Our Short Attention Span for Heroes

People are generally – let’s face it – fickle.  We’re always looking for something different, something more. That’s what elderly multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller revealed when a reporter asked him if there was anything remaining that he still wanted in life.  “A little more” was his famous response.  And that speaks for all of us to an extent.  We want our microwave to cook a little faster.  We crave the newest cell phone. We wish for shorter working hours, longer vacations, more rights and fewer responsibilities.  We’re a ready audience for the commercials that promise us better teeth, fuller hair, and calmer moods. We’re eternally on the lookout for the figurative greener grass.

This even applies to our heroes.  Like the endearing characters of the Toy Story movies, heroes held high today seem destined to be outgrown and moved on from.  Our heroes are perishable. There’s an expiration date. Back in the early ‘50’s, President Truman suffered a tsunami-sized blowback when he fired General Douglas MacArthur, America’s most popular soldier, over disagreements about the Korean War.  Shrill voices called for impeachment. But MacArthur’s star has faded.  And what about George Washington? His picture once adorned a wall or two (or more) in every American school.  But he’s since fallen into the not-so-much class.  It took a groundbreaking Broadway show to remind people of founding father Alexander Hamilton.  (Being on the ten-dollar bill wasn’t enough.)

General MacArthur

(General Douglas MacArthur: Once America’s favorite general.  Now, America doesn’t even have a favorite general.)

Perhaps our perfidy toward heroes shows itself most strikingly in the realm of fiction.  They’re not people; their characters.  So they should never get boring because they can become anything. But with our fickle nature, even anything isn’t enough to keep us interested. Consider the Lone Ranger.  Remember him? He started as a radio show that required his young fans to imagine what he looked like galloping across the Old West on his mighty horse, Silver.  His adventures were tame compared to what modern kids would expect.  Bad guys would crumple in the almost holy presence of the Masked Man.  But then came TV, and a bigger-better Lone Ranger was required.  Kids had to see as well as hear.  The TV Lone Ranger was a sensation through the ‘50’s, selling millions of lunch boxes.  Finally though, having no super powers, the Ranger was nudged into hero retirement.  The actor who played him spent his last decades wearing the costume to cut the opening ribbons for an endless stream of new grocery stores and car washes.

Even Batman and Superman are subject to hero fatigue.  These cartoon crime fighters have had to endure ever-increasing demands for bigger and better.  The Man of Steel was a successful comic book series until 1940 when the first bigger-better kicked in with a Superman radio show.  The next bigger-better was a Superman movie series eight years later.  Kids lined up to see their strangely costumed hero on the screen.  They thrilled to his corny exploits (like banging crooks’ heads together to knock them out).  And they were actually okay when his flying was done in cartoon form.  (Yes, when movie Superman took off, he actually turned into a cartoon.  Embarrassing). Following the radio model, the Superman movies appeared as episodes with each installment ending in a cliffhanger.  Will Superman escape the green Kryptonite cave? By the ‘50’s, fans were ready for the next bigger-better. Superman moved to TV with another actor playing the role.  Kids could now watch him in their living rooms.  Super flight was simulated by lying stomach down on a table top in front of a wind machine.  Cool!  When even that wasn’t enough, the shows were filmed in color, even though most kids were still watching in black and white.  Then nothing for a couple decades. When Superman returned to the movies in the late ‘70’s, modern special effects were brought in to give him a capital-lettered BIGGER and an equally oversized BETTER.  The Superman buzz had never been more wildly enthusiastic.  If anything, adults were more thrilled than their kids.  Despite initial excitement though, people started yawning after the first sequel.  They wanted even MORE.  More interesting plots, more engaging action, more memorable characters.  It would have taken super powers to meet the increasing expectations.

Batman and Robin Serials

(It’s hard to believe, but this odd-looking Dynamic Duo kept audiences interested for an entire decade.  That’s longer than any Batman and Robin who followed.)

Before the primitive ‘40’s Superman took his first animated flight, the Dynamic Duo had their own series of B grade movies.  The episode-cliffhanger approach was used in this series as well. The lumpy costumes resembled poorly done Halloween outfits. The Batmobile looked like Pixar Animation had designed it. But that clumsy Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder actually kept the kids watching with their simple stuff. A bad guy taken to the Bat Cave is so terrified by all the bats (shown only in flickering shadows) that he spills all he knows.  Yay!!  But after a ten-year ride, the series ran out of gas.  Almost twenty years later, revival came in the form of a TV series with a new bigger-better gimmick.  Critics called it “camp.”  Everybody was suddenly talking about the new Batman.  The specially designed Batmobile became an instant cultural icon.   The TV Batman followed the old movie model with two half-hour episodes per week, the first always ending with a – yes, that’s right – cliffhanger. Will Batman and Robin be able to defeat the twin terror of the Joker and Catwoman?!  Despite the opening raves, ratings tanked after only two seasons.  Camp wasn’t enough.  Bigger-better survival measures were taken.  Batgirl was introduced. New villains appeared.  But to no avail.  Batman was booted from the air. The next bigger-better for Batman was a return to the movies.  Darkness (and a high-tech Bat suit) replaced the ‘60’s camp.  Each sequel had to be darker than the one before it. (bigger-better) The villains, originally designed for children, became nightmarishly gruesome.  Darker, and darker. The Caped Crusader himself became darker.  Even his voice was dark.  But how dark can you go before it becomes routine?  Current Batman-related entertainment offerings have failed to dispel the growing boredom.

