Roger & Thee

March 7, 2014

loudest voiceWho’s the most powerful conservative in the United States? God knows it’s not Mitch McConnell or John Boehner. Not Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove. Not the former President Bushes or anyone in their family. Not even the Republican Party’s personal Mr. Monopolys, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Nope, America’s most powerful conservative rules his fiefdom from a second-floor office on New York’s Avenue of the Americas. He is Roger E. Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, and as he will gladly tell you, he elected two presidents – and might well have made it three if he hadn’t been busy creating a monster instead.

The brash, mercurial Ailes – part instinctive genius and part paranoid bully – is the subject of a new biography by New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM. It tracks his career from the Mike Douglas TV show where he met and wooed Richard Nixon, to the 1968 campaign immortalized in Joe McGinniss’s classic THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT (with which Ailes eagerly cooperated before having to backtrack and humble himself before H. R. Haldeman), then to TV and theater production, an early attempt at partisan conservative broadcasting, a stop at CNBC, and finally permanent sponsorship in the form of an equally bombastic media magnate who felt “mainstream” journalism was too lefty. Since Fox News went on the air in 1996 (just in time for Monica Lewinsky), it has become the official campfire of the right wing, the nexus of one-sided opinion. Its slogan “Fair and Balanced” was created to get under liberals’ skin, and it’s worked: the channel is anything but either and everybody knows it. Fox News is the broadcast home of a parade of blowhards who never have to answer to the public, not even to Rupert Murdoch himself: only to Roger Ailes.

Piecing together Ailes’s upbringing is beyond any biographer, even one who can get a face-to-face with the subject (as Mr. Sherman could not), since Ailes routinely lies about dozens of biographical facts. For example, Mr. Sherman titles his first chapter after an allegedly traumatic childhood experience in which Ailes’s father extends his hand to catch his jumping son and then snatches it away to let him fall: “Don’t ever trust anybody” is the parental takeaway. The source is an Ailes confidant. The story is almost certainly a lie.

Another fiction which has stood the test of time concerns the signal day when MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW producer Ailes met guest Richard M. Nixon. According to official Ailes lore, there was a belly dancer named Little Egypt also booked on the show, “so I stuck Nixon in my office for 15 minutes. If I’d put Little Egypt in there, I’d be managing belly dancers right now.” This was the conversation – sometimes he says it was an hour long – in which Ailes convinced Nixon that he needed a “media adviser.” Trouble is, as the author reports, “According to several of Ailes’s colleagues who were present and the show logs, there was no belly dancer named Little Egypt booked that day.”

Ailes’s life is festooned with such bits of retroactive “history,” but friends and foes alike note that he has long created a “reality distortion field” as powerful and impervious as Steve Jobs’s. So why should we even care about digging through his shape-shifting past? Because Roger Ailes has become not just a reflector of modern American culture, but a driver of it to an almost unthinkable degree, the thought leader of a rabid, vocal and inward-looking minority. As Mr. Sherman writes, in Fox News’s early days, emboldened by Bill Clinton’s personal foibles, some viewers “kept the channel on for so long that the static Fox News logo…burned the pixels. Before a rotating one was introduced, even when they turned off their sets for the night, the outlines of the graphic remained tattooed to the dark screens.” Some cable channels have viewers. Fox News has believers.

I remember when Rush Limbaugh’s first book appeared in fall 1992. I’d never heard of him, but then I hadn’t listened to talk radio since my grad-school days twenty years earlier, when Atlanta’s WRNG, a 24-hour call-in station, entertained me on long car trips. Stuart Applebaum, Bantam’s corporate spokesperson, predicted a huge hit for our competitor Pocket Books. Why? “Conservatives don’t have anything to read.” And it was true: when I thought of conservative literature, it was ages-old screeds from Barry Goldwater or the John Birch Society, maybe ragged conspiracy-spouting pamphlets for gun-show booths. Well, conservatives didn’t have anything to watch either. For years it was accepted right-wing wisdom that the big-shot media were hopelessly biased in favor of progressivism, from organized labor to women’s suffrage to civil rights. (That continues to be a powerful motivating force on the right, which likes to view itself as the long-suffering victim.) And Rush Limbaugh represented its first shot across the bow, now that mass media had become untethered to even the pretense of objectivity.

For most of the 20th century, on radio and television at least, bald editorializing was actually quite rare. Eric Sevareid’s spots on CBS, for example, were devoted to explicating the news rather than promoting an opinion, which would have been anathema to the longtime journalist. When official opinion was broadcast, station owners – mindful that they were using airwaves licensed to them by the public and guided since 1949 by the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” – would invite an opposing view. This conceit became a weekly 60 MINUTES feature called “Point/Counterpoint,” savagely parodied by the new satirical program SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”). But in 1987 the FCC rescinded the Doctrine, and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush beat back attempts in Congress to reinstate it, on the grounds that broadcasters’ First Amendment rights to free speech were being impinged. That opened the floodgates for partisan broadcasting that had no obligation to present an opposing view. This relatively recent development in mass media is the hottest thing on radio, and despite the public sackcloth and ashes, the leading programs are overwhelmingly conservative. As for television, Fox News speaks for itself – quite literally.

