlier from his monologue on Huckabee isn’t an anomaly — apparently he litters his speeches with references to The King, who is something of an obsession for him.  When was the moment that Patti Blagojevich fell in love with Rod?  According to her, it was when he performed a medley of Elvis songs for her while they were on a date.  When the news of his corruption surfaced, before making a statement, Blagojevich quoted Elvis, telling reporters to “hang loose.”  When I was looking up all these Elvis references, I found a description of Blagojevich’s love of the Tennyson poem “Ulysses,” which he read aloud at numerous press conferences and in several interviews during the scandal.

The governor said he first heard the poem recited during a football game sometime around 1980.

“I’ve known that poem since I was 15 years old,” Blagojevich said. “I learned that — I wish I could tell you I was in a library reading it, but I was watching the NFL in probably 1980, roughly,” he said.

An announcer “who had this great voice” recited the poem over film of running backs during a halftime feature, and a young Blagojevich heard “this voice reciting this motivating, inspiring poem, and I said I want to get that poem. So the next day I went to school and got a copy of it and memorized it.”

Reading that anecdote, with its defamiliarized poetry and pop culture power, reminded me of certain similar moments in my own childhood, time spent watching grandiose pro wrestling montages or reading self-important science fiction novels and just being bowled over the power of words and images.  Reading that anecdote and reading all of the other stuff I had to read in order to write this post, this pile of representations of a person’s life, I have to admit that now I find myself kind of liking Rod Blagojevich, I find myself connecting with him, seeing him as a human being who is worthy of my love and trust and empathy, someone who I can and should care about.   I find myself feeling like that but, God, I don’t want to feel like that.  It doesn’t feel right.

hearts of darkness

June 10, 2009

This is a video of me stepping on a bee when I was five years old, the only time I’ve ever been stung by a bee, an experience which instilled in me for many years an unbelievable fear of being stung by a bee, as is probably quite apparent in the video.  This is one of my family’s favorite home videos and for this reason it’s been aired in our various homes many times for many different audiences on VHS and DVD and now on the Internet and I have almost always avoided watching it, either by leaving the room or just by closing my eyes and putting my fingers in my ears, really mature, I know, and this is because I hate watching old videos of myself for reasons previously discussed and also because I just hated this video in particular, this theater of cruelty, you know?  Watching it just now, though, is the first time that I’ve been able to understand how really it’s a pretty funny video, maybe not America’s Funniest Home Video funny or even weird viral funny, it meets no rubrics, but there are just certain things about it (my mother’s tired sigh, the way my brother laughs at me and then is distracted by first juice and then an inflatable ball, the part when I stop crying just long enough to say “I can’t stop crying” and then start crying again) that I find funny in a way that I never did or could before, when I was younger. I can now watch myself suffer and I can enjoy it; it makes me laugh, even.

I bring this all up because I got stung by a jellyfish today when I was swimming and the sting, which left white welts all over my left hand, really only hurt for about ten minutes and then mostly the experience was great.  One reason it was great is that it’s nice to find out that something you feared in childhood really wasn’t anywhere near as bad as you thought it would be, and so getting stung by a jellyfish made me think that maybe I should try other things I’ve avoided since adolescence, like eating sweet potatoes or playing tackle football or petting cats.  Another reason it was great is that it gave me an excuse to quit swimming instead of pushing myself through the other half mile that I was supposed to do, which despite the niceness of the day today was not exactly a fun prospect for me.  The third and most important reason getting stung by a jellyfish was great is because it was a surprising event in my daily narrative, it was news, a twist, a talking point, something for me to tell people about, and even better, it was something which I could connect in my brain to the other thing I’ve been thinking about today, which is the Heidi Montag illness narrative on last night’s episode of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.  I know I said last week that I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here was horrible and I told you not to watch it anymore, but then I watched it last night anyway, I know, what can I say, it was a relapse.  On the show last night, as you might have heard through any of the various media pipelines, Heidi Montag “came down” with a horrible stomach ailment and was “rushed” to a hospital, after which point she and Spencer “left the show,” although of course they’re still in Costa Rica and will probably be back on the air by Thursday.  The way Heidi played the illness was actually pretty convincing, I have to say, both for her fellow contestants and for us at home, it was some of her most naturalistic performance in years, realistic hysteria instead of hysterical realism, and it was so good that it made me wonder if she had gone all Method, that maybe she had actually made herself sick by fasting and not drinking water, that, in order to authentically “play” sick, she had really become sick.

