Friday, March 19, 2004

The Liars Club

With the media hive still working its worry beads over Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, USA Today goes big today with a massive investigation into its own serial fabricator, Jack Kelley. The paper's damning conclusion (from an article written by my friend Blake):
But an extensive examination of about 100 of the 720 stories uncovered evidence that found Kelley's journalistic sins were sweeping and substantial. The evidence strongly contradicted Kelley's published accounts that he spent a night with Egyptian terrorists in 1997; met a vigilante Jewish settler named Avi Shapiro in 2001; watched a Pakistani student unfold a picture of the Sears Tower and say, "This one is mine," in 2001; visited a suspected terrorist crossing point on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2002; interviewed the daughter of an Iraqi general in 2003; or went on a high-speed hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2003.

When the Kelley story first broke, I really thought he'd be vindicated. In contrast to the abstract contrition both Glass and Blair have shown, Kelley seemed genuinely upset by the charges, and panic-stricken by the notion that someone might be questioning his accuracy. But USA Today's investigation, which is spread all over the inside of today's paper, is damning. It's another shiv to an industry whose stock and trade -- public credibility -- has been bleeding for years, and another distraction from some of the business' longstanding institutional problems. That is, while it's great that the media has ferreted out, dissected, and exposed Glass, Blair, Kelley, et al., I'd like to see it direct the same righteous fury at such less tangible but more insidious problems as newsroom groupthink, the overreliance on official sources, and the pile-on mentality applied to certain randomly anointednted big stories. It's great to spank the bad kids, but how about dropping a dime on the whole dysfunctional family?

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Welcome to Philadelphia. Now Go Home.

It was going to be great. Finally, the godfather of modern reality shows, and still my favorite in the TV genre I'll call "creative nonfiction," The Real World, was coming to Philadelphia. What better way to showcase the ongoing revival and dawning hipness of my often-maligned hometown (or, more accurately, the great city about 20 minutes from my hometown)? And can you imagine the material? Amber from the Main Line explains to Tony from southwest Philadelphia that racism is "unacceptable." Sharri from Omaha makes the mistake of ordering a cheesesteak with mayo. Lex, the gay guy from Minnesota, cracks wise about the, uh, manhood of the Rocky statue outside the Wachovia Center. There could be the rowing-on-the-Schuylkill episode, the partying-on-South-Street episode, the throwing-up-on-South-Street episode, the strolling-and-antique-shopping-on-Pine-Street-with-the-estranged-boyfriend-who's-visiting-from-out-of-town episode, and on and on and on. But it will all remain a dream, as, in classic Philadelphia fashion, The Real World's production crew ran headlong into the city's unions:
"We've decided not to shoot The Real World in Philadelphia. That's final. Our stuff is not in Philadelphia," said a spokeswoman for the television production company that had been setting up in Old City but left rather than deal with city construction unions.....

Bunim/Murray apparently decided a house rehab required a construction company. Any chance of evading the gaze of Philadelphia's construction unions was lost when Bunim/Murray hired Apple Construction, a nonunion firm with offices in Port Richmond and Holland, Bucks County.

And once again Philadelphia, pushed onto the national stage, comes off looking myopic, parochial, and thuggish. On the bright side, maybe this means The Real World will finally shoot a season here in DC.

Death Becomes Him

The other day my friend Julia questioned an obituary writer's characterization of Spalding Gray as being obsessed with death and his own suicide. A good point, I thought, especially when I remembered the obits I wrote during my few years as a newspaper reporter, and the temptation I always felt to wring something epic and poetic from the life of someone I had never even met. But then my friend Layla sent this in:
I saw this today and thought I'd pass it along, as it does relate to Julia's wondering if it's fair to paint him as someone who spent his life contemplating death:

From Newsweek:

"Gray didn't need journalists to do his memorializing. His self-suggested epitaph: 'An American Original: Troubled, Inner-Directed and Cannot Type.'"

So, when a guy writes his own epitaph that mentions his own issue, I'd say he wouldn't mind being called death-obsessed!

Touche.

