The Captive Psychiatrist

The great challenge of American film and literature is this:  the protagonist must disclose powerful personal stories of past abuse or crushing disappointments or betrayals to win the audience’s sympathy (and excuse his addictions, infidelities, and other bad behavior) but telling all this to the object of his or her affections would come off as self-pitying.  The only plausible venue for this type of disclosure is the therapist’s couch.  But in the popular imagination, only a weak effeminate pussy would voluntarily become so vulnerable as to disclose such details, so it must be dramatized as coerced.  Somehow, we must create a dramatic situation in which the protagonist can simultaneously disclose his vulnerabilities and mock the inquisitorial mind.

Here’s the problem, and it’s not a small one:  no psychiatrist or psychologist worth his salt would waste a minute of time on a patient that doesn’t want to cooperate.  It is a bedrock principle of psychotherapy that you can’t provide therapy to someone against his will.

And what therapist would even want to try?

But what if it’s a condition of probation, or shared custody of the children, or a job?  The problem does not change.   If a patient behaved the way Will Hunting behaves in “Good Will Hunting”, the therapist would almost certainly wish him luck in future endeavors and tell him he has willfully thrown away his probation or the job or the custody arrangement or what have you.

And so we have “A Clockwork Orange”, “Good Will Hunting” and “Shawshank Redemption” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Gangs of New York”, “Antwone Fisher”, and perhaps the worst of all, “Reign Over Me” (in which Liv Tyler played the psychiatrist– seriously) and so on.   It’s become an extremely tiresome trope, a sure indicator that a film writer has run out of ideas or is concerned that his audience is so stupid they won’t get the point of the story.

(An additional trope in many of these films is the therapist who cares so much that he or she chases down the reluctant patient and begs them to receive therapy.  Seriously.  The audience is invited to project themselves into a character so lovable that professional psychiatrist and psychologist will abandon personal schedules and work obligations in order to track them down and drag them into their healing arms.)

“The Sopranos” toys with the issue and frequently straddles the line.  Tony has a real problem: panic attacks.  He stops seeing Dr. Melfi for a while but the panic attacks resume.  He tries a different psychiatrist, who proves ineffectual.  He returns to Dr. Melfi on just barely believable terms, though he frequently blurts out something like, “I’ve had enough of this crap”.  The audience projects itself into a character who thinks he’s smarter than a psychiatrist.

What’s really going on in these scenes is the writer is trying to show that he is smarter than a psychologist or psychiatrist.

The most contemptible examples of this are those mildly enlightened films that pretend to have a real theme, an idea, an enlightened perspective on something, like “Reign Over Me” and “Good Will Hunting”.   “Good Will Hunting” lays the groundwork for the millions of Trump followers who are convinced that those educated elites are really no smarter than the average janitor (played by the charismatic Matt Damon).  But it would not be an asset to the character to have Will admit to how much harm he has suffered from his traumatic upbringing unless he is compelled to admit it; thus, the kludge plot mechanism of having his probation depend on attending therapy sessions with the utterly charming and sexy Robin Williams– who, nevertheless, threatens to kill him at their first session after Will makes light of Dr. Maguire’s wife.  (And the probation?  Another tired trope: Will was involved in a gang fight.  Because he is a bad boy?  Oh no– one of the gang members used to abuse Will when he was a child.  Hollywood loves bad boys but not if they’re really bad, just as they love titillation, but not real, honest sex.)

I used to work in a children’s mental health centre.  I can tell you that almost none of the psychiatrists or psychologists in these films approach believability.  Dr. Melfi in “The Sopranos” is particularly inept.  Now, I’m not saying that psychiatrists or psychologists can actually be smart and effective.  But they do have extensive training and they will have some idea of how they are going to approach the task at hand, even if their approach is contrived or transparent or just plain ridiculous.   Dr. Maguire in “Good Will Hunting” is supposed to win our respect by showing how tough he is when Will mocks his (deceased, unknown to Will) wife.

It’s not admirable: it’s downright stupid.

 

 

 

CNN’s Election Coverage 2022

CNN was rather meticulously explaining why counting votes from urban districts with very large, more educated populations that tend to vote Democrat takes longer than counting the relatively small number of votes from rural areas that tend to vote Republican.
It was like Sesame Street for Election deniers. I kept expecting them to bring on the Count to demonstrate how some numbers are bigger than others.
Except, I think the Count counts faster than Arizona or Nevada.

Nick Cave is Getting Old

Q.  This is semi-random but did you see the Elvis movie?  [The hit movie “Elvis,” directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Austin Butler as Elvis Presley.  from this year?]

