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Archive for October, 2010

4 NBC

A man is forced to eat his own entrails. If you can write a plot around this idea, then you’ve got a job at “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

24 E! Entertainment Television
Steal, strip, sex your way into fame.

13 PBS
If Oscar Wilde were on Facebook, his status updates would be so witty they would shame you from ever making another one yourself … and other observations by Bill Moyers.

25 MTV
“Hell is Other Guidos”: The Situation, Snookie, Pauly D and JWoww are all stuck together in a room they can’t get out of. And you are paralyzed watching them.

27 The Food Network
Mystery Movie of the Week: The secret sauce is daddy!

36 ABC Family
An innocent squeeze on the cheek cannot be taken at face value in this Anne Sexton biopic.

13 PBS
Anne Sexton: “A woman who loves a woman is forever young.”

24 Lifetime
This lifetime movie on Anne Sexton skews toward women age 30 to 50.

14 CNN
The woman who loves Larry King is forever young.

28 Fox News
A woman who loves Rush Limbaugh is forever quiet, because he can’t hear a word she’s saying.

28 Fox News
Reporter Juan Williams was fired from NPR just for going on Fox News, reports Juan Williams on Fox News.

28 Fox News
A woman is stabbed in Idaho. Coming up: six hours of uninformed conjecture about what it might mean.

28 Fox News
Why it’s unconstitutional to force people to buy health care insurance, car insurance, home owner’s insurance, Social Security, postage stamps or access to the New Jersey Turnpike.

30 CNN
In this latest episode of Crossfire, David and Maddie finally kiss.

31 Current TV
Because of a music rights legal dispute, this biopic on Kurt Cobain features the music of the Dwarves, Zeke, and the Theater of Sheep.

36 Health Network
If you feel as if you can’t concentrate, focus on daily tasks, meet mental challenges, organize your thoughts or retrieve your perspicacity, then the best thing you could possibly be doing right now is watching television.

4 KFOR Oklahoma City
My sister was on this channel the other night! Really! She sat on the journalist panel for the Oklahoma gubernatorial debates.

4 KFOR Oklahoma City
Unfortunately, you have to hate Barack Obama, health care reform, the federal government, roads, bridges and people who get sick if you want to be governor of Oklahoma.

82 Bloomberg
You are unemployed because American companies find you too expensive, and don’t want to waste their vital cash reserves on you and weaken their earnings per share. So if you are smart and can put two and two together, you will vote against the Democrats in two weeks.

54 AMC
“Mad Men” is over for the season, which means it’s best just to turn the television off altogether.

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Longtime political analyst Juan Williams was fired by NPR this week after he told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News that he gets nervous when he sees Muslims on airplanes, especially when they self-identify as Muslims. He then declared that it made him no bigot.

What are the many different ways we can look at, break down, deconstruct or reverse engineer this episode?

–*We could say Juan Williams made a bigoted remark and should have been fired.

Or

–*We could point out that if a white man said he gets nervous around black men, it would anger Juan Williams, so he should know better.

Or

–*We could say that the sentiment itself wasn’t as bad as the insistence that it wasn’t bigotry and Williams’ refusal to apologize for it.

This means he might have gotten away with saying the first part, but not the second part. We think. This is where we need lawyers to come in and break it all down for us and tell us when, in fact, he became bigoted. Unfortunately, all we have are his defenders, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, who are probably as qualified to parse language as they are to teach us the linguistic roots of Sanskrit.

Or

–*We could point out Juan Williams said something that quite a few Americans feel, even if it’s wrong. In other words, he was dumb enough to say out loud what Anderson Cooper, Brian Williams, Christiane Amanpour, Katie Couric and Regis Philbin might well feel but wouldn’t dare say.

Or

–*You could say it doesn’t matter, because evincing his own personal feelings is not his job as a reporter.

Or

–*As the song goes, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Maybe sometimes we should say what’s on our minds or in our hearts, even if it’s bad, to examine what it’s about. But now Williams and others are on notice to hold those feelings in so that they never go examined. We are not allowed to make a safe place for discussion about the things we feel even though it might help us know what our problems are.

Or

–*Juan Williams could have made that same statement with more sensitivity and still said something newsworthy: “I know it’s wrong, but I feel nervous around people in Muslim dress on airplanes, and that’s important to say out loud,” because this is something important we ought to know about the very large non-Muslim community in the U.S.–they fear people who are not like them.

