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TV REVIEW: REALITY TV? — GET REAL!

In morality, psychology/psychiatry, sociology, television on December 29, 2007 at 7:43 pm

So-called ‘reality tv’ in the Survivor format must be the sickest, most degenerate form of entertainment created in the 20th Century for a mainstream audience — that is, short of such obvious moral atrocities as snuff films, and excluding bear baiting, dog fights, bull fights and other wantonly abusive ‘entertainments’ invented in previous centuries but still enjoyed by the morally calloused.

Yesterday I watched the final episode of one of the milder series, produced in Britain, in which eight morbidly obese youths trek 500 miles (800km) in eight weeks, from Land’s End at the southwesternmost tip of England, through some of the mountainous country of Wales and Cumbria to Edinburgh in Scotland. The strict diets they were on doubled the ‘challenge’ and heightened tempers as the natural camaraderie among the young people descended to ruthless rivalry and the stronger picked off the ‘weak’ one by one.

Two fell out relatively early on but another two who walked about 400 miles were still deemed to be losers. One of them, a young man of over 400lb, had lost 65lb (30kg) by his own efforts but, defeated by the ever-increasing daily pace, was still nagged to carry on by the producers and relentlessly berated even by his mother — though he was obviously close to physical and mental breakdown. In my (admittedly limited) experience of watching these shows it struck a new low in exploiting emotionally fragile young people. The narrator concluded at the end that four of the eight had taken control of their lives — obviously the ones who had stuck to the program’s format and succeeded as tv stars, in fact the ones most controlled by the producers.

The vast number of last-man-standing type series are too numerous and too loathesome to go into here, and deserve a condemnatory book of their own — if anyone with common decency could stand wallowing in the filth long enough to do the job justice. It beggars belief (like the inexplicable quarter-century existence of Hip Hop) that such ‘reality’ series — where teams of weak characters are exhorted to sink to the lowest of the low, gnawing at the other and then turning on their own to prove themselves ‘worthy’ to survive and win a million bucks — could themselves survive the endless train of personal destruction taken from one Pacific paradise to the next.

Possibly, being as popular as they are, it is a perverse ‘tribute’ to these Survivor-type programs that they have helped materially to lower the morality of wider society — to the point where the programs themselves seem so mild by now that Internet entrepreneurs and webcam stylists have taken the destruction through the next ‘logical’ steps, to such ‘entertainment’ as “Kick the Wino to Death”, or “Sexually Attack an Innocent for Fun and Humiliation”.

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Whatever happened to “No foreign wars!”

In history, ideology, morality, politics, television, war on December 27, 2007 at 10:06 am

Living outside America, as I have since age five — that is, my entire informed life — I have been disadvantaged in one sense in looking at the ‘Homeland’ (a term a little too reminiscent of ‘Fatherland’). That is, not being able to see it intimately, from the inside. I was acculturated as an American but since about sixteen, when I first thought of looking at things with an independent mind, I haven’t experienced the unadulterated pride and satisfaction Americans have in simply being American. (I almost said self-satisfaction but I think that applies more to the British; I’m convinced Americans are, for the most part, unassuming and appreciate things that come their way as gifts rather than rights they deserve.) I’m sure it’s made up of appreciating the many little things. But in a larger sense also, the state of simply living in ‘The Land of the Free’ — or what used to pass for it.

But on the other hand, though seeing America second hand, I don’t run the risk of self-serving delusion. And, standing back from something as big and complex as America — the place and the concept — you can, I think, more often see ‘the big picture’, and little things you often can’t see for standing right on top of them.

Now, I have rich childhood memories of America (1955-60) and am the first to admire American popular culture: the little cowboy outfit I wore riding on my trike; the junior grid iron one I had in USC colors — yellow and blue; the derringer in a belt buckle that would pop out with belly pressure; the rifle with a built-in ricochet; the crystal set in the shape of a rocket ship I used to listen to hit parades from 1958 on. For the past few days over Xmas I have been enjoying back-to-back screenings of B-movies from the Thirties and Forties on DVD. And if old B-movies are still worth watching, how much better was the ‘A product’ with slightly bigger budgets? — before 1975 and the mega-budgets spent on ‘perfecting’ very routine ‘special’ effects through the Spielberg-Lucas-Cameron-Jackson era. But the foreign policy of the United States is another thing entirely, something to be anything but admired, as many Americans have come to feel over recent years.