A.  Yeah. I was confused by it. Elvis is my hero. There was an aspect to the story of his later years that is almost religious to me.  NY Times

First of all, a journalist should not be telling Nick Cave that the movie is “a hit”.  What is your point?  That it was popular and successful?   [Well, pardon me– but, as if to prove me right, he didn’t say “hit movie”: the NY Times website attached a note to the article that my copy somehow picked up.]

I take it Cave was confused because Luhrmann, striving for some kind of credibility, I suppose, ended up allowing some ambiguity in the film as to just how “heroic” Presley was.  He clearly refused to stand up to his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who made so many bad decisions for him, and Elvis’ greatest success came in Las Vegas– a cesspool of kitsch– but he is worshipped by the credulous American public who can’t believe that someone that rich (he wasn’t, really– Parker took most of the money) isn’t also virtuous and deserving.

Firstly, I know someone reading this will, sooner or later, leap up and shout “but he had a great voice”.  Yes he did.  So does Celine Dion and Michael Bublé and a hundred other irrelevant “artists” who merely produce pleasant-sounding confections.

Is there anything more bereft of artistic merit than a Michael Bublé song?

As another aside: the film could have done one brilliant thing to lift itself above the messy contrivance that it is:  it should have contrasted Elvis in Vegas– and his audience– to the nascent punk movement in London and New York, and their audiences, just to clue the audience in to just how far from “shocking” Elvis had become and how much he had become, instead, an establishment icon.

It means very little to me, who would rather hear Bob Dylan sing one verse of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or  “Tambourine Man” or Leonard Cohen croak his way through  “Famous Blue Raincoat” or Tom Waits wail “Cold, Cold Ground” than an entire concert of Elvis.

There is a reason Elvis impersonators are so popular.  What Elvis produced is easily imitated. It’s all surfaces and gloss.  It’s that warble in his voice, the breath, the thirsty lips.  It’s audio scenery.

I won’t hide my crushing disappointment at hearing Nick Cave admit he admired perhaps the most corrupt and conformist rock-pop artist in history.  Elvis was always only ever about getting rich.  Okay– yes, he was a white artist doing black music in the 1950’s.  What did that mean to him?  That he was progressive or activist or even liberal?  He “shocked” the establishment.   Into what?  Hurling their panties onto the stage in Las Vegas?

And gosh, yes indeed, he was very attractive to girls– because, one suspects– he was a girl.  He was definitely a mama’s boy who couldn’t bear to have sex with his wife after she had become pregnant.

He was also a credulous believer in old time religion, producing several albums of the most banal, conventional gospel tunes imaginable (he made Tennessee Ernie Ford look positively conscious).   He used his money to build himself a playground at Graceland and surrounded himself with men who were willing to act like kids and horse around and eat too much and keep real people away.  He begged a fat old Dutch hustler with the cultural palette of Gumby to please, please take 50% of all of my earnings because I am too dumb and too weak to  get myself a lawyer– without your permission– and challenge you on any point on any issue including those monumentally stupid movies you signed me up for.  This was no “shock” to the establishment: it was a slobbering wet kiss to everything the white patriarchal society represented at the time.

Elvis joined the army.

Seriously– Elvis never, in his 20’s, a powerful (in terms of potential earnings power) celebrity, never challenged Parker’s control of his career, of his social life, of his engagements, his politics, his clothes?  Just how gutless exactly was the man?  Regard the Beatles, who exploded into four solo-careers, fired their manager, hired and fired lawyers and accountants, started a company, bankrupted the company, promoted new artists, demonstrated for peace, and so on, and so on, all while Elvis was sitting on a toilet in Las Vegas.  (It has to be noted here that the Beatles, too, admired Elvis, and the Beach Boys.  But they were more influenced by Bob Dylan.)

That’s not merely weird.  It’s nauseating.

Nick Cave says:

The final Las Vegas concerts were the Passion of crucifixion and redemption and resurrection.

Nick Cave– do you even know what Las Vegas is?  Have you ever been to Vegas?  Have you toured the hotels, the strip malls, the casinos?  What is there about this place that doesn’t strike you as hell?

There is a man who’s suffering on such an epic level to be onstage and to perform and to live.

No, there is a man who didn’t have the backbone to make any decisions for himself for his entire life.  You admire him for it?!!

I have always found Elvis repellent for the same reason Cave says he admired him: he played Vegas.

Growing up in the 60’s, my generation had the courage (for better and worse) to begin to think independently of the established pro-war, pro-growth, anti-sex, anti-drugs culture and strike out boldly with new values and ideas and lifestyles.  Sure, a lot of it went off the rails, and a lot of it did not endure.  But think of the environmental movement, the feminist movement, civil rights, and the antiwar attitudes that do still prevail.  Elvis had nothing to do with any of it.  It was a conscious decision, made for Elvis by the “Colonel”, to never, ever have an intelligent opinion about any of these raging issues during the entire decade.