Superman Serials

(The first movie Superman entertained audiences with cartoon flying)

007 is another hero who no longer seems heroic.  When a sleek, coolly tuxedoed Sean Connery first introduced himself as “Bond, James Bond” back in 1962, the world took immediate notice.  There had never been anything quite like this British secret agent who moved like a panther and beat up the baddest bad guys without mussing his perfect suits. His specialized spy car was an espionage version of the Bat mobile. (Remember the ejector passenger seat in Goldfinger?) Bond was young, virile, and undefeatable. But the movie-after-movie-after-movie grind took its toll.  Bond lost his raw originality, becoming as unique and intense as cotton candy.   It’s over, James.

James Bond Attache Case

(When was the last time any boy longed for a James Bond toy attache case? )

There was really nothing any of these faded heroes – or others who faded with them – could have done to stay vibrant. It’s hard to believe that the late General Arnold Schwarzkopf, hero of the Gulf War (1990-91), was once lauded as a presidential possibility.  Now it’s General who? Even President Obama seems to inspire lessening media interest.  Hero-fade is really about the way we are.  Our attention spans are short.  We distract easily.  We move on.  Spiderman seems invincible now, but in the future?  And where are Black Widow and Thor going?   Will today’s Big Deals become tomorrow’s retro-waste?  If you think not, ask Hopalong Cassidy, Zorro, Sky King, Flash Gordon, and Space Ranger.  Once big names, they’re all distant dots in our collective rear-view mirror.  All victims of our insatiable appetite for whatever’s next.

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For Freedom

Why?  In Hong Kong, protestors numbering in the hundreds of thousands turned out in heavy rain to express their opposition to being controlled by Mainland China.  They want something that in history has been called self-rule.  (In other words, you make your own decisions instead of someone else making them for you.)  The protestors have already shut down the airport by sitting knee to knee, covering the floor space.  They’ve done all this despite the fact that they know China doesn’t typically put up with protest.  In fact, 2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that ended with a smackdown by the Chinese military.  In rolled the tanks and out went the demonstrations.  But the past isn’t inhibiting the present; following the recent rainy-day demonstration, the world media was filled with pictures of umbrellas filling the streets, oceans of umbrellas, uncountable umbrellas.  (But we can bet somebody in the Chinese government is counting.)  Why are Hongkongers willing to risk bringing down the thunder of an angered Chinese government on themselves?

Hong Kong Umbrella Protest

(The Umbrellas of Hong Kong)

Meanwhile in Kashmir, a region claimed by both Pakistan and India, the Indian government has moved in with forces to end autonomy (self-rule) and impose top-down control.  This move has caused huge numbers of young people to hit the streets.  They see their new “visitors” from India as an occupying force, and they say they aren’t afraid to take up arms to send them home.  Shades of the American Revolution.  Why are these young people who’ve never had a day of military training willing to confront a professional army?

What emboldens protestors to take chances like this?  In the U.S. protestors are celebrities-for-a-day; their chants and jeers are a visual feast for the news-hungry cable networks. But the people of Hong Kong bucking China are risking imprisonment (or worse).  And who knows what an Indian government crackdown will look like in Kashmir.  What’s the motivation?  Simple.  It’s one word:  freedom.

Freedom is the hunger we all share.  Neither our race nor our background nor our circumstances matter.  We all crave freedom.  And we always have.

Freedom is what made the ancient Chinese scholars of Confucius stick to their beliefs about independent thinking despite the fact that they were living under a my-way-or-highway emperor.  He buried forty of them alive and burned all their Confucian scrolls. But today, whose name do you recognize: Confucius or Emperor Chin Shi Huang? I’ll bet it’s Confucius.  Freedom is what made the Middle Eastern province of Judea (originally Israel) rebel against Rome.  The payback was a ruthless bulldoze of the entire area by the Roman military machine.  But then, the protestors must have known that would happen.  They just couldn’t help themselves.  The want of freedom was too strong.

Confucian Scholars

(Confucius taught a fundamental of freedom:  You can think better for yourself than someone can think FOR you.)

Freedom was the motivator when the thirteen British colonies decided to call themselves the United States of America, even though the revolutionaries couldn’t quite agree on the idea that freedom in a place isn’t freedom unless everybody has it.  Freedom inspired the Hungarians to throw Molotov Cocktails at occupying Russian troops in 1956, and triggered the Prague Spring of ’68 that was quickly – and mercilessly – crushed.

Maybe the most attractive thing about freedom is that it’s a feeling as well as a state of being.  Freedom makes us feel like we have worth.  It lightens us.  It makes life seem worthwhile.  Like we have a stake in things.  And this is true no matter what kind of freedom we’re talking about. Freedom goes beyond religion and politics and civil rights.  Freedom is rock and roll, seeing the USA in your Chevrolet, eating fried Oreos and doughnut hamburgers at the state fair.  Freedom is the Beat Generation and the Young Generation, and even the Pepsi Generation.  Freedom is Jack Kerouac going On the Road with his eccentric friends, reveling in being themselves whether it made sense or not.  Freedom is Ken Kesey following the Kerouac model in the late ‘60’s with a psychedelic bus bearing a sign saying “Further” above the front window.  Freedom is a lady of 100 + skydiving because she wants to.  Freedom is Harriet Tubman criss-crossing the Maryland border – routinely risking her life – to help enslaved people get out from under.

peter-fonda

(The open road has long been a symbol of freedom.  Jack Kerouac took a car; Ken Kesey took a customized bus, and Peter Fonda took a bike which in itself is a freedom symbol: Easy Rider, 1969)

Havens at Woodstock

(Richie Havens at Woodstock: “Freedom. . . “)

You’re speaking for freedom whether you proudly stand for the pledge of allegiance or whether you proudly “take the knee.” So much of what we think and do revolves around being free or wanting to be free.  So let’s cheer for Hong Kong and Kashmir and everywhere else where people are doing what people have always done: trying to be free.  Richie Havens said it best at Woodstock.  The first eight words of the improvised song that made him famous were:

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom

It’s a word that speaks for itself.