Or

–*We could acknowledge that if a Muslim went on TV these days and told us he gets nervous around non-Muslims, we’d probably see his point and we do want him to feel free to express himself right? If a lone woman, for that matter, got nervous walking when surrounded by strange men, we’d probably see her point, too. It’s not always rational. Does that make it illegitimate?

Or

–*We might get angry that Juan Williams lost his job for something relatively minor when a week ago Bill O’Reilly said “Muslims killed us on 9/11,” which is much more outlandish and insipid, not to mention ungrammatical–and O’Reilly has never once feared for his job. Rather than creating a nursery of dissenting voices, NPR seems secretly determined to drive decent reporters to the Wild West town of slander that is Fox News, where they can more comfortably say uncomfortable things.

Or

–*We could notice to our shame that liberals close ranks against heretics just as blithely as George W. Bush does. What we couldn’t do to O’Reilly, we’ve decided to do to a much more reasonable guy.

So

–*We notice that liberals like Juan Williams must fear for their jobs if they go outside the bounds of political correctness, while right wingers never need fear it. That means we risk putting more reporters like Juan Williams on Fox News’ payroll and continuing to polarize the United States.

Or

–*We might point out that Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez, two journalists with relatively reasonable centrist viewpoints, have both recently been fired for making racially inflammatory remarks that were totally out of character for them. This means soon we will all be reading from scripts, and hewing to our party lines all the time. There will be no free-associating, no counterintuitive arguments, no alternative premises, no synthesizing of paradoxical statements, no free marketplace of ideas. Everybody will sound like Barney the Dinosaur.

Or

–*We could say that NPR is trying to hold the line for objective journalism and that everyone with an opinion can feel free to go express it on Fox, where there is nothing but opinion and precious little news 24 hours  a day.

Or

–*We could come up with a conspiracy theory that Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez were likely fired for backstage intrigues we know nothing about, because there is lots of infighting in the competitive world of broadcast journalism that is bigger than any one red herring racial comment. It might sound like a conspiracy theory, but Williams said that NPR didn’t like him being on Fox, so they found a reason to 86 him, and that doesn’t sound so far-fetched.

Or

–*We could just say Juan Williams got fired because he was black.

Yes, it’s a stupid thought. It may sound like the most ludicrous argument of all. But think about it–why does everybody get to be a bigot but Juan Williams? Is it because we think he should know better since he’s a black man? Well who says that?

I don’t want to defend what Juan Williams said, but I think there’s too much readiness by some news organizations to fire good people for 1) obvious brain farts and 2) a failure to adhere to orthodoxy. I know when I free associate, stuff comes out of my mouth that I regret later. So maybe I should never be on broadcast news. But then I ask, who should?

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My wife Stephanie, producer and star of the our Web series The Retributioners, recently penned an article for Digital Chick TV (DigitalchickTV.com) about the joys and horrors of making a Web show from scratch in our living room.

Digital Chick TV is run by another ce-Webrity, the amazing Daryn Strauss, the writer/director/producer of Downsized. Check out both our shows.

Stephanie would also probably like it if I showed off this head shot of her. I like to show her off, and besides, we can probably depreciate the photo expenses for accounting purposes.

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As we count down the days until the 2010 midterm election, we’re likely going to be treated to a swelling, tumescent heightened political rhetoric on television and in newspapers, as loud debates echo through student union arcades, in town hall meetings, on the steps of state capitals and in the dankest of Red State outhouses. Many lies will be told. Many ribs will be eaten. Your gay friends will be used as political fodder for people scoring cheap points. Thanks, gays!

As you careen through this veld of poison poppies, you are likely to feel sometimes like other people control the terms of debate, leaving you speechless and/or helpless to raise your own concerns and objections. Many memes and buzzwords will be used, like electrical shunts, to skirt you around the troublesome ideas underlying them. You will hear some of your older friends, for example, say things like “I am not politically correct,” as a shorthand way of saying, “Actually, I still don’t like black people.” You will hear phrases like “Barack Obama thinks I’m trash because I’m white,” which actually means, “I am actually trash, and I hate successful people who remind me of that fact, even more so if they are black.” You will hear some Democrats say President Obama’s critics are racist, but really they just hate being unemployed.

The best way for you to fight back against word games played by partisans is to try to drill down into semiotics and try to figure out the code. Here are some of the words you will hear a lot of in the next few weeks:

Elites: this refers to somebody who corrected you when you got something wrong.