What was Elvis doing, during the time of “Ohio”, “The Times They are a ‘Changing”, “For What It’s Worth”, “Eve of Destruction”, Woodstock, Kent State, Viet Nam, Love Canal, etc., etc., etc.?

A medley, arranged by the great songwriter Mickey Newbury, of “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials” that Presley frequently used as a centerpiece of his later concerts.

(Another note from the NY Times referring to a segment of the documentary, “This is Elvis”. )

Suffering?  Elvis wanted the worship, the attention, the money, the corrupting lifestyle, the entourage, the limousines, the bullshit.  It is what he lived for.

That changed my life as an artist. It was the most stirring thing that I’ve ever seen musically. There was something that was happening at those shows that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Well, that part is right.  You watched a generation of obese, self-satisfied, smug, contemptible Las Vegas consumers wet their panties over a  vacuous washed-up celebrity icon.  This wasn’t a crucifixion, and it certainly wasn’t redemption (Elvis had long ago lost the younger generation: he was now appealing to the teenagers of the 1950’s, who were now middle-aged and settled into their suburban homes) and Elvis wasn’t courageous or innovative or inventive or noteworthy in any artistic sense at all, aside from the fact that he was a white man performing black music.  All that blather that you read about his “come-back” is from a bunch of hacks being overwhelmed by Elvis’s popularity and coercing themselves into sucking up to the myth.

What, really, at this point in his career, was the difference between Elvis and a mediocrity like Engelbert Humperdinck?  Not much.  Elvis was louder.

We are told that Elvis died on the toilet.  Elvis lived on the toilet, on the Las Vegas of culture, literally: trashy spectacle and banal confections.


The only thing that could be more disappointing than Nick Cave’s admiration of Elvis would be Eric Clapton finding Jesus and becoming an anti-vaxxer or Van Morrison comparing Covid restrictions to slavery.

And yeah, Eric Clapton found Jesus and is now a pro-Trump anti-vaxxer and Clapton and Van Morrison compare Covid restrictions to negro slavery.

Has Clapton changed?

In 1976, Clapton said this, publicly:

Onstage, Clapton told his audience that it was important to “keep England White” and that “the Black wogs and coons and Arabs and f—ing Jamaicans don’t belong here.”

You might say, and I might say, that an incident that happened 45 years ago should be forgotten.  I would strongly agree, if it was an “incident”, like groping a groupie, or stealing your best friend’s wife (yes, he did).  But it wasn’t: it was Clapton inadvertently forgetting to hide his opinions from the public.  Clapton, who made a career playing the blues, a style created by black musicians, has never played a role in any protest or civil rights movements.  He has been conspicuously silent on those issues.   He choice to not publicly support those movements is, in fact, a statement in itself.

When he appeared in photos with Greg Abbott in Texas, one can’t doubt that that too was Clapton lettings his opinions slip into the public stream.

Now he complains that his old friends don’t call.


I was curious.

Articles on the web defending Elvis seem to think there is a constituency out there that thinks Elvis is racist.  I never thought that.  I don’t know of anyone who does.  Then I realized— that’s the strawman.  Prove that Elvis wasn’t racist and you have therefore salvaged his reputation from allegations of triviality and irrelevance– the kind of stuff I am asserting here.  So there are numerous articles on line showing that Elvis had many black musician friends and none of them thought he had any racist attitudes.  He grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, a mixed race community.  I’m fine with that.

However, I thought it was interesting that so many sites felt the need to make that defense.  In any case, I was curious: did Elvis agree to play for segregated audiences?  The Beatles refused.  Did Elvis refuse?

The rider for the September 11 concert “explicitly cited the band’s refusal to perform in a segregated facility,” writes Kenneth Womack at Salon. When concert promoters pushed back, John Lennon flatly stated in a press conference, “We never play to segregated audiences, and we aren’t going to start now. I’d sooner lose our appearance money.”  From Here.

It’s easy to find references online of the Beatles refusing to play segregated audiences.  The Rolling Stones are known to have recorded songs by obscure black artists as b-sides to their hit singles, to give them some income.

Regarding Presley’s first hit, “That’s All right Mama”:

Arthur Crudup was credited as the composer on the label of Presley’s single, but despite legal battles into the 1970s, reportedly never received royalties. An out-of-court settlement was supposed to pay Crudup an estimated $60,000 in back royalties, but never materialized.[15][16] Crudup had used lines in his song that had been present in earlier blues recordings, including Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1926 song “That Black Snake Moan”.[16]  (Wiki)

It is hard to believe that there would not be a record of it– as of the Beatles– if he ever had.  There is a clear record about one thing: Elvis virtually never stood up to Tom Parker (can we all please STOP calling him “Colonel”: he was never a Colonel anywhere)  and challenged any of his decisions, and Tom Parker obviously didn’t give a fuck about civil rights.