Woodstock: The Last Utopia

“Yeah, c’mon all you big, strong men.  Uncle Sam needs your help again. He’s got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam.  So put down your books and pick up a gun.  We’re gonna have a lot of fun.”

Country Joe McDonald

woodstock-50-anniversary-festival-920x584 (A few joyous examples of the 500,000 faces who filled 600 acres of farmland in upstate New York for three days that made history)

There’s something in human nature that longs for Utopia.  People have been writing about the perfect life since the beginning of writing.  And since the beginning of building, people have tried to construct it.  The Utopian vision started with the legendary Tower of Babel, and stretched through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in books and planned communities.  But nowhere did the dreamy aspects of Utopian thinking show their unrealistic but somehow appealing nature than at a concert called Woodstock, fifty years ago this week.

Advertised as three days of peace and music, Woodstock was a gathering of mostly young people who were mostly for drugs and against the Vietnam War.  A dairy farmer by the name of Max Yasgur wrote himself into American history by renting 600 acres to the concert organizers.  Although the farm was in Bethel, the concert would carry the name of its originally intended location, Woodstock.  The most optimistic attendance estimates were 50,000 to 200,000.  The actual audience numbered close to half a million.

They came in cars.  They came in vans.  They came in pickup trucks.  They came in busses with psychedelia painted on the sides. After reaching the Yasgur acres, the buses parked together, forming a mod wagon train. The hordes of people on foot had been forced to abandon their cars either on the narrow, rural road in or on the highway ahead of the exit.  They resembled refugees fleeing a war.  In a way, maybe that’s what they were.  But these refugees were happy, cool, unbothered by inconveniences that would have sent their parents over the top.

The concertgoers overran a chain link fence; there weren’t any ticket booths or ticket takers, just masses of humanity swarming in.  You couldn’t tell where they started.  Or where they would end.  Had some alien force projected a mind control beam that made everybody on earth head to one place?  They came and came and came until it seemed they’d never stop coming.  Something was unfolding on the American landscape that had never been seen before.  These were not the “hippies” the media and the older generation had labeled them; these were pilgrims who really believed they could make a better world.  And they saw the drugs they took, not as a numbing distraction for kicks, but as a gateway into a new dimension of existence.

Janice Joplin Woodstock

(Where else but Utopia would Janis Joplin take the stage at 2 AM?)

At one point in the Woodstock weekend, Lovin’ Spoonful band member John Sebastian appeared on stage and announced “You’re a city!”  And Woodstock did have its own version of all the usual city features.  For example, it had a shopping center.  Well, it was really a string of structures resembling converted lemonade stands.  The center featured tie-dyed tee shirts and Marxist literature.  Cities have services for people, and Woodstock had the Please Force that ran the Hog Farm Free Kitchen. Cities have media, and Woodstock had the RAT newsletter.  Members of the regular American press were there too. They smelled the story. Cities have police, and some people were arrested for (surprise, surprise) drugs.  Cities have medical facilities, and Woodstock had what the announcer called a “new hospital.”  It was next to the helicopter pad.  Woodstock even had street signs.  Pieces of lumber nailed to a tree, pointed the direction to “Gentle Path,” “Groovy Way,” and “High Way.” You bought your drugs on High Way. Cities have drug stores, right?  But the ones at Woodstock didn’t sell Band-Aids or foot powder.  Woodstock had other city staples: families (not exactly like the family across the street from you), and religion (Eastern).  There were neighborhoods. Tents, tepees, huts conjured out of hay bales, and of course the buses. Cities have births and deaths; Woodstock had miscarriages and a young man who was run over by a tractor while in his sleeping bag. According to news reports, a baby was born in a car stalled in the auto-apocalypse that had frozen the incoming road.  Cities are melting pots.  And at Woodstock, whatever you did, whatever you were, whether you slept in a tent or in the mud, whether you looked like a hippie, a yippie, or a bookworm, whether you came in a car, a bus, or on foot, whether you got high or didn’t, you weren’t alone.  The melting pot absorbed you. No matter how much of a misfit you felt like you were in your regular life, you fit in at Woodstock.  There were no rich and poor, cool and uncool, elites and hoi polloi. It was like the laws of social gravity had been overcome in one place, during one weekend.  No wonder Wavy Gravy, the colorfully nicknamed Hog Farm manager, shouted from the stage, “we must be in heaven, man!”  Where else could you see The Who playing at 5AM or Janis Joplin taking the stage at 2:00 AM?  Only in Utopia.

woodstock-ravejungle

(Woodstock: A view from the sky)   

Maybe the most Utopian moment in a Utopian weekend came on Sunday when a show-stopping rain storm pounded mercilessly down on the crowd.  An announcer yelled into his microphone, “Hey if you think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain.” The response was a torrent of repeating shouts of “No rain! No rain!”

