Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An Open Letter to James Franco About Why His Situation Sucks

Dear Mr. Franco Jimmy James,

I know you don't know who I am, but I thought I'd write to you since we are both fiction writers and therefore peers, sort of, even though I'm not famous and have never been compared to James Dean. Still, we've both sat down in front of a computer and seriously attempted to write a short story, which sets us apart from most of the people in the world—we're colleagues, whether you or I like it or not.

As a colleague, I'd like to congratulate you on getting a story in GQ, which usually doesn't publish fiction. The story is from your forthcoming collection—the rather unimaginatively titled Palo Alto—and I have to tell you, it isn't terrible. I mean, if you handed me the manuscript without telling me who the author was, I would have thought it had been written by an MFA candidate who was trying to find his voice, which is I guess a fair description of you. Bits of it sound like a third-rate George Saunders story, and that's a compliment believe it or not. (Most people aren't aware of Saunders, but I assume you are, since you're taking writing classes and probably reading a lot of short fiction. If you haven't heard of him, check his stuff out.)

According to the internet, you're not one of those celebrities who gets bored and decides they want to sing (Scarlett Johansson) or write liberal op-ed pieces (Bono, Alec Baldwin), much to the public's annoyance. They treat their second career like a hobby and hardly ever have any talent for it, yet they receive all sorts of attention for these side projects—a major label will release their music, or the Huffington Post will give them a column. They're novelty acts, like this skateboard-riding cat, and like the cat, some of them don't seem to realize it. For instance, I'm sure Sting thinks his generic end-the-War-On-Drugs piece made it to the front page of Huffington purely on the merits of his prose and his logic.

You don't want to be one of those artistic tourists, James, I know. You take your craft seriously, you're doing the work, going to school, and you probably genuinely want the respect of the literary community. The problem is, everyone thinks of you as just another skateboard-riding cat. People were mocking your story on Facebook earlier this week, and I'm afraid I joined in. I couldn't help it. There are some unintentionally funny lines in there—like any developing writer, your prose gets away from you sometimes—and I was a little jealous that GQ was giving you the attention just because you were already famous. Yeah, the story was good for an actor, but I'm guessing you really, really don't want that good for an actor label.

If I were you, I'd be having lots of sex with unbelievably attractive women. Also, I would have published my work under a pseudonym at first so people could give me honest feedback. Like it or not, you aren't getting a book published because you're the next Raymond Carver, you're getting published because you're already famous. The literary community at large won't respect you, because no matter how earnestly you're taking this second career of yours, the perception is that your writing is getting attention that it doesn't deserve. And the public, the people who saw Spiderman and Pineapple Express and have never read a short story unless they were forced to in school, will probably just be confused by it. At best, maybe some of those people will use your work as a gateway to other, better short story writers like Richard Ford or Sam Lipsyte. At worst, you'll be the Scarlett Johansson of fiction. All this will change if you write a story or novel that blows everyone away—which I'm not ruling out—but for now, the most important words you've written are the three at the top: “By James Franco.”

Harry Cheadle
PS—Check out this edited version of your story by my good buddy Giancarlo Ditrapano at the New York Tyrant.
PPS—Do you smoke as much pot as I think you do? Maybe we can get high sometime and talk about. Donald Barthemane.

“Just Before the Black” by James Franco [GQ]
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Man, That Sucked: The Health Care Debate

The health care debate is over and no one is happy. When Barack Obama was elected the First Black President Of The United States there were literally people celebrating in the streets. Strangers high-fived and hugged each other. The police stood back at let it happen, because there was no threat of violence and this would never happen again. Our president is black. I'm only 23 years old, but that was the first time I can ever remember that happening.

No one is celebrating like that now. The dyed-in-the-wool leftists are grousing about how this bill just forces us to give money to the insurance companies and the conservatives are up in arms about the cost and the “unprecedented” expansion of the federal government. If the election of Obama was a night of emotional, wonderful, soul-merging sex, the process by which HR 3962 got passed was a drunken, coke-fueled one-night stand where no one comes and both of you hopefully use as an indication that it's time to reevaluate your lives.

What's happening now—as if anyone has the energy to care at this point—is that a group of mostly-Republican attorneys general are suing on behalf of some states to invalidate the just-passed bill (this won't work, but it's good press for those AGs). If you were new to this country you would find this ironic, since conservatives have been bitching about “activist judges” since Brown v. Board of Education forced southern schools to integrate, but ha ha! That would assume you believed in principles, or at least you believed that people meant what they said. American politicians and political commentators have assimilated the concept of postmodernism far better than anyone else and now words mean nothing to them. Meaning is malleable, truth is nonexistent, and objective reality is just a dirty joke you tell to your attractive male aides while you're groping them at the after-hours bar. You win an argument not on the basis of facts and reasoning, but by getting as many people as possible to inhabit your version of reality. Those are the lessons of the last year of “debate,” if you can call it that—once again, I'm only 23, but this had to be a low point for the country, right? Right?