There is a video— by “fans”, of course– that claims that Elvis performed a beautiful, powerful song (“If I can Dream”) about truth and beauty and justice and brotherhood at the end of his 1968 NBC TV special.   But the song is anodyne at best, banal, and unspecific, and safely generic.  Not a single line that even approaches “battle lines being drawn” or “tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming” or even (of course) “Imagine there’s no country”.

People love Elvis.  I never have.  The people who love Elvis will twist themselves into a pretzel to find some way to rationalize that love, to find virtue in the man that is commensurate with their esteem.   That esteem is a reflection of ourselves, our good taste, our own virtue, but not of the reality of fat , sweaty Elvis leaning in and kissing the women taking a break from the slot machines in the front rows of the International Hotel ballroom.

Pretty Good Discussion of the Racism

My Dissenting Voice on Betty White

The journalist Dan Rather wrote that Ms. White had been beloved because she “embraced a life well lived.”

“Her smile,” he wrote. “Her sense of humor. Her basic decency. Our world would be better if more followed her example. It is diminished with her passing.”

What is this shit?

First of all, Dan Rather hasn’t been a real “journalist”– someone who actually investigates, researches and reports on a news story– for several decades.  Secondly, “basic decency”?  “Life well-lived”?   Well, that’s what you say, I guess, when you can’t really list any achievements that don’t sound trite.

Betty White died yesterday, at 99.  The New York Times says:

“A cultural icon”: Television stars, comedians, a president and seemingly the whole internet paid tribute to Betty White.

Really?  Will no one speak up for those who have real achievements but will join Betty in the dumpster of useless Hollywood has-beens because even the New York Times thought Betty White was something?  “James Baldwin died– he lived a life well-lived.”  “Richard Nixon died– another life well-lived.”  “Leonard Cohen died.  Yet another life well-lived”.  I could go on.  And on.  And on.

I would say that I racked my brain trying to think of a single distinguished achievement by Betty White but I didn’t even bother.  Even her fans have to admit that she has not a single notable achievement in her resume.  Not a single great movie role.  Not a single great achievement behind the camera.  And a long list of mediocre television appearance.  I’m sure you are baffled: then how did she get to be so famous?

We have all been bombarded with this “Betty White is so great, so funny, so cute” bullshit that it would have been impossible to avoid.  The truth is that Betty White was never anything more than a boring “celebrity” in the most bankrupt definition of the term: someone without any real achievements who is famous for being famous.  That’s why she was added to the cast of  “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (she was also a personal friend of the star of the show) and that’s why she got a role in “Golden Girls”.

Betty White broke barriers, defied expectations, served her country, and pushed us all to laugh.  (Michelle Obama on Twitter).

Broke barriers?  Which barrier was that?  The one that prevents  privileged ambitious attractive young women with connections from getting onto TV in trivial inconsequential roles and than leveraging their exposure into trite game show gigs and then leveraging that into a sitcom gig– because your friend, the star of the sitcom, gave it to you?

Or that tremendous barrier against old people being hilariously interested in sex?

She was famous.  For being famous.  A reassuring porridge of unthreatening pabulum for the American public–mostly women– to consume without fear of the slightest disturbing vibration.  Nobody regarded her as a serious enough talent to give her a substantial role.  TV-land, lady.

What was she famous for?  Take a close look.  Not a single damn thing.  Quick– name the movie that catapulted her to stardom?  Of course you can’t: she didn’t star in a single notable movie.

You have to accept that she got her “big” television roles because she was a celebrity, which counts as nothing.  She didn’t blow people away with an audition.  She didn’t sell people on the part.  She was a comforting, familiar face to tv viewers.  TV Viewers are idiots: they decide what to watch based on which overly familiar celebrity is in the cast.  That’s why Bill Cosby was a success.  That’s why there was never an inter-racial dating on the Bill Cosby show.  That’s why there was Bill Cosby: you get the celebrity you deserve.

So how did she get that “celebrity” status?  By leveraging small, insignificant roles in radio and tv into guest appearances on that stream of sewage we call television game shows.  From her over-exposure on the game shows, celebritydom.  From celebritydom, casting decisions, as well as her personal friendship with Mary Tyler Moore.

