Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I've Got Hurt Feelings, I've Got Hurt FEELINGS!

I don’t really. That title is lovingly lifted from a Conchords song. Loves me some Bret and Jemaine. This song will set the tone for this post nicely.

It’s funny how Facebook updates, Tweets, Blogs, comment sections or some other more current means of broadcasting out own random bull plop* has opened an entire new realm of both validation and rejection. We have all morphed into this strange, self loathing hybrid of full time artist/critic. We publish our thoughts on the routine of our lives for what we assume to be a grateful world. And clearly those who receive those thoughts are grateful to some extent. If they weren’t they could just hide you, or unfollow you or whatever. We continue to share the mundane**, self serving***and occasionally profound**** ramblings of our daily thoughts because we know people actually listen to them. And they provide feedback. And often that feedback feels really good to hear. A simple thumbs up from an old high school buddy you haven’t spoken to in a decade can provide a nice confirmation to your suspicion that today’s weather does indeed suck donkey. But as any artist, musician or robot street performer will tell you, feedback is a double edged sword. There’s gonna be people that like you, and people who don’t. Everyone knows that. And anyone who disseminates their writing or videos or whatever on the world wide interweb should have a reasonably thick skin. Especially when that criticism reaches new bounds of idiocy. (That's a pretty dang good SNL skit, right there. They may be rare, but they still exist.)

But what I find surprising is that in those occasions when there is an absence of a comment or a thumb, I feel a sense of disappointment and even a little bit of rejection. I’m embarrassed by that. But I do.

I want to be clear that I’m not getting butt hurt about no one acknowledging the poetic expressions from the depths of my soul. I’m talking about mindless Facebook fluff here. If I feel the need to throw out some Simpsons quote (the majority of my status updates involve plagiarism) and I then check my Facebook a day later with nothing but a cold vacuum as a response? Well, there is a shameful little voice inside me that says, “What? No one got that? Screw all of you!”

Now in discussing the absurdity of perceived slights and bruised egos transpiring from the fake judgment of internet silence, it’s important to emphasize that this is a shameful, comical impulse that I’m talking about here. I’m not actually insulted on any meaningful level. Seriously. Even though I kind of am.

And that’s the strange effect that social media has on us. By presenting the possibility of complimentary agreement, Facebook has set us up to be overly sensitive babies when that support doesn’t come. I shouldn’t care if no one else felt the need to acknowledge my thoughts on my day. But the fact that my friends could have given a thumbs up and chose not to, presents me with a previously undiscovered source of personal injury.

Thanks Mark Zucherberg! We all needed to be just a little bit crazier.

Let me belabor this point just a little bit more. Yesterday was my birthday. And I received little to no Facebook birthday wishes. Now I’m not gonna go all Eeyore on everybody here. I had exactly the birthday that I wanted. My friends and family acknowledge my life, I got some very thoughtful presents, and I ate steak and all you can eat shrimp at Sizzler (that’s how I roll) with my nieces and nephew. A wonderful way to celebrate another trip around the sun. But I have to admit that for the first half of the day, I was a little bummed at the absence of Birthday love from the FB peeps.

I remember being a little overwhelmed on the first birthday I had as a member of Facebook, which was probably 2007. I didn’t know or expect that I would recieve birthday wishes from the entire collection of associates I have amassed in my life. I'm one of those guys that does not care about his birthday. I don’t hide it from people. But I never really want a party or anything. I’m low key like that. But back on December 6th of '07, I remember being surprised at how flattered I felt that the one girl I knew in college but haven't spoken to or thought about in 8 years dropped me a line to wish me a happy birthday. (Sorry Mom. She's married with five kids. It won't work out.)

That was a new experience. One that was repeated in the years to come. But yesterday, that did not happen. My buddy Johnmann texted me at about 1 o'clock asking me why I was being such a FB miser by hiding my birthday from the world. It was then that I realized that some time ago I must have changed my profile settings and removed my birthday from my page. So no one knew that it was my special day. Except of course for ole trusty Johnmann. So there was no actual shunning or rejection that took place. In fact yesterday was exactly like every one of the twenty something birthdays I enjoyed before the Facebook revolution. And yet for a few hours there in the morning, I was a little bit hurt. As embarrassing as that is to admit, it's true. And why? Because something I had never had for most of my life but had come to expect anyway was not there.

I realize by typing this, publishing it to a blog and then linking that post to my Facebook page (which I will do), I will be manipulating everyone who bothers to read this into somehow feel like they let me down, or to apologize for some imagined slight. And my acknowledgement of this does not make it any less manipulative. But believe me when I say it, this is not my intent. I'm only illustrating that as regularly occurring events are changed by social media, we run the risk of becoming more needy and narcissistic.

But the flip side of this is also very applicable. Though our own thoughts and ideas are subjected to the harshness of criticism (often anonymous) , we also get the dirty little pleasure of lobbing online bombs about articles, movies, videos, books, profile updates, music, blog posts and whatever other online garbage I'm forgetting. Think about it. Every single piece of media that we have the opportunity of consuming online can be immediately judged by us, whether our thoughts about it are intelligent and honest or not. And that's kind of nice feeling. Hell. Look at this blog of mine. I like it so much, I can't stop. (Except the last 8 months. I stopped pretty good there for a while.)

