Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Bludgeon" Journalism

Okay, here’s Johnny-Come-Lately, lagging behind the rest of the world with his two cents on the latest Issue. But I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that it has taken me this long to write on the topic. I needed time to ingest and digest the tsunami of information said Issue produced. The Issue? I have only to write three words: Virginia Tech shootings.

Now, don’t run away just yet. I’m sure you think you’ve heard all you need to hear about that horrible tragedy. You might think that this Internet yahoo can’t say anything more about this national nightmare than the educated professionals haven’t already said. I agree with you on both points. But remember, I said that Virginia Tech was the Issue—not the topic I was considering. That’s something completely different, and I hope you’ll stick around for it.

The topic? Bludgeon journalism.

I believe the term defines itself. It’s the reason you and I don’t want to hear any more about the Virginia Tech shootings. Or the late Boris Yeltsin. Or the blockheaded Don Imus. Or the Duke University lacrosse team debacle, Alberto Gonzales, Karl Rove, poisoned pet food, ‘the Wal-Mart effect’, global warming, Prozac-popping dogs, anybody currently running for president of the United States, Barry Bonds, Britney Spears, Rosie O’Doughnuts, the guy with the weird hair who just got booted off American Idol, poor ol’ Anna Nicole Smith, et al.

It’s not that these topics don’t deserve media coverage. They all do, in varying degrees. They deal with important issues we all should spend time—more than we usually do—considering, if only to determine where we stand on them. How to prevent gun violence. How to help the mentally ill. Racism. Sexism. The environment. Government. The corporatization of our society. Food safety. The use and misuse of ‘wonder drugs’ like steroids and Prozac. These are all hot-button issues on which every adult everywhere should have informed opinions. These days, unfortunately, the only subjects that seem to get all-inclusive examination concern Britney, Rosie and the like.

Why is that? The ‘soft topics’ are simply more palpable than the heavier stuff. It’s just ‘funner’, dude, to discuss whether the next season of Paris and Nicole’s show will be titled The Simple Life: Incarceration or not. Gossip-wise, pondering what we’ll do after the last drop of Amoco Ultimate on Earth, anywhere, is sucked up and burned away—probably by a Cadillac Escalade shuttling Ms. Hilton to yet another red-carpet premiere— pales in comparison. Spend your lunch hour talking about how the authorities in and around Virginia Tech somehow managed to overlook a veritable parade of red warning flags around the shooter? Nah, doesn’t go well with a burger and fries. But how ‘bout that Bonds? I hear he’s gonna break Hank Aaron’s record ‘cause he’s mainlining Wheaties!

Maybe, though, we’d be more willing to give these heavier subjects the consideration they require if our noble news-dispensary, the media, presented them to us in a more even-handed way. The current method? Bludgeon journalism. For you techies, think of it as “the message board approach”. The Virginia Tech tragedy is a perfect example of this. Out of the blue, someone posts a new topic in the most sensationalistic terms possible. This inspires a feeding-frenzy of views and replies. The replies add further, often contradictory and plain erroneous data to the mix. More views, more replies, more claims and counter-claims. After a while, the facts and opinions start looking so much alike, you can’t tell one from the other. Finally, your head’s spinning, so you just log out.

Problem is, it isn’t a message board. With the news media, you haven’t that luxury. Well, you do, if you want to pitch your computer, cell phone, Blackberry, radio, TV, and all newspapers and magazines out the window. Then, all you have to do is shut said window, plug your ears with cotton and avoid all human contact for at least a week. I’m sure that’s what the families and friends of the Virginia Tech victims felt like doing in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. I can only imagine how chilling it must have been for them to have to see the killer’s face and listen to his voice, over and over again, on every channel. The media wouldn’t allow them to not do so. Their only recourse was complete isolation. Some were faced with a swarm of reporters outside their doors, so even that was impossible.