What was the lowest point we reached, anyway? Was it those town hall meetings that reminded us why “media circus” is such an apt turn of phrase? Or those incoherent citizens who didn't want government interfering with their Medicare? How about when Glenn Beck and those like him claimed that the Nazis were basically progressives? I gave up on the whole thing when people denounced even something as watered-down as the current bill as “socialism,” when what we got was well to the right of systems in the UK and Canada, where people are, I've heard, relatively happy and healthy and not living in a 1984-esque nightmare world.

Not long ago, I was told by no less a person than Conan O'Brien that cynicism "doesn't lead anywhere," but if you care about politics, how can you have come through the past several months without a conviction that the game is rigged and the best we can hope for is to rig it in our own favor?

It's supposed to work like this: people elect politicians who will more or less represent their interests. Politicians do so and pass bills that most of the people want to have passed, since they elected said politicians. Everyone is smart enough to look out for their own interests.

Instead, people vote without knowing what positions their politicians stand for—or in many cases the elections don't matter that much because districts have been gerrymandered for generations. The politicians try to do what is popular at the moment so they can get reelected, and what's popular changes on the stories reported by a handful of occasionally-biased media outlets. Some of the issues are so complex people never understood them in the first place, but that doesn't stop them from having opinions about them and writing angry letters to their congressmen. And the politicians fund reelection campaigns on corporate donations, of course, so no bills are ever passed that will hurt any large corporation—unless those corporations fuck up so publicly that they can't be ignored and then the politicians crucify them in public and then do very little to change the rules that allow them to fuck up, as they did in the case of the banks.

No one should be happy with either of the major parties right now. The Democrats claimed that all of a sudden American had a health care “crisis” that needed to be resolved right away and then—thanks to a variety of internal divisions—couldn't come up with a solution that could be explained in simple terms. The Republicans figured out that if the Democrats didn't pass a bill quickly they would look incompetent and stalled the process at every available turn. The Tea Party, meanwhile, managed to combine the naivete of the hippy movement with the knee-jerk conservatism of the John Birch Society and backed it up with a philosophy that managed to combine elements of Evangelical Christianity with the non-dirty parts of Ayn Rand novels (and that's not a compliment). The Black President didn't or couldn't do anything about all this. The Health Care Debate became it's own cottage industry and catapulted Glenn Beck to superstardom, while almost no one mentioned that we could reduce health costs by being healthier as a country. Who could possibly be satisfied with any of this?

What's important to remember is, it's spring right now. It's warm outside. You can walk to the park and discreetly smoke a joint or drink a beer in the sun, or you can just lie down on the grass and close your eyes. People are riding their bicycles again and running and tanning and trying to get in swimsuit-suitable shape. The girls and guys are wearing less clothing once again. Baseball is right around the corner. You can drop acid at a summer music festival or watch your small children run on the hot sand at a beach somewhere, whichever one is more your speed. The health care bill doesn't kick in until 2014 and anyway, there are more important things in life than the increasingly nonsensical world of politics. Like this:

(Image is from the cover of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, one of the finest, most cynical books on American politics ever written.)
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Monday, March 22, 2010

Things That Don't Suck: March Madness

There are lots of reasons to dislike Division I college basketball: the unsavory recruiting of middle-schoolers, the even more unsavory practice of paying supposedly amateur players under the table, the two-faced coaches who break their commitments to their schools as easily as they accept lucrative endorsements, and last but not least, there's the questionable morality of building a multi-million dollar business on the backs of student athletes who don't see a dime of that money and who sometimes don't even receive an adequate education.

But none of that has anything to do with the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Call it March Madness, call it the Big Dance, call it a big ratings bump for CBS—whatever you call it, it's still the perfect playoff system. Unlike sports where seven-game series can drag on for weeks, every game is do-or-die. In close games, you can feel the pressure these kids are under through your TV, and you can feel the insane enthusiasm of the crowd, which is close enough to the players to make their presence felt. This is worlds away from the MLB or the NFL, where only celebrities and the very rich can afford tickets and homefield advantage barely exists anymore.

