Court Jesters, Norm MacDonald, & Imaginary Castles

   

1.

     In just about every time and place in human history, those who are in positions of power regard eccentric behavior with suspicion. Especially eccentric behavior that contravenes or even simply ignores the dictates of the ruling order. Of course not every society is totalitarian. Some are more lenient than others. But every civilization, from the tiniest groupings of tents to the largest empires, have standards by which they define themselves, which holds the group accountable. The question of who sets those standards is profound enough for an entire book and can hardly be addressed in a single blog post. But underneath just about every form of government is the premise that a productive and orderly society necessitates an imbalance of power. Sometimes through conquest and the propagation of a royal bloodline. Sometimes from a person who wins a majority of votes. But in any case once power is won, people tend to want to hold on to it.

Even very powerful and authoritarian rulers have in some cases hired court jesters. It was a common practice in medieval and Renaissance times for a jester to make crude and unflattering remarks towards the royal court and their assemblage. It has even become something of an archetype, the professional fool who acts as the safety valve, releasing tension with jokes.

There is one interesting anecdote from Barbara Tuchman’s book The Distant Mirror, in which the court jester was chosen to be the one to inform Philip VI of his defeat in battle:

No one dared tell the outcome of the battle to Philip VI until his jester was thrust forward and said, “Oh, the cowardly English, the cowardly English!” and on being asked why, replied, “They did not jump overboard like our brave Frenchmen.” The King evidently got the point. The fish drank so much French blood, it was said afterward, that if God had given them the power of speech they would have spoken in French.

And yet there are other examples where jesters were banished from their courts for going over the line. One famous example was the expulsion of one of the most famous jesters, Archibald Armstrong, for making a joke about the archbishop William Laud’s policies in Scotland. After a long and successful career, Charles I unceremoniously banished Armstrong on the spot.

     2.

     You might think we’ve come pretty far since medieval times. But have we?

The most famous example of a banished jester in modern times were the multiple arrests of comic legend Lenny Bruce, who was eventually charged with Obscenity, in 1964, in the United States of America, specifically for saying the word “cocksucker” and commenting that Eleanor Roosevelt had “nice tits.” Writers such as Norman Mailer and James Baldwin testified in Bruce’s defense, but he was convicted and sentenced to spend four months of labor in a workhouse. Bruce died of an overdose shortly before his case was overturned upon appeal.

Talk about an actual free speech issue.

While it is almost unthinkable for a comedian to have criminal charges brought against them today, the context of Lenny Bruce’s historic case is much more familiar to us than that of a court jester. We do not live in a world of kings but of petty oligarchs, lawyers, local politicians, powerful business executives, shareholders, media companies, and, for heaven’s sake, Congresspeople, all who weigh in on our collective culture with varying degrees of influence. Power dynasties may be harder to keep track of since there are so many cooks in the kitchen. But the egos of those in power are still fragile; some can abide court jesters and eccentric behavior more than others.

3.

     When I was a kid the most prominent critics of mainstream comedy were conservative Christians. Many of my own friends and family.

I remember the first time I ever saw South Park, luckily over at a friend’s house, feeling deeply scandalized as a statue of the Virgin Mary pooped blood all over the Pope. I never told my parents, but I thought it was hilarious. It was the first time I realized that it was possible to make light of deeply held convictions, some of my own deeply held convictions, and the world didn’t come to an end. Fire and brimstone did not rain down on me. In fact, it gave me an opportunity to laugh at myself and to see myself from another person’s perspective, someone who might not view me or my convictions in a completely positive light, and you know what, I survived.

Albeit, I was not a person with any power. I was just a kid. But Christianity was much more of a political force at that time, which was the heart of South Park’s critique.

Over the years South Park has put many different versions of hypocrisy within its crosshairs. Although nowadays it spends almost no time satirizing religion or conservatism—not that religious or conservative hypocrisy has disappeared. But instead Trey Parker and Matt Stone have shifted to critiquing what they see as the greater power in our time: performative wokeness, political correctness, a vague set of orthodoxies held in media culture and on ivy-league campuses, sometimes proclaimed in the name of very worthy causes but which are ultimately designed to weaponize and/or manufacture public grievance to boost ratings, or for the sake of personal prestige.

Not everybody has been happy with South Park’s shift in focus. Namely, journalists who consider themselves progressive activists. Which is, well, exactly what you’d expect. Many a think-piece has been written on South Park being “out of touch,” and/or “tone-deaf” to the present moment. Some have gone further, claiming SP has had a direct role in the rise of the alt-right.