One of the most impressive aspects of the right-wing establishment is its message discipline. Do you remember just after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, when presidential spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, “I’m not going to engage in the blame game,” and continued to use the term repeatedly during his press briefing? Then the same term was picked up by Congressional Republicans, conservative talk radio and Fox News. It also happened when President Obama refused to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse because “we don’t need to spike the football”: the instant right-wing meme was that he was doing exactly that (perhaps hoping we’d forgotten George W. Bush’s flight-suit strut on that aircraft carrier), and this exact phrase tumbled from right-wing mouths for two days. What, does Fox hold meetings to decide what today’s talking points are going to be? As Mr. Sherman reports, why yes, as a matter of fact it does. That’s the exact opposite of reporting news, but that’s also what creates Fox fans. Besides, simply repeating something, no matter how preposterous, gives it weight, as Fox News has proved with the “Swift Boat” campaign against John Kerry and its laughable annual “War on Christmas.”

Many observers, including me, have long wondered whether the on-air opinionators of Fox News are simply performing for the camera or genuinely subscribe to the principles they’re spouting. After reading this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of the on-camera talent may indeed be pontificators-for-pay (Glenn Beck in particular was never an Ailes team player and stuck to his own messages, and Bill O’Reilly’s main orientation is apparently Bill O’Reilly), but Ailes himself actually believes a lot of this stuff. He is an intensely paranoid man who sees conspiracies lurking everywhere – perhaps they are remnants of his time spent with Richard Nixon – and is so afraid of assassination that he had his Fox News office bomb-proofed and installed a bunker beneath his mountaintop country home in Putnam County, New York (after purchasing the sleepy local newspaper and turning it into an advocate) to weather an attack, which will be easier for him to spot after cutting down the nearby trees and buying as many surrounding houses as he could.

Is Fox News the official organ of the Republican Party? You may recall that no less than Dick Cheney directed that all tv sets in his vice-presidential hotel suites be pre-set to Fox, and a host named Steve Doocy flabbergasted observers one day by casually consulting a GOP talking-points memo on the air. Or is it the other way around? After all, it was Fox News – particularly its acerbic host Sean Hannity – which fanned the flames of the nascent Tea Party and probably cost Republicans control of the Senate for two straight election cycles; hyperventilating bombthrowers can win Senate primaries, but it turns out they get clobbered in the more rational general elections. (In the gerrymandered House, quite a few bombthrowers actually won, and collectively became Speaker John Boehner’s worst nightmare.) Whatever Fox News is, it’s here to stay for a while, if not exactly at full strength: the channel’s core viewers are aging white men, and most of their potential younger replacements have long since learned to laugh rather than obey. Let’s face it, it’s more fun — and more lucrative – to be Roger Ailes when you have an enemy in the White House; whatever would Fox run 24/7 during a Romney administration? For now, railing against the Kenyan socialist (while secretly hoping for another Clintonian punching bag?) will just have to do.

3/9/13: Read this great story on Chris Ruddy, the guy behind the Newsmax empire, who is ready to give Ailes a run for at least part of his money on television. Ruddy has calmly discerned and exploited the market potential of serving right-wing-but-not-frothing boomers, and in real life he’s an independent who makes up his own mind.

Blockbuster Video, 1985-2013

November 7, 2013

BlockbusterI missed Blockbuster, by and large, so I won’t really miss it. But millions of others won’t miss it for an entirely different set of reasons.

In 1980, while waiting for the result of the home video format war (ask your parents), I became one of the first kids on my block to own a VHS videocassette recorder/player. I guessed right; though VHS was technologically inferior to Betamax, its cassettes held more stuff, and that was enough for me and the non-Sony world. This machine changed my life – and, as it turned out, the entire culture’s. Not only could I record ordinary tv programs to watch later (the eggheads instantly gave that phenomenon a fancy name: “time shifting”), but they also included, if I so chose, uncut and uninterrupted movies off HBO, or classic flicks that aired at 3 in the morning: I could set the thing like an alarm clock! How useful this would have been while I was struggling through my Master’s thesis on Fifties monster movies. They’ve gone about as fer as they kin go, said I.

As with television a generation prior, Hollywood had no vision of the future and its knee-jerk reaction was to fight home video tooth and nail. In 1976, Universal and Disney brought suit against poor Sony, alleging that home video recording amounted to piracy; by the time the matter finally reached the Supreme Court eight years later and time-shifting off the air was judged to be fair use, the practice had grown so widespread that the legal action was basically moot, now enriching only lawyers.

In the meantime, of course, the studios were taking big chomps of the new home video pie themselves. They began to issue official, “studio-struck” versions of their most popular movies. Fox Home Video was a pioneer: I remember being astonished to see PLANET OF THE APES, PATTON and M*A*S*H shown at people’s homes during parties (the serious film and tv production guys all had Betamaxes early on). At one such bash at my friend Dave Adcock’s, 2001 played with the sound off, and you could see people taking quick glances over your shoulder. Far from ruining the movie business, home video revenue came to carry the biz on its back – you made more money on home entertainment than on the theatrical release – and continued to do so until very recently.