“No rain!  No rain” they screamed, one guy moving something up and down that could have passed for a tribal scepter.  Some other guys banged drumsticks together.  “No rain! No rain! No rain!” The yells raged against the storm.  Not angry yells, but rather, yells of faith.  Two guys banged pop cans together.  “No rain!  No rain! No rain! No rain!” the shouts insisted while the rain poured harder. “No rain, No rain, No rain, No rain!”  The yells rebelled steadfastly under the furious downpour. The downpour ignored the shouting.  The downpour was unrelenting.  “No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!”  The more they yelled, the harder it rained.  It was mainly guys yelling with some half-hearted support from girls huddled under blankets and plastic tarps “No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!” The improvised percussion banging on and on.  Heads nodding affirmatively with each repetition. Long hair shaking with each nod.  Everybody getting wetter and wetter and wetter, as though there were dimensions of wetness beyond soaking.  The wind blew, making the unceasing storm even nastier.  “No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain! No rain!”  After a while, the voices were part of the storm.  These were the voices of protest.  The voices that believed the world could be changed if they kept chanting.  War would end.  Peace and social justice would prevail.  No wonder the voices believed they could stop rain.  That was nothing compared to changing the world.  But the young voices were destined to fall silent like the voices of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.  It seems kind of sad.  They were so hopeful, and their energy still has the power to inspire.  “No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!  No rain!!!”

Woodstock was followed by cynicism.  In December, the Rolling Stones officially crashed the ‘60’s by hiring Hell’s Angels to police a concert at Altamont, paying them in beer.  Peace and Music were replaced by violence and killing.  The ensuing decades brought other “Woodstock” concerts, one in ’79, another in ’99.  But these were only faint fumes of the original.  Plans for a 50th anniversary concert fizzled. Woodstock only happened once.  But that once was enough to leave us with a special gift.  The gift comes in the form of a question: what’s wrong with optimism; what’s wrong with hope?  Furthermore, what’s wrong with a little idealism?  The next time you’re feeling down, the next time a storm pounds against your windows – figuratively or literally – think of Woodstock.  Think “No rain!”

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Once upon a Time in Hollywood: The Quest for Redemption

Sharon-Tate-Polanski

(Director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate : subjects of cinematic redemption)

Have you ever wished you could redo some part of your life?  If you could only go back, knowing what you know now, you could straighten it out.  You could find redemption.  That sentiment plays out on a historic level as well.  And on this level it engages our passions to a higher degree by tapping into our sense of justice.  There are certain people we’ve come to believe should not have died when they did.  Starting with Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy.  There was something cosmically unjust about the whole thing in both cases.  We want to slow history down, rewind it, analyze what went wrong, and fix it.

That’s what Quentin Tarantino has done in Once upon a Time in Hollywood.  He’s gone back to 1969, not to probe the moon landing or Woodstock.  Not to amend Chappaquiddick.  The focus of Mr. Tarantino’s ode to a year that influenced his personal development is the beautiful and doomed actress, Sharon Tate.  The objective is to prevent the Manson murders.  And it’s hard to think of a more sympathetic figure for saving than Miss Tate.  She is a young actress expecting a baby.  A perfect innocent.  She is worth rescuing.

Because it’s historical fiction, new people can be added into the mix, people who will make a difference in the outcome.  Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a has-been actor. His career peak seems to have been playing an old west bounty hunter on TV. Instead of getting the Steve McQueen role in The Great Escape, he played an action hero in a B- grade World War II flick in which his signature scene was burning up a nest of Nazis with a flame thrower.  That weapon comes in handy later on.  Rick’s current roles are all bad guys, an indicator of his career troubles.  Dalton is slipping, and needs redemption.

Easy Rider 1969

(The cast of Easy Rider, 1969:  The New Hollywood in which the fading Rick Dalton is trying to find a place)

His sidekick is Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt.  When Dalton was in starring roles, Booth was his stunt double.  But that was then.  Now Cliff lives in a beat-up trailer with his pit bull, Brandy, and is mostly out of work.  Symbolically, the trailer is located behind the famous Van-Nuys drive-in movie theater. The screen illuminates Cliff’s gritty place of residence with the redemptive elements of a movie magic that is always just out of reach, over the fence.  There are reasons for his unemployment beyond the fact that Dalton no longer needs a double.  According to a man who would be able to give Booth stunt work if he didn’t dislike him so much, Cliff killed his wife and got away with it.  The man also claims Booth brings a bad vibe to any set, which he proves by hiring him for a day and almost immediately firing him when Booth picks a fight with Bruce Lee.  Cliff clearly needs a redemptive miracle.

Van Nuys Drive In

(Cliff Booth’s neighbor: A field of dreams that are always just out of reach)

Redemption is often found in the oddest places, as we see when Dalton and Booth come into contact with the Manson family.  The contact may be based on actual events concerning the manner in which Beach Boy Dennis Wilson once picked up a couple hitchhiking girls who turned out to be Manson disciples.  In that case, the family ended up moving into Wilson’s home.  And cleaning him out when they were finally forced to leave.  Fellow Beach Boy Mike Love remembers getting a call from someone telling him to “Prepare to die, pig.”  Another thing Love remembers is Wilson telling him about witnessing Manson killing a man and tossing the body in a well.  Why didn’t he report the murder to the police?  Was this a missed chance to accomplish in real life the mission of the movie?  Sadly, perhaps tragically, the work is left to the fictional Cliff and Rick.  Will they do a better job than the real-life players?

In the Tarantino version of the story, the murder crew dispatched by Manson on the night of August 8, 1969 – Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel – make a fateful change in plans.  This new direction is inspired by Dalton who, observing their car from his window, goes outside and yells at them to move out.  Recognizing Dalton as his childhood TV western hero, Tex alters his murder plan.  Instead of attacking Sharon Tate’s house next door, the group barges into Dalton’s residence where they meet a very high Cliff Booth.  He recognizes them from his visit to the Spahn Ranch where he dropped off the hitchhiking Manson girl to whom he’d given a ride.

This is the climax.  We’ll see if things can go differently this time.  It’s like traveling back to Ford’s Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865 or setting the time machine for the afternoon of November 22, 1963, Dealey Plaza.  We never succeed in changing those events, but we’ll try with Sharon and her friends anyway.  We’ll try to redeem this particular dark moment in a decade filled with them.

