Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Man Who Invented Paris Hilton

Actress Merle Oberon and Walter Winchell at Manhattan's Stork Club
Gossip columnist Walter Winchell helped create “café society,” polishing the previously reticent rich to a high gloss to parade them before the unwashed masses so they could enjoy the benefits of fame without going to the trouble of cultivating any actual talent or achievement.
“It had traditionally been the function of society to set an example for Americans; not only power but decorum had emanated from the Old Guard,” wrote biographer Neal Gabler in Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. “But what was one to make of this new mélange of show folk and socialites mixing at nightclubs? What were they teaching the unfortunates of this country during the Depression?”
“The Old Guard had maintained its power partly through the mystification of its own isolation and privacy; one was powerful enough, secure enough, not to need or want attention, unless it was that of one’s social equals. Café society was predicated on something else entirely. Here power was really a function not of wealth or breeding or talent or connections but of publicity. ‘Publi-ciety’ Cleveland Armory called it, where the object was to be seen and known, where the object was to be famous.
“The ones who could bestow fame, particularly upon individuals who hadn’t done anything to deserve it, were the press...
“In a very real sense, then, social authority in the early thirties had been turned on its head; now it derived from the media, or as Walter put it, ‘Social position is now more a matter of press than prestige.’ And since the king of the media in the thirties was Walter Winchell, café society was in many ways a function of him.”
“On its face it seemed absurd that a nation racked by unemployment should care about a band of swells whose deepest concern was whether they rated a column mention. (Walter thought it ridiculous too constantly scolded the idle rich while continuing, hypocritically, to feed their publicity habit).
“Yet people did care, and they read about café society as if it were an exciting new social drama to replace the now-shuttered bawdy farce of twenties Broadway. If Broadway had been an imaginative landscape coruscating with images of hot freedom, café society was an imaginative world shimmering with glamour, just as so many Depression-era movies did.
“For most Americans, ‘café society’ immediately triggered images of women in smart gowns and men in satin-collared tuxedos, of tiered nightclubs undulating in the music of swell bands, of cocktails and cigarettes, of cool talk and enervated elegance, all of which made café society one of those repositories of dreams at a time when reality seemed treacherous.”
In other words, Winchell midwifed the direct spiritual ancestors of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.

Monday, January 26, 2015

He Hunts the Biggest of All Game

The Green Hornet — the Lone Ranger's great-nephew — was a radio hero who became a movie serial hero who became a comic book hero who became a television hero who became a comic book hero again (in the 1960s here). And then came Seth Rogen, whom we can safely forget. Gold Key/Dell heroes adapted from other media always looked pretty static and dull, perhaps because Disney kept the reins tight on so many of them.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Why Satisfaction Retreats Before Us

Here's an insight that the Buddhists and stoics have long discussed: "Aspiration, which increases with income, ensures that the point of arrival, of sustained satisfaction, retreats before us. The researchers found that those who watch a lot of TV derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little. TV speeds up the hedonic treadmill, forcing us to strive even harder to sustain the same level of satisfaction." — George Monbiot

Narrow Minds on Broadway

Gossip columnist Walter Winchell
By turning gossip into news and news into gossip, the failed vaudevillian turned Broadway columnist Walter Winchell helped inflate the cultural party balloons of the 1920s. Pretty, distracting and empty, they anticipated all the vapid celebrity buzz and junk journalism that surrounds us today.
“Traditionalists were appalled and not a little frightened,” wrote biographer Neal Gabler in Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. “Winchell was an entertainer certainly, but was he, they asked, really a journalist? And if he was a journalist, had his gossip compromised journalistic integrity beyond repair? The Code of Ethics adopted by the American Society of Newspaper editors said, ‘A newspaper should not invade private rights or feelings without sure warrant of public right as distinguished from public curiosity.’ By that standard, the answers seemed self-evident.
“(H)e is fond of calling himself a newspaperman, but he will be a wisecracking, gossiping trouper as long as he lives,” wrote one critic, who nevertheless admitted to reading Winchell’s column daily.”
Ironically, despite his prodigious combination of fame and infamy and the considerable cash he earned from his syndicated column and radio work, Winchell remained a fairly desperate man, overworking and running on nervous energy, afraid of what was just behind him. By cheapening the culture, Winchell also cheapened himself, and he knew that what’s cheap is easily replaced.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Eternal Vulgarities