Maverick: somebody who doesn’t look things up.

Going rogue: failing to finish a sentence

Socialist: to most of us, this word is pretty clear. It has given us Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps, home loans, student loans and everything else that buttresses the American middle class and keeps the streets free of homeless mendicants and the other signs of blighted pre-revolutionary France. But if you think of it instead as robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, then you are undoubtedly not a fan of childhood favorite Robin Hood.

Unemployment: depending on who is using this word, it either means the natural result of socialist tendencies (which is a complete contradiction in terms) or the natural result of corporations finding American workers too expensive (which is so true that saying it out loud will get you pelted with eggs).

Obamacare: legislation passed in early 2010 that has already resulted in many of your friends and family members being sent to euthanasia camps. (Really! It checks out on Snopes!)

Nanny state: a nanny is somebody who doesn’t let you eat a dog turd off the ground. Anti-union, anti-minimum wage, pro-restaurant lobbyist Rick Berman reminds you: “Don’t listen to the nannies, kids. You go ahead and eat that turd.” You don’t have to be mollycoddled by government when you’ve got corporations looking out for your best interests with absolutely positively no agenda of their own.

Middle class: Both sides will use this phrase liberally over the next few weeks, and you’re sure to be confused, because both sides will claim they are protecting it and blaming each other for its disappearance. I’m sure that both liberals and conservatives on the Titanic would have blamed each other for it sinking, too. So let’s just stay there’s a hole in the boat and nobody knows how to fix it. The Democrats onboard will blame the Chinese for the disaster and the Republicans will declare war on Iran. “Nearer My God to Thee” in the key of F major, please.

Racist: anybody angry about the bank bailouts

Racist: Anybody who doesn’t fully support the beliefs of the Honorable Clarence Thomas.

Bigot: Anybody who doesn’t believe Jesus was two substances brought together in hypostatic union and now lives at the right hand of God in a milky ball of interstellar gas like the Bible says. (Checks out on Snopes!)

Racist: anybody who believes in a progressive income tax, which hurts rich black people

Racist: Anybody who supports abortion rights, which is really a black genocide scheme.

Racist: Anybody who supports unions, which use black members’ money only to support Democratic causes, which is not fair since some of those black people are probably secretly Republican.

Racist: Anybody who Rush Limbaugh says is racist, and by the way, he also says poor black people getting subprime loans caused the recession, not overly leveraged Wall Street banks. (Checks out on Snopes!) Anybody who blames the overly leveraged Wall Street banks and not the black people is just a racist.

Racist: President Barack Obama, who, unlike white people, is a member of a “race.” (Checks out on Snopes).

Purple: This word is politically neutral. You are free to have no opinion on it.

Multiculturalism: The auspices under which black racists will take over our country.

Libertarian: somebody with a strict, prescriptivist adherence to the Constitution as it pertains to the WASPs who wrote it.

WASPs: These people are still in charge. So you will not likely hear this word at all.

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A lot of people, journalist Ron Rosenbaum probably the most prominent, have questioned how someone like Adolf Hitler could rise to power in a country as culturally sophisticated and technologically advanced as Germany was in the 1930s–a country where there was almost no illiteracy. A country where there was political plurality and a free press. A country that, we should all remember, voted Hitler into power in a fair, democratic process.

I submit to you that maybe it was Hitler’s private collection of himself in beefcake poses.

Fast forward to the United States in 2010 and I give you Pamela Geller, a woman who has risen to fame almost entirely for hateful diatribes toward Muslims and her bikini photos. No matter how long you write, no matter how long you study, no matter how much thought you put into a subject, no matter how many credentials you collect or peer reviews you receive, it still seems as if the best way for you to get attention and to snag a bit of celebrity for yourself, even in a “good” society like America, is to do it just as you did in high school: find the person who is not like anybody else and then go to town on him. In high school, you gave wedgies or beat somebody up in the locker room. Today you get on a Web site and bash foreigners.

Geller even calls herself a bigot racist as a joke. It just makes her that much cuter, and we’re supposed to laugh her off. I suggest we create a new line of racist Barbie or Bratz dolls–“Give Us A Squeeze,” says the box.

Ann Coulter led the way when she learned that the more provocative you are, the more beloved you are by people with no self-esteem and no imagination. It’s led us directly to Geller, a person who might even chagrin Coulter (who has recently tried to rehabilitate herself a bit by cuddling up to gays).  It’s always been pretty easy to call Coulter an attention whore. For Geller, it seems too nice a phrase.