Renting videocassettes, in both Beta and VHS formats, was the next logical step – after all, most adults only want to see a movie once – and it sprang up in thousands of mom-and-pop stores, located in strip malls and lesser venues, DIY-shabby but cute, like independent comics stores. Mine was called Video Station, owned by a wonderful movie fan named Curtis. The first time I walked in, I was gobsmacked at the choices I had, for movies I could see tonight. I simply must share this with others, I said.

So, every Friday night for several years, I screened a movie at my house. Ten or fifteen friends came over to watch – the audience was constantly changing and self-regenerating – and we loved having our own private movie theater. After the first few weeks, one of my neighbors timidly came to the door and said, “Sorry, but we just have to know what you do on Friday nights. All these cars pull up in your driveway and on the street. Then you turn off all the lights, and we can’t hear a thing!” (Remember, VCRs weren’t very common back then. Once I explained that we were all watching a movie, it made sense. Hope nobody thought I was hosting the world’s most boring coven.)

I was such a reliable customer that Curtis would give me a peek at release schedules and let me have pre-dibs on new movies, which were appearing on tape even before their pay-cable runs. One Friday his delivery ran late and he personally drove the cassette over to my house just as people were beginning to arrive for the movie. (He declined a beer, but accepted our warm applause.) This was the state of home video rental in the early Eighties: warm, personal service, hand-selling (Curtis recommended most of the lesser-known films we screened, just as Quentin Tarantino did at his video store out in California), the same qualities you want in a good independent bookseller. Video life was sweet.

Then, in 1985, a Dallas businessman named David Cook decided to take the concept wide. Mom-and-pop video stores were starting to add locations and develop into local and regional “chains,” but Cook’s eyes were bigger, and Blockbuster was born. Wayne Huizenga executed its national rollout: it quickly added videogames, swallowed up smaller companies and opened new stores aggressively, aided by a virtuous circle in which floods of new customers were entering the movie-rental market every week. Less than ten years after its founding, the now-ubiquitous Blockbuster was big enough to seriously propose a merger with Viacom.

Now all the homegrown Video Stations were out of business, and everybody was dealing with Blockbuster (there were 9,000 stores at its peak in 2004) or a franchise just like it. Oligopoly bred complacency as video rental became a typical weekend’s afterthought. Blockbuster customers were treated to a shelf full of thirty display cases of that weekend’s new release, all of them already rented. There was little quality control over returned rentals; you wondered exactly what some people had been doing with them. And then there were the late fees. You couldn’t ignore them like some did with their library books, because Blockbuster had your credit card. Grumbling about Blockbuster became a national pastime (especially when it appeared that late fees constituted a profit center), but its business model was already mortally wounded.

Those late fees inspired a Blockbuster customer named Reed Hastings to think of a new business model, and what he came up with was Netflix, which opened in 1997, concentrating on the new DVD format. There was no store; you ordered your movies via the Internet and got them through the mail. And – here’s the master stroke – you paid a monthly fee to have a certain number of disks at your house for as long as you wanted. The company got a reliable stream of revenue without having to charge late fees! Netflix subsisted on mail-order while it quietly broadened its “streaming” capability, and lately has even moved into original programming, the very thing which has kept HBO afloat all these years. Fun fact: in 2000, Netflix offered itself to Blockbuster for $50 million, and was turned down.

So why do you need Blockbuster anymore? Hmmm: you don’t. Yesterday the company’s current owners announced that it will close its remaining 300 company-owned stores by early January. That will leave only about fifty franchisee-run stores, and they’d better watch their backs, because the brand name’s “goodwill” has long since been used up. Entertainment is still big business, but the way it’s delivered to our eyeballs is constantly mutating and adapting to fit new technology. Blockbuster controlled the golden goose for 25 years, but these days it’s about as relevant as a Commodore 64 – and I know plenty of former customers who are just fine with that.

11/9/13: Variety reports, “Blockbuster has sent out tweets over the last several days alerting customers it will stop renting movies on Nov. 9, with most stores starting to liquidate inventory on Nov. 14.” (Note to Rand Paul: this is how you quote somebody without plagiarizing them.)

11/11/13: The funnest fact of all: Variety reports that the last movie rented from a company-owned Blockbuster store was THIS IS THE END. (First half: amusing. Last half: embarrassing. Kind of like Blockbuster itself!)

Like, Life And All

January 20, 2013

The Bard aside, there are seven stages in a typical showbiz career. I’ll use my own name to illustrate them.

1. Have you seen Tom Dupree?
2. Let’s go see Tom Dupree.
3. Let’s hire Tom Dupree!
4. Can we get Tom Dupree?
5. Can we get a Tom Dupree type?
6. Can we get a young Tom Dupree?
7. Whatever happened to Tom Dupree?

And that, my bruthas, is showbiz.