Game shows were her specialty: She appeared on “To Tell the Truth,” “I’ve Got a Secret,” “The Match Game,” “What’s My Line?” and, most notably, “Password,” whose host, Allen Ludden, she married in 1963.

That’s it.  That’s the talent reservoir of the “beloved” Betty White, an actress I personally found so annoying I would change the channel the instant I saw her face in whatever it was was on.  Her face there was an iron-clad guarantee that whatever you were watching would be derivative, repetitive, dull, and ugly.  The kind of humor popularized by Carol Burnett and Red Skeleton,

Everyone I know loves her.  They seem to believe she had a long list of real achievements to her career.  Creating a monotonously one-note character of repetitive gesture and catch-phrase in a TV sitcom is not an achievement.  It’s vulgar and boring.  Starring as the most cliche-ridden character in the entire history of popular culture: the feisty old lady– in “The Proposal”– itself an incredibly boring predictable stew of insipidness– counts against you.

And nothing was more boring on television than an aging female star making tiresome jokes about sex.

“Oh my God!  Betty White!  She’s so funny.  I just love her.”

Stunningly, The Screen Actors Guild gave her a lifetime achievement award in 2010.  What the fuck!?  Do you not even have to have a single real achievement to win this award?  Not one?

If you have a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement award you might as well toss it in the dumpster: it obviously is not earned by any actual remarkable achievement.

The comedian Bob Saget called Ms. White “a remarkable talent” who was witty, kind, funny and “full of love,” especially for her husband.

Bob Saget is a comedian?

Well, he is the most appropriate person to pay tribute to Ms. White: no other male tv personality matches his degree of vacuous charmlessness.

The shame of it is we already have a veritable river of shallow celebrity worshippers streaming their effuse adulation of this incredibly trite person– why could the New York Times not reserve it’s accolades for people with real achievements?  Leave us one media source that doesn’t by into this shit.

 

 

Bob Saget’s Smarmy Ass is in Hell

When my children watched little snippets of Bob and read some quotes, they couldn’t know that Bob Saget didn’t do transgressive comedy to be mean. He didn’t even do it to shock. He did it to make people laugh,   NY Times

He did it to make people laugh?  Penn Jillette cleverly distracts you from the fact that Saget’s humour was tediously reliant on bodily function humour: yes, pure shock value, as if anyone could really be shocked by a poop joke nowadays.  Shit!  Piss!  Fuck!  And the audience roars with laughter: he’s saying stuff that mom always told me was rude!  Out loud!

What Jillette also doesn’t tell you is that the best humour is usually mean to somebody.  “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is caustic, cynical, brutal in it’s satire of U.S. politics and military culture.  It’s mean as hell and it’s brilliant.  And not a single poop joke in the 90 minutes.

But Saget and Jillette know that it’s very, very hard to write “Dr. Strangelove”.  It takes a lot of talent, and a lot of work.  “Poop!”  There.  That was faster, cheaper, and got more laughs from the average audience.

The cheapest joke in the world–and the most adolescent– is the dirty joke.  Jillette would have you believe that there was something transcendently beautiful about Saget’s dirty jokes.  That’s the only way you can make it sound less infantile: it was beautiful in this wonderful mysterious way that you don’t get because you’re offended.  The rest of us are part of this exclusive private club that appreciates the “transcendent” hilarity of the “transgressive” poop joke.

Saget was, allegedly, a very nice person to know as a friend.  What is meant is that he was nice, in this instance, to the eulogist, who counts anyone who was nice to him or her as nice in general even if they weren’t really.  You can’t tell if someone who was nice to Penn Jillette was nice in general.  Maybe.

What Bob Saget practiced was emotional stage diving. He would fall face-first into the audience’s arms. If the audience didn’t trust him enough to catch him with their laughs, it would be worse than smashing onto a concrete floor.

No– what happened was the audience was enormously relieved to “get” the joke and prove they had taste and culture and a sense of humour.  But Jillette thinks there is something Christ-like in a poop joke and Saget is wearing a thorny crown.

Saget was a fucking bore.  His regime at “America’s Funniest Home Videos” was a depressing and disgusting party of leering sneering bourgeois titillation (which I endured at times because I really do like watching the videos, and still do).  His sitcom, “Full House”, was the very essence of why sitcoms are generally garbage: the familiarity of contemptible mediocrity epitomized by the Lucille Ball sequels desperately trying to cling to viewers by offering the reassuring pabulum of excretable formulae leavened with a smothering dose of smarmy moral turpitude.  The idea is to reassure the average smarmy American audience member that he or she really is a good person with good taste even if he or she really does find poop jokes funny and incest hilarious.

The defense of scabrous humour is this:

“Whether we are talking about Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor or George Carlin, the comedian’s role in society has long been to push boundaries and dare to say what people are thinking but are too afraid to say,” Mr. Sammy said.  From Here.

