Monday, June 29, 2015

Addicted to Choice

Note: A version of this piece was published by STYLE Weekly in 2004. 

John Lennon illustration by 
Mike Lormand (1984)

"Whatever gets you through the night 'salright, 'salright
It's your money or life 'salright, 'salright”
 -- John Lennon

Obsessions, compulsions and addictions have always been in play. Now we see a somewhat new twist in driven behavior: In a time of plenty, many Americans seem to have become addicted to the act of choosing between this and that. This group has unwittingly developed what amounts to a jones for choosing from a smorgasbord of options.

Yet, as with any buzz, when it subsides the anxious feelings it allayed return with a vengeance. Thus, choice addicts find themselves living in a continuous loop of making choices in order to cope with their habit. This is beyond consuming, it's about choosing.

Of course Madison Avenue, the great facilitator of this shop-’til-you-drop scenario, has long depicted “choice” as utter bliss: Come and get 'em! These limited-edition widgets come in five, I say five, designer colors.

Choice has also been a hot political buzzword for some time. To a person wanting to express a belief that a woman is absolutely entitled to opt for an abortion, choice is a useful word for a slogan. It implies that ending the pregnancy is a matter of a person having dominion over her own body, rather than submitting to an authority claiming to represent society’s collective will. Of course, those calling for “choice” in this case see the individual’s right to choose an abortion as trumping whatever damage, if any, might be done to society by the abortion.

The notion that it should be fine for any citizen to pull his tax money out of the funding of public education, in order to finance sending his own child to private school, has been called “choice” by its advocates. While this argument appears to be resting on a convenient logic, it ignores the long-held American tenet that everyone in the community has a stake in public education, regardless of how many children they have.

In both cases, the sloganeers show a telling awareness of the lure the word “choice” has today. Perhaps this is due to some new collective sense of powerlessness in the air. Or maybe the scam aspect of selling folks their own freedom is as old as dirt.

In “One-Dimensional Man,” German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) warned us in the 1960s about illusions of freedom: 
Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear.
Marcuse’s keen eye saw the counterfeit aspect of the processed brand of freedom wielders of easy credit felt, even then, as they exercised their prerogative to select one set of time-payment obligations over another. Marcuse laughed at a man feeling free to choose between a new Ford or Chevrolet, then being chained to years of monthly payments. But Marcuse’s hard-nosed take on what he saw as controls over modern society is out of style today. Still, his view of how language is predictably used by a few of us to manipulate the rest of us remains as valuable as ever. Propaganda works better than ever.

French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s (1754-1838) words on the topic of language remain crisp today. Talleyrand offered: 
Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.
British philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) went further: 
Speech was given to man to prevent thought.
OK, so tricky lingo has long been used to shape perception. However, as a true believer in the unfettered streaming marketplace of ideas, I expect tortured language and agenda-driven slogans to come and go. My point is that the act of choosing should not be so highly valued that it comes at the expense of appreciating what happens after the choice is made.

Some folks put a lot of store in choosing the perfect mate. They shop and they shop. But from what I’ve seen, it's what couples do after their choice/commitment that has more to do with the success of the relationship than the perfection of the choice, itself. Of course, some just keep shopping, vows or not. They can’t stop shopping and choosing.

Can constantly switching TV channels for hours be a more satisfying experience than watching one interesting program? Well, the answer probably depends on whether you value what comes after the choice. After all, in order to be able to surf 200 channels, as opposed to only 50 or 100, customers gladly pay extra, although many of them never watch any program in its entirety.

Much of television’s most popular programming feeds its audience a steady flow of information about people who act as if they have genuine clout -- rich celebrities who cavort about with enough bread to buy anything. Then, quite conveniently, every few minutes, commercials interrupt the program to offer the viewer/schlemiel a chance to unjitter their jones by calling a phone number, or getting online.

Anytime your options are limited to what’s on a menu that was put together by someone else, by choosing from that prepared list you are surrendering some control to the list-maker.

