Saturday, October 24, 2015

Disney the non-saint

In a teaser interview for her new documentary, The Armor of Light, Abigail Disney was asked about remarks she made about her great-uncle Walt that characterized him as mysogynistic and racist. While sorry she had antagonized at least some of her family, she added:
I don’t know why he needs to be seen as a saint. It’s important that heroes have their feet of clay. That makes them human, and that’s where all the learning is.

Disney's public image has been zealously guarded and massaged over the years by his studio, but enough has slipped through the cracks that we know he shared the attitudes of many in his generation. He meant well, I'm sure, but he really did think he, the white male father figure, knew best. When challenged, he could respond badly. The infamous 1941 studio strike stoked hard feelings toward the strikers that he never lost. He went so far as to testify before the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee in 1947, naming key strikers as likely Communists.

You might be able to excuse whatever racism and sexism he exhibited as a byproduct of his upbringing. Portraying his (by now, former) employees as Communists, though, was vindictive and cruel in the paranoid atmosphere of the time. He tarred them as anti-American when the country was in a mood to execute anybody who looked to be a threat to national security (to use the current phrase). This went beyond Dad disowning the rebellious, disloyal children. He was trying to destroy people's lives.

Disney was human, very much so. That he made lots of children laugh during his lifetime doesn't excuse how he sometimes treated those nearest to him.

MythBusters is ending

All good things come to an end. (Bad things, it seems, go on forever: witness this country's unceasing infatuation with anti-intellectualism and religious fanaticism.)

So it's no surprise that the only good reality show, MythBusters, is leaving the airwaves with the upcoming season, per Entertainment Weekly.

The EW interview with Jamie Hyneman is the only one I've ever read. It confirms much of what I suspected: he's a builder, first, last and always, and the show was just a way to build things he might otherwise not have had the excuse (or money) to build. As such, the end of the show is almost a relief to him. I'm surprised he let it go on this long, in fact, as he thoroughly dislikes the compromises the process of shooting the show forces on his design and implementation.

MythBusters isn't a science program, but it's probably the closest brush with scientific principles a lot of non-scientists get. Its primary value is getting people interested in testing hypotheses, and engineering. That Hyneman and Adam Savage made a point of listening to fan critiques, and occasionally revisited experiments to address those critiques, is a tremendous boon: it's the scientific method in action. Heaven knows, we need as much of that as we can get in a country that is so abysmally ignorant of what it means to pursue science.

Ending the show was the right call: it has felt a little tired, and sometimes desperate for material, for a few years now. That said, its end will leave a void. Much as I like Richard Hamilton's Science of Stupid, it doesn't inspire one to do anything except laugh at other people's misfortunes: it's America's Funniest Home Videos with a dusting of biomechanics and basic physics. Other would-be competitors have been abysmally bad. Straight science shows like Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos, admirable as they are, don't have MythBusters' goofy charm: you already have to be interested in astronomy, cosmology, history, biology, etc., to be interested in those other shows. (I found Tyson's other show, StarTalk, to be unfocused and boring.)

So even though I think MythBusters is right to end while it still has a little steam, I'll be sorry to see it go. We badly need more of what the show brought to pop culture.

Thanks, guys, for so many hours of hilarious and smart TV.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Can I be completely innocent again?

Thirty-eight years ago, I got caught up in the wide-eyed enthusiasm of my schoolmates and joined them for a pilgrimage to a local movie house to see Star Wars. I knew nothing of the film except for the poster, which to me promised more sword-and-sorcery than space opera. That, however, seemed hard to square with the barely-heard mutterings of my classmates (all of whom had seen it at least once) talking about "jet-eye knights"; that sounded very science-fiction-y. My mind, then, wasn't a blank slate but certainly was a confused and uninformed muddle when the London Symphony Orchestra crashed into my unready ears and the text began to scroll up the screen. I had no expectations and the movie was able to suffuse my completely open mind.