So Far, So Good

St. Joe's got its groove back this afternoon with an 82-63 win over Liberty. Next up is Bobby Knight's Texas Tech Red Raiders on Saturday, and, man, would it be nice to knock them off, if only to watch Mr. Knight weigh the pros and cons of taking a swing at Phil Martelli. Go, Hawks!

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

No. 1 Seed

So the Hawks have fallen to fifth in the rankings, but on the strength of their magnificent performance during the regular season they still clinched a No. 1 seed. Good. I don't want to get dragged into the debate over whether St. Joe's is overrated or the beneficiary of a soft schedule -- not because I think they're the greatest team in the country, but because this is a special time for the Hawks that won't soon pass this way again, and I'd rather not spend it bickering over RPI, strength of schedule, and other bits of sports-geek arcana. As a heartfelt but not terribly informed fan, I'd say simply that the Hawks aren't great in the sense that they'll steamroller over every team they play; rather, they're a very particular kind of very good team that has to do a certain number of things right to win each game: control the pace, hit the three-pointers, and smother on defense. When they don't (or can't) do those things, as against Xavier last week or Rhode Island last month, they get into trouble.

My problem with the naysayers isn't that they're critical of St. Joe's or that they question the Hawks' true strength, because God knows there's room to do both. It's that too many of them seem dismissive of the very idea of a team like St. Joe's, or resent the spotlight they're taking away from Duke, Kentucky, Stanford, et al. But the reality is, the big boys will enjoy the spotlight -- to say nothing of the best recruits, the most consistent coverage, and the most high-profile scheduling -- for the indefinite future. Meanwhile, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a program like St. Joe's. Of course not everyone has to jump on the bandwagon, but it would be nice if everyone was gracious enough to give the Hawks their due during this season among seasons.

IN OTHER TOURNAMENT NEWS: Congratulations to Keith's Maryland Terrapins for their fantastic surprise win over Duke on Sunday, depriving the Blue Devils of their sixth straight ACC title. It's not exactly a David-and-Goliath story, given the Terps' NCAA Tournament championship two years ago, but it was unexpected, and a welcome blow to Duke on the eve of the Big Dance.

Fade to Gray

Spalding Gray had been missing for two months when, early last week, it was announced that a body pulled from New York's East River was his. I know (or knew) Gray from his performances in movies like King of the Hill and The Paper but have never seen the work for which he was most lauded: his long, introspective, apparently funny monologues, a few of which were captured on film, in movies like Swimming to Cambodia and Gray's Anatomy. While I don't have anything profound to say about his apparent suicide, my friend Julia -- in the true spirit of Spalding Gray -- has used it as a springboard to muse on her own life:
Contemplating Spalding Gray

I would not call myself a Spalding Gray fan -- I've never even seen "Swimming to Cambodia" -- but I am sorry that he felt compelled to kill himself rather than live in whatever psychic or physical pain he felt. Reading his obit in The Washington Post I came upon the line "He spent a lifetime contemplating death and his own suicide." I wondered to myself, what have I spent a lifetime contemplating? Have I spent a lifetime contemplating any one thing? Is it fair to say Spalding Gray spent a lifetime contemplating one thing? The obituary said he was a man of many obsessions and curiosities, but then distilled his life and his work to death and suicide. Since I am unfamiliar with his work, I guess I can't judge. And being unable to dissect Spalding Gray, I must dissect myself. I have to wonder, if I died and I was somewhat famous and someone at the Post wrote my obituary, what would they say I spent a lifetime contemplating?

To answer this question, I leafed through the journals I have kept since I was 16 years old. I spent a lot of youthful energy contemplating love and marriage. When would I find it? Would it find me? I never once contemplated how to make it succeed or what it actually meant. Now that I am married, I am still contemplating marriage. Am I doing it right? What is marriage anyway? How could some guy who lived across the hall from me be my husband? "Husband," to me, was a magical, mysterious word. Its implications are enormous. But the longer I am married, and the more true crime shows I watch, the more I realize that a husband is some guy that you don’t even know. When I was a kid, it was natural to me that all my aunts and uncles, and, of course, my parents were married. I remember it came as quite a shock to me that they had not been married forever and that they were, in fact, not related to each other, or me, except by marriage. Which made marriage take on a mystical meaning -- it makes you related. The idea that there was a time when my parents did not know each other was incomprehensible. Almost as incomprehensible as it is to me now that the guy I called "the guy across the hall who smokes those smelly cigars" is John. My husband. And he knows me better than anyone -- ever. And I feel like I know him not at all. And yet he is my husband. We form a unit called a family and it will seem to someone, our child, our niece, his godson, that we have been together forever. So, "She spent a lifetime contemplating marriage and her own marriage" is, I suppose, fair.