Near the end of Alessandra Stanley’s review of the new Showtime medical drama Nurse Jackie, a show which Alessandra seemed to like even after describing in detail its myriad glaring flaws, she wrote, “Hospital shows are almost always watchable; deadly diseases and flat-lining patients have a way of enlivening the most formulaic scripts,” and you know, I had been kind of skimming through the review up to that point and lazily going along with her points, blah blah Edie Falco, blah blah trends in television, but I got to that sentence and I thought of a couple things.  One thing is that, no, hospital shows are not almost always watchable, I felt very strongly that this was a stupid, glib generalization, but then the problem is that I wasn’t really able to attack or even analyze the stupid, glib generalization with any real authority because I never ever watch hospital shows because I’m a total hypochondriac and watching TV shows or movies about people having serious illnesses, especially cancer and/or heart problems, completely freaks me out.  When I was a teenager, I saw this minor teenage character getting cancer on an episode of the first season of Boston Public and after that I lived in complete fear for weeks that I was getting cancer, too, and when I was in college, a contestant on the Real World/Road Rules Challenge was diagnosed with a hernia but continued to compete in strenuous physical challenges against doctor’s orders, putting me in a state of absolute virtual agony, and more recently, the steroid-driven heart attacks in The Wrestler had me awake late into the night, holding my hand against my bare chest and feeling my own heartbeat just to make sure it was still there.  I’ve never watched an episode of ER, Grey’s Anatomy, or House; even General Hospital is probably too much for me.

The other thing I thought about, though, with regard to the watchability of illness, is that if I was on a reality show, I wouldn’t ever have to be afraid of dying.  Any time you see people on reality shows being faced with extreme physical challenges like sky diving or rock climbing or battling with flaming death wands or even with minor things like the challenges on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, like being locked in a dark room with creep crawly things, any time you see them, almost all of the contestants without fail completely freak out about the challenges, get scared, yell and scream and bounce up and down, give panicked or excitable interviews about how dangerous and frightening the thing they’re doing is.  This is, of course, exactly the reaction that the producers are trying to create and they juice up any hint of faux-danger in the challenge with music and close-ups and slow motion.  But of course that’s all a lie, that’s all just a performance, that’s all just aesthetics.  The real truth is that thousands and thousands of people die every day in the real world but nobody has ever died on The Real World; everyone survives Survivor. People on reality shows may be tortured and humiliated, may suffer all manner of minor injuries, may completely and totally lose their dignity, but they never lose their lives, there’s no death, no one is ever completely and definitively edited out of the picture.  In this respect, the absolutely absurd sentimentality that’s attached to contestants leaving reality shows seems almost justified, in some weird.  There was this moment in the reunion show for The Real Housewives of New York City where a clip was shown of Jill’s mother being really kind and loving towards Bettheny, saying she was her daughter, and after the clip Jill started crying and all of the other women started crying, too, and talked about how they wished that Gloria “was with them” or “could be here with them today” and I watched this and I was just so sad for Jill that her mother had died, until I realized that she hadn’t, she hadn’t died, that all they were crying about was that she wasn’t on the reunion show for Real Housewives of New York City.  The apotheosis of this kind of simulated grief is the long, faux-tribal setpiece in the finale of every season of Survivor, the scene in which the final three contestants walk down a trail and stop at predetermined and camera-friendly vistas to remember each of the contestants who they “lost along the way.”  The scene always comes off as maudlin and melodramatic, but if leaving the protective halo of the lights and cameras of a reality show means leaving immortality behind and becoming a human again, one who is no longer immune to death, well, that’s a pretty sad thing, I guess, a thing worth grieving.