For 72 hours after the last shot was fired, it only got worse. Sound-bites were recycled until they were almost threadbare. There seemed to be a rush to categorize this incident, a stampede to make the definitive call. “Experts” weighed in again and again, using a slew of words to say pretty much the same thing, over and over: This was terrible. It should never have happened. We can’t let it happen again. Truer words were never spoken. More familiar words, too. The same ones they said after the Columbine shootings in 1999. The same ones they said after the Hubbard Woods School shootings in Winnetka, Illinois, in which a madwoman shot six children, killing one, in 1988. Each incident inspired the same media outpouring, the same sentiments and then. . .nothing. Until, horribly, the next time.

Turn on your favorite news source today. I’ll bet you’ll have to do a little searching to find a story on Virginia Tech. In another week or two, you’ll have to hunt even harder. All the tales have been told, apparently. No more sound-bites or headlines to be found there. The media’s already moved on, you see. That’s because the media’s a cart pulled by horses called “the audience”, right? And the media believes that its audience has moved on. Tears cried, flowers sent, church attended. Next case.

Not quite. In reality, those roles are reversed. We’re all seated in a wagon that’s pulled by a team of Clydesdales called ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN, among others. Take another recent “big story” as an example. How long after Anna Nicole Smith exhaled her last breath were you able to easily locate detailed analysis of every aspect of her sad life? Weeks. Coverage in minute detail, including her childhood, her personal and business relationships, her sex life, the top five possible causes of her death. Heartfelt remembrances. Considerations of her ‘impact’ on American culture. 1001 things that nobody wanted or needed to know about this actress/model, and not just from the tabloids. Why? Because it was a ‘juicy’ story. Good for ratings, for hits, for sales. For views, for replies.

A story like Virginia Tech doesn’t have such a shelf life. The public can only stand being smacked over the head with that type of horror for so long before it starts tuning out. And make no mistake; it’s this bludgeoning approach which causes the tune-out. Bludgeon journalism is good for the short term, but bad for the long. The recovery process, the impact on all the communities affected, the steps Virginia Tech and local authorities will take to prevent such an incident from happening again—the detailed info we need for intelligent consideration—don’t make for good sound-bites. So, next case.

The families of the shooting victims deserved a chance to bury their dead before being confronted by the electronic ghost of their loved ones’ murderer. America, in general, deserved some deliberate contemplation of this tragedy. We needed it, for too long. The type of copious study that fosters understanding, allows one to get to the heart of an issue. The kind of study which yields answers which will, finally, allow us to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Anywhere. Ever.

But they, and we, didn’t get it. We got graphic details, the ravings of a psychopath and well-worn platitudes, because those boost ratings, baby. There’s no place for measured scrutiny in our news media. Bludgeon journalism rules the day. Hit ‘em hard, hit ‘em often. And then hit the road.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., an American novelist, playwright and short story writer, died last Wednesday at age 84. He was best known as the author of Slaughterhouse Five, though he wrote several other books that were just as fine. Some bullshit critic, whom I won’t cite here because he’s/she’s a bullshit critic, called Vonnegut “our century’s Mark Twain.” He/she was right. Even bullshit critics hit the target now and then.

I’m not going to write a big tribute post to convince you of Vonnegut’s literary greatness. You’re going to have to take my word for it and head off to the library or bookstore. I’m doing this, you see, because I want you to read Vonnegut’s words and see for yourselves. If you’ve never read Kurt Vonnegut before, you are in for one hell of a treat. If you haven’t read him in a while, treat yourself by becoming reacquainted with his work.

Oh, English majors and book discussion groupies? Scratch what I said about “heading off to the library or bookstore” and just hit the bookstore—cash in hand. We reader-types have a moral obligation to keep books like Vonnegut’s in print.

To show you that I’m not a complete prick, I’ll provide this Top 5 Kurt Vonnegut Books Checklist to get you started:

Slaughterhouse Five

Welcome to the Monkey House

Cat’s Cradle

Mother Night


Our world was a little better off for having Kurt Vonnegut in it. It sucks a bit more, now, without him. So it goes.