There's something magical about going in with no preconceptions, no idea of the plot or characters, no high bar to meet or to overcome, and being thrilled by a movie as it unfolds.

It's arguably impossible for any Star Wars "episode" to surprise me in the same way the original did, and so far none has. I'm hungry for one of them to do so, though, perhaps for no better reason than that lightning struck once. I guess that's why I've done my best to ignore all the trailers and other publicity for Episode VII.

I can't be a kid again. I'm still going to give Episode VII the best shot I can to blow my mind. Who knows? With each successive Star Wars movie, George Lucas did such a splendid job of lowering my expectations that maybe J. J. Abrams can catch me off guard and blow my mind.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Snoopy apologia

That's what Sarah Boxer has penned in her Atlantic piece, "The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy". Boxer tackles head-on the idea held by many longtime fans of the Peanuts strip, that Snoopy's rise also marked the decline of the strip. Boxer argues that Snoopy's seemingly dazzling fantasy life diverted readers from the cold truth:
Grand though his flights are, many of them end with his realizing that he’s tired and cold and lonely and that it’s suppertime.... He has animal needs, and he knows it, which makes him, in a word, human.
I don't find Boxer's argument terribly persuasive. There's simply no comparing the philosophy and wit of the 1950s and 1960s strips with the banality of those starting in the late 1970s. Boxer, perhaps inadvertently, includes a great example of the impoverished later strip, a Sunday edition in which Charlie Brown and Snoopy appear. The gag has Charlie Brown taking a typewritten sheet of paper from Snoopy and handing it to his teacher. Charlie Brown remarks, "No, ma'am... my dog didn't eat my homework... He wrote it!" We have, in addition to the by-now well-worn conceit of the dog who can write, essentially a play on words. That's it. That's the sum total of the gag. You have to believe Bill Watterson could have made more of this premise than Schulz did.

Schulz was simply out of ideas by the mid-1970s or so. Yet, perhaps because he felt it would be sinful not to work every day, he kept going anyway.

You can find hidden meaning in just about anything, and Boxer may be right that Snoopy's more existentialist than I care to admit. But sometimes you have to admit what's staring you in the face, and what stares any reader of Peanuts in the face is that the first couple of decades' comics are a whole lot funnier and smarter than the rest. Snoopy might not be the reason for that, but he's the outward sign. If Schulz operated as deeply as Boxer thinks, he did a lousy job of conveying it to the rest of us.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Gun control vs. crazy-control

The New York Times profile of the Oregon gunman reads like a character sketch out of a bad screenplay. Bespectacled, pathologically introverted, overprotective mom, etc. The NRA and its fellow travelers will point to him as the poster boy for our broken mental-health care system: "We don't need more gun control, we need more crazy-control!"

And maybe they have a point. But I doubt the fiercely libertarian gun owners who fanatically oppose any more gun regulation than we already have will like the idea of a more proactive, interventionist mental-health care system that, in the vein of Minority Report, tries much harder to intervene before a tragedy occurs. I don't much like that idea, either. I've been the bespectacled, antisocial misfit myself and I don't want society to tell me that I must adopt a specific behavioral profile or forever be tailed by government agents. I especially worry that introverts — who are generally among the most inoffensive people you'll ever meet — will be (even more) unfairly stigmatized if we go down this path.

Yet if we're ever going to do anything about massacres like yesterday's, somehow the Chris Harper Mercers of society must be kept away from guns (and flamethrowers, and maybe cars, and anything else with which they could hurt a lot of people in a short time).

Unquestionably we have a broken mental-health care system. Maybe, contrary to our deeply-ingrained sense of live-and-let-live, we ought to feel obliged to tip the authorities off to potential Mercers. I hate the idea of neighbors reporting one another (it says "East Germany" to me, as it might to you, too), but it shouldn't be off-limits at least to discuss whether we could or should do more along these lines.