Then there's the number of teams, which is—once again—perfect. The NBA gives too many teams playoff spots, and college football gives too few (only two teams have a legitimate shot at the title, after all), but college basketball, like Baby Bear's possessions, is just right. Most of the selected teams are big-time teams from major conferences but there are enough “mid majors” selected every year to keep things interesting and to showcase a wide variety of playing styles. Sometimes these always-described-as-“scrappy”-teams even “make some noise” and advance well beyond the fate that their seeding has marked out for them, and that's when March Madness demonstrates the single best thing about sports.

Every major sports championship has a distinct identity. The World Series has its traditional status as a centerpiece of American culture (or it did when there were day games played); the Super Bowl has its unashamed, unrestrained orgy of consumerism and excess; the World Cup has its nationalism and rivalries stretching back into the colonial era or further back to the Hundred Years War. March Madness has the spirit of the underdog, which may be a horrible-sounding sports cliche, but it also happens to be true.

Unlike many playoff systems, every team really does have a chance. Maybe not a chance to “win it all,” but a chance to defeat more lauded, more successful programs and get to the Sweet 16 at the very least. A few years ago, George Mason, an 11-seed, got to the Final Four. This year Cornell and the University of Washington (Go Huskies!) stormed their way past the first two rounds and either one of them could replicate Mason's feat. That kind of story is impossible for even me to be cynical about. These are real-life sports movies, only unencumbered by the subplots about the coach's relationship with his wife. These are young men in their early twenties who are playing the most important games of their lives on national television. For a lot of them, the ones not destined for NBA stardom and shoes named after them, this is as famous as they'll ever get. As trivial as these games are in the larger scheme of things, there are the occasional shots and plays and games that are going to be the moments in the players' lives that they'll remember and be remembered for as long as they live. And we get to watch it all on live TV. Pretty cool, huh?

The teams that exceed expectations—and there are at least one or two every year—are the single best thing about sports. When you ignore the money and corruption and the gambling and the steroids and the “opiate of the masses” aspect, when you get rid of the media and the hype and everything else that's wrong with sports, you just have two teams trying as hard as they humanly can to get a ball in a hoop. One team may be more athletic or taller or have more expensive training equipment and be favored by a whole lot, but either team can win, and sometimes the team that has a small chance to win, has no right to even think about winning even, can upset the order of things, and for about five minutes we're reminded that just because the odds are against us doesn't mean we can't win. It's a message that makes me feel like I'm covered in corn syrup when I'm typing those words, but that doesn't make it any less important.
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Friday, March 19, 2010

Why Trade Schools Suck

You've seen the commercials on the subway, or on the bus if you aren't fortunate to live in a city with a subway system. Or you've seen them on TV early in the morning or around noon—the unemployed hours, when the ads are sandwiched between informercials for new kinds of paper towel dispensers and exposes on the lifestyles of the fat, semi-literate and slutty.

The commercials are for different companies and schools—Phoenix, ITT, DeVry—but the ads are all basically the same. There's the Ordinary American (sometimes appealingly multi-racial, sometimes a recent immigrant, always low-income) describing how he became the successful middle-class person you see before you wearing a tucked-in button-up shirt. This explanation is intercut with images of them repairing computers, organizing files at a doctor's office, or simply staring at a computer screen in a well-lit office like the well-paid professional he is. How did he become such a tower of mundane achievement in the IT or Dental Hygienist fields? Why, by acquiring a degree from [name of college] in [name of field of study] of course!

What these trade schools promise is a practical education that will let you get a job immediately after graduation. The programs may be expensive—thirty thousand dollars for a one-year program sometimes—but you make so much money as a chef or a car mechanic afterwards that you can pay off your debts in a year or two and anyway, you'll get financial aid, so you don't need to worry about it.

That story that recruiters tell students is basically a big fucking lie, as the New York Times reported last weekend, in an article that reminded me why newspapers are more useful than your typical piece of kindling. These schools are for-profit institutions that push their product like Pepsi or Altria, and they make most of their money off of the federal government, which provides grants for education whether or not that education is worthwhile or not.

Now, you can have a long, complicated argument about how useful a four-year degree from a major university is, and a compelling case can be made that the degree itself isn't nearly as useful as the connections and the experience navigating withing systems that you get on your way to a degree. Certainly my degree—a BFA, for the record—isn't worth the price of the paper it's printed on, and neither are general “Liberal Arts” degrees or a wide variety of undergraduate degrees that are issued by institutions more expensive than DeVry or Phoenix. These degrees are luxury items that may provide some measure of knowledge or (in a perfect world) happiness, but they won't help you get a job.