If we can’t really wash away the Manson murders, making them not have happened, at least there is something we can do.  Going forward, we can avoid the mistake that the media made with Manson after the murders.  Thanks to the networks, Manson became a mega celebrity, enjoying every minute of the in-depth interviews that the big TV news people gave him down through the years.  The image of the maniacal eyes staring gleefully at us under the carved swastika on the forehead is a mental scar that still stings.  Today’s killer crazies aren’t even getting their names mentioned.  The focus is at last being rightly directed to the victims and their families and friends instead.  And that’s a redemption that isn’t pretend.

The Case of the Imperiled Police

anti-cops-1200-1038x543

When rowdy groups routinely show up on the streets of New York to dump buckets of water on police, and the Mayor of Chicago is caught calling a representative of the Fraternal Order of Police a “clown” it’s clear that some things have changed in American society.  It used to be different.  Way different.  In olden days, the lyrics of singer-songwriter Jim Croce applied: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape; you don’t spit in the wind.  You don’t pull the mask of the old Lone Ranger,” and (adding a new ending) you don’t mess around with the cops.    I remember visiting the city with my mother at the age of 11.  We were in a small diner when four Chicago cops walked in.  The first thing that hit me was their size.  They were all big and solid.  The black and white checkerboard bands on their hats conveyed authority. Their facial expressions were deadly straight.  The overall feeling they projected was “you don’t want a piece of this.”  Even though they were only there to have lunch.  Somebody bursting in with a bucket of water was inconceivable.

Cops were larger than life.  TV reminded us of that regularly.  Reruns of old cop shows coldly taught viewers the steep price of failing to stay off  the cops’ radar.  Dragnet, for example, featured monotone detective sergeant Joe Friday methodically combating crime on the sunny streets of LA.  There was no escaping Sergeant Friday.  If you broke the law he would get you.  And he’d do it in thirty minutes (including commercials).  That was the way most people seemed to think about the police, and TV mirrored that view.

Dragnet

(No-Water Zone:  You don’t have to guess how Sergeant Friday would handle someone who gave him a street shower. )

No one would ever have thought of dumping a bucket of water over Sergeant Friday’s head.  This went for real cops too.  Who would dream of flash mobbing police with H2O or anything else?  Why walk out into a lightning storm holding a metal serving tray over your head?  But that was before a series of tragic events  led to the police being seen as marauders wreaking undeserved havoc, mainly on people of color.  Are most police like this?  The facts say no.  But the facts are no match for strong feelings the other way.  And there’s another detail contributing to the problems faced by police.  City governments are increasingly disinclined – for a variety of reasons –  to enforce laws with the hard-faced Sergeant Friday strictness of a generation ago.

Days of Rage 1969

(Days of Rage – Chicago, 1969: The Weatherman Underground confronted cops too.  But their tools weren’t water buckets.  The Weathermen preferred spectacular explosions.)

So we’re left with questions.  If they have to pass a law in the state of New York to protect police from water attacks, does that say something about where we are as a society?  If people can get away with dousing cops with water, will there be a next step?  Is there any danger of falling into anarchy?  John Adams said that the government has no power to control emotions and actions that have gone out of control.  He warned that people doing whatever they feel like doing will “break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.”

A final note: At 1:00 AM on August 4 in the city of Dayton, Ohio, a gunman opened fire on the crowds milling around in a popular night club district.  Nine people were slain and at least 26 were injured.  At 1:01, first responders (the cops) showed up and took out the shooter.  Nowhere at the scene was there a single bucket of water.

Up, Up, and Away! Have Super Heroes Replaced Religion?

avengers-2

(The names of the Apostles were once as well known as the names of the Avengers are now.)

Are super heroes the new gods?  Think about it.  Have they replaced the “old time religion”?

Once upon a time, the world of super heroes was like a foreign language that only kids and their friends could speak.  Adults were shut out.  They didn’t get it.  All they could do was smile indulgently and keep their kids in comic books.  They had grown up with characters like Superman and Batman, but adulthood had erased their comprehension.  They didn’t see how important super heroes were to the attainment of meaning and nuance in life.  Only kids knew that without the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight, life was just boring existence.

George-Reeves-as-Superman

(The old Superman TV show was strictly for the kiddies.  The adults watched western, law, and medical dramas)

But that was then.  Now it seems that kids are almost in the rear while their parents connect with the costumed crusaders.  It is not uncommon to hear fawning adults seriously discussing intricate details of their favorite super hero movies.  The adult interest in super heroes has risen to the level of alternative reality.  We don’t just have the Avengers or their individual members; we have the Marvel Universe!  Just as children (mainly boys in those days) once drifted through school days dreaming of their comic book idols, adults now sit at work sneaking internet fixes of their super favorites.  Water cooler conversations tend to be about subjects like whether Infinity War Part 1 was better than Infinity War Part 2.  Or whether the Guardians of the Galaxy crew should have been allowed into the Avenger galaxy.

wakanda-display1

(The super hero world even has a Utopia.  According to the comic book source material, it’s Wakanda, “the most technologically advanced country on the face of the earth.”)

Because adults are no longer out of the super hero loop, but instead are sitting in its center, it might behoove us to ask why.  Why is this generation of grownups so different from previous generations?  Why would a family friend earnestly ask the parents of a two-week-old baby “How are you going to raise him?” meaning not will the child be raised Protestant or Catholic, but will his Star Wars exposure start with Episodes 4-6 or 1-3?