“Sentimentalize everything, with cynicism just beneath. In place of the full life, or the good life, or the hard life of experience, fill the mind with a phantasmagoria where easy wealth, sordid luxury, scandal, degeneracy and drunken folly swirl … in an intoxicating vulgarity.” 
Tell me, was this critic describing the yellow tabloid newspapers of the early 20th century or the cable news shows of the early 21st century?

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Pox on Vox Populi

I recall a student who once told me that he thought all opinions were equal.
I must have sighed the exasperated sigh of a
 long-suffering curmudgeon when I replied that, no, he was confusing the principle that everyone is entitled to an opinion — which is certainly true — with the idea that all opinions must therefore be of equal value, which is obviously false.
If it were true, then you'd go to a meat cutter instead of a physician when you required surgery. Save yourself a lot of money that way.
Or, if we’re discussing evolution, let us say, then the opinion of a biologist with a doctorate is worth infinitely more than that of some religious fanatic with no scientific background.
And, if all opinions are not of equal merit, then it follows that a vast accumulation of wrong opinions is therefore nevertheless worth less than one single correct opinion.
And that conclusion impels me to violate one of the great taboos of the popular media and politicians, who must always pretend that public opinion is wise, reliable and valid, and never permit a whisper to the contrary. Public opinion polls are reported breathlessly, as if they were the pronouncements of the Oracle at Delphi.
On the air, politicians and the popular media pander ceaselessly to public opinion. Off the air, they laugh at it. In fact, as they well know, public opinion is
often thunderously ignorant.
Even after the Duelfer report to Congress confirmed that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, 72 percent of Bush and Cheney’s  supporters continued to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47 percent) or a major program for developing WMD (25 percent), according to a study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes. Fifty­six percent assumed that most experts believed Iraq had actual WMD and 57 percent also assumed, wrongly, that Charles Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program.
And of those who watch television news, the most misinformed on that topic were of course the Fox News viewers. That's because Fox prefers to pander to viewers' prejudices rather than refute them.
Thus, on Fox, Barack Obama and Barbra Streisand are always wrong, a Bush is always a godsend, the French are always diabolical and Iraq WMD are “discovered” again and again and again (subsequent admissions that the “discoveries” were all phony are always buried).
The threadbare nature of public opinion is well illustrated by public taste. Consider the “reality” programming that captured the American public's fancy. That amounts to a parade of boorish billionaires, beautiful young people who were willing to sell themselves for a big pile of bucks and ordinary people who were encouraged to stab each in the back for a financial prize. How inspiring.
Take the sickening, long-running “reality”
show “Cops,” which invites tasteless Americans to leer and jeer at even more tasteless Americans in their trailer parks. “I come home and grabbed me a couple beers and then me and her got into it,” is an example of the show’s lyric dialogue.
"On the day that the defense rested in the military trial of Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr. for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, American television news had a much better story to tell: ‘The Trouble With Harry,’ as Brian Williams called it on NBC,” noted Frank Rich in the New York Times. “The British prince had attended a fancy dress costume party in Wiltshire (theme: ‘native and colonial’) wearing a uniform from Rommel's Afrika Korps complete with swastika armband.”
“(I)f you stood back for just a second and thought about what was happening in that courtroom in Fort Hood, Texas. — a task that could be accomplished only by reading newspapers, which provided the detailed coverage network TV didn't even attempt — you had to wonder if we had any more moral sense than Britain's widely reviled ‘clown prince.’
“The lad had apparently managed to reach the age of 20 in blissful ignorance about World War II. Yet here we were in America, in the midst of a war that is going on right now, choosing to look the other way rather than confront the evil committed in our name in a prison we ‘liberated’ from Saddam Hussein in Iraq."
In other words, in terms of American public opinion, posing in a fascist outfit is a terrible thing, while actually practicing fascist torture may not be so bad at all.
It's not so much that many members of the public are stupid as that they're willfully ignorant, which is worse. You can’t help it if you're stupid, but you can help it if you’re ignorant. And if you celebrate your ignorance, as much of the public does, then you're both insufferable and dangerous.
Why dangerous? Because even when public opinion is invalid, it’s still powerful. In 1930s Germany, public opinion supported Hitler. In this country, public opinion once supported slavery and genocide of the Indians.
In 1633, the Inquisition condemned Galileo Galilei for daring to contend that the Earth moves around the Sun. Public opinion, church authority and the power of the state were united in insisting that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
And yet the Earth took no notice of majority opinion, and went on blithely whirling around the Sun, just as it always had. How very elitist of the planet.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A "Game" Where the Winner Loses