But that does not relieve the comedian from the burden of imagining something new or fresh or original.  Saget simply repeats the same pee and poop jokes you heard when you were 11 and gets his laughs from stupid audience members who still think it’s funny to say “shit” aloud.

But, no one should be so crass as to try put Saget in the category of Carlin, Bruce, and Pryor.

The rest of us got over it a long time ago, before, even George Carlin.  And now we seek something smart or original or creative.

 

 

 

Vanity Fairy

“Do I see myself as a feminist idol? No. I don’t see myself as anything.” Baba Wawa in Wanity Fair. (Barbara Walters in Vanity Fair, 2014-05)

“Dayan’s widow, Raquel, would wear to her husband’s 1981 funeral, a dress that belonged to Walters”.

Now that’s journalism. (Vanity Fair)

“I was one of the first who did political interviews and celebrities… and now everybody does it”.

Yes, all of your celebrity wannabe friends.

Please don’t let anyone deceive you into thinking that the media made a bigger thing out of Barbara Walter’s “tree question” than it really deserved. It deserved to be mocked, in spades. Barbara Walters was a pushy, inane, abominable, celebrity hostess who did more damage than you can possibly imagine to journalism in American. She almost single-handedly invented tabloid journalism. She mastered and promoted the mutual masturbation style of interview, wherein the interviewer asks soft questions and the subject calmly answers them with lies and half-truths and the interviewer generously moves on to the next earth-shattering issue: single or queen-sized bed? When was the last time you cried? Would you cry now for me, please? Just a tear or two.

Trust me: we forgive torturers who cry.

It works wonderfully and you will see even the New York Times marvel at the guests she was able to land.

Of course she lands famous guests: she gives them all a glorious opportunity to answer their critics without difficult follow-up questions, like, “(this specific person) claims that your secret police arrested and tortured her for several months. Are you saying it didn’t happen? Is Amnesty International lying?”

She even let at least one of them edit her own interview (Barbara Streisand, having imposed a condition no real journalist would have agreed to), though I cannot imagine why Streisand thought it would even be necessary.

No person is too obscenely trivial or unimportant as to not deserve an interview with Barbara Walters, from the Khardasians to Beyonce (yes, screw it, Beyonce is trivial) to– the ultimate and most telling triviality of all: Donald Sterling’s girlfriend: V. Stiviano. To Barbara Walters, they are all, Kings and Presidents, Dictators and porn stars, Khardasians and Secretaries of State, equally important, equally interesting, and equally glamorous.

Now the revisionists appear but I can’t understand why. Everyone has always known she was a joke. Everyone has always known that by offering to pose her own dim-witted self-serving harmless fuzz ball questions, she allowed controversial figures to pad their own images, pretend to be accountable, without offering up a single wit, not a moment of honesty or authenticity.

Vanity Fair embarrassingly, shamelessly, with the utmost servility, describes her as reading whenever she is sitting on a plane, and arranged a photo to show bookshelves behind her. Vanity Fair neglects to mention that when she made her meteoric rise to “stardom” in the 1970’s at ABC News, she was the very first co-anchor to…. wait for it … no, it’s not that…. to be a non-journalist. She was the first to be chosen for her ability to entertain, not to enlighten, and the other journalists knew it, but, judging from Vanity Fair, you would never know it.

In Barbara Walters’ own delusional universe, the real journalists like Morley Safer and Peter Jennings criticized her because she was a woman, not because she was a hack.

What kind of a reporter was Barbara Walters? How did she manage to score that exclusive interview with Bashar al-Assad? Her amazing — I don’t know what people even think she has– whatever? Or the fact that she helped an Assad aide to obtain an internship at CNN and enroll in Columbia University. But whoa nelly! It’s not as if she held back on Assad: are you a mean dictator? No, not at all. Then show me your glamorous palace and your beautiful wife.

Curtis Sittenfeld, in a particularly gruesome and nauseating aside, insists that you know Walters is great because you can’t not watch– you have to see it, to the end. I am very happy to admit that I watched parts of  several Barbara Walters interviews early in her career and never, ever came back. I looked away as quickly as possible.  Not for Monica Lewinsky, or the hugely embarrassing– mortifying– Obama interview, or Castro, or Sadat, or anyone else she trivialized over the past thirty years.

When she asks Bill Gates if his feelings were hurt because he was referred to as a “nerd”, you have to ask yourself if she has the slightest clue of what a nerd is or what a computer is or what Microsoft is or what Bill Gates is, but you just know that Bill Gates will never mind being asked if his feelings were hurt because Barbara Walters thinks people call him a nerd.