The reason why the land of imagined heroes, whether they wield super powers or light sabers, may have something to do with religion and the role it has played in society, a role it no longer seems to play.  The Greeks had the gods of Mount Olympus to explain the mysteries of life and provide a sense of something higher and larger than themselves.  The Medieval Age survived the “veil of tears” they called life through the mystical imagery of the Church.  The Church as a source for adding greater dimension and meaning to life lasted through the ‘60’s.  After that, family church attendance started to decline, and with the decline came a diminishing sense of something greater than ourselves, a higher power.

Church

(The family that prayed together stayed together.  The new family unity is built around deciding on loyalty to either Marvel or DC.)

Try not to laugh, but could it be that entertainment entities like the Marvel Universe are the new Mount Olympus, or – to put it more in the context of modern society – the new church?  Hopefully, no one is actually worshiping Spiderman either in this universe or the Spider-Verse, but Spidey may be supplying a certain sense of the above and beyond that the human mind craves.  Is Iron Man a Zeus figure?  And if so, who is Athena?  Black Widow or Captain Marvel or one of the other female super combatants?  (I guess we know who the modern Poseidon is.) Perhaps more importantly, have super hero stories replaced Biblical/religious tales as the common cultural reference point?  Abraham Lincoln was able to call an America split over slavery a “house divided” because everyone knew the term came from the Bible.  I wouldn’t recommend depending on the same public knowledge today.  If Lincoln were speaking about something he was passionate about today, he might use Captain America’s “I can do this all day.”

Like it or not, times have changed.  The question of the Age is no longer “What is your religion?” but instead “If you could have one super power, what would it be?”

Muelling it Over!

  Robert Mueller

(Mr. Mueller swearing in: the camera people are much more enthusiastic than he is.) 

The history of Congressional hearings is a parade of P.T. Barnum-style showmanship.  Most of us know that Robert Mueller, ex-Special Counsel in the probe for evidence that President Trump plotted with Russia in his 2016 presidential campaign, testified before Congress yesterday (24 July, 2019). Most of us also know that the report Mueller filed  at the conclusion of his investigations could be used in language arts classes as an exercise in interpretive reasoning.  The President’s fans join him in joyously declaring that the report boldly declares him innocent.  “No obstruction, no collusion” is their mantra.  The President’s critics, reading the exact same report, draw the opposite conclusion.  They see a report filled with depictions of shadowy, murky doings by an illegitimate chief executive whose corruption is matched only by his paranoia.

    This unfathomable gap in interpretive analysis came to a head yesterday in Congress.  Democrats on the panel interviewing Mueller tossed him questions intended to bring out the dark side.  Republicans shot their questions the way law enforcement operatives fired on Bonnie and Clyde in the famous country road ambush.  The result was what commentator Chuck Todd called bad “optics.”  Mr. Mueller often looked confused about the details surrounding his own report.  His performance made one think of watching a Fred Astaire musical in which instead of dancing down the silvery staircase, he trips on his tails and rolls to the bottom.  Or seeing Frank Sinatra in concert, his impeccably tailored tux glistening under the flattering stage lights, forget the words to “Strangers in the Night.”

     Mr. Todd’s mention of optics stands out from the comments of other media observers because it directly hits the central point.  The whole event was about optics.  It was intended to drum up a heap of razzle dazzle for political purposes.  And optics wasn’t just a factor in yesterday’s hearings.  Optics is a long-standing Congressional tradition.  Bruce Ismay, an official of the company that had built the Titanic, was brought in to testify back in 1912 because Congress wanted a bold optic of doing something about ocean liner disasters.  Young Congressman Richard Nixon launched his career in the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) by bringing down United Nations official Alger Hiss, a well-connected government operative, under charges that he had passed secrets to the Russians (Yes, Russia again).  The optic there was of course defending America from the Reds.  In the same era, Congress dragged in celebrity millionaire Howard Hughes to testify about the government contract he had received to build a wooden airplane for the military (The Spruce Goose).  The Hughes optic was two-fold: A Congress unafraid to confront the rich and powerful and a Congress deeply concerned about the people’s money.

Alger Hiss

(Alger Hiss in the Congressional hot seat)

Robert Taylor HUAC

(Glam Optics: Leading man Robert Taylor is summoned to testify about Communism in Hollywood.  Afterward, he signed autographs.)

     In the ‘50’s Congress dragged in gangsters like Frank Costello and Sam Giancana to project the optic that our diligent legislators in Washington were in the process of cleaning up crime by facing off with some of its darkest perpetrators.  In the Giancana hearings, Bobby Kennedy accused the mobster of “giggling” like a girl.  Interesting optic, but an oddball distraction from the intended crime-fighting message.  The infamous Army-McCarthy hearings were staged by anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy for a richly razzle-dazzle reveal of how the United States Army was infected with Communist activity.  The hearings went so wrong that they ended McCarthy’s career.  Attorney for the Army Joseph Welsh exploded the “investigation” by asking McCarthy on national television “Have you no sense of decency?”  Ouch! Horrible optics!!

Sam Giancana

(Sam Giancana keeps his shades on while testifying: Contempt of Congress optic?)

     Maybe the height of Congressional showmanship was the testimony of White House Counsel John Dean whose appearance almost single-handedly destroyed the Nixon presidency during the golden days of Watergate.  Dean told all, and provided a sensational bonanza for impeachment hawks.  The razzle dazzle was never higher.  Brilliant optics!  In fact, the Dean testimony remains so vivid in historical memory that Democrats working on a Trump impeachment actually invited Dean to testify again, linking what happened with Nixon in the long ago to what has gone on with Trump.  The now-elderly Dean had to admit under questioning that he really didn’t know any Trump details (and so really didn’t know what he was talking about).  Bad optics.