And that's not limited to the Tron universe of the internet. When I invest a dollar for Conan the Barbarian at Redbox, I can then chime in on IMDB and grace that community with an in depth defense of my 9.5 star rating (You heard me!). And the fact that we have all been empowered as vigilante authorities on all things cultural, changes the way we experience life.

Earlier tonight, I hit up a Sushi bar for some happy hour rolls. I enjoyed the company of friends and a four dollar Funky Charlie. A good night, for sure. But I also found myself composing my nitpicking Yelp review in my head. "Alright food, good prices but the tables were a little sticky and the music was too loud." That's a crappy thing to be thinking, when I should have just been enjoying the moment in the fullest sense. Especially when you take into account that barely 24 hours earlier, I was down in the dumps because I wasn't overwhelmed with arbitrary Facebook adulation.

Social Media interaction has turned me into a snotty little sister. Some nasty little girl who will rip you down for the slightest little offense but if you look at me wrong, I'll cry until our mom smacks you.

Okay, I'm totally overstating this. I am not whiney girl and neither are any of the good people spouting their takes on restaurants, movies and music online. But this Judge Dredd notion of opiniotive authority seems to have slipped into the real world of everyday life. It won't be long until we start rating sunsets. "It was pretty good. But not terribly original. 5.5/10." I just think it's a good idea to step back and enjoy things for what they are, instead of trying to quantify its value at all costs.

Now leave me complimentary comments or I will burn your house down!

* I'm tempted to include a G+ joke in here, but I'm sure I'll be on it and loving it within a year. I am usually a little tardy in adopting new trends. But I am eventually obedient to our technological overlords.

** "The kids are being nice to each other today!!!!"

*** "Just got back from the gym and got a great pump!"

**** Every Arrested Development quote I have ever posted.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Score One For The Good Guys

At 1:30 pm MDT, last Sunday afternoon I was enjoying some dutch oven potatoes, sausage with brown mustard and a fresh scone at a road side cafe in Mt Carmel, Utah following a fantastic weekend of Canyoneering in Zion National Park. I share this because at that exact time in Abbottabad, Pakistan a Navy Seal had the forehead of Osama bin Laden in his cross hairs and pulled the trigger ending the life of the world's most notorious villain. And it's been a surreal couple of days since.

Let me share a few observations:

I, like most Americans (I think), kind of forgot about bin Laden. Of course 911 is forever seared into my soul. And the fact that we let him escape in Torah Bora nearly a decade ago bugs the hell out of me. But I have never stayed awake at night thinking we had to get him. I was confident the right people were on the job, doing everything possible to bring him to justice, but I kind of just assumed he would die of renal failure in a cave somewhere. I hadn't really considered the possibility of his death at the hands of American forces in so long, I was surprised at just how good it has made me feel when it actually happened.

And I make no apologies for feeling good about this. And no else should either.

Let me be clear. Throughout my medium sized lifetime, I cannot think of another piece of breaking news that has ever made me feel so energized and uplifted. And I don’t feel good because my blood lust for the Terrorist Devil has been satiated. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I hate bin Laden at all. He was the embodiment of all that is evil in the world and he deserved to die. But I don’t think I feel any actual sense of personal animosity toward him. My blood pressure wouldn't spike when his name was mentioned. I do not have a full back tattoo that says "Die, Osama! DIE!"*. He had become another name on the news.

The reason I feel so good about his death, is because this is an incredible victory for America. And regardless of your particular political persuasion, that is a very good thing. After years and years of bleak, depressing headlines grinding on our national identity, I'm sick of feeling bad about my country. And I'm not talking about patriotism. Patriotism is a loaded word that has been weaponized over the last decade. No, I'm talking about our collective self esteem. We needed a win to break through the malaise of partisan sniping, crippling gas prices, seemingly endless unemployment not to mention the nuclear meltdown, civil war shit storm that is the rest of the world.

And make no mistake, this is a big win. It makes me feel good to be an American. Not in some cheap, dick wagging, Toby Kieth kind of way. But in a well deserved, hard fought, V Day kind of way. The good guys won.

Everything about this story is perfect. Bin Laden didn’t choke on a goat shank and drop dead. A drone didn't anonymously and instantaneously incinerate him. Our guys killed him. And he died knowing it. We stormed his mansion where he was hiding behind a female human shield and asked him "Are you Osama bin Laden?" "Yes" BANG!

You couldn’t have written a better script. All movies this summer will suck because they can in no way be as cool as reality.

It’s not often that citizens of our great and diverse nation spontaneously take to the streets and celebrate. Dancing, singing, hugging strangers, pumping fists, climbing street lamps to cheer on an ever expanding crowd of people; I’ve never seen anything like it. And we reacted this way, not out of hatred for our enemy, but out of pride in our victory. And make no mistake, it is OUR victory. Rich, poor, black, white, left, right, we all won when Sunday’s breaking news was announced. That is why you saw crowds of strangers all over this vast, cynical nation stand together and with complete fervent sincerity sing patriotic songs in a gloriously off key celebration.

