Something Good about 2014

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So, that was 2014. Almost all the news was bad, from the resurrection of the Soviet Union to ebola to the outing of hardcore radical misogynists and the rise of the Islamic State (with some crossover in between!). Like Florida all the time, this year possessed all the colors of the awful rainbow.

Still, there were signs of good: by all measures, America has left the Great Recession. It has done so with troublingly little in the way of economic reforms, and you’d think that now with the crisis averted, we’d continue business as usual. But it seems not, with more and more labor movements gaining traction and attention, and US states raising the minimum wage– even Wal-Mart workers had the courage to walk out. Actually quite a lot has happened that would be pretty unthinkable in 2008, when the Recession began: a French socialist manifesto was the #1 book in America, Weird Al had a #1 album, gay marriage became legal almost everywhere and the majority of Americans want pot to be legal (both to the ire of almost no-one, thanks to our political culture’s equally sudden abandonment of cultural wedge issues).

But if one crowning achievement can be salvaged from the ashes, it should be the 2014 World Cup.

Two years ago, I was traveling with a friend when we called in with a school acquaintance in North Carolina. The Euro Cup had just ended, and the subject of  American football and soccer came up. The acquaintance predicted that American football would be totally marginalized in a few years. I was dumbfounded; Football is still the most popular sport in America to watch. And yet, here we are: the NFL and NCAA, football’s governing bodies, are now widely loathed for their abusive labor practices and corruption, rampant violent crime among players has turned many away from their TVs, and the risk of brain damage is causing young talent to leave the game. Meanwhile, the World Cup was a massive sensation.

Part of the World Cup’s success in America was a reaction against the most recent Summer Olympics. The London Games may have saved Britain’s economy, but the American coverage was an unmitigated disaster. NBC, in its constant quest to prove you can go broke underestimating the American people, variously delayed, interrupted, and ignored the festivities while the commentators took valuable time to profess their own (patently affected) ignorance of British history and culture, to the point that people are still complaining about it more than two years later. Meanwhile, the World Cup was covered by ABC and ESPN, which are owned by Disney, a company that has rightfully regained the love of the American people after over a decade of brand-cheapening blunders.

In addition, America did well. Watching this summer, I remembered seeing the World Cup final in 1994, two miles from my own house in Pasadena, and realized that mine was the first generation of Americans to grow up with soccer. Now as adults, we’ve cultivated some serious talent. And, in spite of some previous statements, I now meet people who genuinely care about the LA Galaxy. That’s pretty incredible. Of course there are places where soccer is not seen as sufficiently hardcore, but Clint Dempsey’s a soccer hero, and he’s as Texan as they get.

I think it’s a testimony to soccer’s newfound relevance in our country that the World Cup brought some new terms to our vocabulary: Socceroos, the Orange Wedding, the Secretary of Defense.

Speaking of which, the next time I go to England, I’d like to go see and Everton game before Tim Howard retires. Imagine saying that a year ago?

So, if there’s one good thing to draw from 2014, and equally from the World Cup, it’s that after a long, confusing period of turmoil, we can look back and say that yes, even after decades of cultural entropy and posturing entrenchment, change can come to America.

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The Joy of Jeopardy!

Last summer, I had to take a class on the Biology and Psychology of gender and sexuality. Most times at my university, it is rare to venture outside one’s own department, either academically or socially, but this was a required course, and I was the only film student in the group. This last fact was vividly demonstrated, as we were required to give presentations on subjects of our choosing related to gender and sexuality. Not only were the vast majority of presentations awkward and unprofessional (a genuine shock to someone who spends most of his day with fellow performers), but, as most of the students in the class majored in either Nursing or Criminal Justice, almost every presentation was either about sexual assault or venereal disease.

This was fascinating. Not only had the professor allowed students to cover the same subjects over and over, but the students unselfconsciously ran with it, inflicting upon their captive audience a constant loop of graphic descriptions of violence and physical degradation. Not to say that these issues aren’t important; they certainly are, and Lord knows there are a lot of people out there who need to be educated about them; but when these are the only things you hear about, over and over, day after day, you start to go batty. Towards the end of the term, a woman sitting next to me and I watched in awe as two more students loaded up their PowerPoint presentations: one was on sexual assault, one was on venereal diseases. My classmate and I instantly broke into uncontrollable laughter. We’ve been friends ever since.

Even within the film department, you’re liable to run into people whose interests and fields of knowledge are wildly at variance with your own. Just this week, one of my professors asked the class what the first animated feature film was; one student guessed Toy Story.