Though this fatal disconnect between a huge proportion of the population and its ruling elite has only come about recently, it has been in the brewing for decades. The big difference is that now the level of discontent has reached its critical mass. Something big is about to happen — must happen — for the unbearable political stress to be released. Over perhaps the past fifty years, since about the time of the Korean War and the inexorable build-up of what Eisenhower warned against as the self-sustaining power of the military-industrial complex of the United States, foreigners have tried to stretch their minds around how this need for vast military power equates to the generous, unassuming Americans they have met and got to know as individuals.

It is easy to see how the thinking of politicians is corrupted by power — it happens in every country in the world — but how do peace-loving small-town people across America, with their Saturday morning bake-sales, scouts activities, camping vacations and Mom-and-Pop businesses buy into this thinking?

Everyone knows that from the Founding Fathers on, Americans avoided foreign wars on principle, almost at all costs — allowing for the cruel Civil War and occasional imperialistic forays into Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean. Before his nation finally joined in World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to plead with his countrymen not to ignore for too long the fact of the war and that one day they would have to relate up close and nasty with those aggressor countries who had made war on the rest of the world. Then as soon as the war was won there was a popular cry from Americans to “Bring the Boys Home!”

But now the United States is the aggressor and the populist cry is “Let’s support our boys over there!”, as if soldiers should be directing the foreign policy of the United States; and the president should be conducting international relations as a commander-in-chief — he who must be obeyed to the ends of the earth, no matter how bogus the premise for war, no matter how wanton the war or destructive to his own people. Every president from Washington to Eisenhower must be rolling in their graves at the thought of the incumbent. On the other hand one of the popular, ‘liberal’ and seemingly rational Republican presidential candidates, Senator John McCain, is all for “supporting our troops” no matter how many of the troops disagree with him or resent being put in the crossfire for no good reason — repeatedly, as terms of duty are extended and then multiplied, indefinitely. Yet McCain must represent something akin to a mainstream in this warped thinking. He has been welcomed onto tv’s ‘The Daily Show’ and backslapped by hard-hitting satirist John Stewart — at least, hard-hitting when he has something easy to ridicule.

One tiny fraction of the (foreign) price of war: an Iraqi mother clings to her dead child

One tiny fraction of the (foreign) price of war: an Iraqi mother clings to her dead child

Unless Americans come out wholesale to vigorously protest (it might be illegal to incite actual rebellion) they can kiss what is left of their democracy goodbye. But the task looks immense. Already the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates with the largest followings shaping up for the next election in November 2008 have publicly refused to rein themselves in by renouncing the powers the current president has grabbed for himself — happy with the fact that his freefall towards full-blown fascism has set the precedent.

WHAT PRICE STARDOM?

In celebrity, film, generational/fashion on December 25, 2007 at 8:09 am

We seldom if ever give a thought to movie stars of a hundred years ago, partly because most people think they didn’t exist as early as that — but also because we live in a world that treats people as highly disposable commodities. Who can remember the divas that came after Madonna and disappeared before Whitney? The other day I struggled for hours to remember Kevin Costner’s name, even though — in his day — I had paid to see a couple of his movies, a rare thing for me: ‘The Untouchables’ and ‘JFK’.

Florence Turner, a great screen personality and a champion face-puller (gurner), taken on by Vitagraph studio, Brooklyn, in 1906 for a top wage of $18 a week

Florence Turner, a great screen personality and a champion face-puller (gurner), taken on by Vitagraph studio, Brooklyn, in 1906 for a top wage of $18 a week

Actually, to call a film actor a ‘star’ before about 1909-10 is, strictly, incorrect. Movies’ leading actors’ names were rarely publicized before that, for two main reasons:

1) Participating in movies at that time was even lower than performing in ‘legitimate’ theatre, only now shucking off its pariah status. Female performers in burlesque or novelty sideshows were previously thought no better than prostitutes, and were prey to the same social stigma, often purveyed by social climbers of their own sex. Performers of either gender hesitated to drag their family’s good name through the muck and would often appear for screen work under a pseudonym. In addition, for some seventeen years when the business of exhibiting movies was in its barely gurgling infancy, and until the courts finally ruled otherwise, it was believed that most movie production companies were illegal operations — that is, those who didn’t pay Thomas Edison royalties for using movie-making apparatus he held patents on. These ‘outlaws’, which included some of the best movie innovators of all, were reluctant to be thrown in the hooscow on old man Edison’s say-so, by his private police force.