Like most people I felt the urge to share this moment of history with my assorted friends throughout the different stages of my life via Facebook. It’s a strange thing to observe the various thoughts from your life's collection of acquaintances as you anonymously eaves drop on their points of view. I posted a snarky little joke about bin Laden being surprised to find himself in hell that I ripped off of an Onion article from nine and half years ago. Most posts were of a similar joking, celebratory tone. But throughout Monday, an interesting thing happened. Several of my facebook friends expressed apprehension about the morbid nature of celebrating the death of a fellow human being. Now, that it is a totally valid and understandable point of view. But what did catch my attention was that about a dozen of them chose to express that thought by posting the following statement:

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

Look, it's a nice enough sentiment, I guess. I'm all for love and peace. When it comes to navigating the trenches of our own conflicted souls, love and forgiveness is totally the way to go. But in matters of foreign policy? Come on. Light driving out darkness? Seriously? That kind of sanctimony may lend you a false sense of moral supremacy but only because there are Navy Seals out there providing you that luxury by blowing the heads off psychopathic monsters that want to murder you.

Let me fill you in on a little secret. If Martin Luther King were both alive and in the vicinity of Washington DC on Sunday night, he would have been dancing in the streets in front of the White House along with everyone else. Does this make MLK a hypocrite for not backing up his words with his actions? No it does not. Possibly because I just invented his actions with my own impossible hypothetical scenario that conveniently supports my point. I can't really hold a man who has been dead for forty years accountable for stuff I just imagined. In fact it's quite disingenuous of me to co opt the reputation of the one the great leaders in human history to illustrate my own narrow point, isn't it? But the real reason he would not be a hypocrite is the following (and listen closely):

Well, not all of it. The last part he said. But there wasn't anything about mourning victims or celebrating death. And though he did say that love > hate (in many more eloquent ways that this example, by the way) he certainly didn't say it in reference to the death of bin Laden. And to high jack his words to that effect is no different that me claiming some imaginary instance of MLK fist pumping and high fiving college students on the streets of DC.

I understand the impulse to find some more articulate than yourself to say what you would like to express. I do it all the time. But when you invoke a famous historical figure it falsely gives the appearance of logical and moral trump card. "The discussion is now over, because Martin Luther King agrees with me! That makes you James Earl Ray. Check mate, bitch!"

So whenever you find yourself in need of a bit of wisdom, just dig up some slogan and mangle it until it supports your point and attach it to one of the following historic sages of wisdom; Einstein, Lincoln, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Mandela (enlightened, white Americans loooooove quoting Mandela), Churchill and if you're feeling edgy, Nietzsche. And if the content of the "quote"** appears to conflict with the reputation of the historic authority in question, all the better. That way you have Nelson Mandela agreeing with you. Which makes you as wise and correct as him. For example, compare the following quotes and tell me which has more credibility:

"The chaotic order and transcendent depth of both the universe and the atom point to the existence of God. Symmetry on such an infinite scale cannot be a mere mathematical accident." - Albert Einstein

"The chaotic order and transcendent depth of both the universe and the atom point to the existence of God. Symmetry on such an infinite scale cannot be a mere mathematical accident." - Some dipshit on a blog that he named after GOB's little brother.

There are a lot of really good reasons to believe in God. But appealing to the authority of a fancy sounding (and nonsensical) quote that I just now made up is not one of them. Likewise, feeling that America’s boisterous chest thumping in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death is in poor taste is a reasonable thought. But saying so by hamfistedly disfiguring one of the more mediocre statements of Dr. King into a rather self righteous condemnation of a grateful nation is a crappy way to express that sentiment.

I think the reason this irritated me so much is because of the implicit accusation that Sunday night’s celebration had sprung from hate. That could not be further from the truth. This is not a hateful scene.

If these celebrations were motivated by hate then the crowds would have been chanting “Death to Islam!” or “Now let us us feast upon the entrails of Osama’s children!” But instead this crowd of sober, otherwise jaded college students are joyfully singing the National Anthem and doing so with a conspicuous absence of irony. Not a tinge. This is a beautiful and spontaneous display of noble pride. And any false sense of righteousness that attempts to criticize it dismisses this spirit of genuine solidarity that maybe comes around once in a generation. If you're lucky.

As the Dali Lama once said, "Evil may masquerade as Good. But Good will always reveal itself as Truth."

Or did he?***

*That's German for "The Osama! THE!"

** If I were reading that out loud, would I say, "Quote, quote, unquote." or "Quote, unquote, quote."?

*** No. He didn't. I just made that shit up. It doesn't even make sense.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

There's Only One Other Person Who Can Do All That. Barbra Streisand: A Few Great Musical Numbers


Musicals don't have to suck. They aren't always tediously annoying crap. Now, that backhanded compliment may seem obvious to anyone living in Manhattan. But for those of us who grew up far from The Great White Way, it's a worthy reminder that musical theater has the ability to exceed the dregs of amateur hour.

It's my instinct to hate musical numbers. Whether in a play or a movie, or a movie about a play, they usually fall short for me. And I don't think it's because I'm too macho for musicals. It's not like I think they're gay. Unless they're actually gay. Not there's anything wrong with that. It just seems like the singing and dancing is either shoved into a scene where it just doesn't fit or there is some ironic wink to the audience. Now, even as I typed that, I thought of a million Simpson episodes, Flight of Conchords numbers and even Family Guy musical scenes that are pure awesomeness. But those are comedies. It's easy to sing and dance when you're really just joking around. But it's tough to sell a musical number when you're trying to convey any real emotion. Instead of feeling stylized and theatric, too often it feels fake and distracting.