John Dean

(John Dean: The magic moment that can never quite be recaptured – even by Dean)

     Since then, the old saying that the show must go on has characterized Congressional activity.  Stephen Colbert has testified about immigrant worker’s rights; Julia Roberts has testified about funding for neurological disorders; Kevin Costner has testified about oil separating technologies, and Bob Barker has appeared as a spokesman for – wait for it! – pet neutering.  A particularly weird optic occurred when Elmo – yes, the Sesame Street Elmo – testified.

     So what was the Mueller appearance?  The people who staged it wanted a John Dean but got an Elmo.  But don’t expect any break in the Congressional quest for optics.  If Congress can pull in a chorus line of colorfully dressed Buddhist nuns who didn’t seem to know where they were or why they were there (to testify about their campaign contribution to President Clinton) anything can happen – and probably will.  Never mind the taxpayer money spent or the time that might be better used in passing productive legislation.  It doesn’t seem to matter what our lawmakers do; it’s about how they LOOK doing it.  That’s entertainment!  Or should we say – yes, optics.

The Hate We Give

      Back in the 1930’s, a political cartoon showed two elderly rich men wearing tuxedos and sitting in big, wing backed chairs.  The men looked very upset. An elderly woman in a fancy evening gown was scolding one of the men.  Presumably she was his wife.  The caption was “Now dear, the doctor told you never to discuss religion or Roosevelt.”  It was a take-off on the “Never talk about politics or religion” rule.  At the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is now practically a political saint, was routinely attacked for his liberal policies.

    Things haven’t changed much since the 30’s.  The old men in tuxedos may be gone but the habit of getting worked up over politics is more alive than ever.  Part of the problem is we’ve forgotten a lot of our history, so we think what’s going on now has never gone on before.  People who are way over the hysteria borderline about President Trump have forgotten that their political opponents were equally hostile to President Obama.  And what about President Bush (first and second)?  In the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency, bookstores were stocked with calendars counting down the days to his departure from the oval office.  Ronald Reagan was constantly criticized by a hostile media, and President Jimmy Carter had fellow Democrat Ted Kennedy running against him for the Democratic nomination when he tried for a second term.

Attacking presidents is a blood sport that goes all the way back to the beginning of the American presidency.  After making a secret treaty with England that many Americans found to be humiliating, George Washington became a huge target.  Even in his beloved home state of Virginia, Revolutionary War veterans sat in bars, toasting “A speedy death to General Washington!” His own Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, wanted him investigated and impeached for treason.  Sound familiar?

The second president, John Adams, had it even worse.  He signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of laws that made it illegal to criticize the president or the government while making it easier to deport foreigners and toughening restrictions on immigrant voting. (That should sound familiar too.) Thomas Jefferson, who had become Vice-President by this time, openly condemned the Acts as did fellow founding father James Madison.  The extremely unpopular laws contributed to making Adams the first one-term president.

And the beat goes on.  (Sometimes literally; Senator Charles Sumner was beaten with a cane by a fellow Senator back in 1856 right on the Senate floor) Those who regard President Trump as a racist should review the record of Andrew Johnson who infamously declared that the government of the United States was for white men and always would be under a Johnson presidency.  He tried to squelch every piece of civil rights legislation passed by Congress and set a record for the highest number of vetoes being overridden.  His outrageous opposition toward the mission of Reconstruction (giving people of color a truly equal footing) made him the first president to be impeached.  He kept his job by only two votes, and he only got those because election time was close at hand, and everybody knew he would never be nominated to run by either the Democrats or the Republicans.

Angry Mob

(When it comes to political discourse we sometimes club first and ask questions later)

So the next time you’re tempted to go off the deep end on Trump (or certain members of Congress on either side of the aisle) save yourself the mini-stroke.  If you’re standing in a grocery line on a busy Saturday, which of the following should you do?  1.  Stay cool by people-watching, magazine reading, or friend-texting.  Or 2.  Intently watch all the other lines to observe how much faster they’re moving.  This option logically leads to rising anger and – probably – a lowering life-span.

     Of course, that’s a rhetorical question.  Stop thinking that anybody who doesn’t agree with your beliefs is – EVIL.  Don’t pay too much attention to the back and forth political bickering, even when it starts to look like Godzilla v. King Kong.  Remember that no matter what it looks like at the moment, this is nothing new.  History will replace these problems (notice I didn’t say wash away or eliminate) with – yes, that’s right, NEW problems.  Different problems.  Watergate gives way to Whitewater and blah, blah, blah. 

Angie Thomas’ novel, The Hate U Give is instructive in a variety of ways, including in its title.  Let’s try to stop giving hate.  Even when people don’t see the world the way we see it.  Try giving them the benefit of your doubt.  Maybe they want a better world too.  Maybe they want all people to enjoy opportunity-filled lives as much as you do.  But they see a different way of getting there.  It isn’t your way.  That’s okay.  Argue for your way, and let them argue for theirs.  But remember that they’re human beings just as much as you are.  Let’s start finally learning the lessons of history so we can stop repeating it.

The Mummy’s Curse

Mummy_1932Have you seen the new Mummy movie?  If not, don’t bother.  You’ve escaped the Mummy’s Curse.  Are you familiar with the Mummy’s Curse?  Don’t open that tomb, or Great Evil will befall you.  That’s what seemed to happen to the archaeological party that dug up Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Then there’s the cinematic version.  Movies about mummies carry a two-fold curse: A. Shame on the studios that make them and B. Brain cell damage on the people who watch them.

Only two Mummy movies have escaped this curse: The Mummy (1932) starring Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff who underwent eight-hour makeup sessions that included baking and The Mummy (1959) starring British actor Christopher Lee.  These movies had credible plots.  They were well-cast, well-acted, and well-produced.  All other mummy movies have fallen to the curse.