Friday, April 13, 2007

"Deathproof": Stale Jiffy Pop

SPOILER ALERT: Those of you who know me know that I am a movie fan. But I’m not a fan of 95% of contemporary American movies. Most of those are extended infomercials—loaded with product placements for soft drinks, ‘designer’ clothes, cars, etc.—or remakes of shitty-to-begin-with TV shows looking to capitalize on preexisting audiences. It takes a lot to get Brother John’s ample posterior into a theater seat. Quentin Tarantino is one of the few American filmmakers who can do that.

Tarantino makes films the way they used to be made—as art, or at least entertainment, not as made-by-committee products to be sold. His films are almost writerly in their style; he’s created a world filled with three-dimensional characters, firecracker language and an order that is utterly unique. Starting with “Pulp Fiction”, I’ve seen every Tarantino film in a theater on its initial release. Saw “Kill Bill Volume One” seven times, I did. Loved them all, I did. I anticipated loving his latest, “Deathproof”, as well.

This time out of the chute, Tarantino has paired his newest opus with another flick crafted by fellow maverick director Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”), thus creating a double-feature collectively titled “Grindhouse”. Rodriguez and Tarantino share a love for American B-movies of the 1960s and 1970s. This genre, now as extinct as the dinosaur, flourished during the Nixon-Carter era in urban second-run cinemas called ‘grindhouses.’ It was a category which catered primarily to high school and college-aged males. Cannibal zombies from other planets, homicidal maniacs, graphic violence, car chases and almost-nude nymphs emoting badly were de rigueur. So were damaged, incomplete film prints. This wasn’t intellectual entertainment and it didn’t pretend to be. Occasionally, the grindhouse filmmakers and actors did rise above their cheap-shit circumstances to create works of intelligence and originality (Melvin Van Peeple’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadaaasssss Song”). But mostly, grindhouse movies were just dimwitted fun. Or crap, depending on your point of view.

The advent of home video and cable TV did away with grindhouses in the early 1980s. People could enjoy drive-in-style horsepoop in the privacy of their own homes. So, evidently feeling misty for the late and unlamented phenomenon, Rodriguez and Tarantino have taken it upon themselves to recreate that experience for 21st Century film audiences. “Grindhouse” offers 1970s-style trailers for nonexistent films before and in-between both features, scratchy, skippy film stock and frequent “Missing Reel” headers, just like the good ol’ days. The only things missing are rats running up the aisles and drunks snoring in the front rows.

I’m not going to go into the Rodriguez picture, “Planet Terror”. It’s not bad; it certainly captures the look and feel of a 1970s B-grade flick. The amount of blood n’ guts in it, though, makes “Sin City” look like a Disney picture. Beautiful Rose McGowan plays the hell out of her part as a machine gun-legged stripper. Comely Marley Shelton excels, too, as Dr. Dakota Black, who’s really handy with a hypodermic needle. “Planet Terror” also features a surprise cameo by a major action movie star. Beyond that, it didn’t impress me.

The Tarantino selection, “Deathproof”, is the superior of the two films. In a nutshell: four sexy young women, including Sydney Poitier (yes, his daughter) and Jordan Ladd (her mom was on “Charlie’s Angels”) are stalked by scar-faced super-wacko “Stuntman Mike”, played by a scenery-chewing-and-clearly-enjoying-it Kurt Russell. Stuntman Mike is a former TV/movie stuntman (natch) who drives around in a navy blue 1969 Chevy Nova SS outfitted with the safety features of a film stunt-car, which renders it, he claims, “death-proof”. But the twentysomething girls aren’t impressed with old fart Mike (a scrupulous teetotaler) or his barroom tales of stunts performed for stars they don’t know on shows they’ve never seen (Robert Urich on “Vegas”). They give Mike the brush-off. Driving home, the girls crash head-on into a blue ’69 Chevy Nova SS driven by. . .guess who? Only Stuntman Mike survives. And since Mike’s cold sober and the girls weren’t, the local sheriff lets the deranged stuntman walk.