Some Trivia

The pope has decided that he will no longer use the pope-mobile. Hallelujah.

How Vanity Fair scores so many lengthy articles on celebrities: read this piece or any other piece they have produced. Fawning, worshipful, admiring, suck-ups.

I have a theory that a college education is not an asset to a comedian. The comedian– in today’s comedy– thrives on the “arrested thought” (my term).

If you make a joke that is subtle or complex, you risk a dud in front of a live audience which may not ever get it.

George Carlin, bless his soul, regularly does take this chance. But he is exceptional. And I am disturbed by the fact that he is now widely honored, even revered. I’ll bet he worries about it too.  When the establishment falls over itself to hand you awards (Kennedy Centre honors), you have obviously become part of … the establishment.

For example, it’s funnier to mock abstract art if you don’t quite process the real thing. If you don’t get into the question of shape or color or visualization or composition, or how hard it is to actually create an abstract painting (try it, if you don’t believe me). If you process it that far, it’s not funny anymore. It’s plausible that there might be something to abstract art–and that the criteria for judging it might be different than, say, for a photograph– and that is the joke’s death. It’s funnier to describe a painting as a bunch of splatters and lines and say, “I’m supposed to be amazed by this?” The young high-school educated working class males in the audience respond enthusiastically because they don’t get it either and they hate feeling stupid.

Louis C. K., a comedian I like very much, recently appeared on David Letterman to mock the Common Core. I’m not sure about Common Core. I haven’t studied it carefully. It may well be a very significant, important, and effective reform. But Louis C. K., with his high school diploma gets to describe Common Core math as “Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London.” London, of course. There is something, to the working-class male, foreign about this Common Core. Elitist. Fucking Common Core. Hilarious. Drink up.

Where is the joke? The joke is half of fourth graders in the U.S. can’t read a thermometer accurately. The joke is that American adults rank in the bottom 20% in math skills among 20 developed nations. The joke is that A&W’s 1/3 pound burger bombed in the U.S. because most customers thought it was smaller than the quarter-pounder at McDonald’s. The joke is that Americans are the worst at math in the entire world and Louis C. K. yuks it up because any attempt to improve math scores involves challenging, intellectually demanding effort, and you can’t seriously expect an American man to give a shit about anything other than beer, football, and large breasts. And if you think otherwise, it’s because you’re an elitist snob who thinks he’s better than us.

The joke should have been, Louis C. K. makes an appointment to see the teacher but can’t find the room for the meeting because it has more than two digits in the number.

Mitch Hedberg died on April Fools Day, 2005. That’s why it took so long for people to realize he was really dead. That’s no joke.

Bob Hope was actually pretty witty and funny and charming. I never liked him because for me, growing up in the 1960’s, he was the quintessential establishment comedian: he used writers and cue cards instead of creating and memorizing his own material; and he was white, safe, homogenized, and a classic Republican Chicken Hawk: a passionate supporter of the Viet Nam War who– of course!– never got within a hundred miles of actually serving in a war, though I’m sure he felt very brave doing comedy at a military base somewhere near the location of actual warfare.

Also like a classic Republican, Hope carried on several affairs while married, including a long-term one with actress Marilyn Maxwell. Why is this so inevitable?

When Hope was honoured by Queen Elizabeth with an honorary knighthood, he quipped, “I’m speechless. 70 years of ad lib material and I’m speechless”. Well, no. Seventy years of cue cards, Mr. Hope. But an interesting line. I’m quite sure he doesn’t mind most of fans believing that he writes his own quips or thinks of them on the fly.

Great comedy really is a mark of genius, and the best comedians around today like Louis C. K., Stephen Wright, Doug Stanhope and others might be among the smartest people in the entertainment business.

 

The Elusive Appeal of Muppets

I have never, ever understood the alleged charm and appeal of the Muppets or the alleged genius and imagination of Jim Henson. Who the hell thinks “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984) is interesting at any level? Or “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992)? It’s not. But great for kids? Only if you also like feeding your kids raw sugar and Twinkies.

Let’s start with the Muppets themselves. They are cloth dolls– sock puppets, really– with a very, very limited range of expression. In fact, the range is one. The designs are not remotely interesting– and I absolutely deny that this is a characteristic of products intended to appeal to children. Like I said, only if you think sugar is nutritious. Or that Barbie dolls encourage the child’s imagination.