It’s difficult to assess the validity of these claims, which are in any case impossible to prove, but the reaction does call to my mind the timelessness of powerful groups of people who cannot take a joke. We’ve come a long way from Lenny Bruce. Nobody talks about locking up comedians anymore. But as progressive values and wokeness have made great cultural headway since the Obama years, the question about how they will handle newfound power is still relatively open. The paradox which has yet to fully germinate is what happens when a cultural and political movement predicated on uplifting those without power gains power itself? Who then is the dog and who is the underdog?

     4.

     While the critiques of South Park have been relatively mild, due in part I think to it’s long-time influence and deftness at redirecting criticism into material for further joke-making, other comedians have been less-than-agile in their navigation of a changing media landscape. Many tenured comedians have had negative opinions on the changing tides; Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, and Stephen Fry have all been vocal opponents of the limitations that a new set of standards has imposed upon their creative processes. But last week the heat was on Norm MacDonald because of comments he made in a Hollywood Reporter interview critiquing what he considered certain overzealous strains of the #MeToo Movement.

Norm was promoting his new Netflix show Norm MacDonald Has a Show, a casual wide-ranging grab bag of what Norm usually does on his podcast and his comedy specials. If you aren’t familiar with Norm’s work here is an awesome video crash course in the bizarre world of Norm MacDonald:

Very quickly after the Hollywood Reporter interview in which Norm questioned whether or not the entertainment industry is being fair to Louis CK and Roseanne Barr, Jimmy Fallon canceled MacDonald’s appearance on The Tonight Show, saying that executive producers were in tears over his comments. Not wanting to hurt the show, MacDonald agreed and apologized in a tweet and on Howard Stern, and then had to apologize AGAIN on The View for his first apology on Stern when he said, “You’d have to have Down syndrome to not feel sorry for harassment victims.” On The View a contrite and sad-looking MacDonald called his own words unforgivable and meandered awkwardly through questions about whether or not Barr or CK should ever come back from exile, to which one host commented, “Are you worried to speak now because of the backlash that you’ve received this week? Now are you thinking twice before anything comes out of your mouth?” And in a weird and telling moment the host smiled at her own remark, and the audience applauded. By the end of the segment, after apologizing again and again, MacDonald looked down sheepishly and said, “Well, I hope I didn’t offend any of you guys today.”

     5.

     I’m not a betting man, but I’d wager almost nobody in the general public was offended by any of Norm’s comments. Maybe I’m wrong. But other celebrities and publications have had far edgier and more wide-ranging hot takes on the #MeToo Movement, with hardly as much controversy. Examples here, here, here, and here. One recent Vox survey showed that 95% of women have at least some level of concern about men being falsely accused of sexual assault. And a recent Pew poll shows similar results.

But the Norm MacDonald story was never meant to reflect the concerns of a wider culture, it was concocted from beginning to end by the media itself. Reporters asked him the questions and reporters wrote the op-eds criticizing his answers. And, at no point along that continuum, did any one of them canvas the country for opinion survey data, or polls such as Vox and Pew, to compare MacDonald’s take with those of the general population, or even the general population of women, to find out whether or not his opinion deviated from the, ahem, norm. The “backlash” is never from the general population. It’s almost always from the journalists themselves or a very vocal minority on Twitter, from whence the journalists are happy to draw ire and drama to fuel clicks.

Although, in the end, nobody forced Norm MacDonald to apologize for his comments. He may have been advised by his manager, or he might have felt pressure from various camps, or he may have felt he said something out of line and apologized of his own accord. But he wasn’t forced, his show wasn’t cancelled, he will hopefully continue working in largely the same manner as before, writing offbeat jokes, shooting from the hip, and hopefully not thinking twice before speaking.

6.

     Who holds the power in a democracy is not always a straightforward question. We live in an age of mini-kings and mini-queens; there are many castles with many functions. Some castles fight. Some are allies—

Now in a technocratic democracy no less, where media and social media warp every message through several lenses of emphasis, over-emphasis, under-emphasis, shareholder interests, etc, by the time the message gets to us, the mere peasantry, who knows what this once pristine piece of truth is now? It looks like a mutilated shard of pixels. Twisted and stretched beyond recognition to fit a pre-determined script. And these refracted shards are lobbed between castles like cannon balls while we are left to argue over the wreckage.