Of course, this is all ridiculous.  All the reality shows in the world couldn’t save Jade Goody from cancer, and, sad as it may be, an exhaustive television documentary probably isn’t going to keep Farrah Fawcett alive any longer than she would be otherwise, no matter how many tapes and hard drives are filled up with fresh footage, no matter how many lights and cameras are covering her at all times.   Just last week, Noncho Vodenicharov, a fifty-three year old contestant on the Bulgarian edition of Survivor, died of a heart attack during filming.  According to the reports, in his youth, he was a stuntman for films, which seems like such cosmic irony, that a man who when he was young was able to perform death-defying feats on the silver screen died during the filming of a television show about reality.  In Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola’s documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, we see Martin Sheen shooting that incredible scene when his character is alone in his hotel room after the war, wasted and suffering, literally and physically fighting his demons.  As it turns out, the scene was shot on the night of Martin Sheen’s 36th birthday and he was, in his own words, “so drunk I couldn’t stand up.”  The outtakes in the documentary are really crazy: you can hear Francis Ford Coppola coaching him through the scene, telling him how to move and act and you can watch him doing the things he’s told with a kind of drunk person time delay and yet, at the same time, he’s obviously only kind of half there, only semi-conscious of what he’s doing or saying.  The moment when Sheen breaks the room’s mirror, a climactic part of the scene, was actually an unplanned event, a fluke of reality, and he cut himself badly on the glass so that it’s his real blood we see on the screen, not sugar syrup dyed red.  Francis tried half-heartedly to get him to stop shooting and receive medical attention, but Martin said that he had to continue to experience it, he had to go on, he had to keep playing the scene, which makes sense, of course, since the scene was his life and that’s a scene we never want to end.

to be in amerika

June 9, 2009

I watched two award shows this past weekend and the second one was the broadcast of the Tony Awards last night and during the broadcast of the Tony Awards last night I was kind of feeling like I wanted to shoot myself in the head, which I say as a figure of speech, of course, since really I only felt like I wanted to cut off my ears and poke out my eyes with something sharp, sorry, I just don’t like musical theater or theater in general actually, some Beckett I guess but that’s just the theater that people who don’t like theater claim to like when talking about theater, right, the way people who don’t like jazz will still say Coltrane is a genius or own a copy of Kind of Blue or whatever, but I don’t like theater and my dislike for theater is not casual, I hate theater with a passion that verges on the melodramatic, I hate theater theatrically, I do,

my brother in oklahoma
my brother in ‘oklahoma’

but then in this absurd plot twist my younger brother loves theater and especially musical theater and in fact loves them so much that he’s studying theater acting at theater acting school right now and that’s not all because really we’re a theater family, actually, because also my father has fond memories of performing in several high school musicals in the seventies, one of which is the place where he met my mother, my mother and father were in a school production of Oklahoma together and that’s where they met, on the stage or behind it or somewhere around it, which of course means that musical theater is almost directly responsible for my conception and life and maybe that’s the reason why I hate it so much, like my hatred of theater is a grudge I bear against God and Nature for all the suffering of human existence, although it could also just be that I hate speak-singing and unsubtle lyrics and big facial expressions and gestures, whatever, either way,

geoffrey rush in ‘exit the king’

and so as a family we were watching the Tony Awards last night and I was feeling like dying, figure of speech again, I’m such a drama queen, and during the commercial break, I was using the remote control to scroll through the channel guide, not actually changing the channels because that would have elicited stage left shouts of “Go back!” and “We’re going to miss something!” but just scrolling around to sort of remind myself of all the other choices available on television, the hundreds of things that I could have possibly been watching besides this, cartoons and cable news and Cash Cab, all the possibilities of the medium, but then the commercials were over and the show was back on, god, “Clear off the guide, I can’t see!” my father yelled from the cheap seats, god, and the show was back on and after every commercial break it just kept coming back, like a cold that wouldn’t go away, where was Doogie Howser when I needed him, and it just kept coming back and there was singing and dancing and miming and prancing and then Geoffrey Rush won Best Actor in a Play for Exit The King, and in his acceptance speech he said, “I want to thank Manhattan audiences for proving that French existential absurdist tragicomedy rocks,” and what that speech made me think of was not Ionesco or Beckett or the cultural elite patting themselves on the back about how they “rock” but the other awards show I watched this weekend,

