The Strange Straight Up

Call it the Andy Warhol Syndrome – or the Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant and David O. Selznick Syndrome, or the Henry Mancini or Ahmad Jamal Syndrome. When you grow up in Pittsburgh you want to get out. Those guys did. And maybe you find yourself daydreaming about living in Woody Allen’s Manhattan and humming along with Frank Sinatra – those little-town blues are fading away and that sort of thing. Maybe you spent a few weeks kicking around in Paris each December for more than a few years and begin to feel at home there, the first time you’ve ever felt really at home. That’s cool, but it’s hard to figure out how to live in Paris – the paperwork is daunting. Or maybe on those dreary winter afternoons in Pittsburgh in the sixties you were listening to the Beach Boys and Dwayne Eddie, and saw a few Gidget movies, and daydreamed about heading out here. In the late sixties there was that song California Dreamin’ and the Beach Boys were singing about those California Girls and those Good Vibrations. That didn’t help, nor mom’s subscription to the New Yorker, with its enigmatic cartoons and Janet Flanner’s occasional Letter from Paris, and the ritual of plowing through the Sunday New York Times.

It was time to get out. And it had been settled long ago. It would be New York or Paris or LA – no other place would do. A trip to London confirmed that – the days when that was a happening place, as they used to say, were long gone, and quaint and rainy only goes so far. The Aix-Avignon-Arles triangle in the south of France is pretty wonderful – Johnny Depp hardly ever leaves – but it’s too damned quiet. The idea is to be where things are happening, or really, to connect to the real world. Everything else is the sidelines. At the end of your life you don’t want to say, well, I was actually just a spectator on the sidelines.

That’s nonsense of course. People in Lisbon and Reykjavík and Pittsburgh and Grover’s Corners are no doubt happy with their lot – the notion that all men lead lives of quiet desperation cannot really be true. Some of us do. Everyone else is probably just fine. It’s just that some of us have the bug – you want to know what’s really going on. You have to go look. You have to hang out there.

But reality is slippery – thirty years in LA with the last twenty years here in the middle of Hollywood doesn’t seem to bring you any closer to the heart of things, to the reality of popular culture – what everyone seems to have decided about how things really are. Paris may be the center of art and fashion and deep thoughts and all that – style is there and nowhere else – and New York the financial center of the world, for now. And Hollywood seems to be the center of where most of the world’s baseline entertainment comes from – movies, television, music and celebrity – what’s cool and what’s just not cool at all – but it is thin gruel. From here on the Sunset Strip east down Sunset Boulevard, past CNN – Larry King’s in there somewhere – and the new Nickelodeon studios – the epicenter of children’s programming – and the Sunset-Gower Studios – It Happened One Night through Gilligan’s Island – down past the new Technicolor headquarters to the former Warner Brothers studios at Bronson – where Al Jolson filmed The Jazz Singer – it’s one puzzling giant movie or television show billboard after another. Ah, so THAT is what people think is worth their attention. And this week down the street at CBS Television City on Fairfax, Bristol Palin was taping her segment on Dancing with the Stars and in another studio there Bill Maher resumed his show Real Time. They hand out free tickets up on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a little surreal out here, and it’s America – take a look.

And this week Gordon Gekko returned – the buzz was about Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. This is a sequel to his 1987 film Wall Street – a hard-hitting drama about the consequences of that whole Any Rand kind of Greed is Good way of thinking – topical, real life stuff, compelling – except, to Kenneth Turan of the LA Times, it seems that it’s neither compelling or insightful:

This version of “Wall Street” can’t make up its mind if Gekko is the bad-to-the-bone Lizard King he once was or someone who’s seen the light, thank you very much, and is on the road to redemption. Or maybe he’s both. The trouble is, this is not an involving enough enterprise for us to work up the energy to care.

But that’s reality, isn’t it? Stone says this is reality, but Turan differs:

The nominal excuse for this sequel is a chance to deal with the factors that caused the recent global meltdown. But though the characters glibly throw around terms like “credit default swaps” and “toxic sub-prime debt,” the words are just window dressing to give this pulpy venture an air of relevance it really doesn’t have.

Yeah, yeah – but do people want relevance, or even reality? Oliver Stone made a career betting they do – Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, W. and so on. But Stone may be the expectation in Hollywood. A lot of Vampire movies make a lot of money these days. And reality may be overrated, or actually misunderstood.