Let me take you through the event from my childhood that is largely responsible for my resistance to enjoy musical numbers. This is a remarkably common experience amongst us Mormons. I speak of the Roadshow. I'm not sure why we as a people feel compelled to write, produce and preform squeaky clean, original plays (often with a Pioneer theme or a moral message about choosing good friends) but it's a pretty common event throughout the many Stakes of Zion. Perhaps it's because most LDS Church Houses have a stage built into the Cultural Hall (aka the basketball court). And why have a stage if you're not gonna use the thing?

It was 1990. I know that, because one of the other Ward's Roadshow that year was entitled, "Bart Simpson Gets A Mission Call" and that was the hot new show. How many times do you think they said "Cowabunga"? At the time, I was an ill-tempered, 12 year old little shit head. Well, I wasn't that all the time but throughout the events of this story, I pretty much was. So I'm sticking with that description.

Now, I hesitate to go into too much detail here, because the lady who birthed this particular creation worked her freaking guts out on it. She wrote it, and directed it and probably made most of the sets and costumes. She's a really nice person and I would feel terrible if she were to somehow find this post on the interwebs, read this rendition and had her feelings hurt. So, if you happened to find this, please realize that it is simply the two decade old, inaccurate memories of an ill-tempered little shit head. Everyone besides me had a wonderful time.

That said, my part in this play was pretty brutal. The play was an original creation about a fictionalized America where milk had been banned because pasteurization had yet to be discovered. You know, that old comedy chestnut. It was a prohibition themed vaudeville act with lots of cow puns ("Moooove over, Angus! That's utterly ridiculous!") and old songs with cow themed lyrics replacing the original words. This was a major production. Set designs, costumes, dance numbers, a cast of a few dozen people. There was a huge amount of work put into this thing. And it seemed at the time (again, the unreliable memories of a shit head) that it was a massive pain in everyone's butt. "Let's just grind through this thing and get it over with."

My part was that of Mr. Pickle. If I remember right, this whole thing was set up to be an old radio show and in the middle of the action, they paused for a word from their sponsor. That sponsor? Mr. Pickle. There was a few girls dressed as clocks that came on stage and sang a little jingle that ended with "It's tiiiiiiiiime for Mr. Pickle." I then ran through the audience from the back of the room, dressed in green tights and freaking Pickle costume and recited a pickle themed tongue twister.

I'm not sure if you can tell by my facial expression, but I did not want to do this. Not so much because it was embarrassing but because it was just dumb. It doesn't look like the clock on the right was too thrilled about the whole thing either. I especially like the two brothers at the bottom, looking at each other, as if to say, "What the f*ck are we doing here?" Or maybe they were just trying to remember their next line. I'm projecting.

We did three different performances of this play and the reception was appreciative and polite. But it wasn't a raving hit. Most jokes (and there were tons of them) were met with a kindest chuckle any cow pun could expect. I think I was a pretty good sport about it all. In fact, I don't know if I have ever complained about this moment until just now. Of course now that I have decided to complain, I've done it in front of the world, so I probably shouldn't claim to be a good sport. But again, this wasn't some traumatic nightmare by any means. It was just kinda dumb. And it built into me a justifiably skeptical attitude about musical theater.

However, in the years since, I have seen several renditions of a number of plays and have enjoyed the majority of them. I once saw BYU's music/dance/theater group preform Sweeny Todd at an outdoor amphitheater in Provo. This venue is made from stone and it looks like a haunted castle. And it's located right behind a mental institution. The perfect place for an October production of Sweeny Todd. It was great. I have cousins that very involved in the local theater scene and have always been very entertained by the many plays they have been in. Aida, Treasure Island and a few originals that were fantastic and thought provoking. But no matter how high the production value is, I always have to account for the "Pickle Factor". I end up asking myself, "Is this theatric and fun? Or just stupid?"

So, in defense of musical numbers everywhere, I present a list of excellent musical scenes from well known movies. You'll note that there are 6 examples instead of my normal 5. I just couldn't decide which one to cut. In fact I had a hard time narrowing the list to 6.

Some honorable mentions include Ferris Bueller's Twist and Shout, Joseph Gordon Levitt's "I got some!" celebration dance from 500 Days of Summer, The KKK dance scene in O Brother, Blue Shadows from Three Amigos, the closing credits of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Stone Henge.

On with the list:

Down In the Willow Garden - Raising Arizona 1987

Holly Hunter has a great voice. I would buy an album of her singing a cappella versions of old timey songs and listen to it every night as I curl up in the fetal position to sleep.

The song that Ed (short for Edwina) is singing to Nathan Jr (he's awful, damn good) is an old Bluegrass standard. This haunting and downright gruesome songs tells the point of view of a man who is about to be hanged for killing his love. Here's a full version of it. In typical Bluegrass fashion, it features lyrics that border on despair, contrasting with the peaceful, soothing tone of the music. He is a condemned man who has no hope for salvation. His sins are too great and he realizes the consequences of his actions are both unavoidable and just. But when sung to such a calm, almost maternal tune, it's clear that he accepts his fate of the gallows.

Ed's singing of this lullaby wakes HI from his dream of the lone biker of the apocalypse and the screaming mother of the child they just kidnapped. He then stares into the merciless sun of the Arizona desert and laments, "Sometimes it's a hard world for the little things."