And, the mountain of disposable schmidgets grows, evermore, as choice addicts cast off yesterday’s tarnished urge, to grab after today's sparkling urge ... just to get through the night.

-- 30 --

Sunday, June 28, 2015

About Those Monuments

Today's Commentary section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch has an OpEd piece I penned about commemorations of the Confederate States of America.
Stemming from the sea change underway, just how many public commemorations of the Confederacy will be affected remains to be seen. For the time being, the focus is mostly on flags. Which makes some sense, because flags are graphic symbols of ideas and events. What about public schools and bridges named after Confederate heroes? The flags can easily be put in museums. Renaming a bridge might ruffle feathers, but it won’t be all that difficult. Bringing it all the way home, what to do about heroic sculpture in our midst that’s extremely offensive to a significant portion of the community is a problem not so easily solved in a lasting way.
Click here to read "Maybe we should wrap those monuments"

-- My photo (2007)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Body Snatchers

The day after a one-man lynch mob executed nine people in a Charleston church, Tidewater's E.W. Jackson appeared on cable television to offer his take on the shooter's motives. Without any evidence to support his contention, Jackson suggested the white shooter could have chosen his nine black victims largely because of their Christian beliefs.

That, rather than the skin color the victims had in common with the founders of the 199-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church -- a church considered to be sacred ground to millions of Americans who know and appreciate its history.  

Jackson told his Fox News audience, "a hostility toward Christians,” was a likely motive behind the bloodbath in Charleston. Then he went on to frame what appears to have been an act of domestic terrorism as part of a larger War on Christianity -- a fantasy war he and some other conservatives claim to believe is ongoing. In the doing, the lawyer-turned-preacher-turned-pundit changed the narrative. With the help of a Fox News panel of shills he crammed the tragedy in Charleston into a context of boilerplate right-wing talking points. To hell with respect for the dead.

In effect, Jackson virtually body-snatched the victims from the embrace of their grieving loved ones. On Thursday, Jackson might have stood alone. After all, in his hunger for face-time on TV he had jumped the gun. Evidence was pouring in that was already branding the shooter as an angry young man who seemed to have designed his bloody caper to imitate a Ku Klux Klan style of terrorism from yesteryear.

After Jackson's imprudent remarks, it would have been easy enough for smart Republican presidential candidates to say they didn't want to speculate about the motives behind such an act of barbarity. They could have concluded their brief comments by saying they would be praying for the grieving families. Over and out...

Yet, presidential hopefuls, Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham, quickly chimed in to support Jackson's twisted theory. By Friday plenty of information had been presented by the churning media that bolstered the theory the shooter is a white supremacist.

Then Jeb Bush announced he wasn't quite sure if racism played a role. Later Rick Perry must have forgotten what he meant to say ... so he called the mass murder itself an "accident." Oops.

Given what has been reported since the shooter was captured and has reportedly confessed, there's just no good reason to blow off the evidence that paints him as an unrepentant racist. As far as what he was truly thinking at the precise time he was pulling the trigger, who can say?

Most importantly, other than to play a propaganda game, there was no reason for Jackson to say what he did. Furthermore, there was no honorable reason for anyone else to instantly agree with him.

Speaking of propaganda, after each episode of mass murder facilitated by firearms we've had  to endure another of the gun lobby's avalanches of denial. Mean-spirited stuff, sometimes.

For instance: The National Rifle Association's Charles Cotton said, “Eight of [Clementa Pickney's] church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue."

Like Jackson, Cotton seems perfectly willing to use the nine deaths for his own purposes. To help stave off the chorus of cries for better regulation of guns he knows is on the way, Cotton has become a body-snatcher, too.

The flaggers in South Carolina who see the tense aftermath of the massacre as just another time to dig in their heels and insist upon saluting the Stars and Bars, even as it waves over the coffins of fellow citizens whose futures were snuffed out by hate-driven violence, are body snatchers. 