But no one gets a Liberal Arts degree or a BFA with the expectation that it will get them a job. Liberal Arts majors aren't being targeted by TV ads and recruiters and told that they can turn their material fortunes around by spending a lot of money at Dartmouth or UC Berkeley. And most of those big-name universities don't exist solely for undergraduates; they conduct research, they fund graduate programs—if you want to get pretentious about it, they are depositories of the accumulated knowledge of humankind.

These trade schools are not depositories of the accumulated knowledge of humankind. They are a product of a tricky business model that figured out a way to get money from the government and their students at the same time, and as long as they don't explicitly promise good jobs after graduation—which would be illegal, since that would be lying outright—they can go on operating the same way they always have.

What's so objectionable about DeVry and ITT is not their clever business model, but their incredible cynicism. They basically sell themselves as the means to the American Dream—the bootstraps that hard-working immigrants can use to pull themselves up—when they are really expensive versions of community college. Unlike ivy-covered universities, they don't pretend to have a higher purpose than improving the income bracket of their graduates, but they don't even deliver on that promise. Trade schools are a lie that hides behind a veil of pretend pragmatism, which seems worse than those lies that hide behind veils of high-minded ideals—when we pay huge amounts of money to see a Major League Baseball game, at least we can tell ourselves various things about sportsmanship and tradition. DeVry and ITT not only treat us like suckers, they assume we're just as money-hungry as they are.

In Hard Times, Lured Into Trade School and Debt [NYT]
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why Umbrellas Suck

We had a wet weekend here in New York City, with gray clouds hovering spitefully overhead for three days and occasionally spitting sheets of rain down at us. If you had to go out in that weather, you walked as quickly as you could, dodging the puddles pooling at the curbs, gritting your teeth against raindrops that seemed to be coming at you sideways, huddling under your umbrella and feeling, perhaps, like the hero of a Horatio Alger novel who has yet to climb the corporate ladder through hard work and ambition and is therefore still stuck selling newspapers in the cold, wet rain.

Then again, maybe you didn't feel so bad because you had an umbrella with you, keeping the rain off of your head like an ingenious portable roof. Did you know that the umbrella has been in use since ancient times in the Middle East? And that they are sometimes called “gamps” in England, after a Charles Dickens character? You should click the “Random Entry” button on Wikipedia more often! Then you would have found out that umbrellas throughout history have been more often used as status symbols or to protect against the sun's heat than they have been used against rain, the way you are doing right now.

If you're unlucky, a wind will pick up suddenly and you'll discover why your use of the umbrella is historically inaccurate. If yours is a sturdy umbrella, one with a sturdy “double-canopy” design and one that has been tested in wind-tunnel conditions—like this one—you'll have to grip it tightly to keep it from flying away, but nothing too terrible will happen as a result of a sudden gust. But if you're like me and aren't inclined to spend 30 dollars on an umbrella, your cheap drugstore-purchased gamp will pull away from you, the canopy will make that nasty fluttering sound, and then the whole contraption will turn inside-out, and the ribs will get bent out of place so the stupid fucking thing (which is what you call it) will never protect anything from getting wet ever again. You can try to get the umbrella to go back to the way it was, but you'll wind up feeling like the person at the black-and-white opening of an infomercial who is demonstrating the problems with a traditional knife or lawnmower. “Is your umbrella giving you problems?” the voiceover asks you. “Did the wind kill your umbrella yet again?”

There are no statistics on how often this umbrella homicide occurs (although there should be), but it happens a lot. Now that the rains had ended, there are dozens of piles of colored canvas and metal rods that were once umbrellas wedged in the gutters. Most of them were poorly manufactured, but some of them are the fancy umbrellas with the double-canopy designs or the endorsement of Rihanna. Umbrellas are the material embodiment of entropy. The clasp that keeps them tightly wrapped up breaks, then it gets harder to open the umbrella, then the metal ribs get bent, and eventually all umbrellas realize their ultimate destiny and become stupid fucking things one windy day or another. And when that destiny is realized and the unlucky umbrella owner is suddenly shelterless, you can bet that it's the sort of miserable day when the umbrella was needed the most.

Umbrellas break when they're needed, they can be cumbersome to open and close, they sometimes refuse to close altogether (an alternate route to stupid fucking thing status), they ensure that you won't have two hands free when it rains, and on a crowded sidewalk with a lot of umbrella-bearers they'll get in one another's way. Yet a great many people seem to think that they're the best way to shield themselves against the rain and I have no idea why this is. Is it an umbrella-industry conspiracy? Is it really good advertising? Is it a holdover from the days when rich society ladies would use umbrellas as a stylish accessory? Is it a Freudian phallic obsession? Or is it that Rihanna song?