Raising Arizona is a perfect movie. Let me say that again. It is a PERFECT movie. (Man, caps are obnoxious.) The slapstick silliness and the lightning witted dialog never fail to amuse and entertain. But those characteristics hide the fact that this is a brutal movie about desperate people trying to scratch out their own piece of happiness by any means possible and in the process they secure their own destruction. If the Coens wanted to, they could have made this into a film every bit as intense, heart wrenching and morally ambiguous as No Country For Old Men. (Of course, if they went that route, the movie would end with Smalls strangling HI with a pair of handcuffs and Nathan Arizona murdering Ed with an air powered cattle gun.) But, like the featured song, they disguise the tortured conflict of the protagonists with a pleasant, enjoyable tone.

As well as the greatest rendition of Ode to Joy in the history of time. (Skip to 1:35 for it.)

HI and Ed's attempt to overcome their own self destructive tendencies (which ain't easy to do with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House), their poverty (Guvment do take a bite!), evil influences (Keep your g*ddamn hands of my wife!), the Federal B.I. (microbes and shit), the forces of fate and justice (My friends call me Lenny. But I don't have any friends.) as well as biology and the prejudices of others is ultimately futile. It's hopeless. The moment HI takes that baby (Iiiiihhiii loohoove hiiim sooohooo muuuch!), the fate of the McDonough family is sealed.* "My race is run, beneath the sun. The scaffold waits for me."

And all they ever wanted was a young sportsman that don't know a cuss word from Shinola. You know. The salad days.

Song of the Roustabouts - Dumbo 1941

So, if I'm doing a list a of awesome musical numbers from well known movies, and I am featuring a song from Dumbo, you'd think I'd go with Pink Elephants on Parade. Which could be the finest example of an inexplicably evil looking acid trip aimed at children in the history of film. (A close second would be my next entry.) But I'm going with the Roustabouts because this song illustrates the depth of Dumbo.

You heard me. Dumbo is deep.

A few years ago I got it in my head that I needed to rewatch Dumbo, so I could snicker and laugh at the racist crows. I planned to point my finger and mock the politically incorrect lack of cultural sophistication that Disney and America in general displayed so unapologetically in 1941 from my lofty an enlightened perch of one who had grown up in the post Civil Rights Era. One who knew better than to defame a people with hackneyed caricatures of Jazz musicians and minstrel singers. After all, we in the 21st century have all these racial issues and cultural tensions figured out. Right? But my preconceived notions of a silly little cartoon that featured dated and offensive stereotypes was shot down. Not only does Dumbo have substance, the message of that substance is remarkably enlightened.

Put simply; Dumbo illustrates the plight of the African American. Just go with me on this one. And ignore his blue eyes, for a second. I don't know, maybe he's biracial.

The Roustabouts song sets this connection up pretty clearly. Casey Jr pulls into town on a cold, rainy night and it's the poor, black laborers and the elephants that have to work all night in the mud to set up the tent. Meanwhile the lazy tigers and the Ringmaster sleep through the storm. In the tradition of Negro Spirituals, the workers sing the opposite of how they feel, since they can't honestly speak their minds. "We're Happy, Happy Roustabouts!" They are exploited and abused. "Keep on working, stop that shirking! Grab that rope, you hairy ape!" And they are ultimately ignored. In the morning, the tent is pitched and the people who enjoy it are oblivious to price paid by the elephants and laborers that made it happen.

Dumbo is then violently taken away from his mother after she acted upon her maternal instinct to protect her son. She is chained and imprisoned. By the way, if you haven't seen Dumbo since you were a kid, you'll be amazed at how brutal that scene is. Walt Disney rips your freaking guts out with that scene. Dumbo is then dehumanized (deelephantized?) because of the physical features that make him different, his big ears. Or his blackness. (Still with me?) "Elephants don't have feelings. They're made of rubber." The gawking perpetrators of this cruelty (appropriately portrayed as clowns) paint his face and humiliate him in front of a laughing crowd night after night.

But with the help of his friends, Timothy and the crows (the leader of whom is unfortunately named Jim), Dumbo realizes that the object of his scorn is also what makes him special. "The very thing keeping you down, is gonna carry you up and up and up!" His uniqueness is the key to his ultimate success. He harnesses the power of his big ears and overcomes the cruelty of the clowns, the stupidity of the crowd and the Ringmaster and the nasty jealousy of the other elephants and flies off into glory. It's like the story of Jackie Robinson told six years before he broke the color barrier.

And when he finally hits it big, Dumbo buys a house for his moms.

There's still plenty of legitimate criticism to be had for the movie. The black crows were voiced by white actors a la "Amos and Andy". And even though they are complimentary characters, I wouldn't second guess anyone who felt offended by them. But Dumbo is a fine movie that deserves a little bit of love for its handling of an issue that is still far from being resolved 70 years after it was made.

That Freaky Deaky Boat Ride Scene - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory 1971

Gene Wilder is a freaking king! He's so good as the maniacal nice guy. Totally calm, with just a hint of crazy in his eye. But you know it's just a matter of time before he snaps.

Here's a little secret about books and movies and cartoons aimed at entertaining kids. The overwhelming majority** of them are evil to the bone. Every single fairy tale, every single Disney movie, every single Roald Dahl book, The Wizard of Oz, the Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, Harry Potter not to mention the Bible all have moments of terrifying conflict. Children being eaten, witches burning people alive, flying monkeys coming from the sky and carrying you away. I mean, do you remember The Dark Crystal? That thing came straight from the depths of hell. Even Thomas the Tank has some weirdly dark villainy going on.