In the next few days, we'll see how many Republicans will have found a way to walk back their foolish backing of Jackson's War on Christians theory. Some may have to go through some amusing contortions. Others may assume their constituents "get it," double-down, and go on insisting the victims were shot to death by an enemy of Christianity.

Nonetheless, please don't forget, this same E.W. Jackson was the 2013 Republican nominee for Lt. Governor in Virginia. Oops.

A lot of Republicans you may know worked to get Jackson elected less than two years ago. In the coming days, we'll see which of the commonwealth's Republican office holders are smart enough to decry Jackson's eagerness to travel the low-road. 

By the way, if the reader wonders why the shooter went unnamed in this piece, my policy is to avoid boosting the promotional campaigns of publicity-seeking murderers, regardless of their supposed motives. Since this is an opinion piece, not a news story, there's no obligation here to report his name.

The obligation here is to state an opinion and try to support it. Here it is in a nutshell:

The shameless E.W. Jackson – a man of the cloth? – should be rebuked for his willingness to become a Fox News tool, without regard for the pain it might inflict on innocent people. Opportunistic politicians who showed the poor judgment to publicly agree with Jackson should be shunned.

-- 30 --

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Public Schools Come Before Spectator Sports

Next year, to win my vote a mayoral candidate will have to be on record as being unconditionally opposed to building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. The same will go on my vote for a Second District representative on City Council. 

While my endorsement may not seem important to the people who are considering running for those offices, in working to oppose baseball in The Bottom I've talked with a lot of voters who will likely need the same sort of guarantee. And I know a few anti-Shockoe Stadium/Save The Diamond people whose endorsement could actually mean a lot to a candidate. 

My prediction is that the winner of the mayoral race in 2016 will be a candidate who says something like this -- "public schools come before spectator sports."

And, although I like baseball and I understand some of why the Richmond Flying Squirrels aren't happy with City Hall, it's easy for me to shrug off the threat they might leave town. First of all, I don't believe they will. Furthermore, I predict the owners of the team will be delighted if a new deal to refurbish The Diamond falls into place over the next couple of years.   

The Squirrels made a business decision to believe Mayor Dwight Jones could deliver on a new stadium in Shockoe Bottom. In choosing to believe the Jones team, the Squirrels decided to blow off the potential of the staunch opposition to baseball in The Bottom to organize and scuttle the mayor's plan. It has turned out to have been a bad choice. 

But if the Squirrels didn't understand the currents and undercurrents of the politics in Richmond, if they guessed wrong and bet on the wrong team, well, whose fault is that? 

Today, when it comes to the baseball stadium issue, Mayor Jones lacks the power to resolve the controversy. His credibility is in tatters. After a full year of stalling, it looks like Jones would rather run out the clock with double-talk than admit his Shockoe Stadium scheme is kaput. So, like it or not -- just like the rest of us -- the frustrated Squirrels are going to have to wait for next year's elections to bring in a new mayor, plus some new members on city council. 

A fresh start is the best any of us can hope for. Meanwhile, whether the Squirrels choose to stay in Richmond, or to hit the road, their spokespersons ought to stop blaming others for their own errors in judgment.

Monday, June 01, 2015

The Birth of the Blockbuster: Or How Margot Kidder Made My Day

The movie business changed during the summer of 1975. A new style of creating, promoting and exhibiting feature films was established when “Jaws” opened in 465 theaters and became a box office smash.

Typically, in those days, major releases opened initially in the most popular movie houses in a handful of large cities. Which meant the advertising buys were all local. The unprecedented marketing strategy for “Jaws” required enormous confidence. Its distributor, Universal, had to spend millions on national advertising and strike at least 465 prints of the film.

Before that summer was over “Jaws” had already broken all-time Hollywood box office records.

Washington D.C. was a regional hub for film distribution. Part of the strategy for releasing “Jaws” was that Universal chose not to screen the film for bookers and exhibitors in the usual way. Ordinarily, a feature about to be released would be shown a couple of times in a small screening room downtown; it was run by the National Association of Theater Owners and seated about 50 people. Bookers for theater chains would see the new films to help them weigh how much money should be bid for the rights to exhibit the picture in a given market. But security on admission wasn't all that tight, so any industry insider, entertainment writer, etc. might have been in the audience on a given day.