Yet at the same time, it shouldn't be off-limits to discuss whether we can and should do more to restrict who can get firearms.

The status quo is killing people with frightening frequency. Something has to change.

Which is worse: making it harder to get a gun, or making it harder to be weird?

Apparently, that's the choice we face.

Trevor Noah stumbles

I feel a little bad for Trevor Noah. He hasn't been on the job for a full week yet, and he already has to respond to a national tragedy: the massacre on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

He badly miscalibrated his response. He admitted that he hadn't had time to process the news, which was understandable. But then he said that all he could think of doing was doing what he did best, to make people laugh, and after turning to a different camera, went into his first bit as if nothing had happened.

After a few seconds of shock, I turned the show off.

I have no problem with Noah wanting to do the show he planned. But a host also has to have a feel for the audience. The abruptness of the transition from condolence to comedy was jarring, and felt callous. "Hey, I don't know how to respond to this tragedy, so ... on with the show!"

I'm sorry, but you can't do that.

When Jon Stewart addressed a mass shooting earlier this year, he expressed his sadness and frustration and anger — then went to a commercial break. An ad is a lousy way to change emotional direction, but it's better than going directly to a joke. And when he came back, Stewart made sure to pick up on the same somber note for a moment before almost apologetically carrying on with the show as scripted.

That's how you bring the audience along. Not incidentally, that's also how you avoid looking like an insensitve cretin.

Please don't repeat this mistake, Trevor.

(At least Noah touched on the news. As far as I can tell from quickly switching between them, neither Fallon, Kimmel nor Colbert so much as hinted at it in his opening monologue. I was especially disappointed in Colbert. On the Report he more than once broke character to offer his condolences when tragedy struck. He did so at the beginning of the episode, and made sure to have some kind of bridge, however contrived, to take himself and the audience from the sadness to the comedy.)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Owning gun killings

At least ten people were killed on the campus of an Oregon community college today. (The number is still in flux.)

Certainly it isn't the first gun massacre, nor will it be the last.

Shouldn't that make us all extremely angry?

Well yeah. But it won't. Not angry enough to hold our elected reps' feet to the fire to push through some measure of reasonable gun control.

Part of the problem is that gun-control advocates pick exactly the wrong time to push their (our) agenda hardest.

It probably seems like a fantastic idea to mobilize people against gun violence in the immediate aftermath of a horrible massacre like this. Seems like common sense, really.

Except when you realize that there's a troublingly effective counterargument to gun-control advocacy at times like this. It takes the form of a question:

"Would your proposed gun-control measure have prevented this massacre?"

And the truth, too often, is, "We don't know". We almost never know enough about the shooter or his (it's always "his") motives to know how he might have been stopped.

Still, the counterargument is a lousy justification for doing nothing. Did you make it home safely today in your car specifically because of regulations on tire safety? Probably not. Does that mean tire safety regs should be rolled back? Uh, no.

So the counterargument is a red herring and should be disregarded. But, of course, it will continue to be effective.

I hate that people died in today's incident. But here's the thing: I don't feel especially responsible. I support greater gun-control measures. I'll leave gun-rights advocates and gun-control advocates to hash out the details. But I know we need to do more. I'm not the problem here.

If you oppose more stringent regs on how people get guns, you are the problem.

I still regard the Sandy Hook massacre as the point at which every right-thinking person should have turned to gun-rights advocates and said, "Fuck your rationalizations. We need to fix our broken gun-control regulations." Every poll I've seen shows a huge majority of us support that attitude.

Yet still we did nothing. Nothing.

The problem wasn't and isn't with the majority of us. It was and is with the minority that believes any regulation is an abridgement of the Second Amendment.

You folks are the ones who need to get over your absolutism on the subject of gun ownership.

You folks are the ones with blood on your hands.

Today's victims of gun violence, at that Oregon community college and elsewhere (because people die from gun violence every day in this country) — their ghosts will haunt you.

You let it happen.

Own it.