I’ve also observed that there are stages to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE fandom, thusly:

1. You’re excited about the host and the musical guest.
2. You don’t get everybody in the cast, but the host is OK and the musical guest still rocks.
3. You still like most everybody, but you’ve never heard of the musical guest, who rocks, I guess.
4. You’ve never heard of the host OR the musical guest.

Since that day, SNL has hipped me to acts I would certainly have otherwise ignored, including Dream Academy [sue me!], the Corrs, and now, the Lumineers. I am a fogey. You got to do two hot live spots on SNL before I will even consider. The Ls did. They rock. End of line.

Music To Look At

April 19, 2012

One afternoon in December 1981, my partner John Maxwell and I were at the Bottom Line in New York, prepping two performances of our one-man show in which he played William Faulkner. Several expat friends from Mississippi wandered in. I remember my delight at welcoming Clif Dowell, who was working for Geraldo Rivera at the time and whom I hadn’t seen since college. Another was Alan Hunter, whom John and I knew from theater circles back home. “Whatcha doin’ these days, Al?” He flipped me a business card that read:



Alan Hunter

Video Jock

Four months earlier, Alan and four other “video jocks” had launched MTV – but of course, like most people we’d never heard of it. (In fact, it wasn’t yet available even in New York City: the staff had had to schlep out to Fort Lee, New Jersey to watch MTV go on the air at midnight on August 1.) I was laughing inside as I read Alan’s card: all I could think of was the Rick Moranis “video jock” character on SCTV, pushing a fader bar and spouting an exaggerated radio-announcer intonation. But, my friend, in the fullness of time, the joke was on me.

The lively, entertaining I WANT MY MTV is an oral history of the channel’s early days, from ’81 to 1992, when MTV debuted THE REAL WORLD and kind of became something else. It’s perfect for me, and for anyone else who was watching the young “national radio station.” The past two decades have seen MTV morph into irrelevance as far as I’m concerned (of course, I’m no longer within its target demographic), and I truly don’t care to go backstage for those years. But this book is about the era in which MTV actually played music videos (it quietly removed the words “Music Television” from its logo in 2010) and shook up the entire record business. There have been other books about this period, even other oral histories. This is the best one by far.

MTV was just feeling its way when we met Alan Hunter that day. Even that initial broadcast began with a flub: he was supposed to be the fifth and final VJ (their segments were taped separately; nothing about early MTV was live), but a technician loaded the tapes in the wrong order, so Al became the first MTV VJ to appear on camera – by mistake. It might have continued crawling along had not Bob Pittman, one of the founders of the channel, hired famed adman George Lois for a marketing campaign.

In those days, local cable providers – mostly serving rural viewers who were too far away for over-the-air signals to reach – held all the cards, and not a few of them didn’t care for the sex, drugs and rock & roll menu MTV was serving. Lois reasoned that it was a mistake to market “top-down” to the cable companies; MTV needed to go over their heads, to the viewers themselves, and create demand. One of Lois’s best-known campaigns was for a breakfast cereal. Based on an idea by animator John Hubley, the ads had famous sports stars sobbing into the camera, “I want my Maypo!” Lois simply trotted it out again thirty years later – but the key was turned by MTV’s Les Garland, who convinced none other than Mick Jagger to say, “I want my MTV!” into the camera. Other rock stars followed, and it didn’t take long before the cable operators were inundated. Round One to MTV.

Those heady let’s-put-on-a-show days are exhilarating to read about, because nobody was aware they were causing a sea change in the music business; they were just making it up as they went along. MTV was existing on a total library of just a few hundred already-produced videos when its executives made the rounds to try and convince the record labels that shooting a video was a legitimate bit of promotion. It took comparing sales to MTV playlists, but the correlation was so obvious that soon the labels were financing more and more elaborate videos themselves. In retrospect, perhaps that was an unwise decision, but MTV continued to get its programming for free. Round Two to MTV.

This book is especially useful in showing how music videos also affected the film business. The list of successful directors who started in music video is long and impressive, but unfortunately we only hear about David Fincher and Michael Bay in the words of colleagues (other directors, like Steve Barron, Russell Mulcahy, John Sayles and Tarsem Singh, are only too happy to talk). Video shoots even served as film schools for other people who just took the opportunity and ran with it, and since nobody at any label had any experience supervising videos, the job often fell to women, advancing their power in the industry.

MTV caused harm as well, and these issues are also covered. In my opinion, the worst thing about music video is that it prescribes a visual template onto a song. Whereas once music inspired different imagery for each listener – one of its most pleasant attributes – now a video director is, in a way, telling you what a particular song looks like. For example, it’s hard to forget the animated kaleidoscopic video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” on subsequent hearings. Also, the kinetic editing style that’s supposed to keep you glued to the set has seeped into feature films, with Bay being the poster boy, and made storytelling so much harder to follow, the technique even descending lately into cliché. Time and again we read about parties at which MTV played in the background with the sound off; I can even remember hosting a few.

