Archive for July, 2008

Satiricom

Monday, July 21st, 2008

There has been much hand-wringing in the press about the current New Yorker magazine cover that shows Senator Obama in the Oval Office in full radical Muslim garb, sharing a fist bump with his wife Michelle, who is decked out like a 1980’s militant black panther, while an American flag burns in the fireplace and a portrait of Osama ben Laden hangs on the wall.

There was even an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times wondering, given the vociferous reaction, whether this cartoon was not proper satire. I beg to differ.

I would argue that the New Yorker cover has pushed so many buttons precisely because it is not only effective satire, but in fact constitutes a triumphal cry of “our side is going to win in November”. The underlying message is so strong that the political right is up in arms, and Obama himself is cautiously keeping his distance.


new-yorker-obama-cover.jpg

Let’s look at the context, starting with the actual target of the satire.

Fox News has always been, by design, in the business of being a class clown. Obviously what it does is not “news” in the way anybody would actually use that word, but a kind of extreme political editorial, a fairy-tale view of the world from the far right, dressed in the form of a parody of a news show. One could argue that the Fox brand of humor is, in a way, more outré than what Stephen Colbert does.

Colbert always lets on that he is merely pretending to be a doctrinaire idiot; he gives his audience clear signals that it’s all just an act. But the folks on Fox News are never permitted to drop the act. They have had to get on the air day after day and say the most inane things, often in direct contradiction to the facts already known to their viewers, while never being allowed to let on that they know they are looking and sounding like idiots.

This worked as an effective (if bizarre) form of political discourse as long as the administration they were supporting had a plausible story. People were traumatized by the attacks on the World Trade Center, were not sure about the Iraq war, were hoping that the Administration’s extreme brand of economic laissez faire and, um, unusual methods of prisoner rendition and interrogation were based on something substantial, some form of expertise.

But now so many of these things have been unravelling at the same time. The war, the economy, the interrogation techniques now found to have been unwittingly borrowed from cold war communist secret police, the out of control oil prices, mortgage-loan crisis and resulting housing panic, the simultaneous fall of the dollar and the Dow, all building to a crescendo, resulting in the most unpopular presidency in modern times.

Poor John McCain. He didn’t create this mess. Yet his talking points as the presumptive Republican candidate force him to reiterate the very positions on the war and the economy that have driven much of our population, Republicans and Democrats alike, into a state of fury at our current president.

And into all of this steps Obama. Serene, calm, oratorically brilliant – ok, yes, handsome – managing to look in complete command while maintaining a general tone of humility. Note how gracefully he pointed out during his trip to Afghanastan, when asked whether he had any advice for its leaders, that he was there to listen and to learn, and that any criticism of Kabul was the prerogative of the current U.S. president.

Obama talks about his Christian faith a lot, but he does it without seeming to brandish those beliefs as a military weapon. Contrast this with President Bush, who so often quotes the bible in order to justify beating plowshares into swords.

People are just feeling the normalcy of it all, a well-spoken, articulate and enthusiastic voice coming from the political center (not really the left, much to the disappointment of some).

And so Fox News made a mistake. Not realizing how much the ground had shifted under their feet, they did their usual clown act, playing up the idea that a fist bump between Michelle and Barack Obama was some sort of coded radical Islamic greeting. Even a few years ago, they might have gotten away with this, gotten people to play along – the way an entire nation had been willing to pretend to go insane, to fantasize that they had caught a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple, and that the appalling sight, the unspeakable horror, of seeing a lovely young woman’s nipple, even if everyone was only pretending to have seen it, was the single important issue of the day. This bout of consensual make-believe insanity, with Fox News leading the way, had served to get everyone’s mind off the war, and of things like real people actually, well you know, killing and dying.

But that was back when the backdrop was an administration that was being somewhat effective in selling itself as a sternly potent father figure, at least to some of the population. Now that this dog won’t hunt (to quote our vice president), Fox News is in the unfortunate position of being a court jester without a king.

When the Fox News folks started to do their fist bump nonsense, they simply ended up looking like idiots. It didn’t reflect at all on Barack Obama or his wife in peoples’ minds. Instead, a lot of viewers who had been going along with the Fox joke in recent years were now left scratching their heads and saying “gee, I never noticed before just how idiotic those guys on Fox News are.”

And that is the subject of the New Yorker cover. As odd as it might sound, the cover actually has nothing whatever to do with Barack Obama. That is why it works, and that is why it has angered so many on the right.

The fact that the image on the New Yorker cover is so patently at odds with the Barack Obama who is actually out there running for president – and that voters know this – means that the Karl Rove machine isn’t going to have enough to work with to effectively swift-boat the coming election. Essentially, this New Yorker cover is a pure victory lap for the Democrats.

