This New American Life
I write this in a booth waiting for my current delivery order to be prepared in an empty restaurant that ten years ago would have been crowded. The music is a soft bossa nova and the kitchen while busy is careful to avoid clangs. The decor is standard a medium brown stain colors the wood and the carpet is green and clean. A mother and her retired son are the only other customers. She is dancing while waiting for the spring rolls to arrive. The owner hands me a thai tea on the house while I wait. I can’t help but worry for the fate of America. I can’t help but wonder where do we go from here.
The internet has redefined what and why we eat. It’s less about what we like and having haunts we return to but posting from the current trends to be considered a cool kid. Even those who do not post on social media still Google and Yelp their choices based on the impression that the best rated by those apps have more value experience wise for their dollars. The hive mind that is social media causes attention inequality and narrows culture especially food culture.
Speaking of the Hive Mind. What do we talk about when we say we shouldn’t give someone a platform. As in the current uproar over Megyn Kelly interviewing Alex Jones, a man who has been paid to spew filth since my childhood. He long ago built his alternative media platform and give a place for wayward views. He helped Trump win without a doubt and his org Infowars will have white house press credentials. He doesn’t need an interview on NBC but NBC and those who oppose his views do need these kinds of interviews. Darkness cannot be allowed to fester. Pre-internet denying mainstream outlets was a good way to slow repulsive thought but now mainstream media is one if the last shared spaces in American life and is more effective as a means of exposing.
The tendency of the internet to drive conformity from food and fashion trends to preventing public discourse is disconcerting to say the least. Humanity’s story is one driven by innovation through diversity not just the kind on a college application check box. How much have we lost? What will it take next?
It has been 101 days since Donald Trump took office. And yet, as I read the expected deluge of think pieces and listicles, I can’t help but feel contempt for them as well. It’s as though Donald Trump presents such a comically large target, that liberals will fail to learn why they lost the government and presidency.
Take Bill Maher. I was watching a segment focusing on 100 days of Trump, and he had a long bit about Trump supporters. Pointing to the “statistic” that all trump supporters are still satisfied with Trump, he made the “humorous” argument that facts will never change a Trump voter’s mind. That for the great unenlightened masses it’s all about the “gut feeling of change”.
What followed was one of the ugliest comedy segments I’ve seen in a long time, with Bill Maher putting on a southern accent and making redneck jokes. First, it is guilty of the cardinal sin of comedy: being unfunny. It did, however, have the added benefit of making me think. There was a time, until fairly recently, that the media kowtowed to Middle America. The lowest common denominator, culturally speaking, that would offend only the least sensible.
I think two things have changed in the information age. One is the mass devaluation of media that comes with its easy accessibility. The second is, in an ever more competitive market, one must up the ante sensationally.
So if we look at these two changes together, it equals exponentially more media exposure for the average viewer, and increasingly insulting coverage for those in rural America.
What would you do if every time you turned on the television you were represented as a criminal and thug? You’d be furious, just as African Americans rightly were, and still are, for shows like “cops”.
Now let’s say an economic recession has wiped out jobs, the market is transforming in ways no one seems to understand except that every industry you could work in is dead, and every time you turn on the television, you’re portrayed as either a rapist or an idiot.
I’d vote Trump too. Fuck um.
These are our countrymen, and Bill Maher gets to lob lazy jokes from his studio castle and get paid an outrageous sum to be the definition of a pseudo intellectual. If liberals don’t take a long hard look into the dark mirror, and have the grace to see the world of insult and fear so many of their own are relegated to, than liberals will be exposed as little more than a blue baseball cap opposite the antagonistic red.
E.C. Fiori made a good point today about the value of criticism in the modern media saturated society. In light of this, I’ll attempt to demonstrate what that might look like.
*Art above by peterstrainshop
Since the turn of the century, there has been something of a trend in films that spans genre: the use of internal worlds as the physical setting for the film.