But don't misread this observation as some sort of condemnation. I think it's badass. Kids can handle scary. Kids like scary. They do. Even when it gives them nightmares. There's some encoded fascination we all have with a fictionalized version of horror. No little kid wants to look at crime scene photos of actual dead bodies. But we were all captivated by disturbing yet safe portrayals of evil. I was at my brother's house a week or so ago and his three year old little girl was sitting at the kitchen table completely immersed in an illustrated book of the Brother's Grimm Fairy Tales. She grabbed my attention and pointed to the picture she was studying. Pointing to a tiny skull and cross bones ring that a witch was wearing she chirped in her cartoonish little voice, "Bwian, this witch is very spooty." For some reason she pronounces her K's like T's. I'm not sure why, but it's the cutest damn thing on the planet. She was frightened yet fascinated. In thirty years, she'll still have some vague recollection of that picture. I was scared of Cylons from Battlestar Gallactica when I was a kid. Those glowing red pulses moving back and forth on their heads. Freaked me the hell out. But I still watched the show.

A Penny For Your Thoughts - Waiting For Guffman 1997

In my last post I mentioned the glory of Guffman and decided to rewatch it for the first time in a few years. In fact, watching this scene is what reminded me of the stupid Mr Pickle crap and prompted this entire post. There is no better illustration of the unfulfilled ambitions of amateur theater better than Corky St Clair's original production of "Red White and Blaine". It's shooting for Broadway and missing by about 2,000 miles. Or however far away Blaine, Missoura is from Broadway.

Corky's heartfelt and deadly sincere delivery of the nonsensical lyrics cracks me the hell up every time I hear it. "I have offered a million. I have done it for none." What? When I get married, my bride and I will dance to this song at our wedding. And I'm gonna end it with the toe pointing thing. Of course, the fact I bring up this plan on every first I have may be a reason why I remain single. Perhaps. I just need to find my own Libby Mae Brown. So I've decided to go the DQ more often. You know. Just drive in and get a coke.

Tonight, You Belong To Me - The Jerk 1979

The Jerk has an innocent absurdity to it that never fails to hit home. It's not just that Navin Johnson is an idiot. It's that he's an idiot who is good down to his core. And Navin deserves a woman just as good. And Marie is that woman. Even if she can't throw knives very well. This song is dripping with sweetness. But the characters singing it are so pure, I can't help but buy into it. And just when my heart is melting into butter, Marie pulls out a Cornet and defuses the sentimentality. And I giggle like a drunken baby.

Tiny Dancer - Almost Famous 2000

Almost Famous is somewhat of an anomaly for me. Kate Hudson is pretty unbearable. Yet she's the perfect Penny Lane. I'm skeptical of Zooey Deschanel. Mostly because of that stupid cotton commercial she did a year ago. But here she portrays a great "cool, older sister". And as a general rule, I can't stand Cameron Crowe's movies. Say Anything is beyond overrated. Jerry Maguire needs to burn in hell for eternity. Vanilla Sky? Let's just say if a movie ends with a character we've never seen before explaining the entire plot straight to the audience, it's a poorly made film. Show me, don't tell me. Especially when the twist ending is, "It was all a dream!" I would tell Tom Cruise to kiss my nutsack for wasting two hours of my life, but he just might take me up on that offer. (I've been told I have a handsome nutsack.***)

But Almost Famous is gold. With only a few exceptions, (what the hell is Jimmy Fallon doing in this movie?) Almost Famous hits every note with a perfect balance of restrained emotion. In fact, if I were to encapsulate my own personality with a single movie, I just might have to choose Almost Famous to do it. Easily one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time.

The featured scene has become quite famous in the decade since this movie was released. There's a good reason this musical moment has resonated so well. Sometimes, great music really is the answer to all of life's problems. Sometimes, it's the only answer. At least it's the answer for as long as the song plays.

At this moment of the story, everything is going wrong. The band hates each other, the grind of the road is taking its toll, the kid was due home weeks ago, the groupies are feeling neglected, the agent is getting pushed to the side and their idiot lead singer just crashed some teenagers party. They are all pissed off and exhausted. But then the right song comes on the radio and breaks the silent tension. One by one they join in and sing along. By the second chorus, they are united, singing with an enthusiasm that defies their circumstance. Right here, right now, this moment is perfect. That's the power of a great song. As cheesy as I just made that sound, it's true. And that's the value of effective film making, or any kind of expression. It makes the cheesy things in life that are true feel true. Even for us ill-tempered shit heads.

But Jerry Maguire still sucks.

* Don't be fooled by that happy ending. It was just a dream. A hope for the future. But HI and Ed still remained childless. They lost.

** This doesn't include Dora The Explorer, Blues Clues, or any of that pinko, "educational", PBS crap. If there isn't some sort of satanic, homicidal villain, kids shouldn't waste their time.

***Smooth as eggs.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Were You Sure To Forget Your Acquaintances?

And never bring them to mind? Or something like that.