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton, Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander and Allen Leech as John Cairncross surround Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.
Bart, Mike, Matt and I went to see “The Imitation Game” last night — witty, intelligent, moving and sumptuously filmed. 
The film does a good job of suspensefully explaining what the Enigma codebreakers at Bletchley Park did to end World War II without resorting to math lessons. Yet another of those stories about a man who saves the world and is rewarded by society with destruction.
Here’s Matt’s review:
Bart Rettberg, Dan Hagen and I took in the 2014 dramatic thriller, "The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, and an ensemble of British actors, all of whom play their roles exceptionally. Cumberbatch is Alan Turing, the mathematical genius whose work to crack the ENIGMA code of Nazi Germany hastened the victory in Europe by a full two years and saved some 14 million lives -- and laid the groundwork for your laptop, smartphone, mobile GPS, really, anything involving a computer. Turing essentially invented computers.
The quest to develop a "digital computer" that can crack the ENIGMA code provides the backdrop against which another drama unfolds, this one centering around Turing's homosexuality and the role it played not only his development as a person, but also in his untimely demise. There was some small controversy among some circles because the film did not feature any homosexual sex scenes, and I think such scenes would have served no purpose to the film's narrative.
Instead, we see flashbacks to Turing's youth, his falling in love with Christopher, his only friend in his adolescent years, and his commitment to that love in his adult years, when he gives his thinking machine that very name. The film does not dance around Turing's sexuality, (he explicitly states he is homosexual plenty of times in the film to make that clear) nor does it shy away from the fact that his sexuality led to an ungrateful government charging him with indecency and sentencing him to a slow, miserable process of chemical castration.
Cumberbatch's performance is terrific and worthy of the accolades and nominations he has thus received to date -- I was particularly impressed with how he addressed and subtly performed Turing's stuttering speech impediment. Knightley is fantastic in her role as the female lead and fellow codebreaker who understands and cares for Turing unconditionally. Other notable performances include Mark Strong as the Chief of MI6, Rory Kinnear ('Skyfall, and the upcoming 'Spectre') as an overly inquisitive police detective, and Charles Dance (Game of Throne's Tywin Lannister).
The film also has a tremendous score imagined by Aleandre Desplat ('The Queen,' 'The King's Speech).
STARS: 3.5/4
P.S. Alan Turing committed suicide at the age of 41, only one year after being given his chemical castration sentence. As Dan Hagen pointed out, Turing is another in a list of historical figures whose contributions to the advancement of civilization cannot be understated and yet was crushed underfoot by civilization's own mores and prejudices.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

How Captain Marvel Became the Mighty Thor

Captain Marvel had vanished almost a decade before, and to the young comic book readers of 1962 that might as well have been forever. So Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided it was time to revive the popular concept, with interesting variations. Here's a caped, flying, super-strong hero with the powers of the gods, transformed from his ordinary existence by a bolt of magical lightning when danger threatens. Even disability, as a metaphor for weakness, was carried over from Fawcett to Marvel. Both Freddy Freeman, the alter ego of Captain Marvel Jr., and Dr. Don Blake, Thor's secret identity, were lame.
 Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940), published by Fawcett Comics