At this time I managed the Biograph Theatre on Grace Street in Richmond. My bosses were located in Georgetown and I saw several movies in the DeeCee screening room over the 12 years I worked for the guys who oversaw the Biograph on "M" Street.

The prior-to-premiere screenings of “Jaws” took place a few weeks before it was to open. It was shown to theater owners and their guests in selected cinemas in maybe a dozen cities on the same night. As I remember it, in DeeCee the function was at the old Ontario.

As a treat my bosses gave me four of their allotment of tickets to the special screening of “Jaws.” My ex, Valerie, and I were part of a full house and the show itself went over like gangbusters. The rather jaded audience shrieked at appropriate times and applauded as the movie’s closing credits were lighting up the screen.

Not only was I knocked out by the presentation, I came back to Richmond convinced “Jaws” would be a gold mine. It was the slickest monster movie I’d even seen. The next day I tried to talk my bosses into borrowing a lot of money to put up a big cash-in-advance bid on “Jaws.”

Ordinarily, such a picture would play at the dominant theater chain’s flagship house. That summer I wanted to bet everything we could borrow to steal the picture by out-bidding Neighborhood Theatres for the Richmond market. I even convinced a neighborhood branch bank manager to try to help us borrow the dough.

Well, we didn’t get the money, but it was privately satisfying seeing “Jaws” open on June 20, 1975, and go on to set new records for its box office grosses. Its unprecedented success put its director, Steven Spielberg, on the map.

After “Jaws” everybody in Hollywood rushed out to try to duplicate the way the producers and distributors had handled it. Thus, in 1975, the age of Hollywood-produced summer blockbusters with massive ad campaigns and widespread releases began.

Another thing “Jaws” did was make guys who were sometimes too self-absorbed, like me, feel intimidated by Spielberg’s outrageous success at such a tender age. I can still remember reading that he was younger than me.

Although I actually had a great job for a 27-year-old movie-lover, it offered no direct connection to filmmaking. At this time I had one nine-minute film and one 30-second television commercial, both shot in 16mm, to my credit. 1975’s Boy Wonder, Steven Spielberg, made me feel like I was on the wrong track.

Fast-forward to when I watched a BBC-produced documentary, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” about filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Directors and other players from that time were interviewed. Made in 2003, it was thoroughly entertaining. I saw it on Turner Movie Classics in 2009.

Among those who made comments in the documentary were Tony Bill, Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, László Kovács, Kris Kristofferson, Arthur Penn and Cybill Shepherd.

Dreyfuss, who was one of the stars of "Jaws," spoke of attending one of those pre-release screenings. He said he got caught up in the experience of seeing it for the first time in a crowded theater, because he totally forgot himself as the actor on the screen.

Actress Margot Kidder (best known for her Lois Lane portrayals in the Superman series of movies) appeared on camera several times. She made a joke out of how Spielberg had begun to fib about his age, once he became famous. She had known him before his sudden notoriety, so she noticed it when he went from being older than her to being younger. Kidder claimed Spielberg was fudging his birth date by a couple of years.

Well, flashing back on my absurd jealousy to do with Spielberg’s rise to stardom, when he was supposedly younger than me, I had to laugh out loud. Then I looked Spielberg’s age up; he’s older than both Margot and me.

So, I Googled around and found some old articles about “Jaws” and Spielberg. Yes, it looks like Kidder was right. Back in the ‘70s, perhaps to play up the Boy Wonder aspect of the story, Spielberg’s birth date was being massaged. Somewhere along the line, since then, it looks like it got straightened out.

Laughing at one’s own foolishness is usually a healthy exercise. Yes, and when the laugh had been waiting over three decades to be realized, it was all the sweeter.