And that makes it a little too powerful a satire for some peoples’ tastes.

My cousin Ben

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.
– Woody Allen, Annie Hall (1977)

Visiting my cousin Ben for his wedding brings back to mind all kinds of fond memories of him through the years. Ben is the kind of person who can build anything, inventing as he goes along, with whatever materials are at hand. Back when Ben and I shared an apartment together in Manhattan, every year at Halloween he would make his own costume.

One year Ben outdid himself. He decided to go to a costume party as Jaws. Starting in the morning, he built a big armature out of wire coat hangers, covered that with oaktag, and then stretched gray plastic hefty bags over it. He drew hundreds of little black magic marker dots onto the plastic so it would look textured like sharkskin. By the evening, the costume was finished, and Ben slipped it over his head: A giant shark – just about seven feet tall – complete with a big foamcore fin in the back, and another piece of foamcore in front making a faceplate in the shape of the famous Jaws teeth, with an opening just big enough for Ben to look through.

To top the costume off, he mounted one of those little plastic swimmer toys, the kind you wind up. It was really cute – when he wound up the little plastic toy, it would look like it was trying frantically to swim away from the killer shark.

We had some trouble getting to the party. The only way to fit Ben – now in full costume – into the cab was lengthwise, kind of lying him down on the back seat, while I sat up in the front. The cab driver didn’t even blink. The was New York after all, and I’m sure he’d seen much stranger things. But we gave him an extra tip anyway.

When we got to the party Ben in his shark outfit was an absolute hit. People loved it! The only problem was that it was kind of difficult for him to get around. He’d sort of have to sidle slowly to get from one room to another. It was a little difficult, but Ben didn’t mind. He was enjoying the glow of his success. That is, until she showed up.

She was a woman who just decided that Ben in his shark outfit was the cutest thing. He wasn’t really into her, but she didn’t seem to care. Ben wasn’t very mobile, so he couldn’t easily excuse himself from the conversation. She started winding up his little plastic swimmer, going on about how adorable it was, and playfully pouring drinks down into his costume, like she was feeding the Jaws monster.

Finally Ben had had enough. He looked the woman square in the eye, from inside the mouth of his costume, and said to her “A shark is like a relationship. I has to keep moving, or it dies.” And then, shuffling around in a circle until he had done a full 180, my cousin slowly and regally moved off in his shark outfit.

A member of the wedding

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

Today, in Miami, I had the honor of being the best man at the wedding of my cousin Ben, who is a very handsome and virile fifty year old, and Stephanie, who is beautiful, sassy, Brazilian, and one of the nicest people I have ever met.

Oh, right, I almost forgot. She’s also eighteen.

They are a perfect couple. Completely in love, comfortable with each other, happy just to be together. You can tell that they “get” each other. I have spent a significant amount of time in their company, enough to realize that they are one of the great couples that I have met in my life.

Lots of people in our family flew down for the wedding, but not everyone in our family was up on all the details. There was a point when one of my relatives and I were talking, and he turned to me, watching Stephanie and all of her other beautiful young friends dancing, clearly trying to figure out what he was seeing. And then he said “she’s younger than he is, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I replied, “she is younger than he is.”

He thought about this for a moment. Then he said “she’s younger than thirty, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I said earnestly, “she is younger than thirty.”

I suppose, as people come to know them, everyone will learn the lovely and astonishing truth about Ben and his bride. But why rush things?

Patterns

Friday, July 18th, 2008

On a midsummer night, when the moon is asleep
You may see for a moment, as though far away
A face from a time that was just yesterday
And the sound of your voice sounds far off and deep
Was it so long ago, it all seemed too soon
You remember that day, beyond the dark trees
The wind that would blow from the hill in the breeze
And a soft shadow cast by a wandering moon
You tried what you could, you did what you must
Though nothing has happened, how everything’s changed
For thoughts never spoken, in words unarranged
Are patterns you traced long ago in the dust

    But now it is late, and the breeze blown away
    You are left with the thought of a midsummer day

The secret power of restaurants

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

I took my friend Charles for his birthday to dinner at the Candle Cafe, one of the finest restaurants in this or any other city. Our conversation ranged widely, as it usually does. And then there came an odd moment toward the end of the meal, when we both realized that we were simultaneously and unwittingly listening to the strange story being told by a woman at the next table, about the time she had wrapped some sort of exotic headgear around her head.

The odd thing about this event was that neither of us was even slightly interested in her story, and until that moment none of the conversation from other tables had penetrated into the little world of ours.

I took the opportunity to tell Charles my long-standing theory about the secret power of restaurants.