howie mandel in ‘deal or no deal’

because I watched two award shows this weekend and the second one was the broadcast of the Tony Awards but the first one was the 2009 Game Show Awards on the Game Show Network, which was hosted by noted germaphobe and bald guy Howie Mandel, who is also the host of one of the most existential absurdist tragicomic game shows in the history of television, Deal Or No Deal, a game which involves people standing on a stage and opening mysterious boxes by proxy and then bargaining about the unknown contents of the boxes with a shadowy and aggressive figure looming above them whose voice we never hear, a game in which skill and knowledge and background are irrelevant, a game in which the story is the opposite of some fairy tale like Slumdog and the lesson that’s learned from every episode is that life is completely random and meaningless but hey here’s a prize to make you feel better, god, it’s so depressing, I think Peter Brook directed the pilot from a treatment by Pirandello,

and so the 2009 Game Show Awards themselves were truly existential and absurdist and tragicomic and this was partially or mostly because, in a very meta gesture, the ceremony was composed of a string of miniature game shows, which was maybe a clever premise except the problem was that all the people who produce successful game shows were in the audience instead of actually running the show, so that the ceremony was really like one big technical difficulty, it made the minor glitches at the Tonys seem insignificant, the decapitation of Bret Michaels notwithstanding, and the games themselves were simply ridiculous, like to give one example (as seen above) there was a game in which famous (?) Jeopardy contestant Ken Jennings had a trivia contest with Charo in which all the questions were very specific details about Charo’s life but Charo still didn’t know some of the answers to the questions or couldn’t express them in something approaching the English language and that was one of the more normal games really, I wish I had a clip to show you of the most tragic part, a game called “Name It and Claim It” in which Howie Mandel, amid myriad technical difficulties, spent like literally 5 minutes trying to get a pair of brain-dead contestants to spell out the words “Motor Scooter,” but I don’t have a clip because nobody really covered or clipped the show or seemingly even watched it besides me and this guy,

but anyway, getting to the point, my favorite part of the ceremony, or at least my favorite part of the half hour of the ceremony that I actually really watched, was the award for Favorite Celebrity Team On A Game Show, which, yes, is an actual award at an actual award show, I know, and the nominees were the Brady Kids (Greg, Bobby, Cindy) on Trivial Pursuit: America Plays, the cast of The Office (Phyllis, Meredith, Creed, Kevin) on Celebrity Family Feud, and Penn and Teller with Carrot Top on Don’t Forget The Lyrics, and so the clips of the shows were played and there was a dramatic pause and the winners were…The Brady Kids on Trivial Pursuit: America Plays and everybody clapped and the Bradys took the stage to accept the award and their acceptance speeches were brief and completely ridiculous because what do you say to accept that award, you know, you can’t cry, you can’t say you’ve been dreaming of it all your life, there aren’t really a long list of people who made it possible for you to get to this place, like even thanking God seems wrong in some way, like God would be offended for being thanked for such an insignificant and stupid award, and so their acceptance speeches were like:

Bobby: “I don’t think it’s right for me to get this award, since I got zero answers correct on the show, but anyway I’m honored and thank you very much.”
Greg: “One of the things that makes this so special is that game show fans voted for it, so thank you.”
Cindy: “I’d also like to take the opportunity to thank Bob Barker for urging people to spay and neuter their pets!”