On the other hand, I have spent a lifetime contemplating material things. I know brands, I know prices. I understand why some brands are worth the money and why others are not. I can spot a fake Rolex or Tag Heuer a mile away. I have turned to religion to do away with this obsession, but it hasn’t helped. When we would all go to the mall when I was a kid, the girls I hung out with would buy "Hello Kitty" stuff. We didn’t have a lot of money, and what my mom did give me I had already spent on ice cream. Now that I can afford it, although I am 37, I have a "Hello Kitty" collection. Because my best friend had a quilted Vera Bradley in college, and I had even less money in college than in my mallrat days, I now have too many Vera Bradley bags to carry and have given them to every woman in my family and John's. The statement "She spent a lifetime contemplating material things and her own things" seems just as fair as the marriage statement.

Then there are dogs. Dogs are probably more of an obsession than any of my other obsessions. I love dogs of any shape or size and dogs love me. There's not a breed I can't identify. I cannot pass up a dog without touching it. The things I remember from vacations are interactions with dogs: The vicious guard dog who just wanted to be petted, the dog at the restaurant who put his head on John's knee, the Jack Russell pup on the hiking trail. And, oh my God, contemplating my own dogs takes up a lot of my time. I remember once feeling very foolish in couples counseling when I told the counselor I wanted to stay together for the dogs. I ended up with joint custody. I remember struggling for words to explain how I felt about my dog and actually said, without irony, "He’s a part of me" or "He completes me." Words to that effect. If a reporter wrote, "She spent a lifetime contemplating dogs and her own dogs," everyone who knows me would say, "Oh my God, you don't know the half of it."

Normally, I am not so verbose about a reporter's dashed-off report of someone's death that includes an unfair statement about what that person's life was about. But just reading Spalding Gray's obit showed the depth and breadth of his interests, and what he spent his life pondering. Apparently, death and suicide was part of his schtick, but so were politics, celebrity, and life as a white guy in America. I hate for the essence of the man, even a man I didn't know, to be boiled down to such a dark statement. Maybe he would have liked it. Who knows?

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Joel E. Siegel, 1940-2004

Once or twice now I think I've mentioned that I tend to like critics whose love of the medium they write about shines through even the gloomiest of their reviews. That's not a quality you find often in, for example, the Washington City Paper, whose pages generally smolder with the grim anger of the betrayed and disappointed hipster (not to mention a sometimes laughably omnipresent hostility toward the suburbs). But one of the City Paper's film critics, Joel E. Siegel, who died Thursday at age 63, was a frequent exception to that. In a well-done appreciation in today's Post, Desson Thomson runs down Siegel's extraordinary career -- in addition to writing movie reviews, Siegel taught English at Georgetown, managed and produced jazz singer Shirley Horn, composed music, and wrote books -- and traces his success to his deep passion for what he liked:
As Siegel saw it, Washington was an educated town that deserved the best film criticism. If he didn't see that need being met in a certain morning paper, he was not shy about expressing himself.

He wasn't shy about expressing love, either. And he didn't care if no one shared his feelings. Francis Ford Coppola's "One From the Heart," almost universally panned upon its release in 1982, was one of his lifetime favorites. When the film was re-released recently, he wrote: "Critics failed to perceive that the apparent incongruity between 'One From the Heart's' lavish scale and its intimate narrative mirrors the movie's theme: the need to transcend glamorous illusions in order to acknowledge authentic emotions."

Authentic emotions were everything to Siegel. He felt purely and absolutely, which was why he heaped so much scorn on the false. His loyalty to his friends was fierce and uncompromising.