This is all a very roundabout way of pointing out that in America, and I would guess California in particular, most people, even college-educated professionals, tend to be very knowledgeable about one thing (typically their chosen field of work) and startlingly ignorant about everything else. In Britain, everyone from cabinet ministers to taxi drivers can tell you the latin names of their houseplants, or give detailed descriptions of the Battle of Trafalgar, but when I volunteer any historical fact about Los Angeles (after all, why would I be expected to know about the place where I work and go to school?), everyone says the same thing: “you should be on Jeopardy!

Jeopardy, for those of you abroad, is a syndicated American game show in which three contestants compete against each other, answering trivia clues in the form of a question (this is really just a formality, though; all one must do to gain points in the form of dollar values is answer a clue with “What/who is X?”) and wager carefully to end up with the most money. The current version of Jeopardy is hosted by Alex Trebek, mainstream celebrity in his own right and a god among game show hosts, and has made a few stars out of its contestants. In 2004, the show’s rules changed to allow champions to keep playing as long as they kept winning. Almost immediately, Ken Jennings came onto the scene, won 74 straight games and over $3 million, and is now widely respected as a public intellectual. This season has produced two star players of its own in Julia Collins and Arthur Chu.

The game has varying levels of difficulty. There’s the Tournament of Champions, where returning stars play against each other, and the questions are accordingly much harder than regular play. Then there are college and high school versions that are a little easier, and of course Celebrity Jeopardy! which is absurdly easy; even by those accommodating standards, a few supposedly smart people have shown themselves to be complete morons, to the delight of dedicated viewers.

Jeopardy! is an exception in this country. It’s taken seriously. It has none of the cheese of Wheel of Fortune, nor the silly dramatics of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The premise is almost preposterously straightforward, and the tone of the show is equally understated. The contestants dress up. Most interestingly, Jeopardy! not only celebrates knowledge, but well-roundedness, in a country that adores crippling overspecialization. And it’s a hit. Game shows come and go in waves, but Jeopardy’s been going strong for thirty straight years.

It survives because it’s easy to play along. And that’s the thing. Anytime I feel bad about the country I call home, I watch Jeopardy! I think about how many people have played, that it’s gone on so long that most people in America know someone who’s been on. I think about the millions of people playing along, earnestly watching to see if the contestants share some of their own knowledge. And I realize that there are a lot more Americans like me than anyone would suspect.

So why aren’t they in film school!?

Fall in Pasadena

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This week I began reading David Mitchell’s memoir Back Story, and today I came across this little observation:

“[Autumn was] another subject seriously over-covered by schools in my experience…take the word “deciduous”– I was taught it, I think, at age seven, ditto eight and nine– and I’ve only used it twice since. And that’s in this paragraph…”

By and large, our education on Fall (as we call autumn) was no less rigourous out here, in a state so far away from England that it was actually shelled by the Japanese in World War II. Stranger still was the fact that we learned most of the same things.

The teacher would generally start like so: “Today we’re going to learn about Fall, which is sometimes called ahdum. Actually, we’re supposed to say ahdum now because it’s more correct.”

Each teacher made it clear that “autumn” was more ‘politically correct’ than “fall,” but most of them still used the latter. This was just the tip of the iceberg. “Fall is what happens when the leaves change colours and fall off the trees. Then it gets very cold until you have to wear gloves. Usually it snows at the end, and lots of animals hibernate.”

This talk was totally in keeping with the idea that California is an inferior colony beholden to the Eastern states, because none of that was true out here. But then again, fall in California, and especially Pasadena, is kind of horrible.

First of all, it’s very short. September is the hottest month of the year, and the heat continues relentlessly until mid-October. Around that time, there will be the first rain. Because it never rains in the summer, all of the oil from cars builds and builds on the road until the first rain washes it all off, resulting in spectacular car accidents. And because Pasadena is built on a slope at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, water rushes into the sewers at a high level faster than it can get out, causing the sewers further south to explode. It’s practically a winter tradition.

After that, there’s a little heat wave, then another storm, and this goes back and forth until Thanksgiving.

There are very few trees here that change colours, and to my knowledge no animals that hibernate. Instead, we have parrots at the peak of their mating season, swarming in the thousands for hours and hours, days and days, keeping people like me up all night.

So there’s a certain logic to telling people out west about a fall that’s long, luxurious, and not schizophrenic. I just wish they’d given tips on what to do when the streets turn to rapids.