I remember being a child. I remember that a lot of TV programming was like junk food: it gratified the immediate desire for entertainment with slap-dash action shorts, but the impression was neither deep nor lasting. But I insist that certain cartoons and short films I saw as a child made a deep impression on me and when I later viewed the same products as an adult, I was not betrayed. These cartoons and short films really were fresh, original, and imaginative, in a way that Hanna-Barbara cartoons were not, most of the time, and the Muppets are not ever. Don’t believe me? Look up the cartoon version of “Justice in the Jungle”. Oh wait– I cannot locate it anywhere. Not a trace. But another great children’s movie, “Skinny and Fatty” is available.

Kermit is a dweeb in the true sense of the word, which is a lot less of an interesting thing to be than you might think. He is bland and not particularly curious about anything. He never expresses insight or a playful imagination. He never does anything really funny or mischievous or daring. In that sense, he is a true reflection of the mind of Jim Henson, his doppelganger. In “The Muppets Take Manhattan”, he helps create a Broadway show about– wait for it– wait for it– wait for it– come on– what do you think a really creative writer or artist would come up with as a theme for a movie about Muppets creating a Broadway show? Right: never, ever the theme of creating a Broadway show. And becoming famous. Becoming a star. Living your dream. In other words, the most exhausted, empty, flavorless clichés left on the bottom shelf of the idea closet in some alcoholic Hollywood producer’s toilet.

There’s nothing artistic in the Muppets. It’s all just material production, including the utterly pedestrian musical numbers in “The Muppets Take Manhattan”. Instantly forgettable. Dull. Lifeless. Lots of puppets mugging and swaying and going up and down and that’s about it. This is what we offer our children instead of real stop-motion animation?

The reason is simple. People saw the Muppets and immediately rose up as one and demanded more Muppets? No. The TV network saw Muppets and realized: cheap production costs! Have you seen what it cost to do hand-drawn animation? Or stop-motion? Even those crappy, repetitive Saturday morning cartoons are not cheap.

Let’s promote them like crazy and see if the suckers will bite. And they did.

The Terrifying Ebullience of Smart Women

I hate when people in a bar or at a party find out I’m majoring in physics. The minute they find out, I can see the guys turn away.” Yet another went on about how even at Yale the men didn’t want to date a physics major, and how she was worried she’d go through four years there without a date.

Why the hell would she care? Why would she want to date a man who felt that intelligence was not an asset for a woman?

I wondered if this woman was unattractive. I know that women generally don’t get what makes them attractive to men. A woman with large breasts sometimes believes she is irresistible and maybe she is to a certain kind of man but never has been to me.

This is from a young woman studying physics at Yale University. She is upset and feels that she is being discriminated against because some young men at Yale appear– to her– to be uninterested in dating a smart woman.

Another complains that she was “underappreciated”. I tried to connect to that. Would I have ever complained that my professors did not “appreciate” me enough when I was at college? Did they owe me appreciation?

“Big Bang Theory” is proffered as an illustration of persisting discriminations and stereotyping (the characters of Amy and Bernadette).

The problem with “Big Bang Theory” isn’t sexism: it’s that it is a cliché-ridden, mediocre show with a horrible laugh-track.

 

“Breaking Bad” Goes off the Rails

The last few episodes of “Breaking Bad” betray a sense that the show has gone off the rails. They are trying to strong-arm the plot into setting up various confrontations that might prove more visually exciting but drain away plausibility. I am not convinced Jesse would find Hank any less repugnant than Walt, and that he wouldn’t find himself even more repugnant for betraying a man who actually treated him pretty well. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. I’m saying that it is a dramatic challenge to make it believable, and Gilligan completely failed that challenge.

The same goes for Hank’s senseless decision to keep his suspicions of Walt private, including chasing him out to where they think he hid the money without backups, and with Jesse in the car. This is so obviously intended to provide a motivation for Walt to kill Hank and Jesse (what would the point be if Hank’s colleagues had the information) that it would be laughable if it weren’t so lame. It’s just not believable on any level at all.

Nor was it believable that Walt would be so stupid as to fall for Jesse’s trick phone call. But it was the height of ridiculousness to have Walt confess most of his murders to Jesse on the phone while screaming at him on his way to check on his money, not suspecting for one moment that it was being recorded or monitored. This is a huge lapse of sanity on Walt’s part and there is no dramatic groundwork for it. They couldn’t do better than that to set up the confrontation that they wanted? Or that Huell Babineaux would so readily believe Hank about having been betrayed by Saul Goodman. Sure, he’s a fool– but fool’s are just as likely to disbelieve the truth as they are to fall for a lie. Just how many implausible events and coincidences had to occur to get to this scene, in the dessert? The credibility and the tension sap away, which is a shame, because it was so good up to the last season.

“The Wire”, on the other hand, ended without a single false note– gracefully.  “The Wire” ranks among the best TV series ever, and much higher than “Breaking Bad”.

Skyler’s Complaint