Whatever the reason, I'm—as the kids say these days—over it. No more umbrellas for me. Yet I stayed relatively dry this weekend, and not because I sat inside all day eating donut holes. No, I had to go to the store to get those donut holes and my head stayed miraculously dry, thanks to that newfangled invention, the Jacket With a Hood.
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why Radiohead Sucks

Since the collapse of the British empire after World War II, the English mostly stopped trying to subjugate native peoples and turned their attention to a different, though related, field: rock 'n' roll. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Cream, T. Rex, Pink Floyd, Queen, David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, The Clash, Gang of Four, The Fall, The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division, Blur,'s hard to name a rock band that isn't English. Even His Holiness Jimi Hendrix had to go to their side of the pond to find success.

The British music press helps out by finding every band that looks halfway appealing and hyping them until they're the second coming of Oasis, who the media hyped into the second coming of The Beatles. Much like some people in the basketball media compare every good young player to Michael Jordan, every good young English band is the Next Savior Of Rock 'n' Roll. Remember the Arctic Monkeys? Neither do I.

Radiohead, of course, is different. They weren't over-hyped to start their careers, possibly because their first album, Pablo Honey, wasn't very good. And when they were anointed the Best Band Of All Time, Or At Least Of The 90s—this happened sometime between The Bends and OK Computer—they responded not by self-imploded, but by putting out Kid A, which even snobs who only listened to free jazz and “post-rock” had to admit was pretty good. In my part of Brooklyn, where it is traditional to scoff at the bands and things other people enjoy, very few people say they don't like Radiohead—except for “dean of American rock critics” and professional asshole Robert Christgau, everyone who cares about music made mostly by electric guitars has decided Radiohead is a good thing.

I'm one of those people: I have all of Radiohead's studio albums, Thom Yorke's solo project, and a fair number of their B-Sides (“Cuttooth” is under appreciated), I paid a hefty sum to see them in concert on their last tour, I carpooled to that concert with people I met through W.A.S.T.E, the band's social networking site, and I even wrote a fake Thom Yorke blog for a while. I'm listening to the recently-released “These Are My Twisted Words” as I write this. Until recently, if you asked me what my favorite band was, I would have said Radiohead without thinking about it.

The problem I have with them now is that in all the hours I've spent listening to nearly their entire catalogue, I've never heard anything that I would describe as “light hearted” or even “fun.” Radiohead Matters, they're Serious and Thoughtful and Complex, but for a band that plays pop music they take themselves awfully seriously. They kick ass live—for lack of a better term—but they run through their technically demanding songs like classical musicians: accurately, passionately, and with an almost total lack of improvisation or stage banter. Simply put, they don't usually look like they're having a good time up there.

That sounds nit-picky, but isn't it important for anyone who's doing anything as self-evidently absurd as playing rock music for a living be having a good time? Radiohead may be enjoying life, and I've read enough interviews with Yorke to know the guy has a sense of humor, but there's no evidence of that in their music or in his lyrics, which Christgau describes accurately as “how about that, Thom Yorke is bummed.”

Radiohead comes after a long line of important bands who took themselves extremely seriously, but nearly all of their influences were able to write a nice love song or crack a smile when the occasion demanded it. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, but they were also a lot more fun; sometimes they just wanted you to drive their car or hold their hand. The Clash were serious and politically minded, but also had some lighthearted head-bobbing songs (“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “1-2 Crush On You”). Talking Heads, who wrote the song Radiohead is named for, had a whole lot of jokes in their songs and their videos, or at least they did if you got them (“Nothing But Flowers” is hilarious). Even The Cure had that song about Friday being better than all the other days, a level of silliness that would just make Radiohead embarrassed. Heck, even Pink Floyd wrote a few off-kilter love songs once in a while before Syd Barrett lost his brain on a trip.

These days if you asked me who my favorite band was, I'd talk about Talking Heads, who were as artsy as Jonny Greenwood or Yorke but didn't feel the need to beat you over the head with their importance. Or I'd mention the Flaming Lips, who are both crazier and more cheerful than any band to come out of the English music hype machine. Or maybe Pavement, who became a band around the same time Radiohead did, yet didn't end up obsessed with the end of the world (and wrote some of the best lyrics you'll find anywhere). Radiohead is a gloomy band, and these are some admittedly gloomy times, but just because cars and capitalism are slowly destroying us doesn't mean we can't flash a smile or wink at the audience once in a while. Yet Radiohead seems determined to keep a straight face through everything, and though they might be a great band, they'll never be a fun one.