Why do we go to restaurants? Yes, I know, we go there to eat. But we can also eat at home, with less expense and greater convenience. We go for company, but of course we can don’t need a restaurant in order to spend time with our friends. By the way, you have probably noticed that people rarely go to restaurants on their own. It’s generally something people do when they want to have a conversation with others.

So why go into an often crowded and noisy place, filled with strangers in close quarters, in order to pay far more for food than it would cost you to simply buy it at the market, invite your friends over, and eat in the comfort of your own home?

I think it’s precisely because of the phenomenon we witnessed when that woman described her turban wrap, except that in that moment something had gone terribly wrong – we had inadvertently caught a glimpse into the secret workings of a process that is supposed to remain unseen. Like in one of those stories by authors like Philip K. Dick where a woman discovers that those strange voices she’s been hearing actually belong to an artist and his model, and that she herself is but an image in an oil painting, or in which the hero realizes that the entire universe he lives in is contained in that odd little glass bottle sitting on his dining room table. I could go on, but you get the idea.

I think we’re not supposed to realize the hidden mechanism that makes restaurants so compelling, but I’m going to break the code and tell you.

My theory is that we go to restaurants because the constant chatter of strangers around us, which we consciously tune out, is actually continually infusing us with a subliminal stream of ideas, topics to discuss, words and phrases to use, imagery to invoke when making our next observation.

In other words, the atmosphere in a restaurant contains a built-in mechanism to give us the illusion that we are smarter, more clever, more interesting. And our dinner partner is transformed in the same flattering way.

Sure beats watching TV, doesn’t it?

Face the music

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

The evening started out going with Sophie to see Eh, Joe, the Samuel Beckett play. Liam Neeson plays the lead, but he has no dialog. Instead, Beckett has his hero do nothing but emote. You see a face without a voice, and you watch this man’s reactions as the disembodied voice of a woman, apparently a disgruntled ex-girlfriend, slowly and methodically proceeds to psychologically tear him to pieces.

Very Beckett.

The experience grabs you on two levels. On one level you are aware of the woman’s voice tearing away at the soul of a guilt-ridden man. She is most likely an imagining within his head, a product of his own guilt at the terrible account from his past that she slowly recounts. But in the end it doesn’t really matter: The man’s guilty soul is efficiently laid bare by the unfolding narrative this woman tells. His past sins are gradually revealed, until he is left naked, defenseless.

But on another, more literal, level, what you are watching is, in fact, a man’s face, even as his soul is rendered asunder. And in this performance it is no ordinary face – it is the face of Liam Neeson. And so Beckett’s high concept experiment of theatre circles around and lands in the most primal of places – our response to the features, the musculature, the expressiveness, the complex interplay of emotion on a single human face. In a way it is like a song, in which Beckett’s measured words are the lyrics, and Neeson’s face the music.

Sophie and I were both thrilled by this performance, and we excitedly discussed it afterward. I found my mind wandering, drawn to the essential mystery of it. There was something strangely familiar at work here: A disembodied woman’s voice, speaking calmly, in measured tones – quite likely a voice within someone’s head – leading into the living hell of a man’s past.

When I got home, I found myself searching YouTube, looking for parallels. I quickly ended up at the 1967 performance of Bobbie Gentry singing her magnificent song Ode To Billie Joe.

Here was something similar: the female voice, speaking slowly and calmly, gradually outlining a series of tragic events. She never raises her voice, and you are never allowed to learn exactly what has happened, yet the cumulative result, the sense of a man destroyed by a guilty secret, is devastating.

Is it possible that Bobbie Gentry was the Beckett of her genre?

Brad begins

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

I had never seen Spielberg’s Amazing Stories when it originally came out in 1985, so I thought it was an essential part of my pop-culture education to go back and find out what I’d missed all that time ago. Things got off to a wobbly start with the first episode Ghost Train, a fable about a ghostly train wreck, directed by the Stephen himself. All of the over-the-top sentimentality, telegraphed “drama”, needless underlining and pointless bombast that sometimes mars the man’s work is on display here in full swing. Remember that Monty Python skit where the giant cardboard hand of God comes down from the heavens? Seeing Ghost Train is like watching that, but in some alternate universe where Python aren’t actually trying to be funny, but are just trying to awe and impress you with a giant cardboard hand.

But then again, maybe it was all on purpose. Perhaps Spielberg was so evolved in his thinking, so flushed with the success of E.T. and the first two Indiana Jones films, that he deliberately decided to go all “meta” on us by opening up his new T.V. series with a train wreck of an episode. Now do you see it, the sheer subtle genius of the man? A train wreck!