2) Up to almost World War I it wasn’t necessary for movie actors to withhold their names because the studio they worked for did that — knowing full well that when a performer became a ‘name’, especially one with international exposure, he or she could command recompense in proportion to the size and popularity of that name.

The temptation became too much for Carl Laemmle, a diminutive German emigre who had worked his way up to own the biggest nickelodeon chain in the Midwest. In the spring of 1910, a year after he had made his first film (a single-reel version of the ‘Hiawatha’ story) for his own company, IMP — Independent Moving Pictures — he approached perhaps the most popular proto-star of her day with a promotional scheme that couldn’t miss. Florence Lawrence — not the kind of name a star would get away with today — had started on screen three years earlier with the then most successful American film studio, Vitagraph of Brooklyn, New York. In 1908 she had moved to local rival Biograph to be directed by the revolutionary D W Griffith, universally acknowledged as “Father of the Movies”, just shifting from acting. Florence, a year before Mary Pickford’s screen debut at the same company, quickly became the studio’s most popular ‘player’ (actor) — distinctive enough to be called by audiences “The Biograph Girl”. (Gene Gauntier was “The Kalem Girl”, Kathlyn Williams “The Selig Girl”, and so on.)

Florence Lawrence, the first American screen 'star', created in 1910

Florence Lawrence, the first American screen 'star', created in 1910

With matchless chutzpah (most of the second and third generation studio bosses were Jewish) Laemmle planted a story in newspapers that the Biograph Girl had been killed in a streetcar accident. Taking credit for her ‘rebirth’, he announced that she would reappear disembarking a train in St Louis. A huge crowd turned out for the occasion, and newspapermen and others insisted on knowing actual names. Thus was born a megastar with the mellifluous name of Florence Lawrence, “The Imp Girl”, officially the first* American movie star to be known by name. With a shipload of public sympathy behind his new prime leading lady, Laemmle was well on his way to founding Universal Studio. His initiative had revolutionized the industry, but other studio bosses, forced to top the exorbitant $200 a week he was paying Florence, didn’t thank him for it.

In 1915, the year Universal City opened for tours at the new base of Hollywood, and a new comic called Charlie Chaplin began his rapid rise to world stardom, Florence was badly burned helping a workmate escape a studio fire and was forced to retire for a time to recuperate. A comeback attempt failed. She continued in acting, though quickly forgotten by the fickle media. By the late Twenties she had been hired, like her early Vitagraph rival Florence Turner and other former stars fallen on hard times, by MGM boss Louis B Mayer for small, dignified parts on a steady salary. Studio shots of her in the early Thirties show her looking withdrawn, even distressed, far from the madcap camera hog she had been at her height. It is likely she sustained longlasting disability from the burns suffered in her heroic impulse to save fellow workers. In 1938, aged 52, she committed suicide by ingesting insect poison.

Sort of puts all the Britneys and Courtneys into perspective, doesn’t it.

*There is scholarly debate over what movie stardom precisely constitutes. G. M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, who had appeared in very early films including the legendary ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903), from 1907 starred himself in highly popular westerns so that his name was generally known but without attracting the overboard ballyhoo that passes for stardom today. There is also international competition to enliven the discussion. In France, early comic Andre Deed had the popularity associated with stardom, but under his clown’s pseudonym. Following him, Max Linder, invariably playing the character “Max” from late 1907, and quickly accruing a vast European popularity that included Russia with its 30,000 cinemas, is said by many to be the first true international star of movies.

BEING AMERICAN: Letterman — “That’s why the world hates us!”