Correction: My mistake! Radiohead did record a happy song, just to prove they could. Here it is:
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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Things That Don't Suck: Elitism

If you listen to conservative talk radio and Fox News 24 hours a day, even while sleeping, like I do, one word you hear a lot is “elite.” And while my dictionary defines this word as “the best part,” they always use this word in a pejorative sense. The elites are always seeking to destroy America, or undermine democracy, or mock the values of normal, heterosexual, apple-pie-ingesting folks. Conservatives commentators never call themselves elite, but not out of modesty (ha!); in the conservative media dictionary, elitism is, like progressivism and socialism, just another synonym for “bad.”

See, elites don't respect God, America, or the Constitution. In fact, they hate those things. Elites want to get rid of these things, build a superhighway connecting the USA to Canada and Mexico,ban religion in the name of science, give the money of average hard-working Americans (average Americans are always hard-working) to minority groups who don't deserve it. Then they will go back to their fancy apartments in their large coastal cities, look at their prestigious degrees and awards (given to them by other elites), and make fun of Southern accents. Or at least that's the conservative view of the “elites,” personified by Laura Ingraham's book Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America.

As it is fashionable to do in literature these days, Ingraham merges fact with fiction, basically inventing a vast conspiracy against American values by people who are “tired of the American voter getting in the way of their agenda.” (It's unclear what their agenda is, but it sounds ominous.) It was published in 2003, so instead of Barack Obama and the health care bill—which was stopped thanks to the Senate, the less democratic chamber of Congress—she beats up on Michael Moore and Bill Clinton*, but the rhetoric is exactly the same: Americans are a God-fearing people who want lower taxes and don't want these big-city, Ivy-League media elites telling them what to do.

Well, that may be true—truer than some of the things said in that book anyway—but by anyone's reckoning, Ingraham is something of an elite herself. She grew up in Connecticut, went to Dartmouth (where she was the first female editor of the school paper), went to law school, even served as a clerk to a Supreme Court Judge, then went on to become a wildly successful media person. She's written three books—the last one was a New York Times number one best seller—and gets paid 20,000 dollars just to make a speech. She even quotes William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! at one point, surely something only an elite would do.

Most of the right-wing “populist” radio and TV hosts are elites, maybe not according to their definition, but according to mine. To me, elites are talented, intelligent, driven people who work extremely hard to get what they want. They're good at what they do, and what they do is often important. Like Ingraham says, elites inhabit politics, media, academia (she calls this “ivory tower”), arts and entertainment, business, and international organizations, because those are the fields you go into if you want to make a difference, which is another characteristic of elites.

Do elites think of themselves as smarter than the general population? Some of them probably do, if only because they are smarter than the general population. Do elites control the media? Of course they do. You have to be elite to rise to prominence in a cut-throat business like that. Do elites tell ordinary people what to believe? Yes, and they have ever since the dawn of time. Do they mostly live in big cities? Well, they have to if they want to succeed at the kind of industries they're usually interested in.

The great thing about America—or at least the idea of America—is that most of our elites came by their status honestly. They aren't a hereditary aristocracy, they didn't buy their way to the top, and anyone can join their ranks as long as they're talented. Our Founding Fathers, who have been practically deified by the right wing, were the uber-elites of their day. Benjamin Franklin was the kind of celebrity politician that conservatives mock Obama for being, and the Constitution was written by extremely intelligent lawyers. America was founded by elites, is ruled by elites, and will be dominated by elites for as long as it exists.

Ingraham loves to slam Bill Clinton in her book, and there are plenty of reasons to slam Clinton from the left as well as the right, but the man started out with a lot less of money than Ingraham, suffered a pretty rough childhood, earned a Rhodes Scholarship, and became Governor of Arkansas at the age of 32 and President just a decade later. America can be a shitty, shitty place, but at least in America, the elites have the opportunity to rise to the top. And if some of them live in big cities and look down their noses at the rural Midwest and South, maybe that's because those are terrible places to live. Don't agree with me? David Byrne does:

*Another sign that the bill was written seven years ago is the sentence, “America has fought to protect Muslims all over the world,” which not even a talk show host would have the chutzpah to say in 2010.
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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Why the Oscars Suck

As we've heard from countless acceptance speeches, receiving an award is an honor, a priviledge, and a deeply humbling experience, but giving out awards is a far more cynical act than accepting them. For starters, it takes an enormous amount of chutzpah for any organization to decide it has the authority to judge the “best picture,” “best album,” or (in the Nobel Peace Prize's case) “best human being.” Awards are never given in the spirit of altruism—the purpose is to honor the recipient, but also to elevate the ones doing the honoring. Award ceremonies satisfy a fundamental human need: everyone involved gets to dress up, make speeches, and feel important, even if all they did was make a film about blue people fighting tanks.

