Friday, July 25, 2008

Return of the Revenge of Son of the Eighties

This year we're getting new albums by both REM and Metallica -- with their songs available at launch as downloads for play in the "virtual band" videogame Rock Band.

If I needed further proof that I am no longer exactly "young," this is my proof.

Back in my tweens, REM and Metallica were bands with an edge. In the mid-Eighties, back when MTV had something of a cultural edge to it, you could argue that songs like "One" and "Orange Crush" were hard-hitting statements in defiance of things like government and commerce. Now cut to 2008 -- where I'm in my thirties, the band-members are all in their fifties, and their latest efforts will be available for $9.99 as download packs for plastic-guitar champions on the Xbox 360.

"It's the end of the world as we know it," to quote REM...and final evidence that my generation has officially lost its coolness.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Have fun at the Hague, Radovan!

It's easy to consider Osama bin Laden "the world's most wanted man" -- I dream of his capture with almost as much fervor as I dream about a World Series victory for the Giants -- but bin Laden's only got a few thousand dead to his "credit." Radovan Karadzic, on the other hand, has the blood of around 200,000 people on his hands, including 8,000 systematically murdered in the town of Srebrenica in 1995, killed on Karadzic's explicit orders. Concentration camps, "rape camps," and the artillery shelling of entire neighborhoods are all parts of his legacy.

After a life in disguise and a bizarre career as an alternative-medicine doctor, Karadzic has finally been arrested. It's downright surreal to see a former head of state -- Karadzic was the Bosnian Serb president -- reduced to a Santa Claus disguise and a job evangelizing the healing properties of plants. But no matter; his jig is up. He'll now be carted off to the Hague to face the most ghastly genocide charges since the Nuremberg trial.

With ethnic cleansing underway in the Sudan, sectarian killings commonplace in Iraq, and the architects of tribal massacres still in power in places like Rwanda and the Congo, it's heartening to see a genuine, Hitler-style practitioner of mass slaughter taken into custody. Because the only way to prevent future massacres is to introduce the very real specter of international tribunal -- we'll only discourage these psychos when it becomes apparent that there's at least a 50-50 chance that they'll have to stand trial in front of a wrathful world.

Here's a video of Karadzic bragging about reducing Sarajevo to ruins, while helping a Russian poet stitch an apartment building with high-powered rifle slugs. What a charmer.

Have a good time in the dock, Radovan. There's a lot of evil in this world, but evil took a kick in the nuts with your capture.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Heidi and Spencer: my brush with postmodernism

I have this theory that people are always making fun of. Here it goes: MTV's reality show The Hills is the most important TV show of our generation; indeed, it is our era's equivalent of a Gustave Flaubert novel.

The show is about vapid, gorgeous, seemingly mindless young rich kids in L.A. who pretty much do nothing besides shop, eat in nice restaurants, and navel-gaze...all of it rendered in monosyllabic dialogue.

A typical exchange goes something like this:

HEIDI: Umm, did you see Lauren at the club?
LO: Uhh, yeah.
HEIDI: Was she, like, saying stuff? About me? Or, like.
LO: Umm. No, she was like. We were there with a bunch of guys, and she was just. I guess maybe? We all...
HEIDI: That is so not. Just, not like, what you do.
LO: Oh, I know. Sort of just.
HEIDI: Because, you know?
LO: Want to go out tonight? Because, like, I just want to not deal.

On and on it goes, endlessly, episode after episode, for three entire seasons now. And I can't get enough of it. In fact, I own seasons one and two on DVD. Why, you ask? I'll tell you. Because there's something so true about this show -- despite its being a fake reality-show all about the fakest people our society can possible produce. It reflects our youth culture as a kind of savage mirror...and in that regard, reminds me of the great Flaubert, who set about in the mid-1800s to "write the moral history" of his own Parisian lost generation.

Wikipedia describes his landmark novel Sentimental Education quite well:

The characters of Sentimental Education are marked by capriciousness and self-interest...unable to decide on a profession and instead (living on) inheritance...Without their materialism and "instinctive worship of power", almost the entire cast would be completely rootless. Such was Flaubert's judgement of his times, and the continuing applicability of that cynicism goes a long way in explaining the novel's enduring appeal.