Interestingly, Thomson says Siegel could be "loud and even boorish about mediocrity," but to me, even his negative reviews are suffused with an exasperated warmth that's light years beyond the cold bile of his City Paper colleagues. Even when he was bemoaning the state of the art in a 2002 year-end roundup, he didn't sound angry or self-righteous but rather weary and maybe even a tad hopeful:
Even accounting for dimming eyes and the loss of brain cells, I don't think I can be accused of senior-citizen crankiness for decrying the current state of filmmaking. These days, the most interesting thing about the majority of new releases is how much money they make. Admittedly, I've done this gig so long that some burnout is inevitable. With rare exceptions, I haven't much left to say about action movies, dating comedies, serial-killer slashers, chick flicks, Holocaust dramas, space epics, or James Bond thrillers. Nor do I have any burning desire to see the latest vehicles for Adam Sandler, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Meg Ryan, Bruce Willis, or Ben Affleck.

Although fewer and farther between, exciting movies continue to appear. In 2002, I saw and wrote about 40 films, roughly half the total of the previous year. Despite my laziness, I lucked out, drawing some plum assignments that refueled my flagging enthusiasm for moviegoing.

What else would a critic want? And what else would you want from a critic?

Friday, March 12, 2004

Bad Gawker! Bad!

Slate's usually dead-on Jack Shafer swings and misses with a critique of Gawker and Wonkette. His rationale is a bit confusing, but I think his problem is that these two highly addictive gossip sites are too ironic and/or mean-spirited and don't work hard enough to develop or sustain ideas. After several paragraphs of throat-clearing and disclaiming in which he admits he likes Gawker and Wonkette as much as the next media junkie, Shafer writes:
But after several weeks of consuming every cartoon obscenity, bludgeoning wisecrack, and meta-knowing, callow riposte served on these two blogs, I've been asking myself: Are these blogs a part of the better world we hope to leave to our sons and daughters?

Shafer's piece is torturous and unconvincing -- so much so that I got the sense he himself didn't really believe what he was writing. Rather, this feels like a position he thinks he should be taking: Gawker and Wonkette are such guilty pleasures, they must be doing something wrong. But what's the problem with a ceaseless barrage of slings and arrows aimed at puncturing the self-importance of New York and Washington, DC? At this point, the media landscape is sufficiently wide and varied that there's room for every kind of commentary -- impassioned, straight, and sarcastic; high fiber and fast food. Yes, the reflexive acidity of Gawker and Wonkette can be a bit much in heavy doses. The thing is, both blogs are fully aware of that, and have built a sort of feedback loop of cheerful self-loathing into what they do. Plus, as they say, you can always change the channel.

UPDATE: About Last Night's Our Girl in Chicago calls Jack Shafer "the Heidi Julavits of blogville." Brilliant, but I hope this doesn't mean we'll be re-opening the Snark Wars of 2003.

The Team That Fell to Earth

Well. That was ugly. I had an uneasy feeling going into the game, what with the perfect regular-season record and, more mind-blowingly, the No. 1 ranking, but the last thing I expected was for the Hawks to get their doors blown off by 20 points and return home after the first round of the A10 tournament. What do you say now? How about, Xavier is the exact type of team you'd have expected to beat St. Joe's -- big and hungry. And, I don't think it's a bad thing St. Joe's has gotten the first loss out of the way before the NCAA Tournament. And, well, I'm still too depressed to write anymore about this. You might want to check out "Middie Back!," who has a good post on why yesterday's debacle isn't the end of the world. It just felt like it for a few hours.

UPDATE: There It Is also has a nice take on the game. And he didn't even go to St. Joe's.