Another consequence of MTV was more pernicious. It caused musical acts to worry more about how they looked than how they sounded. The term “hair metal” brings to mind dozens of lousy videos from lousy groups, and that’s strictly a cosmetic issue. Some people think the video era stunted the careers of perfectly great musicians who didn’t look so hot (and even one who did: the collective evisceration of Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite,” considered by many to be the worst video ever made, is hilarious). When your only view of a rocker was from the 40th row at an arena, appearance didn’t matter so much. But it didn’t take long for the MTV audience to tire of “performance” videos – in other words, just shoot them on stage playing a song – in favor of hot chicks and stripper poles.

But that’s all water under the bridge by now. And the full-force cultural flow is right here, those first insane ten years, from the Moonman to Dexys Midnight Runners to Michael Jackson to Madonna to YO! MTV RAPS. This is the story, from the people who were present at the creation. It’s one of the most delightful reads out there.

Maher Messes With Mississippi

March 12, 2012

I enjoy REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER, even if I don’t always agree with the host, or with many of the conservative guests he books to help balance out his panels, a trait of the show I particularly admire. (The late Andrew Breitbart, for example, was a regular, as are several of the current young Republican turks in the House.) But I have to call a foul on something Bill did last Friday night.

While introducing some man-in-the-street interviews from filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, he disclaimed any “cherry-picking”: he said the interviews left on the cutting-room floor were just like the ones used, and I believe that. I’m paraphrasing here: “She just walked up to people. Everybody knew it was for my show. And they all think I’m going to hell.” (Maher is not just an atheist, he’s evangelical about it.) Then he proceeded to roll the clip, interviews from — I believe he said Senatobia — Mississippi.

The point of the exercise was to show that less fortunate people in the nation’s poorest state were still likely to vote against their economic interests. The subtext was that racism is alive and well in Mississippi. Nobody used the N-word (nobody except for Maher himself, just after the clip), but one man said he didn’t like the President because “his name is Obama.” When asked if it was because the President was black, he said, “it’s not because he’s black. He’s a halfbreed.” The “button” at the end: some guy tells Pelosi “the South’s gonna rise again.”

OK, fine. Then why did I sit up in my chair in irritation? My beef is with Maher’s disclaimer: everybody we talked to was the same. Trust me. This is what it’s like down there.

All interviewees were white men, unless I misremember some lady. (Demographically unsound for a “cross-section” of Mississippi, and that’s an understatement.) On the economic scale, all were blue-collar at best. By virtue of where she went fishing, Pelosi was selecting for poor or paycheck-to-paycheck white – not trash, there was definitely dignity displayed by some of the interviewees – but a representation of Mississippi that plays directly to the typical liberal stereotype. Despite polls that indicate otherwise, there are plenty of thinking, feeling people in Mississippi, of all races and creeds. The state has the highest percentage of black elected officials in the country, yet its ruling Republican Party is still country-club white guys who look and sound more like Romney/Gingrich/Santorum than Gomer Pyle. There are even progressives in Mississippi! (Sorry, Sen. Santorum: they already done got ‘em some goldarn colleges, grglblagit!) Racism is still easy to find down there – you could make the argument that this Muslim canard is nothing but dog-whistle coded anger against a President who dares to be black – but I’ll bet the same thing goes where you live, too.

I grew up in Mississippi, which is why the issue hits me personally. Whether I agree politically with most of the royal white-man powerful in that state isn’t the point. I even took their advice: if you don’t like it here, then leave. I don’t agree with most of the people in Utah either, but Park City is still beautiful around Sundance time. No, this is about fairness. Bill Maher and Alexandra Pelosi furthered prejudice by what they systematically elected to put on the air, but only people who know better can tell the difference. Now Bill says they’re going to continue this during primary season, going next into the “inner city.” I hope they have the down-low and what-what, or whatever the hell it is they say up in there, aight? (see what I mean?) to warn viewers that the margin of error of this “representative sample” is off the frickin scale.

3/15/12: Stanley Graham (see comment below) was the first one to confirm to me that as the Alabama and Mississippi returns were coming in Tuesday night, Bill Maher tweeted: Toothless Tuesday too tight to tally! We’re gathered around the magic picture box with a bowl of grits watching the returns come in! Two WordPress blogs (not the bloggers directly below) had linked to me overnight, but at that moment, those links were all I knew. In case you’re wondering, I think Maher’s tweet is even more reprehensible than the Pelosi piece, since it was done, as they say, with malice aforethought. Bigotry isn’t the sole province of the right.

“In Brightest Day, In Darkest Night…”

December 12, 2011

It was what cinematographers call the “Magic Hour,” when golden late-afternoon light is at its most gorgeous. I had just refilled the iced-tea glass and returned to my office when I stumbled upon something I don’t think I was supposed to see. I think Tom Servo just became a Green Lantern. 

The One And Only Thing I Like About Glenn Beck

July 1, 2010

Glenn Beck likes books.

He writes ‘em, sure, all his little friends do. But what I mean is that he reads them too, invites his favorite authors on his show and sells books after their appearances. It’s not just serious nonfiction and redemptive Oprah reads, either. Beck enjoys thrillers (especially if there’s a juicy government conspiracy involved, but that’s not a requirement) and other commercial fiction alongside the conservative Jeremiads you’d expect.