Of course, the U.S. is not Nazi Germany, and I don’t mean to suggest that it is. I make the comparison to show how bigotry, which we were all taught to watch out for in school, is even today an aphrodisiac with a sexy hint of taboo.  This woman uses a lot of meretricious rhetoric appealing to those with wounded pride. It could be she appeals to people who are too nationalistic. Those who are out of work and need someone to blame. Or more likely it’s those whose lack of intellectual confidence turns them into “joiners.” It sounds insipid to say out loud–that there’s a group of Americans who’d be swayed by a pastiche that is so transparent–and yet this woman mobilized thousands (millions?) against Park 51, an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan whose symbolism makes it somehow unacceptable, even in an area that already has mosques in it.

Geller called the center a “victory lap” for America’s enemies. You can’t argue with buzzwords like that. They’re so small, you can’t get an editorial in edgewise.

As a proud atheist, I dislike all religions, and would definitely challenge some of the points of Islam–the treatment of women in some corners (though not all) and the iconoclasm of certain sects that denies the bigger imperative of free speech (something I’m a bit of an absolutist about). I’m as angry as anybody that an American cartoonist, Molly Norris, was forced to go into hiding for her satiric idea that we should have an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” (an idea that wasn’t even serious, but that grabbed the attention of extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and got the poor woman put on a hit list). If we can’t get past the ephemeral (and totally inconsistent) picture-drawing ban by Muslims, then how might we ever drill down into their even more troublesome ideas?

But criticizing Islam in its cultural confrontation with the West is a far cry from dehumanizing all Muslims. I interviewed several Muslims myself for a book a few years back, and what I discovered is that there are plenty of competing philosophies and reflections and ways of reconciling the sacred and profane within Islam as there are anywhere else. I was most impressed by a Sufi adherent who said that the religion he knew didn’t believe in mullahs or burkas but was only obsessed with the spirit and what nourishes it. He didn’t see Islamic teaching as incompatible with a Western upbringing. You might say he’s not representative, but then you might ask who is a representative Christian. A Crusader? Torquemada? Jerry Fallwell? Larry Flynt in his born again period? An atheist who just thinks it’s right to turn the other cheek? We say that we hate Muslim strictures on female clothing, but what about the rules of certain Christian faiths that girls must wear skirts and nobody can dance? This is usually where arch-conservatives write in that Christians don’t blow up buildings. I feel unable to defend myself against a person who can’t count the billion or so non-building-destroying Muslims out there. It’s like arguing with a pelican.

I’m a bit depressed that The New York Times had to give this lunatic coverage, even under the pretext of responsibly keeping tabs on her. I just hope it doesn’t give her some kind of legitimacy.

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I was walking down First Avenue in Midtown Manhattan one fall day about 15 years ago. The city was still a little bit dangerous then (the Guiliani reforms had not reached their full effect) and a homeless guy I was passing turned to me in full confrontational attitude and declared, “I fucked Tony Curtis in the ass!” Imagine John Lovitz saying it in his liar voice, and you’ll get the flavor of the encounter.

Now, lots of people brag about famous people they’ve slept with (I’ve heard Montgomery Clift stories that were more believable) but I never forgot this anecdote, and not because I think the guy was telling the truth. More impressive was the fact Tony Curtis’ gay icon status was so well understood that even a homeless guy in Turtle Bay was culturally savvy about it.

I don’t say this to belittle the actor’s more awesome achievements. He worked with Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick and tried hard to be taken seriously when he didn’t have to be. He seemed determined to constantly reinvent himself, even coyly flirting with the perception that he might be gay because it was more fun than spewing hate about it (the fact that he had an overactive interest in females ought to disprove it, though). I ask you to compare his attitude with Tom Cruise’s. I don’t think Cruise is gay either, but he’s always reacted to the charge with haughtiness and disdain and absolutely no sense of humor, which makes calling him gay ever so much fun for a lot of people.