and then after they won the award, it was time for another game show, of course, a Very Brady game show, and so upbeat music played and lights flashed and members of the audience ran onto the stage smiling in brightly colored t-shirts and this was the other thing interesting thing about the 2009 Game Show Awards, that in the audience with the people nominated for awards and their spouses and et cetera was another audience, an audience of contestants, just regular people in brightly colored t-shirts ready to play games and hoping to get a chance to win prizes and mixed in with the producers and creators and stars of the shows they watched at home, all of them together in the theater watching the ceremony, and as the preparations went on for the Brady game, in which teams of contestants would recreate scenes from popular Brady Bunch episodes in a relay race,  I thought of Oklahoma, not Oklahoma, the musical where my parents met and acted and fell in love and in which the seeds of my existence were sown, no,

I thought of the Theater of Oklahoma, the theater described in the final fragment of Kafka’s Amerika, the place that our existential absurdist tragicomic hero Karl finds at the end of his horrible journey through this country and how the fragment starts when Karl, down on his luck after suffering so much at the hands of so many Americans, sees this poster which announces that the Theater of Oklahoma is hiring new employees and that in the Theater of Oklahoma, there are jobs for everyone, that everyone is welcome,

The poster offered Karl one great enticement.  ‘Everyone is welcome,’ it said.  Everyone–in other words, Karl too.  Everything he had done was forgotten, no one would reproach him anymore.  And he could sign up for work that was not shameful and could be advertised openly!  And they promised just as openly that he would be taken on.  He certainly could ask for no better; he just wanted to start off at last in some respectable career, and perhaps this was it.  For even if all of the boasting on the poster was a lie, and even if the great Theater of Oklahoma was merely a little strolling circus, it wanted to hire people, and that was good enough.  Karl did not read the poster a second time, but glanced through it to find the sentence: ‘Everyone is welcome.’

and in the Brady game, the first leg of the relay race was a sack race, which was apparently in some famous episode of The Brady Bunch, and the second leg involved the contestants digging through a large inflatable pool filled with apple sauce to find pork chops, which was apparently in some famous episode of The Brady Bunch, and the final leg involved the Brady Kids throwing footballs at giant reproductions of the face of Marsha from The Brady Bunch, which as we all know was in the most famous episode of The Brady Bunch, all of them throwing these footballs at this giant reproduction of Marsha’s face to try to trigger a soundbite of her saying “Oh, my nose!” and to score points to help their teams win, always the goal is to win, and the thing is, we don’t know what Kafka meant by that last fragment of Amerika, in which Karl gets a job with the Theater of Oklahoma and which ends with him on a train heading through the American wilderness on his way to his new life, we don’t know what it means, and there are two kinds of theater according some old ancient Greek guy, there are tragedies and comedies and the difference depends on the ending, tragedies have sad endings and comedies have happy endings,

and some people say that the ending to Amerika is a sad ending, that the Theater is a trap, too good to be true, and they point out how Karl is forced to erase his identity and take the name “Negro” and they reference how the Theater of Oklahoma apparently owns its employees, that “they all belong to the Theater of Oklahoma,” like slaves, but others say that it’s a happy ending, apparently Max Brod said Kafka told him that the ending was happy, that within the Theater, Karl would find a place for himself, would find freedom and love and all the things he’d been searching for, the American Dream, and I don’t know what the ending means or whether it’s happy or sad or something else entirely, an “existential absurdist tragicomedy,” but I prefer a happy ending, personally, so that’s how I read it, and at the end of the Game Show Awards, Howie Mandel said, “Remember, game shows are better than life, because in life you don’t get parting gifts,” which is an okay line I guess but of course stupid, since even though life is really, really hard sometimes, it’s still much better than a stupid television show in which you might win some home appliances or a small cash prize, since the question is not whether to deal or not deal, it’s to be or not be, and the answer is yes, okay, to be, because a verb is a thing you do and a person is a thing you are, I think I saw that on a commercial once, and at the end of the Game Show Awards, which had a happy ending, thank goodness, an audience member was awarded all the prizes that had been awarded to individual winners in all the games throughout the show, he was awarded a car and a cruise and a brand new living room set, among other things, and at the end of the Game Show Awards, the audience member stood there on the stage with everybody, the producers and the creators and the stars and the other contestants, lights shining all around and upbeat music playing, and he stood there on the stage with everybody and he was smiling and everybody was smiling and clapping and all of them just so happy, all of them celebrating the win, and at the end of the Game Show Awards, everybody on the stage and in the audience was smiling and clapping and winning and then somebody pressed a button and suddenly confetti was falling from the ceiling of the theater, it was falling over everybody like brightly colored snow, and then the screen went black and the show was over.