Wither Two and a Half Men?

Okay, this will require some explaining.

Two and a Half Men was until recently the most popular comedy on American television, which is amazing because it’s truly, truly awful. It’s so terrible that it’s never even appeared on British television before 2009, and even then it was only on cable. Considering Heroes was shown on BBC2 to the very end, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Originally, the show was about a divorcée (Jon Cryer) who with his son moves in with his creepy commercial-jingle-writing date-rapist brother Charlie Sheen. I should add this is a show for families. For the longest time, the show was based around unimaginably convoluted dirty jokes, not double-entendres but single ones. Now that Charlie Sheen is gone, Ashton Kutcher is there and he’s just…there. The show has managed to suck dozens of otherwise talented people into it’s orbit; I’m sad to say it’s the most recent thing I know Martin Mull to have performed in.

I should say that Two and a Half Men is not the worst show on television; amazingly there are hackier shows like Whitney but those tend not to last very long. This show has been on for nine years. It’s also not terribly broad humour, from what I’ve seen of it there’s astonishingly little visual element to the jokes, or there weren’t. Presently there are no jokes, just people fighting with a laugh track put in. The awfulness is not inspired, it isn’t something you could enjoy ironically because there’s nothing there. That something like that is so popular defies understanding until you realize it’s on CBS, and thus most of the people “watching” are in fact elderly people who have fallen asleep. It is one of the least-watched shows online.

I say all this because for a show to be so highly rated and yet completely reviled is unprecedented, so there’s no telling what legacy Two and a Half Men will have. My cousin recently posted that as a “nineties kid” her generation was the generation of Family Matters, as if that was a good thing. Of course Family Matters was a kids’ show that was cleverly not marketed as one, and we know kids will watch anything. Furthermore, Family Matters was essentially of its time, whereas Two and a Half Men is embarrassingly disconnected from its own (it looks like a failed one-off from 1998).

So what does Two and a Half Men have to offer the bored college students of 2020? It has no concept, no jokes, the creators are accordingly cynical and breathtakingly misogynistic, it doesn’t reflect the era in which it was made outside of a general skankiness, and there’s nothing unintentionally funny about it. It holds no social currency, it doesn’t really have “fans” in the way far lower rated shows do. There’s nothing to see there. In all likelihood it will be completely forgotten, like most of these. But I secretly hope it will serve as a cautionary tale:

Kids, don’t let your parents fall asleep with the TV on.

Videopunk, or, The Zen of KLCS

Not long ago, I wrote an article singing the praises of the Public Broadcasting Service. Today is the day to shed some light on PBS’s darker side. I speak, of course, of KLCS.

My first acting job was for KLCS. When I was three months old, my mom tried to get me acting work, but it wasn’t happening. Luckily, my dad was transport commissioner, so I got to be in a documentary about the rebuilding of the Southland’s public transit infrastructure. My mom and I were the token white people on the blue line.

KLCS is the official television station of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as such most of its programming was exactly like Look Around You, except that instead of 1978 it was 1993. Its creepy dullness and retrograde production values hypnotized many young children who grew up to become videopunk artists– aficionados of the VHS aesthetic. It’s something understood by everyone who spent their childhood savouring the first tear into the gold wrapping paper of a fresh Matsushita JVC cassette.

A typical day’s programming would start off with some ancient educational films, seemingly all of them about the history of mathematics. But that was before dawn; what most people first saw was a blue screen with a list of programs and the current time. There would always be music in the background: usually Sting or Maxi Priest, which they could get away with because the programming was “for educational purposes only.” The music was always loud enough recognize, but not loud enough to enjoy.

Suddenly, you’d be treated to live video footage from the Los Angeles School Board. In effect this meant three hours of parents complaining about the quality of their kids’ education and being shouted down by a very bored-looking old black lady. Noon is where things got freaky, starting with animated tags so terrifying they put the old Talkback Thames logo to shame:

Don’t get me wrong, all TV production company logos in the ’80s were creepy. The difference here is that the shows themselves were like that too. First was a quietly radical talk show called Tony Brown’s Journal. Look it up on YouTube lest my comment section get too ridiculous.

After that was a surreal yet technical kids’ mystery show called Ghostwriter that had a surprising number of prestigious guest stars. Like many shows of that time, everybody I knew thought they were the only person who watched it, but it’s found a new life on the internet.