Titles are enough to make the point.  Here are some samples: The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Ghost, The Mummy’s Tomb, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, Dawn of the Mummy, Bubba Ho-Tep (No, that isn’t a joke), Wrestling Women Meet the Aztec Mummy, The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, and The Mummy’s Kiss .  How about two more curse-bearers: We Want Our Mummy with the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.  See what I mean?

The Mummy movies ground out by Universal Studios during the 1940’s are as low in creativity as they are in budget.  Typically, the Mummy is a zombie-like killing machine that drags one foot and strangles with his left hand.  Victims of this Mummy usually have to stand in place for several minutes, waiting for him to make his laborious way across the room to put the choke on them. In the same time span, they could calmly walk to their cars and drive away.  These movies are stupefying, and anyone who dares watch invites part B of the Curse.

Lon Chaney Mummy

(The Speed-Challenged Mummy of the 1940’s: It took him five minutes to reach his victim while she stood in place and screamed.  She had time to calmly leave the room, go out to her car, and drive away!!)

 

Now Universal has tried to break the cycle with a gender change.  Were the makers of this movie thinking of what Kipling wrote about the female of the species being more deadly than the male?  Probably not.  This Mummy is a former Egyptian princess named Ahmanet.  The princess seems to have had two major faults.  One was a Macbeth-type, power grab by slashing everyone in her way with a special knife – until she was reigned in and buried alive.  Live burial is standard Mummy origin fare; the new movie submerges the sarcophagus in a pool of mercury.  The other flaw is an apparent weakness for intricate facial tattoos (perhaps a worse flaw than the first).

A and C Meet Mummy

(When a movie monster meets Abbott and Costello, he knows it’s the end of the line. Ironically, this intended comedy couldn’t match the unintentional humor of the supposedly serious Mummy films.)

Naturally, modern discoverers of Ahmanet’s tomb haul her up and out, unleashing a horrific torrent of special effects on an unsuspecting world.  (This is one of the movie’s many insanities.  Why would people who wanted this particular princess to stay buried forever put her in a sarcophagus-shaped tomb the size of the Empire State Building? Aren’t people going to be interested in that?  Why not make it a small box labeled “Egyptian Poop Samples” ?)

Tom Cruise is given a chance to die early and perhaps go make a good movie.  But instead he comes back to life and rejoins the misguided action.  Later he adds to the absurdity by merging himself with the Egyptian god who originally empowered Ahmanet.  And just when you think it can’t get any zanier, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde show up.  Maybe as a supporting monster in case the title monster doesn’t cut it? (too bad Abbott and Costello weren’t available). The Rotten Tomatoes rating on this release is 15%.  Need more be said?

So the Mummy’s Curse continues.  Perhaps this latest cinematic debacle will serve as a warning to future movie makers.  The next time that tomb appears, rebury it!

Mummy 2917

(Equality:  The Glass Ceiling is finally broken in Mummy movies, proving that a female mummy can be just as brain-deadening to watch as the traditional male version)

In the Wake of the Latest Fourth

Declaration of Independence“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

John Adams, July 3, 1776

This post is not late.  It’s timed to hit when the latest Fourth of July is already fading from memory.  There were brats and beers and fireworks as usual.  The family and friends get-togethers happened as they always do.  Everything was as it always is.  And that may be the problem.  The form has replaced the substance behind it.  We celebrate because we’re supposed to celebrate.  Children aren’t being taught what this is all about anymore.  Adults aren’t generally reflecting on “the blessings of liberty.”  The main focus is on food and festivity for its own sake.  We’re going through the motions like automatons, without questioning why.  So it is that a holiday designed to be rich in meaning has turned out to be relatively meaningless.

The Fourth of July is supposed to be a celebration of freedom and independence on two levels.  Our nation is free and independent, and our citizens possess personal freedom and independence as well.   I have witnessed what happens in many modern classrooms when students are given the option not to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.  Sitting it out becomes culturally cool.  America doesn’t deserve that much of their attention.  Many athletes and celebrities also choose to sit it out.

But isn’t the freedom not to say the Pledge what should get everybody on his or her feet to say it?  In totalitarian countries, that choice isn’t available.  You salute or you suffer.  Nazis made people “Heil Hitler” whether they wanted to or not.  Nobody was allowed to sit that out.  Communist Russia was another regime that did not allow criticism or non-participation.  Neither did Communist China under Chairman Mao.  In fact, modern China does not permit dissent either. Show up in public with a protest poster, and you disappear.  Maybe the sit-outs would benefit from a vacation to North Korea where a single comment against the Leader could win them a twenty year stretch of regular beatings and hard labor.

America does have problems, and it always has had problems.  There has been discrimination.  There has been inequality. People have suffered needlessly.  But the difference between America and Iran is that this country was founded with a built-in mechanism for change.  Most nations in world history haven’t had that mechanism.  Their constitutions haven’t been amendable the way ours is.  Their people haven’t had the power to elect their leaders the way Americans can.  Their social systems have not allowed individuals to rise from nothing to high positions.  America has been unique in the power it gives average people to change the way things are.  And the course of American history has been the story of people making those changes, often through heroic self-sacrifice.

So in the wake of the latest grill-and-go Fourth, perhaps we should start preparing ourselves for next year.  Maybe we can connect again with the best of what America was founded to be.   John Adams was one of the founders.  He sacrificed years and years away from his home and family to do the work of building a nation.  During the Revolution, the British government wanted him dead.  In his later years, Adams wrote a message to us, to the future.  He said, “You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom.  I hope you will make good use of it.”  Let’s do that.  Let’s put some substance back into the celebration.