We’ve seen it be the setting for horror movies for years (confirming a theory of mine that horror almost always leads the way in terms of film trends, but it has at last made the jump to action, sci-fi, comedies, and dramas. Beyond the mere setting or plot device however, I’d like to focus on the Romantic Dramedy category, since they must trade in emotion and memory as is inherent to the genre.
I’ll begin with a declaration: Charlie Kaufman is a genius. Hyperbole? Maybe, but let me make my case.
Over the past ten years there have been two films, both celebrated, that attempt to show the entire course of a relationship through non-linear storytelling the way we remember our own. The first is 500 Days of Summer. The second, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
500 Days of Summer is, I believe, a great movie. It thrills in using every tool in the genre box to tell it’s story, switching from comedy, to drama, to musical, to documentary, to music video as it fits that moment in the relationship. When seeing it in the theater I was hooked right at the credits, and would be very proud if I was the writer of it.
But for me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind excels beyond others. Today I’m going to focus on one aspect of it. And it springs, from the confidence of genius.
There is a scene, right in the beginning of the film, where Joel is giving Clementine a ride, and she is asking him if he is a stalker. He replies that she spoke to him first, and she comes back with this:
Clementine: “That’s the oldest trick in the stalker book”. Let’s pause.
As a writer, how would you have the conversation continue from here? Joel is extremely introverted and closed off. He is starting to like this girl, and the ball is in his court.
I can tell you what I would do: I would have a call back. I would have Joel say “Do they stock that at Barnes & Nobel?” which she mentioned she works at just a few minutes before. She would reply that it’s a bestseller, or she saw him buy it, and the snappy banter would continue.
Instead, Charlie Kaufman has Joel say this:
Joel: “I gotta read that one.”
For anyone who has written anything with dialogue, the temptation to skew towards the memorable or (potentially) quotable is almost irresistible. If you’re writing dialogue, chances are you love dialogue- why wouldn’t you have Joel say something that people are going to remember and want to say in their own lives?
He doesn’t have to be suave either, you can give Joel something in character to say that is much more dialogue driven: instead though, Charlie Kaufman gives him a punishingly boring line. It achingly boring, and almost a wasted opportunity.
Until you realize just how brilliant it really is.
The film is filled with moments like these, with people not knowing what to say, and fumbling with expressing how they feel. Your co-worker just admitted he stole a client’s underwear and is now dating her? Share an uncomfortable laugh. Protagonist is skeptically wondering about side effects of wiping the memories of failed relationships away? You could answer his question about brain damage with a scientific explanation about how all memories degrade in time and the process just focuses and accelerates it.
Instead, almost tenderly, Charlie Kaufman writes this line from the doctor: “Well, technically the process IS brain damage.” It isn’t some big corporation bent on destroying love, it’s a mom and pop private practice.
Why is this brilliant? For one, it makes the acceptance of the idea of memory wipes much more palatable. Any screenwriter can make up a sci-fi premise, but selling that premise as part of a real world and not a sci-fi one is nearly impossible. Kaufman makes it look natural.
And more importantly because at the end, at the cathartic moment where we see if love conquers all, we don’t get snappy one liners, or a voiceover, a neat resolution, or a call back. You get this:
Clementine: “You’ll find things wrong with me and I’ll get bored of you because that is what we do.”
The script has been so well structured and woven together that this simple acceptance is like a grenade going off in our chests.
And if I was a genius, I wouldn’t have to resort to a simile. I could just tightly weave together a story about people, have every single one be familiar and raw, and end it all replaying a faded memory we’re suddenly so glad to have.
Today’s rant is brought to you by the letter “C” for craven and the number 5.
As mass media institutions struggle to remain in the digital world, we are bombarded with “think pieces” on how each institution is more important than ever. Yet between these articles, they promote snake oil like the current trend of celebrity master classes.