It’s been fifty years since Federico Fellini made La Dolce Vita – and Morgan Meis argues here that that even though it is “no longer a movie about the contemporary world… its critique of shallow, fame-obsessed popular culture feels relevant as ever.” The Meis item has a lot of clips from the movie and Meis has an interesting thesis:

Maybe one thing Fellini accomplished with La Dolce Vita was not a move away from realism, but rather a broadening of the boundaries of what we mean by “realism.” Realism doesn’t have to be, exclusively, a realism of the everyday. Realism can be extraordinary, or uncanny, or surprising. What makes La Dolce Vita realism is that it gives you the strange straight up, in the same way that we do, in fact, experience strange and extraordinary things all the time. The events of our lives always fail to resolve themselves into tidy explanations.

Maybe it’s best to get the strange straight up – nothing really resolved and no tidy explanations. That would make the whole concept of Hollywood all wrong, of course, but consider this:

In the last scene of La Dolce Vita, Marcello and a band of misfit revelers and partygoers wander out onto the beach where a giant, squid-like creature has washed up to shore. Everyone gawks at the creature for a little while and then goes away. The scene is arresting and disturbing, just like the rest of the movie. When you step away from the scene in the attempt at analysis, it fades away. So don’t. Just watch in stunned silence at the dead empty eyes of the beast, and the dead empty eyes of Marcello as he wanders off – dashing, handsome, and utterly unsure about what he is supposed to do with what he has just seen.

Ah, that may be how most of us experience life. And by the way Morgan Meis is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily – one of the best websites around, with its odd name, and he’s a winner of a Creative Capital – Warhol Foundation arts writers grant. Andy, the Slovak kid from Pittsburgh, would approve of Meis. Warhol’s foundation did. How would you like your strange today? Straight up, please.

As for 3 Quarks Daily:

When Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig postulated the existence of three new subatomic particles in 1964, Gell-Mann decided to name them “quarks” – an unusual word meaning “croak” or “caw” which James Joyce had used in Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” In present-day physics, there are more than three quarks, and some are said to have properties named strangeness and charm, which, we think, describe this weblog as well.

It’s all very strange. And in the real world how do you respond to it all – Stone or Fellini?

That becomes an interesting question in the political world. In fact, Kevin Drum here says that he is “annoyed by the amount of time we all spend responding to the dumbest, most extreme forms of arguments.”

But should we just watch in stunned silence and then stumble off, like Marcello? Drum isn’t sure:

Of course, in the political world lots of influential people really do make dumb, extreme arguments on a regular basis. And since they’re influential, they have to be responded to. But I still wonder if maybe we respond to them too much. Or maybe in the wrong way. Or something.

Matthew Yglesias help him out, suggesting Discourse Triage:

I don’t know. Sometimes I think that smart people actually spend too little time responding to the dumbest forms of arguments. It takes a certain kind of hubris to think that I’m going to persuade people who adhere to strong arguments that they’re mistaken. By contrast, I really do think I can persuade people that their bad arguments are wrong. You don’t want to waste too much time dealing with straight-up dishonesty, but plenty of well-intentioned people find themselves convinced by ideas that don’t withstand much scrutiny. And so I think there’s a case to be made for a kind of “discourse triage” where we attempt to purge the political system of the very weakest ideas as the preferred means of raising the level of debate.

That’s nice and sensible, but the political world is turning out to be not like the Hollywood movie by Oliver Stone – all tidy. It’s more like Fellini, where a giant, utterly meaningless squid-like creature has washed up on shore. Some things just sit there. And down the street at CBS Television City on Fairfax last night Bill Maher pulled a clip from 1998 of Christine O’Donnell giving her opinion of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and the senate candidate from Delaware said this:

O’DONNELL: You know what, evolution is a myth. And even Darwin himself –

MAHER: Evolution is a myth?!? Have you ever looked at a monkey!

O’DONNELL: Well then, why they – why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans?

Where to even begin? Carl Sagan’s window was sitting there on that 1998 panel listening to O’Donnell and was appalled.

But by Sunday morning Maureen Dowd had decided to give it a go:

The comedian has a soft spot for the sweet-faced Republican Senate candidate from Delaware, but as he told me on Friday, it’s “powerful stupid to think primate evolution could happen fast enough to observe it. That’s bacteria.