June 5, 2009

Cake Boss
by Dale Peck

Cake Boss is the worst reality show of the summer.

I apologize for the abruptness of this declaration, its lack of nuance, of any meaning besides the intuitive; but as I made my way through the extant episodes of Cake Boss during the past few days I was unable to come up with any other starting point for a consideration of its accomplishment. Or, more accurately, every other starting point that I tried felt disingenuous, nothing more than a way of setting Cake Boss up in order to knock it down. One of those starting points was this: “Cake Boss is a lot of things, but it is does not make your eyes bleed to watch it.” This was an attempt at charity, and though I still think that it’s true enough, I don’t think that it matters; at any rate, its lack of eye violence does not make up for the badness of the rest of it. Another attempt: “In its breakthrough episode, Cake Boss evinces a troubling fascination with acting annoying that is partially explained in the latest episode, a so-called ‘cooking show with digressions.'” Again, the observation strikes me as correct. The problem here was in assuming that what most viewers think of as the subject of a show has any role in Cake Boss beyond giving its ridiculous mediocrity something to coat, the way loose flour will dust itself over the nearest thing at hand, be it cake, coat, or cat.

Yet another false start: “Cake Boss is the worst of TLC’s very bad reality shows.” Here the first mistake was in focusing on the show itself, which bears the same relationship to the network’s career as its subject does to its aesthetic: the former come across as little more than a prop for the latter, incidental, interchangeable. Moreover, Table for 12, another recent popular show – despite the proposition put forth by a vocal minority: that Table For 12 is TLC’s best show – is, in fact, even worse than Cake Boss; but “Cake Boss is the second worst of TLC’s very bad shows” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Stop reading here if you are looking for a calm dissection of the work on display in Cake Boss. At this point, the attempt to make the cakes edible is about the only wise decision that I am willing to give the show credit for. The plain truth is that I have looked at cake after cake on Cake Boss and the cakes remain as meaningless to me as the varieties of kimchi that litter the tables of a local Korean restaurant. Actually, the comparison is not particularly apt, because I know that the kimchi means something, but I am not convinced that Cake Boss is about anything at all. In fact, it is only when I consider Cake Boss stripped of any pretense to content that I can ascribe it a measure of objecthood – not as the comical, psychological gastronomy that it purports to be, but rather as the latest in what I have come to regard as a series of imitations or echoes of reality’s more talented, or at any rate more authentically individual, peers.

Seen in this light, Cake Boss is TLC’s attempt at Ace Of Cakes, and I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant TLC’s version of Fear Factor, and Jon and Kate Plus 8 its take on Michael Apted’s Up, and Trading Spaces and the other home shows a pastiche of various reality programs which aired on the BBC in the first years of this century, the period of choice for the American reality television programmers of the of the pre-Obama era. No doubt TLC is even now at work on a sprawling “inspirational television show” in the manner of The Secret; and given their rate of output – three new shows this summer – we can probably expect to see it on our screens by the end of August, just in time for school to start.

Together these shows amount not so much to an oeuvre as to a brand, one whose success, though fascinating, is inexplicable to me. In fact, I have to confess that I consider myself unequal to the task of analyzing TLC’s reality shows.  Their faults strike me as uniform and self-evident and none of them are complex enough for a sustained analysis. My gut feeling is that if you honestly do not believe that this is bad television, then you are a part of the problem. When I finished Cake Boss I painted “Dumb! Dumb! So Dumb!” on my television screen in chocolate frosting and considered my job done. Like most of TLC’s shows, it is middle-brow, undramatic, derivative, bathetic. Their much-touted compassion strikes me as false; their highly polished aesthetic – “clean” and “shiny” are the tags that you see most often – comes only at the expense of authenticity, which is to say, of truth.