No one actually knows the words to that song. Or why the hell we feel compelled to sing it at New Years. Much less the title of that song. It's Auld A Laud Syng, or something. I don't speak Gaelic. Why is it that no one knows this? Because no one cares. Sure, I could spend five minutes on Wikipedia and learn whatever bull crap significance that song has. But I refuse to. I like not caring about that song. It's the perfect little ditty for crowds of drunk people to stumble through. When large numbers of inebriated people sing any song, it ends up sounding like they don't know the lyrics. So it makes sense we commit to a song that no one on Earth knows the words to. It could be Row Row Row Your Boat and a chorus of folks drunk off their asses would still just loudly throw a bunch of nonsensical noises together to something that resembles a melody and then triumphantly declare the last line.

"Row row row ya boe! Genly dow a steeee! Merriee meh meh. LIFE IS BUT A DREAM!"

I say it's a fine tradition. So we should all go out of our way to not to know the lyrics, much less the title to the New Year Song.

So it's it January 1st. A day to declare that we will diagnose aspects of our lifestyle and personality that needs improvement and make the appropriate changes. Join that gym! Don't swear so much! Balance that check book! Stop smelling strangers' hair on the bus! Hey, I'll give that last one up when I'm good and ready. Baby steps.

Though I am a cynical dick, I actually do feel a sense of momentum to improve myself this time of year. And even though that momentum comes from something as arbitrary as your car odometer passing a hundred thousand miles, I'll take any momentum I can get. However, a lifetime of unfulfilled good intentions has also beat into me a justified skepticism when it comes to the process of getting my shit together. Honestly, even the phrase "goal setting" kind of irritates me. Because more often than not, I know I'm just forecasting my own failure.

Here's a piece of advice. Never write down your goals. Ever. Yeah, Tony Robbins will tell you otherwise but he's just a giant toothed, douchey con man. Look, I realize that by documenting your aspirations it gives that objective some weight. So let it be written, so let it be done. (To be clear, I' quoting Metallica. Not Yul Brynner.) But we've all had that moment in early April when you decide to clean up the cluttered trash on your desktop and you find a three and half month old piece of notebook paper with a list of goals. You briefly read down them and chuckle inside knowing that by Martin Luther King day every one of those good intentions went right out the window. And even though it's kind of funny, the reason it's funny is because you knew full well when you made that list that this moment was going to happen. You have become your own punchline. So save yourself the aggravation and just keep your ambitions in the unspecific, ever fluctuating cloud that is your mind where they can be amended and or forgotten as any results of your progress dictate.

Denial. It's the secret to happiness.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't make public New Years Resolutions. We should just make ones that are totally trivial. That way, any failure is guilt free. And so in that spirit, I now present:

Brian's List of Trivial and Guilt Free New Year's Resolutions That I Will Probably Forget All About In a Week But It Was a Stupid Goal To Begin With, So Who Really Gives Two Craps?

Trivial and Guilt Free Resolution #1: Drink More Ginger Ale.

I love Ginger Ale. It may be the most refreshing soda out there. Just sweet enough to please the pallet but dry enough to refresh. And yet I never buy it. Ever. Whether it's a twelve pack at the grocery store, a 44 at the gas station or a single can from a vending machine, I never spend money on this treat. Although, I almost always drink it when I'm on an airplane. I'm not sure why. But twenty minutes into any flight I'm on, when the flight attendant chirps out, "Cocktail? Soda?" I almost always order myself a Ginger. And I enjoy the hell out of it. So I here by declare that I will remedy this shortcoming. No long will Ginger Ale be consumed exclusively poured over that round ice machine ice in a short, wide mouthed plastic cup sitting on my pull-down tray on the aisle seat. Nope. Ginger Ale is now at the top of my beverage rotation.

Trivial and Guilt Free Resolution #2: Stop Saying "Bro". In All Of Its Variations.

This one is about five years overdue. To be clear, I don't think I say this very much. But making this a public goal of mine is my passive aggressive way of telling everyone else to knock it the hell off.

By "all of its variations" I include any hackneyed phrase that includes the word "man" as well. That list includes but is not limited to the following; Bro, Bra, Broham, Broseph, Bromance, Bromantic Comedy, Man Crush, Man Purse, Man Boobs, Man Whore, Man Date and while we're at it, let's throw in Booyah. (If this resolution gains the kind of momentum that I'm hoping for, it will effectively end the broadcasting career of Stuart Scott. I am fine with that.)

See, the problem with all of these phrases isn't simply that they are all an extension of the worn out comedic stylings of Tim Allen circa 1992. They are. And that is definitely a problem. But the real issue I have is that they are never said without tinge of irony. "Broseph is clearly a stupid thing to call someone, but I'm saying it with a self congratulatory wink, so it doesn't really count. By saying it, I'm really making fun of the people who say it. But we all know I'm not one of those people. Even though I just said it."

Look, I'm sarcastic to the bone. The whole premise of this stupid post is based on sarcasm. So I can't decide in my second sarcastic entry on my sarcastic list to decry sarcasm. I'm just in favor of slightly more original sarcasm. This has been thoroughly played out. It's time for us all to just walk away from it. Can we agree to that? Great. Let's move on.

Trivial and Guilt Free Resolution #3: Stop Using Facebook Updates To Cram My Political Point Of View Up The Ass Of Every Casual Acquaintance Who Accepted My Friend Request.