The Kids Are All Right

One of my pet peeves is those surveys that bemoan the ignorance of American high-school students. The implications are always that kids today are a bunch of MTV-addled slackers and troglodytes and that previous generations were composed entirely of serious young people who did nothing but study and go to church. I've always thought that the reality is somewhat more complicated -- that there are smart kids, dumb kids, and kids in between, just as there are smart adults, dumb adults, and adults in between, and if you administered one of these surveys to a group of nursing-home residents, you'd uncover the same "shocking" level of ignorance that you would in High School, USA. This little supposition of mine has received a boost from two academic papers that were written up in the Post the other day:
A test administered in 1915 and 1916 to hundreds of high school and college students who were about to face World War I found that they did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis. A 1943 test showed that only a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, leading historian Allan Nevins to fret that such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

And still, Americans won both wars, and many of the 1943 students who said the United States purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later lionized in books, movies and television as "the Greatest Generation."

"If anything," writes Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor in a new Journal of American History article, "test results across the last century point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation's obsession with testing its young only to discover -- and rediscover -- their 'shameful' ignorance. The consistency of results across time casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention.

"Appeals to it," the article continues, "are more the stuff of national lore and wistful nostalgia for a time that never was than a claim that can be anchored in the documentary record."

I'm not sure how comforting it actually is to conclude that today's kids are no stupider than yesterday's kids, but at least it's a rejoinder to the scolds and schoolmarms among the baby boomers and the Greatest Generation who crow about 15-year-olds who can't identify Mexico on a map.

The Kids Are All Right

One of my pet peeves is those surveys that regularly bemoan how much American high-school students don't know. The implications are always that kids today are a bunch MTV-addled slackers and troglodytes and that previous generations were composed entirely of quiet, purposeful scholars who did nothing but study and go to church. But I've always thought the reality is somewhere in between -- that there have always been smart kids and dumb kids, just like there have always been smart adults and dumb adults, and if you adminstered one of these surveys to a group of nursing-home residents, you'd find the same "shocking" levels of ignorance. My little supposition got a boost from a two recent academic papers that were written up in the Post the other day. The key paragraphs:
A test administered in 1915 and 1916 to hundreds of high school and college students who were about to face World War I found that they did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis. A 1943 test showed that only a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, leading historian Allan Nevins to fret that such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

And still, Americans won both wars, and many of the 1943 students who said the United States purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later lionized in books, movies and television as "the Greatest Generation."

"If anything," writes Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor in a new Journal of American History article, "test results across the last century point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation's obsession with testing its young only to discover -- and rediscover -- their 'shameful' ignorance. The consistency of results across time casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention.

"Appeals to it," the article continues, "are more the stuff of national lore and wistful nostalgia for a time that never was than a claim that can be anchored in the documentary record."

I'm not sure how comforting it actually is to conclude that kids today are no stupider than kids yesterday, but at the very least it's a welcome rejoinder to the scolds and schoolmarms among the baby boomers and the Greatest Generation.

God Is in the Details

One more post about The Passion, and then I think we'll move on. The spirit moved my friend Lisa to weigh in thusly on Keith's doomstruck thoughts vis-a-vis the cultural implications of the Gibson movie:
So...Keith's whole beef with the movie is that people will *think* the suffering of Christ has been made real for them, when in fact it hasn't? I'm not sure I understand what's wrong with people identifying with Christ's suffering onscreen as opposed to reading about it, or hearing it told as a story. Clearly what you watch onscreen is never "reality itself," and films affect different people differently. I think most people realize this, just as they realize that the Bible isn't *just* a story. Or is Keith talking about the way we're influenced by depictions of reality onscreen, following the same logic of how we perhaps become desensitized by seeing violence in film and on TV? In that case, I'm not sure if it's the depiction of violence or just plain violence that desensitizes us (soldiers sometimes find themselves doing wholly inhumane things to other human beings -- and it's not because of anything they saw on TV). In any case, I don't get the danger of what's going to happen if people see this movie and walk away thinking they've learned something about Christ's suffering.

For his part, Keith e-mailed this a few days after his initial pronouncement:
I'd like to add that I received therapy and have been able to calm myself down. In retrospect, let's just assume I had too much caffeine that day.

So the moral of the story is: Kids, lay off the drugs.