After all, nothing has ever been more integral to Hollywood’s special way of doing business -- before or after “Jaws” -- than making up fibs, especially about one’s age.
*   *   *

The Price of Free Speech

Note: This piece originally appeared in C-Ville Weekly in 2001.

Given that in Richmond the proper meaning of the words and deeds of Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) is still hotly debated, the stately Lee Monument has been a lightning rod of sorts over the years, as well as a tourist attraction. On a pretty morning a few summers ago a curious commotion was underway about the statue's pedestal. About 25 adults were milling about purposely; some were propping large posters against the monument itself. Upon closer examination the posters proved to be pro-life propaganda. It was the same sort of designed-to-disgust material displayed relentlessly by demonstrators outside the Women's Clinic on the Boulevard for years.

So, why would anti-abortion activists be rallying in the shadow of a piece of heroic sculpture that fondly remembers a Confederate general mounted on his horse? Baffled, this scribbler's curiosity got the best of him.

To get a better look, I continued walking toward the proceedings. In response to my inquiry it was explained they were there to picket an “abortionist” with an office in the medical office building, just across the street. Well, OK... Then, with that mission accomplished, the group had opted to take some keepsake photographs, using the oldest of Monument Avenue's statues -- it was dedicated in 1890 -- as a backdrop.

Standing next to identical placards displaying a blown-up depiction of a bloody fetus -- at first it looked like an undercooked hamburger that had fallen off the grill -- they posed with easy smiles; it could have been a company picnic or a class reunion.

On a one-to-ten scale, in the Absurd Postmodern Juxtapositions category, this business was easily a nine. Old General Lee -- whose view on abortion is not widely known -- he did not flinch.

A year or two before this morning a group of a similar ilk had set itself up on the grassy, tree-lined median strip, a half-block to the east. On this occasion they were there to use the funeral of Associate Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church to suit their purpose. Along with a large contingent of the working press and dozens of uniformed police officers, they waited for the funeral underway to end.

Inside the church Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist delivered the eulogy, “...[Powell] was the very embodiment of judicial temperament; receptive to the ideas of his colleagues, fair to the parties to the case, but ultimately relying on his own seasoned judgment.”

Outside the church the eager TV crews had their cameras and microphones at the ready. The patient cops had their night sticks and side arms close at hand. The lathered up news-makers brandished their oozing fetus signs and posters citing Powell as a “murderer.”

When Powell’s family, friends and Supreme Court colleagues came outside, following the service, they had no choice but to notice the demonstration before them. Lenses zoomed in to focus on their stunned reactions.

As a longtime admirer of Lewis Powell, when I saw that one of the ranting pro-lifers was wearing a clerical collar, my curiosity got the best of me then, too. So I walked over to ask him something like -- was he really a man of the cloth, or was it just a shirt?

Taking umbrage, he fired back at me something about Powell having killed millions of babies. I had to assume he was referring to Powell’s role in the famous Roe vs. Wade decision. Asked what that had to do with forcing the dead judge’s family look at his gross placard, the sweaty zealot huffed and puffed. Instead of answering the question he repeated the same blustery charge against Powell.

There you have it -- free speech isn’t always pretty. In practice, the first amendment means we all have to take turns putting up with people who seem twisted, even mean, to us.

It’s difficult to imagine the demonstrators at Powell’s funeral changed any minds on the abortion issue by creating such a disturbing sight in the middle of the street. No, I’d say they were chiefly interested in venting their collective spleen and dealing out some payback. They weren’t there to persuade. They were there to punish and strike fear in the hearts of anyone who dares to rub them the wrong way.

Still, in our optimistic and open society, we are supposed to be obliged to allow for such venting. Let’s not forget that popular speech has never needed much protection at any time in history.

OK, that’s the price of free speech. Pose however you like next to the statue of old General Lee, astride Traveler. Wear funny costumes and bring props, if you like. Short of what might constitute an assault, it’s your right. Lee won’t flinch, even if I do.

-- 30 --
-- My words and photo.