Again, I don't think I do this very often. But I hope my public declaration catches on. It's not that I don't enjoy a good political discussion. I love having my own beliefs challenged by honest debate. It usually strengthens my beliefs but I am certainly open to being convinced by a thoughtful counterpoint. But either way it's a constructive experience. However, Facebook is not the forum for this. Not because it's rude or polarizing. If anything, I think we withhold our opinions too much. But gay marriage, health care reform, abortion, global warming and the existence of God are issues that deserve a real conversation. And you just can't do that with a two sentence long bumper sticker that the Facebook status is limited to. You might get seven like minded people to "like" your status. But odds are good you annoyed the hell out of fifty other people. I'm not saying you shouldn't be vocal in your convictions but how many of your 420 friends did you persuade to your point of view? The answer is zero. I promise you. That's not because your beliefs aren't valid or sincere. It's because "Obama is an idiot." is not a thought provoking starting point for a reasonable discussion.

So use Facebook for what's it's good for. And that is an online equivalent of a conversation you have with someone in an elevator. When you step into an elevator and see a coworker that you are friendly with, you acknowledge them with a brief conversation. It may be small talk about the weather, or mild complaining about your day. But either way, it must be concise and trivial enough to be concluded within about thirty seconds. So keep it the status updates interesting and opinionated, but make it something that can be resolved in a couple of two sentence comments. We'll all be better for it.

Trivial and Guilt Free Resolution #4: Change the Channel Every Time the Stupid Capital One Commercial With the Vikings Comes On.

This commercial. It's the way the main viking guy says "Venture Card" in a false baritone. Like chewing on aluminum foil. This resolution will take some commitment today, since Capital One is the primary sponsor to every College Football Bowl Game. Which means these things are on incessantly. But it must be done.

Look, there's just no damn reason on earth that a Viking would have an English accent. None. If anything they should sound like the Swedish Chef. It would be funnier and at least slightly accurate. And it's not that I care about fact checking a stupid commercial. But why English? They might as well have Mexican accents. Or Italian. I guess English accents somehow just sound historic to Americans. Like how everyone in Gladiator had English accents. It sounds Shakespearian. Proper.

However, I can't complain about a commercial being annoying, without being annoying myself. So I choose passive resistance. Instead of grousing about these stupid things, I will simply change the channel when they come on. I think Gandhi would be proud.

Trivial and Guilt Free Resolution #5: Stop Using Every Other Sentence I Say In A Daily Conversation By Quoting Some Movie Or TV Show.

Sadly, this is in no way meant for other people. I am the sole subject of this resolution and anyone who knows me marginally well will happily agree that this needs to happen. I am an unapologetic product of pop culture. That's not such a bad thing. You are too. But an unfortunate side effect of this condition is that I express my alleged individuality by repeating clever lines from Arrested Development, The Simpsons and The Big Lebowski*. And I do it constantly. I can't even control it anymore. It's like I'm a TV/Movie playlist set on shuffle.

There are two primary reasons why this needs to end. First, I am destroying that which I love. I'm taking something that was once brilliant and making it irritating.

The second reason is that by overusing a particular conversational tactic, I am eliminating its effectiveness. It's like the F word. I'm not going to tell you to never say it. Because sometimes there just isn't any other word that will do. But when you drop it into every sentence fifteen times, not only do you become a vulgar dirt ball, you forfeit any impact that the word could have possessed. And so when the time is right to express extreme anger, or whatever, you have defused the most powerful word at your disposal.

A perfectly placed movie reference dropped at a party is a beautiful thing. It's a secret code that instantly filters out the unsophisticated and endears you to those that have the ears to hear. But it is a technique that must be used sparingly. Lest you kill it through overuse.

Years ago in College there was a particular girl that sat in front of me in class who had a good combination of cute and cool. She caught my eye. And if I weren't a pussy, I would have approached her in some charming, debonair manner. But it has been well documented throughout this blog that I am indeed a huge pussy. So the direct and assertive approach was not an option. Through a variety reconnaissance techniques (I stealthily listened to her conversations with her friend sitting next to her in class. Brilliant. I know.) I learned that she was a fan of the movie Waiting For Guffman. I learned this because she once said "It's been a crappy day. I'm just going to go home and bite my pillow." Taking this intel, I devised a strategy for attack. I waited a few days to respond with my own Guffman line. But it had to appear organic and independent of her Guffman line so as to avoid seeming obvious and needy. Also I didn't want to reveal myself as an eavesdropping creep. So the next week, I raised my hand to comment about the reading. It was an English class, so pretty much all comments were some variety of fluffy bull crap. I made a brief point and then seemed to trail off. " ahh . . . you know. . . It's a Zen thing. Like how many babies fit in the tire. You know. That old joke." (Couldn't find a clip.) The Professor did his best to respect my nonsense and then changed the subject. But she immediately turned around, flipping her hair into her face and excitedly whispered, "I LOVE that movie!". That night we made out like bipolar jack rabbits the way that only horny, celibate Mormons can. And I owe that hook up entirely to Corky St Claire and a well placed movie reference.

So it's time to recapture that magic by exercising some much needed restraint. I'm dialing back the volume of quotes. Seriously. I am.

*And Spinal Tap and Raising Arizona and Seinfeld and Flight of the Conchords and Extras and Pulp Fiction and Best In Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock and O Brother and Sunny and Aziz Ansari's stand up. Note how The Cleveland Show is not on that list.