No matter what you think of Beck’s politics, and I think he’s so wrong there that he’s silly, it’s great to have another effective tv outlet for authors. As this piece points out, progressives don’t have the equivalent of a guy who can thunder on the air, “Buy this book,” and have the audience actually obey. The wimpy attitude is, this is the flip side of demagoguery; it’s not so bad if it’s for a good cause. But, vide Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. I cringe, as do most people, when Beck decides to hold a rally on the anniversary date of, on the same steps as, Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, thus desecrating the historic event as only a grinning galoot possibly can. (He claims, preposterously, that he was unaware of the connection during the planning stages.) But his audience takes him seriously, and if he says buy gold, they do. If he says buy books, they do that too. Let’s hope he doesn’t tell them one day to buy suitcase nukes.

Stewart and Colbert do a great job with authors: they are the rule as guests on these shows, not the exception. But they usually feature serious nonfiction, on both sides of the political spectrum, and though they can sell books (one I worked on, a very long book, went into multiple printings after George Lucas appeared on THE DAILY SHOW to promote it), they’re not in Beck’s league. Even more to the point, Beck is promoting reading as fun. That’s something that all little Obama-haters can take away – and if they get into the habit while they’re still young, they might even discover that there’s a whole wide world out there beyond the artificial reality of Fox News. Keep it up, Glenn: not only is reading a noble cause to champion, you also might actually be forming a few progressive minds along the way.

A Tale Of Two Headlines, Part II

May 25, 2010

As part of our continuing quest for journalistic edification, compare these Tuesday morning headlines, reporting the same story, Monday’s overnight ratings for the series finale of LOST:

‘Lost’ Finale Lifts ABC To Big Night

‘Lost’ Finale Finds a Base, But Not Too Many Others

Students, which headline came from a newspaper that does not own a television network, and which from a newspaper whose sister company is a direct competitor to ABC?

For extra credit, how huge will the overnights for the series finale of 24 seem Wednesday morning in at least one of these papers?

But Now I’m LOST

February 2, 2010

Frank Torres did it.

Not quite five and a half years ago, I was watching the pilot episode of a new ABC series out of idle curiosity. It opened on an extreme closeup of an eye. Pulled back to reveal it’s a guy. A guy on his back in a suit. In a suit in a jungle. He gets up, staggers, then runs toward a beach. There, we find the scattered pieces of a crashed airliner, a big one, and now we can see and hear utter pandemonium, because there are more survivors, most of them going batshit. Then Frank Torres walks in front of a huge, still-spinning turbine. Somebody yells at him and he turns back, but it’s too late: he’s sucked into the engine, and just like that, at 5:03 in the opening episode, he’s gone. Nothing but an asterisk, because the hysteria doesn’t stop at his demise; there’s much more also going on elsewhere, and we don’t waste as much as a music sting on this unfortunate guy. Holy moley: life is cheap on this show!

At that instant, I said to myself, I’m gonna keep on watching this, and so I have, for five full seasons. Because of a hotshot stuntman named Frank Torres, and a simple wire gag that’s been simulating the effect of shotgun blasts and big explosions for decades, I’ve never missed an episode of LOST. That turbine sucked me in, too.

Like DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, ABC’s other hit of the same TV season, LOST turned out to be one serial story, rather than individual episodes which return the situation to stasis each week, as most other series do. The CSI gang will be back at their posts at the start of next week’s show, ready for the latest outrage. But events in every LOST episode will have a bearing on what is still to come. We also found that this epic story opens up like a blossoming flower: first externally, as the survivors discover their tropical island is a very strange place. There’s a polar bear. A plume of black smoke which seems to be alive and malevolent. An anomalous metal hatch leading down to…where? And the gradual suspicion, then realization, that they are not alone. But there’s also a very important internal element: as we learn the survivors’ backstories, one by one, we find that they’re eerily interconnected. We’ll see another member of the ensemble walk by in the background as we’re learning what brought one particular character to the fateful plane flight. An ominous series of numbers appears again and again in various guises. And – I’m not spilling any beans here – we already know that at least some characters manage to escape the island and return home, but the experience has marked and changed them, and now they’re part of the powerful and warring forces in the outside world who are intent upon this outré place. The series ladles questions upon questions, and offers a constantly burgeoning mythology in which an offhand line from the fourth season will illuminate something from the first. LOST’s creators love to tantalize with stray references from science, philosophy and literature (THE WIZARD OF OZ figures strongly and repeatedly, and one of the central characters is named “John Locke,” for crying out loud!), but such details are just window-dressing: most importantly, there’s a “ripping yarn” to entertain those who fail to catch the eye-winks. (By the way, those are LOST’s actual two showrunners in the video clip I just linked you to. Above all, they’re having fun.)

LOST is filmed in Hawaii, and the remote location and large cast make it one of the most expensive TV shows ever, maybe the costliest. But I’ve read that none of the principal actors ever presumed to buy real estate, because their characters might be killed at any time. They’re all renters, and rightly so, for we’ve, er, lost some beloved recurring characters over the past five years. Nothing is certain, except for one thing. The show is about to end.