One of the current beloved Hucksters is Robert Kiyosaki who wrote “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”. One of his big supporters is Trump himself. Kiyosaki’s claim that laziness and self-doubt are the cause of all failure is ridiculous. Especially in our world of princelings. I bring up Kiyosaki because my grandfather became enamored with the drivel in his retirement. He bought everything and would lose everything in the recession. My grandfather was never lazy. His first act created marvelous engineering designs. My mother chose Boston for college when visiting him as he upgraded Boston’s subways. If you rode on the orange line this morning, its thanks to him. Many of the planes, jets, and copters the troops trust to deliver them to and from their work bringing freedom to this day came from his mind as well. The hard truth no one wants to print is no one sells wealth. There are lessons to be learned but knowledge is the only certain result. There are and never have been gurus.
By publishing pieces like this one in Variety today, the media bows down to more than market forces. Any valuable information in these 8 hour seminars/courses have been published and published again. One can get it for free in the library. It won’t take you over the rainbow but it’ll give you the frame work to build a rocket as much as any course can. Yet rather than assist the reader and their audience in avoiding the traps of the world, the media aides the hucksters. Imagine if Trump had no coverage in ’15. He was a fringe candidate who said anything for coverage and got covered like his words were meant for anything other than attention. Now he lives in the White House.
This outcome shows the futility of media institutions trying to maintain the same level of power over society. The game has changed. One of the strangest staples of modern journalism is the Twitter roundup. Some staffer finds 10-20 celebrity tweets within 20 minutes of a trending news story and posts it as what people are saying. Anyone who wanted those celebs’ thoughts could and would have seen them. Cher and Patton Oswalt make every list regardless of subject matter. If knowing where to find authentic info is the challenge of our age the media does the audience a disservice by only showing them what they want. Even when limited to industry experts, a list of tweets is at best a repost. Instead of instant reaction, the goal should be informed responses and debate. Why not interview those who tweeted best and expand the audience’s understanding? I suspect these institutions are too far gone to recover. Vultures cannot chose after all.
A lifetime ago, Jack Delaney recounted to me the exchange in writing of Fitzgerald and Hemingway regarding the rich. Fitzgerald wrote “the rich are different than you and me” and Hemingway responded in Snows “they have more money”. Fitzgerald in “The Rich Boy” said more than that line. His observation is true today, the minds of the rich work differently. As do the middle class (each chamber its own variation) and the poor. I am reminded of this each morning and evening while I read the New York Times.
Especially this evening reading Kyle DeNuccio’s essay on his gap year. It wouldn’t be unseemly to question why the NYTimes is in the business of publishing personal essays. It is a vapid bit of fluff from the child of a man who earns 1.3 million a year. His struggles are none. He overcomes the challenge of going to an overpriced liberal arts university for free by simply completing the required work and now thanks to the NY Times can call himself an author. He proposes that the government should loan kids more money they have to pay back so they can understand the value of a dollar not understanding that they already do. Kids on loans can tell you how much each class session costs them and must wring the last penny’s worth out of each of them.
I don’t just mean to knock on that one ridiculous essay but shine a light on something ignored by the media: Class. We talk about poverty and falling wages but we don’t talk about how more and more young stars and behind the camera talent are children or friend’s children of those that came before. Our media is frightened by the intellectual and cultural diversity of Americans. They certainly didn’t champion “Hell or High Water” as awards worthy as “Moonlight” even though “Hell or High Water” actually addressed the world it was set in. Give them degrees is the new Let Them Eat Cake because in the rich liberal view if you fail with a degree, you are without merit. Or that many crowdfunded project succeed not because of the internet but the social layer the creator was born too. Yet we hail the successes as pure merit.
The media endears itself to the rich who in turn keep the institutions afloat as they drift into irrelevance to most of society. Not that journalism is irrelevant but the churn that surrounds it. The essays of luxury both belittle the plight of the people in this economic era but belittle them by ignoring their existence. One can not walk away thinking the Times cares more about the rich. No one can look at the rise of alternative media and not see that besides alternative facts, the focus is on what is left off the Grey Lady and the other mass media icons. Whether it is DIY tutorials or comparisons between bargain brands, the articles address the needs of the community not just those in the penthouse.
In the online age, there is no excuse for mass media to be so class focused. There is infinite room in cyberspace. Perhaps, it is time for the rich to not be heralded as the only worthy lifestyle.