And Now a Word From Our Blogger

You might have noticed that, in the last month, my posts have trailed off quite a bit. I wish I could attribute that to something glamorous like The Great American Novel I'm working on or the round-the-world cruise on which I just whisked my wife away, but in fact the usual suspects are to blame. Work has been crushingly busy, we've been away from home for a few weekends, and my daughter, who is pushing 16 months old, has been demanding more and more attention that I'm extraordinarily happy to give her. None of these conditions will change for the foreseeable future, but, if you're still interested, I'm going to try to post at least a little something every day. Just like this.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Back to Smallville

Good news: I've beaten Glenn into submission on Mystic River. Now, he's responding to my geek confessional:
Fine, I give up on Mystic River. I will not defend it any longer. But what's this I read about Smallville, comic books and such?

I am a devoted watcher of the show, though it gets a bit too WB for me at times. The most interesting stat of the show to me is that they cannot go one single episode without a trip to the hospital! I think I went to the hospital once between 9th and 12th grades, but damn if the Kents et al aren't there every week. It makes you wonder....

I generally enjoy the show and find it interesting when they twist a well-known bit of Superman lore in an original way. For example recently we saw Clark in glasses for the first time. Or Chloe said, "I'll send it to my cousin Lois Lane, she has no interest in journalism". The episode wherein Clark meets Perry White was pretty nifty too.

But my favorite item this season was so small as to be barely noticed. But us geeks love it. On the past week's episode Clark can hear Lex talking to doctor in a building of which Clark is on the roof. They are talking about a vial of unknown substance sitting on the desk in front of them. Then in a blink and a rustle of wind it is gone. Clark took it. What I loved was the perfect showing of true super-speed. Clark does not run like the 6 million dollar man, he moves closer to the speed of light. Later in the episode he does it again in even more stunning fashion.

By not dumbing down the powers, instead coming up with plots which require Clark and Co. to use their brains, they stay true to the spirit of Superman who could physically solve any problem, but was not always there intellectually. Just ask Batman.

By the way when o when are they going to do the obvious and have a young Bruce Wayne drive through Smallville? I already have the episode written in my head.

Yeah, Smallville can get a little too WB sometimes -- when the plaintive guitar music starts and the focus goes all soft on Lana's beautiful, anguished face and she stands in the loft in Clark's artfully shadowed barn and wonders Why Can't Things Be Different. But mostly it's a reasonably smart show that has fun with the idea of a teen Superman. They've rolled out the powers slowly -- invulnerability first, then super-speed, X-ray vision, and the beginnings of heat vision -- and, as Glenn pointed out, done so in a way that seems realistic (whatever realism means when you're talking about a comic-book show). The nods to the comic book fans in the audience are nice, too. They remind me of the scene in X2 when Mystique accesses the government's mutant files and for an instant you see her computer screen, filled with documents, all labelled with the names of various mutants from X-Men comics who haven't been seen in the movies (yet). Like those little details in Smallville that Glenn mentioned, this X2 moment exists solely to wink at the geeks in the audience, make us feel better about ourselves, and keep up watching. Speaking of which, I am so there if and when Bruce Wayne comes to town.

The Apprentice

So, I've gone and gotten myself hooked on The Apprentice, and two things have jumped out at me:

(1) This is about the worst advertisements imaginable for business professionals. Of course, you never how a reality show's editing distorts or deforms the characters and situations it alleges to be chronicling, but, still, if The Apprentice is offering a portayal of its contestants that's even partially accurate, they're almost bizarrely incompetent. Worse, to a person, they're pathetically inarticulate; I'm sure it's not easy being on the receiving end of one of Trump's gruff inquisitions, but that's no excuse for everyone's complete inability to explain why they did what they did, what they learned, and why they don't deserve to be fired.