Midway through LOST’s run, even ardent fans like me noticed that the writers seemed to be exhausting themselves in their constant need to widen the story. Then, in May 2007, at the end of the third season, they made a startling announcement: LOST would conclude with a sixth and final season three years hence. They’d repeatedly assured us that an ending had always been in sight, and they knew the answers we craved – chief among them, what is this mysterious island? Now they drew their line in the sand. We’ll finish the story in 2010, they said. And that time has come at last.

The final season begins tonight, and four months from now we’ll have some answers. Maybe not all of them, but at least the kind of conclusion put forth by people who don’t think their audience is stupid. The respect comes right back at them, and I can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with. But with 16 final episodes to go, I guess I’ll have to — no, I get to — luxuriate in the wonderful spell they’ve cast for just a little while longer.

The Lunatic Cringe

November 23, 2009

I passed on BRUNO (just add virtual umlauts wherever you wish) for the theatrical run last summer and, after watching the DVD, I’m so glad I did. “Cringe” comedy was around long before Ricky Gervais newly popularized it on THE OFFICE in England: Allen Funt’s CANDID CAMERA in the Fifties was the first example I noticed as a kid. The American OFFICE (with the assistance of Gervais and his writing/producing partner, Stephen Merchant) has kept it up and, in many ways, is superior to its beloved Brit counterpart, because now we have a real sitcom: that is, after five seasons, we can almost predict how the various office denizens might react to a new stimulus, thus it’s up to the writers to surprise us. But each episode features at least one of those awkward pauses that made the BBC series so essential: we can’t believe what we’ve just heard, and the Voice of Reason (Martin Freeman in the original, John Krasinski in the U.S.) gives the camera a forlorn look: I heard it too…welcome to my world.

Sacha Baron Cohen.

The audience is also in on the joke with Sacha Baron Cohen. His specialty, besides a chameleonlike ability to utterly alter his appearance, is rock-solid devotion to his character no matter what idiocy issues from his mouth; Harvey Korman and Tim Conway could not have made him break. He’s one of the greatest talents at improv that I’ve ever seen. It was all new on his wonderful DA ALI G SHOW, in which he played (1) a privileged English kid who affects the persona of a Third World rapper (Ali G), (2) a clueless TV reporter from Kazakhstan (Borat), and (3) a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista (Bruno). In character, Baron Cohen interacts with real people – some of them celebrities – in order to test their appetite for appearing on TV (1), push the boundaries of courtesy toward foreign customs (2), and unearth homophobia (3). In short bursts, all three characters were quite amusing: an entire episode only lasted about thirty minutes. And it was fun to see how much foolishness a Newt Gingrich or Buzz Aldrin could stand before deciding it just wasn’t worth it (some of Ali’s guests never reached that point). DA ALI G SHOW was such a sensation in England that it became prohibitively difficult to find more unwitting patsies, so HBO brought it to the U.S., where the pickings were again fat.

Now, all three characters have been expanded to feature length. ALI G INDAHOUSE (of Parliament) was much too British to make any noise in America and was barely released here. BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN, on the other hand, was a surprise hit in 2006 – it didn’t hurt that it was essentially an American travelogue – and it got Baron Cohen a major deal for the third feature, the one that just appeared, BRUNO. Fans of DA ALI G SHOW are no doubt flabbergasted that the filmmakers were able to stretch the latter two characters to feature length, and in BRUNO, they damn near weren’t; even with a star-studded “music video” at the end, it barely clocks in at 80 minutes. Even so, the three films reveal disturbing undertones in the three characters that are harder to read in five-minute increments.

Ali G. Note the “playa” cap twist — with a bike helmet.

Ali G is the simplest, because we infer a very recognizable backstory. Alistair Graham actually lives in Staines, a middle-class London suburb. “Ali G” represents his fantasy life. Not only does he appropriate what he imagines to be West Indies-laden language (Bob Marley, in his mind), but he peppers his speech with American slang as well. It’s hard to tell whether the character is as dumb as he sounds, because presumably his lessons came from the schools, not the streets. (Come closer, I have a secret to tell you: Sacha Baron Cohen is actually…tee hee…a graduate of prep school and Cambridge!) But Ali’s besotted with junk food and ganja, and his girlfriend (“me Julie”) can only be described as long-suffering: misogyny is part of the package. I’ve read that on a typical Ali G interview, the bling-laden Baron Cohen at first appears to be a crew member, adjusting lights and all, then plops down in a chair next to the guest and engages him in friendly conversation while “waiting for the host.” But the tape’s already rolling. Because Ali G’s witlessness is actually funny in and of itself, the cringe factor is dialed way back. The game is to determine, how long can he keep this up? For Ali G’s movie, the spotlight was entirely on the character, in hindsight a mistake since buffoonish interviews were actually a big part of his popularity. Perhaps realizing this, the Ali G team decided to fix things with its next feature.