In ideology, politics, television on December 24, 2007 at 2:16 am

A few weeks before the current television writers’ strike I was watching ‘The Late Show’. David Letterman was presenting his own version of the new tv series ‘America Has Talent’. The first guy he brought on displayed his own spectacular talent — kicking himself in the head thirty times within thirty seconds. He completed the task well within the time limit and with all the aplomb that could be expected of this form of entertainment. Letterman congratulated the man but then after he left said, “That is why the world hates us.” The second guy he brought on had a similarly unique talent that he must have spent hours and hours ‘perfecting’. As the drummer from the CBS band played a suspense-heightening roll on his snare, the young man fired a dart from a blowgun to trip a catapult propelling a marshmallow back in his direction, catching it in his mouth. Such an exacting manoeuvre took three tries before he got it right, first missing the catapult, then failing to catch the marshmallow, but finally completing it to the satisfaction of Letterman and the audience. Letterman remarked, “No, I’m sorry. That is why the world hates us.” The third man seemed to impress even Letterman — by drinking a glass of beer through his nose, sucking it up sip by delicious sip and then down his throat. Though some in the audience were audibly disgusted, Letterman praised this technique for its practical use: enabling you to smoke literally at the same time as enjoying a leisurely drink at the bar. But in another sense, according to Letterman, this feat trumped the others: “I have to apologize to the other two gentlemen: This is why the world hates us.”

From this superficially hilarious satire the obvious implication by Letterman is that Americans are for the most part absorbed in such trivialities: maybe the adult equivalent of playing with your peepee. And he could have added baseball, a national pastime raised to a spiritual observance but a competition largely irrelevant since cheating has been allowed to run rife for the past decade and a half; (American) football, a gladiatorial sport, the physical qualifications for which allow a tiny fraction of one percent of males to ascend to a similar pedestal in society, its attendant violence calling for layers of padding in a sometimes forlorn attempt to escape death; basketball, involving probably even more exacting physical disqualifiers for the general population, and believed to be a meaningful career for abnormally tall young men; and ice hockey, for which the childhood pastime of skating is ‘elevated’ by the additive of unprovoked aggression and other gang behavior to a religious experience observed for several months either side of the winter solstice. Americans are absorbed in these distractions every bit as much as Roman citizens were in gladiatorial circuses, orgies and freak shows through the decline of their empire.

This is not to say that New Zealanders and other nationalities don’t have their own crippling choice of tunnel vision in whiling away their days. They do. But, America being all-powerful and easily the dominant cultural influence around the world, living here in New Zealand as I have since 1960 I am frequently called on in casual conversation to defend the priorities of my original homeland, the United States. This used to be simple, I thought. I was only fourteen when the Sixties ended and America had always been the Good Guy as far as I knew, despite how some Vietnam War protesters had it. From the time I started university at seventeen and under the influence of my elder sisters I became a liberal (and, of course, a feminist), by my mid-twenties highly sceptical of how America functioned as a political unit in the world — diverging so far from the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

Under virtually continuous Republican administrations during my adult life — increasingly right-wing ones — it has been easy for scepticism to settle into deep disillusionment. The Clinton administration seemed in comparison an oasis of enlightenment in foreign relations, claiming to actually care about what the rest of the world wanted. Whether this was largely PR I’m not sure, but when the president visited New Zealand he was greeted like the second coming of Mahatma Gandhi: with almost the same moral authority, a comparable charisma quotient, and a lot handsomer to boot. Since then New Zealand has been downgraded from an ally to a ‘friend’ of the United States, mainly because not following Bush automatically into Iraq as Australia did under its conservative leader John Howard, recently voted out in a landslide.

Of course, a lot depends on whether you argue on a moral or on a historical basis:

“Yes, it was illegal, even immoral, for the United States to launch an unprovoked invasion against Iraq and remain as an occupying power — as it did against Hawaii, the Philippines, tried to do against North Vietnam. But, historically, look at the Roman Empire. Examined objectively, given America’s investment in naked power and as the one superpower in the world it has to be ruthless to maintain its power, or otherwise go backwards, relatively speaking”

… and this broad, philosophical argument trails off into intellectual abstractions and rationalisations. Standing back, it is seen this perspective is not objective at all but obtuse self-justification. I get the feeling a lot of Americans wouldn’t be content to think of their country as a historical parallel of the Roman Empire, despite the two societies’ many similarities in lifestyle, political priorities and reliance on military might to get their way.

The Thing About Writing

In Humor, literature on December 11, 2007 at 11:51 am
A resolute G. A. De Forest (Garbonza) intent on writing to the end

A resolute G. A. De Forest (Garbonza) intent on writing to the end

… Is that you’ve just got to keep going. Only beginners or fakes ever plead “writer’s block” to explain lack of motivation, absence of ideas or sheer amateurism. With modern word processors and computers, no longer is the old cliched image of the tortured soul tapping away at the keys on his typewriter, stopping frustrated after a few words, tearing the page away, screwing it up and throwing it in the trash can next to his special “writer’s desk” even comical. It just doesn’t apply, and serious writers would always have found that chronically constipated tragi-comic figure impossible to relate to anyway.