OK, maybe not.

But the second episode of the series, well now that’s a whole ‘nother thing. It’s called The Main Attraction, and the lead character is an utterly self-absorbed high school guy, a preening narcissistic prom-king named Brad, who is about to get his comeuppance. The episode plays like a hyperkinetic, knowing cartoon, supercharged on adrenaline and suffused with a kind of hip hopped-up insider knowingness. Diametrically opposite in tone to the lugubrious first story, every frame of this episode, from start to finish, feels as though it has just escaped, laughing with maniacal glee, out of a Tex Avery cartoon.

We are used to this sort of thing now – from Malcolm in the Middle to those frenetically post-modern Saturday morning cartoons like Pinky and the Brain and its cousins, all clearly designed to turn innocent little children into hopeless cases of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (my theory is that these shows are secretly funded by the drug companies that make Ritalin).

But back in 1985 this was something unprecedented, a sharp new tone to things, which had never quite been seen before anywhere. Like Birth of a Nation or Bonnie and Clyde in their time, people were witnessing a new aesthetic at its moment of birth. And who was the author of this episode? None other than Brad Bird, in his very first published writing credit. Yes, that Brad Bird, of Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. But this was long before all that – fourteen years before Iron Giant.

I was enthralled. Here I was, with the clarity that comes only with hindsight, seeing how a young author, writing long before his time of fame and recognition, had planted a seed into a culture – a meme that might be called “knowing post-modern mania” – which would soon germinate in the minds of young writers-to-be, and through them would spawn a new kind of story telling, would in some sense even come to define the aesthetic of an era.

Isn’t that marvelous? Twenty three years ago an unknown young writer channeled his inner Edna Mode, and began the transformation of an entire medium. Even so, I doubt that Brad spends much time thinking about the seminal influence of his early work. As Edna herself once said: “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.”

Oreo oreo oreo

Monday, July 14th, 2008

This evening I was feeling depressed and so I went out and bought myself a box of a dozen Nabisco Oreos. And ate them all. I feel much better now.

Let me say, at the outset, that I am sure that Oreo cookies are stunningly bad for you. Sugar, high fructose corn syrup, more sugar … you know the drill. The odd thing is that they are also pure vegan (at least in the U.S.). So you have the comfort of knowing that while you might be gradually killing yourself, at least you are not taking anyone else down with you.



Clearly we are not talking here about health food. While I doubt that your life will be shortened very much by eating a box of Oreo cookies, I somehow also doubt that it will be lengthened by the experience. On the other hand, Oreos are no ordinary cookies.

That’s the beauty of Oreos. Every Oreo that you hold in your hand is a choice, the cusp of a decision. There are multiple time streams flowing from that cookie, each a doorway to a different future.

You can, for example, just pop an Oreo in your mouth, treating it as a mere cookie. And while that is a valid choice – indeed, far be it for me to deny the essential cookieness of the humble Oreo – it is only one path among many.

No, the really interesting decisions always begin when you open your Oreo cookie, the moment when you delicately pry apart the two chocolate wafers with your fingers. And there before you lies the snowy cream.


Now please don’t get me wrong. We speak here not of mere geometric form. Otherwise, we might as well be holding a Sunshine Hydrox cookie, the bane of my childhood. I learned about these when I was a kid, when my mom tried to buy them instead of Oreos, before my brother and I set her straight about our essential needs. Sunshine Hydrox seems to be some sort of cargo cult Oreo, the form without the essence, a thing of plaster and sawdust.

I think of Hydrox as the gollum of cookies. It may walk among cookies, assuming their form, and yet still it tastes of the clay and mud from which it was formed. If ever you should find one in your hand, it is best to remain calm. Put it down slowly and back away. Somebody will likely be along shortly to dispose of it, and to alert the authorities.

No, we are talking here about the true Oreo. Where were we? Oh, yes – we were just now examining the snowy cream filling. At this point two choices lie before you. You can be impetuous, and pop the cream covered wafer in your mouth first. Or you can first go to the dark side, forgoing the snowy white pleasures of the cream covered half until the very end.

And yet still you have have not exhausted the possibilities. You can scrape the cream off with your teeth, leaving but two dark chocolate wafers to decide between. They are ostensibly the same, like identical twin gunfighters facing off in a gothic Western, distinguished only by their storied pasts. And this of course poses yet another choice – which to eat first.

One box of cookies, so many decisions. So many paths to take or to forego, each one a conduit to another future. And when at last the box is empty, there is one last choice you can make, my friend, a choice which may truly set you apart.

You can decide to buy another box.