Months later, Mike’s back to his old tricks. Now he’s trailing a different quartet of hotties: movie makeup artist Rosario Dawson, stuntwomen Marcy Harriell and Zoë Bell and actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who are working on a nearby film set. Long story made short: the girls visit a goober who’s selling a white 1970 Dodge Challenger. They talk Jethro into letting Zoë, Rosario and Marcy test-drive it. In a stunt soon to be imitated by morons across America, Zoë (a real-life stuntwoman) stretches out on the car’s hood, holding onto only two belts tied to either side view mirror, while Marcy races the Challenger up and down conveniently vacant dirt roads. Rosario rides shotgun and provides “Whew-Hoo, go girl!!” commentary.

Long story made shorter: Stuntman Mike rams the girls’ car from behind several times, as Zoë clings to the hood for dear life. He runs the Challenger off the road; Marcy surprises Mike by pulling a pistol and pumping a bullet into his arm. The women proceed to chase Mike, ramming his car several times and running him off the road. The women tear Mike from the wrecked Nova and take turns beating the snot out of him. Mike’s knocked to the ground; Rosario kills him by jumping on his throat. The end.

Yes, that’s it—really. No profound allegories, no big symbolic undertones, nothing. I realize the bar for this film was set comparatively low, grindhouse genre and all, but come on! And there's nothing new, for that matter. What QT has served up here is basically a mish-mash of his previous efforts. There are long conversations, a la “Pulp Fiction”, set in bars and coffee shops. There are pop culture references aplenty— two young guys in a bar refer to Stuntman Mike as “B.J.” from “B.J. and the Bear”, for example. Nearly-forgotten rock bands? Check. Just before biting the dust, the first set of actresses are seen grooving to a radio pop hit by 1960s British Invasion rockers Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. A supporting part played by a faded 1970s TV star? Yup—Michael Parks of “Then Came Bronson”, recreating the role he played in “Kill Bill” (the aforementioned sheriff).

Somehow, though, it just. . .goes nowhere. Part of the problem is that there are too many logistical holes and unanswered questions. Just why Stuntman Mike does what he does is one of them. He’s just “nutz" with a capital ‘N’, I guess. While plotting was never a strong point in grindhouse movies, it was there. I mean, we all know why Shaft wanted to kick the Man’s ass, right? And Tarantino telegraphs too many of his moves in advance. Example: Rosario Dawson, in the coffee shop scene, refers to Zoë Bell as “Zoë the Cat” for the stuntwoman’s uncanny ability to emerge from dangerous spills unharmed. Then, in case the audience didn’t catch it, Rosario says it two or three times more. And of course, when Stuntman Mike knocks Zoë off the Challenger’s hood into some brush, she comes out with nary a scratch.

“Deathproof” plays like Tarantino wrote the script five minutes before shooting it. It’s tired, lazy filmmaking, plain and simple. Zoë Bell, for example, is billed as playing “herself.” I don’t know how much acting experience she has, but Zoë is charming in this film and has definite screen presence. Why couldn’t Tarantino write her an honest-to-God character to play? And for all the hoo-ha about recreating the grindhouse heyday, “Deathproof” seems stranded halfway between 1976 and 2007. Scratched film, vintage cars and Carter-era cultural references abound, but throughout the movie, characters are seen blabbing on cell phones and text-messaging each other. It’s as confusing and annoying as hell.

I didn’t hate “Deathproof”. Really. It is what it is—a popcorn movie, fast, loose and full of hulls. But when you’re used to gourmet entrees from a master chef, it’s a little jarring to be served up junk food like this. Why a talented filmmaker like Tarantino would waste his time on a knockoff molded in the style of schlockmeisters like Roger Corman and Russ Meyer is a mystery to me. It’s as if Bob Dylan abandoned songwriting to pen TV commercial jingles. They’d be some fine jingles, but—they’d be jingles, for Christ's sake.

Okay, Quentin, I’ll let you slide by for now. But next time, I’ll expect something more substantial from you than stale Jiffy Pop.