And that, folks, is as good a description of The Hills as any. The modern ironic twist is that The Hills is not the result of a novelist's calibrated "judgement of his times" -- it's just a record of what happens when we point cameras at rich kids in Los Angeles. The snake is eating its own tail, and producing a document that condemns our times every bit as ruthlessly as Flaubert did his own.

(It's worth noting that my interpretation of the show has popped up in some other places, though minus the specific Flaubert analogy -- most notably as the cover story of a recent Rolling Stone. So I'm not totally crazy here. Bottom line: this will be taught in university courses someday.)

Now for the punchline: on Wednesday, at a party in L.A. during the annual E3 games convention, I ran into Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, the appalling couple with whom all Hills fans are the most fascinated. We watched a game demo together; I was within ten feet of them for the better part of half an hour. And I have to say, it was completely shocking to face these two in the stark light of actual reality. I've encountered plenty of celebrities before, but never have I experienced a dislocating "can this be real?" moment like this one. Because Spencer and Heidi (collectively known as "Speidi" in gossip circles) represent something far more powerful to me than mere celebrities -- to me they are living, breathing characters out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, and standing next to them was a bit like glancing sideways in an elevator and discovering that a bloody-faced Patrick Bateman is in the elevator with you.

The party organizers had a camera crew shooting Speidi the entire time, and given where I was standing I'm positive that I ended up in some of the footage. And that's a surreal thought indeed; that somewhere, in the digital cutting-room of whoever edits that footage, I will be eternally embedded in a frame with Speidi, blending me at long last into the meta-fiction of postmodernism. Reality TV is coming for us all.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Another betrayal of "West Wing" ideals

My heroes are mainly fictional, and of those fictional heroes, roughly 80% of them are characters on The West Wing. Like all heroes -- real or fictitious -- the West Wingers taught me lots about life, the world, and how humans (certainly, Americans) should conduct themselves. And I can't help but wonder what they'd have made of the Senate's decision yesterday to broaden federal wiretapping powers.

Clarification: the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Now, I'm no lawyer -- I'm just a caveman. Your "iPhones" and "hybrid cars" confuse and frighten me. But I do know one thing: the Framers intended for Americans to be secure in their "papers" and "effects" from unwarranted search by their government…and by "unwarranted" they pretty specifically meant a pre-approved description of a bad guy.

Of course the Constitution is subject to interpretation. For example, the Second Amendment describes "a well-regulated militia." As my greatest West Wing hero Toby Ziegler points out, the Second Amendment does not describe "three guys in a Dodge Durango." Somewhere on the spectrum between the two, there is probably a reasonable compromise on gun ownership in this country.

But I'm pretty certain that the Framers never intended for the federal government to possess the power to eavesdrop without warrant (never mind probable cause) on American citizens. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if John Adams had received an advance copy of the July 11, 2008 New York Times and seen what was coming, he'd have just burned the whole government to the ground back then in 1791. (Of course, you would've had to explain to John Adams what "telecom surveillance" is…and "phones" too. But once you did explain all that, you can bet he'd be fucking pissed.)

And I'm pissed too, though not at the White House…I've come to expect this from those guys. My fury is reserved for the Democrats -- the congressional majority! -- who have once again rolled over out of fear of appearing "soft on national security." The Dems were swept into power in 2004 specifically to check this kind of recklessness.

And guess what, my fellow progressives…Barack Obama voted for this crap! He voted for it, and he'd have voted for it twice if he could. Because he's not "soft on terror," no no no…not with his convention coming up.

My brilliant friend Ryan Bradley once observed that there are two political parties in America -- "the pro-business party that's for abortion" and then "the pro-business party that's against abortion." Those were wise and troubling words, and now it looks like you can add another scary similarity between our two political "options": no regard whatsoever for our most basic liberties.

This would never have happened if Jed Bartlet were still president. That guy was a real Democrat…in the only place such a thing exists anymore, Make-Believe-Land.