(2) Trump often fires the right people for the wrong reasons. This was particularly apparent two weeks ago, when Tammy got the axe, and last night, when the dread Omarosa was let go. There's no doubt Tammy was a clueless obstructionist who brought nothing positive to her team, but when Trump finally fired her, it wasn't because of her constant naysaying or her destructive self-absorption. Rather, it was because she'd been disloyal to her teammates when she said in the Board Room that she thought Troy had duped them. In fact, all Tammy had done, in so many words, was agree with her project manager, Katrina, who herself accused Troy of behaving unethically. Similarly, Omarosa has been nothing but a head case for weeks now, but last night she was the only person on her team to say they shouldn't pick the artist they ended up picking, and then, at the disastrous gallery show, she was the only member of the team to make a sale. Trump ended up firing her because of her constant excuses and, one would assume, her generally disruptive effect on her team. But I'm not sure this was the week to do that -- not when Omarosa actually, and finally, demonstrated sound business instincts.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

For Christ's Sake

Keith had this to say about last Tuesday's post on The Passion of the Christ:
So, I read your info on Gibson's PotC (perhaps giving this movie an acronym that reads as "Potsy" is not the best thing...) and further read Ebert's review. I understand his point of the film 'making it real' for him, in essence, and I assume that this is/will be the case for a large number of viewers. However, it is my fundamental problem with the movie. (Also note, I have not seen the film, but am writing this based on what I know of it from reviews and Gibson's interview on ABC recently.)
 
First let me say that I have no problem with the content of the film whatsoever. I think the people who are calling it Anti-Semitic by default must feel the same way about the Bible, so that is more a discussion for the story (not Gibson's brainchild, obviously) than the film. I consider that point irrelevant.
 
My issue is that people will watch this film and come away with the impression that the suffering of Christ has been made more real for them, when in fact it has become just the opposite. The film is a simulation of the screenplay writers' and Gibson's take on reality, and is not reality itself. Anyone who comes out thinking they know firsthand how Christ suffered is deluding themselves into taking simulation as reality. This is, however, a modern societal mainstay: people become more and more unable to imagine circumstances, empathize, understand other situations and points of view; nothing is real unless it plays out live in 3D as a most unreal deriviative of the original. In fact, I think Gibson has gone even further to suppose that actually reading the Bible is unneccessary -- just go see the film. Sure, he says that his intention is to get people more interested and to understand Christ more, but when every graphic detail is shown he is (consciously or not) enforcing the belief that the viewer has "been there, done that." Reading the story over is for absolute fanatics, but wholely unneccessary for the average viewer. This could easily be considered as true blasphemy - the film works to replace the Bible. What is the future? Film all sections of the Bible in graphic, gritty detail, and then throw the book away? Take this a step further: Gibson publicly admits altering scenes and making edits -- obviously based on his own thoughts, assumptions and needs. Do we end up replacing the King James version of the Bible with the Mel Gibson one?
 
Now, I will temper my remarks by saying that this same argument could have been used hundreds of years ago when the first painting of Christ or a Biblical tale was made. Those images -- stations of the Cross, stained glass windows, frescoes, statues of Christ on the Cross, whatever -- are staples of almost every church. So I would sound rather foolish decrying every possible imaging of the Bible. But I at least wonder... does the future have video churches in store for us, where the story of the Bible plays out on monitors all around? Instead of reading a scripture, will future pastors say "Let's go to the video tape!" Or will there be pastors? We can make life-like 3D characters that can introduce segments of the Bible Movie. Just insert your tithe in the slot in front of you to continue watching...
 
Even more bizarre, what if future generations lived with an all-video Bible and then some revolutionary decided to write it down... simulacrum of simulation.

Hmm. I must say, I agree with Keith's immediate point that the danger of The Passion is the self-righteous believers who wrap themselves in it, who are convinced of the genuineness of the suffering they've seen on screen and become inflamed by it. But I'm not sure I follow his larger argument. In the end, the Bible is a historical document that has been the basis for many, many movies before this, and the only thing unique about The Passion's adaptation of the Gosepls is its graphicness -- which is very much a product of these times, much as, say, the brutal, uncompromising opening sequence of the otherwise conventional Saving Private Ryan was a product of its time. Movies have been around for 100 years, and have yet to replace churches, synagogues, and other places of worship. I'm not saying movies haven't affected how some people receive their faith, or that future technologies won't be deployed in the name of spreading the word (or just telling the greatest story ever told). But I think Keith's vision of a future whose religions are dominated by animatronic prophets and holographic reenactments is a bit alarmist. If you even believe in this sort of thing.