“I find it so much more damaging than the witch stuff because she could be in a position to make decisions about scientific issues, like global warming and stem cells, and she thinks primate evolution can happen in a week and mice have human brains.”

Yes, in 2007, O’Donnell warned Bill O’Reilly that “American scientific companies are crossbreeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains.” The clip is here – pure Fellini.

Dowd tries to set the record straight:

Dr. Irving Weissman, director of Stanford’s Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, did the first experiments injecting human brain-forming stem cells into the brains of immune-deficient mice 10 years ago.

He assured me that the mice did not suddenly start acting human. “There were no requests for coffee from Minnie,” he said.

The total number of human brain cells in the mouse brain was less than one in a thousand – the lab ws working toward breakthroughs on multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries, strokes, breast cancer and a number of other diseases. Christine O’Donnell, when she reaches the Senate, and then ascends to the presidency one day, might have someone explain this to her before she makes big decisions.

But Dowd suggest that there is a larger problem her:

Sarah Palin will believe global warming is a hoax until she’s doing aerial hunting of wolves underwater. And in a 2009 clip, Sharron Angle, the Republican Senate candidate from Nevada, suggested that autism – a word she uttered with air quotes – is a phony rubric. She suggested that people are taking advantage of such maladies to get extra health benefits, adding that she doesn’t see why she should have to subsidize maternity benefits for other people either, especially since, as she said, she’s not having any more babies.

As Dowd puts it:

We seem beset with spellbinding hybrids with the looks of Fox News anchors, the brains of mice and the power of changing the direction of the country.

And that’s just the times:

President Obama was supposed to be a giant leap forward in modernity, the brainy, rational first black president leading us out of the scientific darkness of the W. years. But by letting nutters get a foothold, he may usher us into the past.

Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, John Boehner, Jim DeMint and some Tea Party types don’t merely yearn for the country they idealize from the 1950s. They want to go back to the 1750s. Joe Miller, the Palin-blessed Republican nominee for Senate in Alaska, suggests that Social Security is unconstitutional because it wasn’t in the Constitution.

Lots of things weren’t in the constitution. What’s next – making our Special Forces guys use muskets? Sure, you can move to New York or Paris or Hollywood to get closer to the center of things, where reality sits, fat and happy. But a lot of people don’t do the reality thing – you run into the cast from some Fellini film.

That’s what Paul Krugman sees with the current crop of Republicans:

On Thursday, House Republicans released their “Pledge to America,” supposedly outlining their policy agenda. In essence, what they say is, “Deficits are a terrible thing. Let’s make them much bigger.” The document repeatedly condemns federal debt – 16 times, by my count. But the main substantive policy proposal is to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, which independent estimates say would add about $3.7 trillion to the debt over the next decade – about $700 billion more than the Obama administration’s tax proposals.

True, the document talks about the need to cut spending. But as far as I can see, there’s only one specific cut proposed – canceling the rest of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which Republicans claim (implausibly) would save $16 billion. That’s less than half of 1 percent of the budget cost of those tax cuts. As for the rest, everything must be cut, in ways not specified – “except for common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops.” In other words, Social Security, Medicare and the defense budget are off-limits.

So what’s left? Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has done the math. As he points out, the only way to balance the budget by 2020, while simultaneously (a) making the Bush tax cuts permanent and (b) protecting all the programs Republicans say they won’t cut, is to completely abolish the rest of the federal government: “No more national parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more NIH. No more Medicaid (one-third of its budget pays for long-term care for our parents and others with disabilities). No more child health or child nutrition programs. No more highway construction. No more homeland security. Oh – and no more Congress.”

Krugman suggests what we’re seeing is a new War on Arithmetic. Oliver Stone does conspiracy films. This is Fellini surrealism.

But, even though they won’t be in total control even if the elections go well for them, there is a downside:

The clear and present danger isn’t that the GOP will be able to achieve its long-run goals. It is, rather, that Republicans will gain just enough power to make the country ungovernable, unable to address its fiscal problems or anything else in a serious way. As I said, banana republic, here we come.

How did it come to this? Whatever happened to reality? You know what was once said about books you read when you’re fourteen, like The Lord of the Rings and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:

One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

So okay – Pittsburgh is far in the past. You move to the center of things – where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life, to get the feel of life – and you find yourself on an ambiguous beach in an old Fellini movie, utterly unsure about what you’re supposed to do with what you’ve just seen. But you can’t go home again. All you can do is watch.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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