For the major award-bestowing organizations, then, the problem is to get the general public to care about the award they're bestowing. The Grammys do this by endorsing whatever music happens to be popular, to the point where people who love and care about music universally agree that the Grammys are a complete joke. This is obviously not ideal. The Nobel Peace Prize committee, perhaps tired of honoring humanitarians from countries no one has heard of, recently took a page from the Grammys' playbook and forced itself upon Barack Obama on the grounds that a lot of people liked him. (The war in Afghanistan counts as Bush's war, I guess, just like a relief pitcher in baseball isn't charged with runs scored by runners who were already on base when he came in.)

The Academy Awards face the same difficulty the Nobel people do. Most people do not know the names of the world's greatest humanitarians; neither do they see movies that deserve to be called the best movie of the year. We don't like to pay 11 bucks and sit for two hours to be challenged or disturbed or changed, which a good movie might try to do to us. As the top-10 grossing movies of 2009 indicate, we like shiny, shiny garbage, preferably with a message that we already know, like “be true to your friends,” or “don't give up on your dreams,” or “peaceful nature-loving aliens with disturbingly sexy bodies are preferable to evil corporations who employ sadistic ex-Marines.”

If the Oscars were the Pulitzer prize, or the PEN/Faulkner award, or the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, everything would be fine. Those awards frequently go to people who have accomplished things that—to be blunt—most people don't give a shit about. But the Academy wants to be loved by everyone—film industry folks, professional film critics, and the average joe who saw and loved both Transformers movies and thinks “Fellini” is a kind of Italian sandwich. Most of all, the Academy wants everyone to watch their award ceremony, and this is the real problem, because watching that ceremony is the dullest four hours anyone can have outside of a doctor's office waiting room.

For starters, there are the technical awards that not even most of the attendees pay much attention to: Makeup, Cinematography (vital, but ignored by the world at large) Art Direction, Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing (do you know the difference? Does anyone?), and Costume Design. Those awards are for people in those industries, everyone else can go grab a beer while they're being announced. Then there are the best short films, the best documentaries and the best foreign film, none of which anyone has ever heard of, and then there's the Best Animated Film, which is just whatever Pixar movie came out that year. The Oscar for Original Film Score gets awarded each year, sometimes not even to John Williams, and the world greets it with a collected grunt. The award for Best Original Song is only interesting because it led to a period of time when Three 6 Mafia had an Academy Award while Martin Scorsese didn't. Best Supporting Actor and Actress are sometimes referred to as major awards, but I dare anyone to name a specific winner from last year or any year. Best Director is a major award, of course, but also the most confusing besides sound editing/mixing—isn't the best directed movie also the best movie period?

The only awards that the general public cares about are for Actor, Actress and especially Best Picture, which is why those come near the end of the marathon ceremony. And this is where the Academy decided to tweak things to get more people interested. They expanded the field of nominees for best picture from five to 10, essentially to make sure that at least one or two bonafide blockbusters could get nominated. Thus, Blind Side got nominated despite middling reviews (a 52 on Metacritic), and District 9 slipped in even though it was the kind of thoughtful sci-fi film that usually get ignored by the Academy (see Men, Children of*). Actually, this year Avatar would have probably got a ton of nominations and therefore dragged in a lot of viewers for the Oscars even if there were only five Best Picture slots, but the important thing is that the Academy has no problems tweaking its format to bring in more eyeballs, and that might be a step toward Grammy-style critical irrelevance.

John Farr, the film writer for the Huffington Post, recently wondered if the Oscars were being corrupted by all the behind-the-scenes marketing and lobbying—if, in other words, the great and venerable Academy Awards were collapsing under the weight of two much hype. (The infamous letter that Hurt Locker producer Nicolas Chartier wrote was only condemned because he directly insulted another film.) This complaint seems a little off-kilter. The Oscars are all hype and marketing—PR flacks sell the films to the Academy, and the Academy tries to sell the pomp and circumstance to the viewers. Complaining about marketing in the Oscars is like complaining about the pumpkin in pumpkin pie. To stay popular, the Academy Awards are going to have to endorse whatever movies are popular.

Farr ponders aloud whether the winning film will win for “lasting creative merit, or sheer popularity, as evidenced by box office?” This is something only a professional film critic who cared about awards would say. For film executives and producers, “sheer popularity” is the only thing worth caring about, and the best thing about winning an Oscar is that your film becomes more popular and rakes in the money on DVD sales. And unfortunately, the Academy also cares about popularity more than anything. So I'm betting that Avatar will win Best Picture, even though there are movies I think deserve it more and would benefit more from the wider audience that a Best Picture pedigree would provide (coughThe Hurt Lockercough!). But for Avatar, tonight's just a victory lap. It already won the box office, which is Hollywood's real highest honor.