Monday, July 7, 2008

"The Two Coreys" marathon

Because it's what she wanted to do, I spent the evening watching something like eight consecutive episodes of the reality show The Two Coreys over at my friend's house. If entertainment culture is a dying man crawling across a parched desert, then celeb-reality TV is the buzzard that is circling near him and waits patiently for a nibble.

It's a simple equation: Corey Feldman + Corey Haim + 2008 = Roman spectacle of terror.

The thing is, the Coreys were only quasi-heroes even back in the Eighties, and the whole point of this new TV show is for America to gaze at the tragic sight of "the teen-dreams that time forgot" -- in their mid-thirties now, looking the worse for wear, pale shadows of whatever cultural relevance they once possessed. Feldman spends his days pitching "celebrity road-trip" shows to reality-TV producers, while chain-smoking Haim (who looks like he's been through the same physical mangling as Mark Hamill) paces around an apartment bemoaning his lack of acting work. Since Haim looks like a pirate in a seedy pirate bar, he's probably going to be limited to roles in pirate movies.

Every reality-TV show is predicated on something vaguely creepy, and here it's the twisted, onion-layered relationship between two solipsistic child-stars-turned-punchlines. They see a couples therapist together, blame one another for the abuse they endured in their years of teenage stardom, and now scheme pathetically to out-do one another (including a tit-for-tat hiring of personal assistants).

I have to hope that the whole show is essentially a put-on, because in that case I could appreciate the joke. But I suspect this is actually a lot closer to the uncomfortable truth. America has discovered that celebrities really are as screwed up as the rest of us, except with more money -- and the B-listers out there seem to be lined up 100 deep for a chance to confirm this grimly fascinating truth. At least Feldman scored a hot wife and a swank house...Haim looks to be not far off from a job in pizza delivery. In any case, it's a sad sight to see these two pinning all their hopes on cameos in the direct-to-video Lost Boys sequel. With the rise of reality TV, the "quiet desperation" of American life is now getting most of the primetime slots on cable.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

On cricket

I'm back from England -- just in time to celebrate our nation shrugging those bastards off like fleas from a dog -- and I have to ask: Where has this sport been hiding all my life?

While I was in England, awake at 3 AM due to the time shift, I watched the first cricket match of my life on the TV in my hotel room. Previous to this, cricket had meant little more to me than a punchline when I wanted to make a joke about the English. A sport where the players wear white sweater-vests, taking multiple days to play a match, with breaks for tea and lunch, lends itself to Yankee ridicule.

But it turns out that cricket really is a spiritual father to baseball (my love for which is well-established) and offers an evolutionary glimpse at baseball's precursor. Indeed, baseball did evolve out of cricket, and cricket shares many of our game's pastoral pleasures and stately rhythms (some would say "boring" rhythms).

Plus, it turns out that cricket today has been streamlined and souped-up for the benefit of the unwashed masses such as myself. Now the most popular format is played in a single day, with teams in bright baseball-style uniforms. It looks almost snazzy. And the TV broadcasts are as slick and statistic-filled as any baseball telecast.

The match was awesome. It was England vs. New Zealand and five minutes on Wikipedia was plenty for me to learn all the rules. The match had drama, nuance, and the Olympic-style tension of international competition. Plus there were no tea breaks in this single-day format.

I was impressed, so upon my return to the U.S., I did a little reading into cricket and discovered that it once had strong roots here in the colonies. George Washington played cricket with his troops at Valley Forge. Americans played the first-ever international cricket test, when they played the hated Canadians in an early-19th century exhibition. And, according to some sources, the reason we call the president of the United States "the president" owes to cricket -- the founders didn't want to use an imperial title like "chancellor," so they settled on "president" because the term was in common use for the heads of colonial cricket clubs. John Adams is on record in the Congress saying that's why he favored the term "president" for the nation's chief executive.

Luckily, I've got some good English friends right here in the Bay Area who subscribe to mega-expensive satellite-TV packages so that they can watch all the cricket they want. Thanks to them, I'll be able to watch some more. How about that -- now I can be a fan of two boring bat-and-ball sports!