At first glance, Borat Sagdiyev comes across as just as dumb as Ali G, but it’s not so. He’s simply a stranger in a strange land. You imagine that by Kazakh standards – for that’s the running joke – he’s probably a pretty good reporter. But despite his “undeveloped country” crudity, and one particularly nasty bit of bigotry, those around Borat cannot escape his essential sweetness. He loves America, he’s thrilled to be here, so if you’re a patriot, you have something important in common. Unlike Ali G, who projects the rapper’s disdain for authority and tries to sound as much like a “playa” as possible, Borat yearns to join your society. And so there are chinks in the armor of our ironic detachment from his victims: many of them are simply trying to be hospitable toward this mound of bizarre customs. Baron Cohen reportedly refused to wash his worn gray suit during the entire shoot, so that whenever Borat leaned over to kiss the next uncomfortable redneck on both cheeks, a stench would precede him, and just maybe cause an involuntary grimace or flinch. Is that loading the dice? Doggone right it is.

On one of his TV appearances, Borat leads the gang at an Arizona country-music bar in his own composition, “In My Country There Is Problem,” with its now-famous chorus, “Throw the Jew down the well!” For our sweet Borat also happens to be a fierce, stalwart anti-Semite. “Borat” used the same rolling joke when he visited Jon Stewart’s desk and tried to find his horns. But back in Arizona, did Borat really stumble upon a nest of like-minded cowboys, or was it only just a group of beer-drinking shitkickers who were trying to be nice by singing along? Some charge that the crowd had been warned it would be a comedy song, and at least one Jew in the audience was singing herself. Only the crew knows how much of the reaction to Baron Cohen is genuine and how much is staged. (Come closer, I have a secret to tell you: Sacha Baron Cohen is actually…tee hee…an observant Jew!) There certainly is rampant bigotry in America, and some of it is shown in BORAT. But my ire is reserved for those self-important “teachers” and “motivators” who try to lure sad, gullible people into an undeserved sense of superiority over something. Those are the true creeps, not the folks who whoop it up with the funny-looking guy in the cowboy hat.


And now we have Bruno, the nightmare of every homophobe, not to mention every gay person who wants to be taken seriously. He swishes, he shakes ass, he renders his wrists limp. He explores every possible manifestation of the gay-basher’s imagined stereotype. This is by definition the most repulsive and aggressive of Baron Cohen’s three characters, but one of the actor’s formidable arsenal of weapons is sheer courage rivaling Andy Kaufman’s. He goes on a Dallas TV talk show with an overwhelmingly black audience and shows them his new adopted black baby from Nigeria, wearing a T-shirt that reads GAYBY. He tells them he traded an iPod for little “O.J.,” and makes them angrier with every passing second. (Hmmm: how much of that was staged?) As a modeling agent, Bruno interviews the parents of infants and asks them if they’d permit their babies to wear a beard made of bees, appear in a crucifixion scene, and more. Everyone answers yes, and we think it’s a funny comment on stage mothers, but then we see the resulting photos later! (Ginned up or not, they’re still eyeball-widening.) Bruno goes to boot camp, a hunting expedition where he tries to sneak naked into a fellow hunter’s tent, a martial arts teacher who helps him learn how to defend himself against homosexuals, a swinger’s night where a dominatrix repeatedly whips him with a belt to get a hetero reaction, and finally an extreme sports cage-match event where Baron Cohen and his co-star wind up rolling around on the mat together and scandalizing the redneck crowd so mercilessly that some of them actually start crying on camera. Still, the only real blood that’s spilled comes when Bruno visits a “recovered homosexual” who claims to be able to cure him, and a minister who feels the same way, and they need nobody’s help to look ridiculous. (Oh yeah, come closer, I have a secret to tell you: Sacha Baron Cohen is actually…tee hee…not gay at all! In fact, he’s engaged to, and a papa with, red-hottie Isla Fisher!)

Sacha and fiancee Isla Fisher.

Now the ironic detachment gets perilously close to a cliff. Being played by a Jew might give Borat a little license that others might not have. But Bruno’s played by a straight man. Where’s the line between satire and genuine homophobia, either felt or induced? What gives him the right? When all’s said and done, it’s just an exercise, and it doesn’t really matter, because BRUNO is one and only one joke, and the most important thing is that after a while it simply isn’t funny any more. Are there homophobes in America (and by the way, even our own country’s supply of patsies must be shrinking, because the lion’s share of BRUNO takes place in the Deep South)? Of course there are, but I don’t want to spend another hour and a half watching a man point to a barrel full of fish, produce a revolver, and fire – again and again and again.

Baron Cohen is also notorious for declining interviews out of character when promoting a movie. If you’re Letterman or Leno, you book Borat, not Sacha Baron Cohen. I’ve only heard one non-character radio interview in all the time I’ve been following him: an NPR piece when ALI G came to the U.S. But this summer, notably, he bounded on the Letterman stage as himself, and told very entertaining stories about the making of the movie. Outside of the traditional clip, Bruno himself was nowhere to be found. Maybe somebody decided that ten minutes with Bruno was quite enough. After going the full 80, I agree. Let’s retire all three characters, and ask this very talented man for something new.


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