*I know, Children of Men was nominated for three Oscars. But it didn't get a whiff of Best Picture, even though it was one of the best photographed, best written, and best edited films of the year. That was the year The Departed won for being directed by a guy who should have won a Best Picture Oscar 25 years ago. High five, Academy!

(Image from a Dan Savage column, by Misako Rocks!)
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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Why Light Beer Sucks

Humanity agrees on very little, but we have decided this much: beer is good. Beer is older than democracy, more popular than Jesus, and is enjoyed by Fascists, Communists, Feminists, Sadists, Masochists, Gays, Straights, the Bi-Curious, Polygamists, Polytheists, Monotheists, and Atheists alike. Beer is mentioned in the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, which is the oldest work of fiction in the world. Beer has been regarded as a gift of the gods by the Egyptians and the Germans and was used as currency during the Middle Ages. Beer advertising is everywhere, even on buses, and it's strange to think that beer was illegal just 80 years ago. There are still “temperance advocates” out there somewhere, one imagines, but they must realize that they are fighting a losing battle, like the Lyndon LaRouche for President people.

Light beer has been around a much shorter time. It was invented not by the Sumerians, but by this guy in the late 1960s. Basically, light beer is beer with fewer calories and less alcohol than ordinary beer. You would think that a product like that would have limited commercial appeal—how many calorie-counting alcoholics can there be?--but you would be very, very wrong. Today, light beers dominate the US market, with six of the top 10 best selling beers of 2008 being “light,” including Michelob Ultra Light, whose advertisements feature athletic exercise enthusiasts who probably don't drink beer, and Miller “Lite,” who apparently does not employ a copy editor. The best selling beer of 2008 was Bud Light (even Obama drinks it!), and since I have had Bud Light before, my natural reaction to this bit of information was to wonder why, in Gilgamesh's name, are so many people drinking this beer?

Maybe beer drinkers are actually health-conscious, but if they are, they aren't paying attention to the nutrition facts. Light beer has fewer carbohydrates, but the difference in calories is fairly small: Bud Light has 110 calories to original Budweiser's 143, while Guinness has 120—if you are trying to improve your health, perhaps you should do more than change your beer brand. (Or, as the source of my calorie information puts it, “You were probably fat before you began drinking beer anyway.”)

Could people be drinking light beer for the taste? Taste is subjective, and if I think Bud Light tastes like piss, perhaps that's due to a defect in my palate. Some people enjoy tofu, others eat dog, diff'rent strokes make the world go 'round. But surely, no one thinks of Bud Light as their favorite beer. It doesn't taste exactly like water, but it tastes more like water than beer normally does. It's the beer you drink when you don't like the taste of beer very much, yet you are mysteriously drawn to consume it rather than, say, switching to vodka or not drinking at all.

I doubt that if you polled light beer drinkers they would start extolling the virtues of Bud Light's subtle flavoring, or Miller Lite's aftertaste. They just drink it because it's beer, it's cheap, and you don't need to think about purchasing it. If you want to buy a fancy microbrew you have to spend a lot of time looking at the bottles, picking between them, and you risk picking something that you'll really dislike, like the time I bought Dogfish Head's Raison D'etre without realizing that they made it with actual raisins. There's no risk in light beer.

In some respects, the true inventors of light beer are not the chemists who came up with the idea and tweaked the formula over the years, but the advertisers who convinced people to drink it. There are more chemicals in light beer than in your standard microbrew (at one point Miller Lite had corn syrup in it), and what flavor there is these beers is artificially added (some Bud Light is “Autumn Wheat” flavored, and that's not a naturally occurring taste). Yet we've been conditioned to think of light beer as the norm and ordinary lagers, stouts, and porters as “weird.” Light beer ad campaigns beat you over the head with their popularity—everyone likes it, so you should too—or they compare themselves to other light beers, as if light beer was the only kind of beer in the world. And people buy into the ad campaigns, or they buy the beer at least, which comes down to the same thing.

I'm not going to say that people are stupid for buying light beer, but it should be noted what light beer represents. It's a product that became popular and got incredibly popular because of it's popularity. It can be enjoyed by everyone while loved by no one. And even if it is does sort of taste like piss, you can ignore it and drink a six pack without even thinking about it. Americans get what we deserve when it comes to beer, as we do with so many other things./span>
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