Prisons

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Two completely different responses to my post of July 11 about prisons – one from Charles about his brother who has just begun a seven year prison sentence here in the U.S. for a minor drug offense, and the other from Manooh about ten animal rights activists who are being kept in prison in Austria, without due process, under horrific conditions that one does not associate with the word “democracy”.

I have personal connections in both directions. I know Charles quite well, and I understand that his brother has been having a troubled time of things for a number of years now.

Of the ten detained people that Manooh mentions, I personally know Martin Balluch – the one who is going on a hunger strike. I share her worry about his health, in addition to everything else. Martin is a very gentle and thoughtful and caring man, and he is extremely opposed to violence of any sort. The attempt by the Austrian government to paint him as some sort of mafioso is absurd. But then so much in the world is absurd these days.

My dad is in a different sort of prison, and this has been occupying much of our family’s focus for the last several years. He suffers from atypical Parkinson’s disease. The essential effect is that he is becoming progressively more locked in – losing his ability to walk, finding it difficult to speak, unable to move around in the world and make himself understood. What makes this especially awful is that my dad was always a very active man – he grew up on a farm, and all his life he has had the kind of physical robustness and energy that comes from that kind of upbringing.

And he is brilliant – still just as brilliant as ever, in spite of everything. These days he is writing several books simultaneously (not easy when you can hardly speak or move), and they are all quite wonderful. Of course the books provide a way for him to cope with the insidious helplessness of his condition. The writing is not exactly a door leading out of his prison, but a way to knock some windows through its walls, with lovely and panoramic views.

So many kinds of prison, and each with its own shape. Charles’ brother may be locked within several different kinds of prison, if I understand the situation correctly, only one of which is made of steel and brick. Not all prisons are physical.

Martin is suffering greatly, but in an odd way he is also free, the way the Reverend King or Mahatma Gandhi were always free, in spite of all attempts to make them less so. He brings a powerful moral conviction with him, which I am confident will outlast these temporary prison walls.

And that makes him something like my dad, I guess, who each day summons the tremendous will power it must require to continue writing his books and connecting with people, in spite of the terrible misfortune that fate has thrown his way. I doubt I could ever live up to his example, but I am very grateful to have such a man as my father.

A surprising connection

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

OK, many of you are going to get mad at me for this, but I can’t help it. This is something that I’ve noticed and need to talk about.

Today I was at a lovely outdoor picnic and concert on Governor’s Island. I didn’t like the singer all that much. In his banter between songs he would invoke the name of Woodie Guthrie, as though the songs we were hearing were somehow keeping alive the great flame of American folk music. But when he sang, I swear it sounded like Glen Campbell trying to imitate Jackson Browne. And that’s just disturbing.

But before the singer came on, the organizers of the event were piping music through the P.A. system while everyone was setting up. And the music they happened to pick was a Nick Drake compilation. Now, I happen to think there that Nick Drake was one of the great lights of modern popular music. There was something about him that defies all categories. Sure, he had that whole edgy loner thing going, but there was much more to it than that.

It’s as though Drake was listening to a voice from the other side, sad echoes from an afterlife, and transcribing what he heard. His wistful vocal style and strange open-string guitar chords completely redefined how a song can sound, evoking a feeling of intimate and casually relaxed tragedy – “freak folk” decades before that term even existed. Sadly, he soon did go over to that other side, leaving the world with only a handful of powerfully strange and heartbreaking tracks to remember him by.

OK, so here’s the part where I might freak people out. For several hours after the concert I continued to hang out with my friends, having a great time. Yet something kept nagging at the back of my head, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. A sound, a snatch of melody, some sort of elusive connection.

And then, when I got home this evening, I had an odd craving. Like when you just have to have pickles, and you don’t even like pickles. But suddenly you realize, crazy as it seems, that today you must have pickles!

So I went to YouTube, looking for the scene in the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor in which a young Debbie Reynolds sings the title song Tammy (written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston).

OK, call me crazy, but you can see it all, right there. The wistful romanticism, the casually intimate tragic longing, that you hear in Drake’s songs. Notice, for example, the moment at 1:02 in the video when Reynolds, singing the line “Wish I knew if he knew what I’m dreamin’ of” holds the high note for just an extra moment on the word “of”. That’s pure Nick Drake.

I realize that this is blasphemy. I mean we’re talking about Debbie Reynolds here, in a Hollywood musical. It doesn’t get any less cool or un-edgy than that. But nonetheless, there is a clear aesthetic line waiting to be drawn from this performance to, say, Drake singing Pink Moon.

I hear this connection clearly, as strange as it is, and it tells me that there are some qualities, some universals in how we respond to songs of yearning, which transcend even the largest shifts in fashion and culture.

So sue me.