Curtis’ career blossomed in the era of the Hays Code, when people were not permitted to kiss for more than a few seconds at a time on screen, nor were they allowed to share beds or ever even refer to homosexuality. Contrary to popular belief, people were still having sex during this period, including gay people. Our desires and drives did not disappear. Instead they turned into codes. Symbols. Fetish objects. When Stanley Kowalski raped Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, we saw not the rape but a spewing fire hydrant. When Peter Lorre played a gay character in the Maltese Falcon, he constantly put his cane handle in his mouth to show you what he’d rather be doing. There are countless examples, and I invite my readers to go find some late period Alfred Hitchcock films and not find lots of dick jokes (there are almost as many as in Shakespeare). I secretly wonder to this day if there is a fire hydrant appreciation society bouncing around in some chamber of the BDSM demimonde.

Curtis died on Wednesday, of course, and it’s sad for many reasons, not the least of which is that he was an icon, gay or otherwise.

But another screen legend died last week as well–Arthur Penn, the director of the “The Left Handed Gun,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Night Moves” and “Little Big Man.” And though he’s not as well known in households, he’s a key figure in the Hollywood New Wave of the 1970s, an age that for good or ill ushered out age of chiseled stars like Curtis and ushered in the age of everyman types like Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, introduced cinema verite techniques and realism into our cinema.

Penn was a genius for many reasons that better paid people at The New York Times have chronicled in the past week or so–mainly that he introduced French New Wave ideas into Hollywood. But what I most remember about him is the stories he told in the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Penn was also a master of iconography, and to him, Bonnie and Clyde, the film that ushered in the New Hollywood, was more than a glorification of simple hoods, but a masterpiece of image making. Imagine how iconic Bonnie’s beret and cigar became. Penn said that he wanted Clyde Burrow’s death in a hail of gunfire to remind people of the Kennedy assassination. He also dared shoot scenes of shocking violence, including a blast to the face. While that might seem tame by today’s standards (consider this year’s Machete, where the hero uses somebody’s small intestines to rappel down the side of a building) it was quite shocking in 1968, and in my mind, meant to remind you that you were watching a movie. The medium was the message, Penn said, quoting Marshall McLuhan.

It was also genius because you have to realize that the moral codes were part of the film vocabulary, and with the new permissiveness, that vocabulary had to be reinvented. Penn, finally unleashed from the Old Hollywood handcuffs, had to create new ways of using the medium to tell stories now that there was a new frankness. Within a few years it would be OK to show sex and drug use and orgasms and homosexual acts and even deep throating (if you went to the right theaters).You didn’t have to use a fire hydrant or show a guy sucking off his cigar or hold a cat to refer to your vajayjay. When you do that today, it’s usually an homage to more repressive days (as when Philip Seymour Hoffman sucks on his pen in Boogie Nights.)

And though it’s definitely better to live in a world of free expression (free of prudery), at the same time, film used to be very powerful because of these codes, because film is a medium more perfect for fetishes than nylon. All the really great filmmakers take advantage of it–Bunuel, Scorsese, Altman, Hitchcock all love focusing on objects and investing them with intense emotional energy, sexual or otherwise.

When I made my own first good film in film school, “S&M Queen For A Day,” I only intended to make a few jokes about perversion, but I noticed that just for storytelling purposes, it was effective to show my wife zipping up her big leather boot very slowly, not once but twice. I knew vaguely that this was good storytelling and kind of a joke, but I had no idea how much it would resonate with people in the “community,” who wrote to me to express their great appreciation and fondness and to say hello as a fellow traveler (I am not, by the way into the S&M life.)

I realized then that film and storytelling isn’t about giving us what we want. It’s about withholding it for as long as possible. Tony Curtis understood this as an icon and Arthur Penn understood this as an icon maker. Desire is something better prolonged, withheld, embraced for its own sake. Getting what you want never seems to be as much fun as wanting it. I’d like to think that somewhere, Tom Cruise will suddenly figure this out.

Most critics will say that Penn ushered Curtis out, that Curtis was from a bourgeois liberal time in Hollywood, and Penn had true radical ideas and helped foment the deluge. I think maybe they were just artists working different sides of the same street. They both peddled in image-making, and sometimes failed to sell their stuff. Arthur Penn reimagined the American Indian as a colonized race with its own contradictions and sins in Little Big Man and reframe the death of the Indian culture as the death of the American spirituality. Tony Curtis tried to hack up his own image by playing the Boston Strangler. Both efforts failed to win much acclaim, fairly or unfairly (I think Little Big Man is a perfect movie, actually). And yet both guys were trying to take images and values and people you were comfortable with and shake them up a little, using the tricks of their trade. In an age where we are so inundated with stimulation, it’s almost quaint now to remember that Bonnie Parker’s beret used to mean something.

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