Finally the day concluded with some even more surreal documentaries on the LAUSD itself. It’s possible that they were all the same film because they always included the following things:

  • A scene of kids in Watts dancing to New Jack Swing in a school auditorium.
  • A shot of the train passing through LA’s South Side.
  • The narrator raving pessimistically in monotone.
  • “Candid” on-the-street interviews of people staring blankly at the camera and speaking in a similar monotone.

Clearly, the LAUSD had made these videos, but it was impossible to tell why. They were extremely critical, and there was no intended audience or even a detectable reason to make them.

Personally, I think it was genius. I think it somebody woke up one day in the late ’80s and said. “Kids these days have long, boring lives ahead of them. I’m going to make them crazy. Someday they’ll thank me.”

This has been a rare moment of uncritical ’90s nostalgia.

Being Colonial: Why I Love PBS

Originally, I was going to post about why, in the words of Sean Lock, “You should never read the bottom half of the internet.” (Here’s a post from Sally O’Rouke about why maybe sometimes you should).

But that’s not a uniquely American phenomenon and in any case everybody knows that. Instead, I’m going to talk about British television in America.

British TV has always been popular in the United States, but because of cultural cringe we tend to be undiscriminating. Ask an otherwise cultured American his or her opinion of EastEnders and try not to vomit from the praise.

Because six-episode series are too short for major networks to broadcast, most UK content ends up on PBS, the national broadcaster. PBS isn’t like the BBC, it’s way less powerful and critically underfunded. It’s also locally run, so programming can vary wildly from town to town. Most programming consists of travelogues, local interest shows, bizarre ethereal documentaries (the subject of a future post) and material purchased from the UK. The affiliates tend to broadcast the cheapest shows they can get the rights to, and so it was that Keeping Up Appearances was a staple of my childhood.

Our local PBS affiliate was the inept-but-somehow-still-prestigious KCET, which went under a couple of years ago. Now we get Orange County’s KOCE. The station is owned by the Orange County Register, a paper that makes the Wall Street Journal look like Pravda, but it’s a shining example of what public television should be. The production values and imported content are on par with BBC2 at the very least. They even broadcast the original version of The Office (PBS doesn’t have to worry about censorship past 10PM because there are no advertisers to scare away).

Like the BBC, PBS is stereotyped as a niche network for highbrow audiences, though in reality everybody watches it. Television ratings are the province of commercial networks, so not many people know that PBS actually regularly outperforms NBC, the CW, and in certain markets even CBS. When the second series of Sherlock premiered last month, it was watched by 5.5 million people. On Sundays, a night already crowded with prestige shows, it was third in its timeslot!

PBS, you see, can always be relied upon for event programming. It gave the world Ken Burns, who isn’t so much a man as a genre. It’s the network of Sesame Street. And while a lot of their original content is dreadful, the journey is always interesting and I’ve never regretted watching it (with the sole exception of Barney). Even though so much of it is imported from the UK, there are few better ways at understanding American culture.

Being Colonial: Sport

Being a child in the 1990s, which was not all that different from the 1950s, you kept hearing that baseball was “America’s favourite pastime.” In fact, it’s a British invention, was always a northeastern and midwestern sport, and has not been all that popular in recent decades.

The most popular sport officially is American football, an extraordinary game. Nobody on earth actually knows the rules; a fact that “experts” on television conceal by screaming incoherently. As it is, talking about football is actually more popular than football. The second most popular sport is Auto racing, but I fail to see the appeal.

This being a huge country, preferences aren’t the same everywhere. In California, the most popular sport is Basketball. Now there’s a sport for me: lots of scoring, easy to understand, it’s the only one of the big three sports that actually originated in America, and my local team is one of the best: the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are consequently one of the most hated teams in the country, but not nearly as hated as the Miami Heat, for many, many reasons.

Hockey is not that important in America. Despite a brief Disney-inspired fancy in the nineties, most American hockey teams are token players in a Canadian game, even when, as happened two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Which brings me to association football. Oh boy. It’s a common cliché that Americans hate soccer, though this is not actually true: we just hate American soccer. The World Cup has been a nationwide event ever since the 1994 games concluded only two miles from my house. A month ago every pub in Downtown Pasadena was packed by noon while thousands of people cheered on Chelsea against Bayamón. Americans will gladly support Chelsea, Barcelona, and Dortmund, but MLS (the main soccer league) is less than twenty years old and comprises obscure teams like DC United and Real Salt Lake. When David Beckham joined the Los Angeles Galaxy, it was big news because it was considered a step down. And while we’re on the subject: when are you guys going to take him back?