As TLC’s brand has progressed, its shows have striven to be more mythic and more postmodern and more real all at the same time; so it is perhaps not surprising that its latest endeavor is a work of hagiography masking itself as self-lacerating autobiography. Cake Boss asks us to consider its subject – the aforementioned Buddy Valastro, a.k.a. Cake Boss – as a postmodern tragic hero, ironic as well as iconic, America’s Battered Inner Child-cum-Messianic Cake Baker. Every scene practically cries out: love me despite the fact that I’m incredibly annoying.

Well, I don’t. Perhaps this denotes a failure of empathy on my part, or an indication that I am not the intended audience for TLC’s shows. But as I puzzled my way through this and the rest of their summer schedule, I found myself looking not for the place in their execution or conception where they went wrong, but rather for something even prior and more primary: the wrong turn in our culture that led to TLC’s status as one of the popular networks of its – okay, our – generation. In my view, the wrong turn starts around the time Ty Pennington left Trading Spaces for Extreme Home Makeover and echoes all the way through Little People, Big World’s ponderously self-important rendering of Matt Roloff’s trip to Iraq. Cake Boss’s badness is a little less inexplicable if you look at it as the lowest common denominator of a generation of television shows – and viewers: they, too, bear some responsibility for the condition of the form – who have long since forgotten what the reality and postreality assaults on authenticity were actually about, and as such have lost the ability to tell the difference between ambiguity and inscrutability, ambition and bombast; of shows who are taken at face value when they are being ironic and who are deemed ironic when they are telling it straight – assuming, of course, that they themselves know the difference. Assuming, I should add, that they actually have a subject.

Cake Boss’s style has been described as “a more natural albeit slightly more hysterical kind of cake baking show.” “Cake baking show,” of course, refers to the Food Network’s Ace of Cakes, but the imprecision is appropos with regard to the show’s half-thought-out rhetoric: the buzzwords here are “fondant” (pronounced fon-dahnt) and “hysterical,” the rest are approximations, filler. “I just did it,” Valastro, the cake boss, shouted into the camera while covering a with fon-dahnt. “I just made this really big cake shaped like a urinal, with butterscotch piss and everything. And I suddenly realized that it was okay for me to make these big, ridiculous ass cakes and that people would still eat the cakes and many people would be really excited by them.” The segue is revealing: Valastro’s criterion for his cakes is not that they be expressive but that they be “okay,” that “people would still eat the cakes” and “be really excited by them.” As with the cakes themselves, what comes through here is Valastro’s urgent, indeed “hysterical” desire to be heard, which he often expresses by shouting as well as making cakes. In its defense, Valastro’s audience is surely not the first to be “excited” by the “creative” structures of the cakes he holds in his hands.

And now I’ll tell you my truth: I went into this review thinking that TLC was a faker, a poser. Shooting Cake Boss off its cake stand, I thought, would be easier than shooting fish in a barrel. But whatever else it is, TLC is the genuine article. A producer of one terrible show after another, but a producer nonetheless. If you want to know the difference between a real reality producer and all those wannabes who punish us with their commercials and mobsiodes, it’s this: the real producer is incapable of seeing the world through anything but the prism of scene and talking head, which renders that world as falsely as chronology renders the progress of time. The reality producer understands that character is just a by-product of these two forces – that what we think of as ourselves is nothing more than an assortment of images acted upon by internal and external stimuli – and in some ways it is the urgent need to prove this hypothesis, to assert at least the possibility of a completely televisual experience, that drives him to make reality television. It’s true, it’s true, what you have always suspected is true: it’s ourselves we blame, ourselves we’re trying to save. Not the Cake Boss.

All of which may be just a long way of saying that I hate the episodes I’ve watched of Cake Boss, but there is always a moment in each one of them when I get mad at myself for hating them.

And then, alas, the moment passes.