There’s no choice, if you’re truly compulsive about it like a real writer must be. In the supposed lag period after one book has been published and beginning another book there must be no lagging at all but simple continuity. A ‘vacation’ away from writing for me is more like torture. I’ve tried it before and it feels like my life has been put on hold. Always, by the second day, I am taking notes, writing passages, sample dialogue… The day after I completed my book, making the final touches to a 450-page monster that had been ten years in the researching, developing, writing, rewriting, editing and formatting, I was setting about polishing up projects I had put on the backburner for years, in various states of development. The project that was nearest completion I decided should take a back seat for now.

My thing is I like to, like many people, order the world around me to understand it better. And I do this by drawing up lists, seeing patterns in those lists and pointing out inconsistencies. This has long been just a hobby of mine: drawing up popularity lists of old movie stars; biggest-earning movies under each year of release; biggest-earning stars from whatever era; best songs, or songs I can remember from my childhood under various years. I can distinctly remember recordings that came out and were popular before my third birthday. When I mention these, other people assume I am a lot older than I am — I suppose because they most often remember songs from their high school era. Or maybe I do look older because I’m worn out from the frustrations and worries of being a writer, trying to do justice to the calling, and being distracted by normal everyday life intruding.

Years ago I figured out how to make my hobby into a profession of sorts — at least a vocation — and started writing pieces about pop culture history. Now it’s expanded into other interests, like philosophy and morality. Currently, I am planning and outlining a ‘top 10’ list of things that are wrong with the world, on which to base a book. It’s not exactly an original idea, but I’ll do it for my own piece of mind, just to make my own order from the world. There is always the hope, I think, for a serious writer, that if it is sufficiently well written and readable — and engages a sizable public — he might change the world in some way. I’m a pretty contented sort of guy, actually a little complacent now that my first major book has been published, but under the momentum of my compulsion there is no doubt I will generate enough material to fill out a book of a hundred pages or so. Look for it by the middle of 2008.

When Reality Strikes: One More Midlife Crisis

In celebrity, Humor, literature, philosophy on December 3, 2007 at 11:00 pm
G. A. De Forest in his study/junk room, January 2009

G. A. De Forest in his study/junk room, January 2009

When I reach a certain age, I keep telling myself, I will be able to accept all that life sends me with equanimity — that is, with a balanced attitude, in a state of zen-like indifference. My spirit will be whole, highly developed and impervious to any petty slights of this material world. Doesn’t seem to work that way. My experience in having my first real book published has delivered me more ups and downs in a few weeks than any other single year of my life.

There is nothing to compare with the sheer exhilaration of being accepted by a publishing company — in this case an e-publisher — who tells you they reject more than 90% of submissions. It was the first time since leaving school and doing particularly well in a few university papers and assignments — and that was thirty years ago — that I was told I was in the top 10-percentile in ANYTHING. Former lovers please note. This was acceptance, even praise, in the grown-up world, which — maybe because so long coming — has to count for more than a teacher’s opinion/encouragement of a student.

Quickly following this was great support from friends; the usual misunderstanding/ misinterpretation by family members; then the welcome distraction of getting the cover designed; tweaking the text until it’s just right; finding out the 15-page index I’d just compiled painstakingly has to be ‘automated’ (still don’t know what that is and don’t think I ever will) and so is left out, with an appendix too I thought was rather key.

But proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating — which might have been relevant if I wasn’t doing a book, because not many people want to taste my pudding. Of a potential readership of around six and a half billion on the planet — most of whom seem to have been captured by J K Rowling with seemingly very little effort or signs of outstanding skill or originality — it is amazing the near unanimous consensus they seem to have come to in staying away from my book.

I’ve come to the realisation that when ego is involved — and I do have one — and as long as one considers oneself even marginally a social being and is therefore striving for and dependent upon positive feedback and reinforcement of your efforts from fellow beings, then one is always somewhat at the mercy of likeminded people and market forces: likeminded people for that essential reinforcement of spirit and purpose; the market for some reassurance that one’s book isn’t being bought just by friends. Always in the knowledge that the market for ebooks tends to be hogged by bestsellers with names like ‘Boys Have Penises; Girls Have Vaginas’ and ‘Your Parchese Evening: 101 Ways to Success ‘.

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