Whatever your opinion of #MeToo or any other socio-cultural phenomenon, comedians give us the opportunity, in our embattled time, to see our sacred cows from another person’s perspective. It doesn’t take a big person to shit on someone else’s sacred cow. Pretty much all of human history is the story of people shitting on other people’s cows. But it does take a big person to double-take their own cow and realize that it’s not the center of the universe. You may have a super valid cow. But if you never poke your cow you’ll never get to hear whether or not it makes funny noises.

There is only one test for a comedian—laughter. A comedian cannot fake audience laughter. They say laughter is medicine. That may be true. But laughter is also a window into yourself. Have you ever laughed at something you know you shouldn’t have laughed at? Maybe it was your own sacred cow. Did you ever stop to think which one was the real you—the you that laughed or the you that wanted to suppress the laughter?

Only a comedian, either amateur or professional, can give you the opportunity to see your divided self in this way. Because your laughter is undeniable. You can’t hide behind what you find funny. It speaks for itself. And yes, sometimes that’s scary. What you find funny may even surprise you.

7.

     You don’t have to like comedians or seek out other perspectives. But if you’re confused about what you think or feel, it might do some good to seek them out and do some reflecting or have a laugh. I’m rarely disappointed at an opportunity to do so. The worst that can happen is that a comedian isn’t funny or another perspective doesn’t reward investigation. It happens. You move on.

We would do better to direct our negative attention towards those who would rob us of this opportunity, rather than those who would grant it to us.

 

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Mickey Mouse: Building Character

Once upon a time Mickey Mouse’s name wasn’t Mickey, and he wasn’t a mouse.

In 1927 Walt Disney, then employed by Universal Pictures, created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who looked like this:

1929oswald.jpg

Oswald was an immediate hit.

Then in 1928 Disney walked into a contract negotiation with Charles Lint, then president of Universal, thinking that he had all the leverage he needed to negotiate another installment in his favor, but instead Lint informed Disney that he had already hired most of his [Disney’s] employees, retained the rights to Oswald, and was offering to re-hire Disney only if he took a salary cut.

But Lint hadn’t been able to entice one key employee of Disney’s, a man named Ub Iwerks, the sole animator of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And it was Iwerks’s loyalty to Disney that made possible another version of the cartoon, this time conceived during late night meetings between Disney and Iwerks. The cartoon was called Mortimer Mouse, but then changed after much deliberation to Mickey Mouse.

The first two animated shorts featuring Mickey weren’t very impressive to distributors, but the third entitled Steamboat Willie was optioned and premiered in New York on November 18, 1928, and was a success with audiences, in part because of its use of sound which was synchronized with the visual action of the cartoon, using a click track (not an entirely new technique at the time but still a rarity for animation).

Disney was an early adopter of Dr. Herbert Kalmus’s Process 4 technicolor or “three strip” process, producing technicolor shorts such as Silly Symphonies and Flowers and Trees, both of which became hits in the early 1930s. Disney had an exclusive contract with Kalmus extending until September 1935, barring all other animators from using the color technique. On February 23, 1935, seven months before other animators were given access to the technology, Disney produced The Band Concert, the first technicolor short featuring Mickey (and also Donald Duck), debuting to massive success, and is still considered a breakthrough in the history of animation.

Mickey’s look had changed and evolved slightly, going from black & white to color, among other small adjustments, but it was the work of animator Fred Moore throughout the late 1930s that transformed Mickey into his more current and recognizable form—giving the mouse pupils, a tail, white gloves, and his signature red pants.

And it was in this recognizable form that Mickey made his first feature length appearance in 1940 with Fantasia.

It’s with particular interest now that we turn to Fantasia which has puzzled viewers for years, but the meaning of this experimental film becomes clear in light of Mickey’s evolution as a character and his contribution to Disney’s growing empire.

Fantasia was only Disney’s third feature film after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (a huge success) and Pinocchio (not a success), and because of the onset of World Ward II, it [Fantasia] was unable to generate a profit even though the critical response was positive. The story, as explained by Deems Taylor at the beginning of the film, is of the sorcerer’s apprentice, played by Mickey himself:

“It’s a very old story, one that goes back almost 2,000 years—a legend about a sorcerer who had an apprentice. He was a bright young lad, very anxious to learn the business. As a matter of fact, he was a little bit too bright because he started practicing some of the boss’s best magic tricks before learning how to control them. One day, for instance, when he’d been told by his master to carry water to fill a cauldron, he had the brilliant idea of bringing a broomstick to like to carry the water for him. Well, this worked very well at first. Unfortunately, however, having forgotten the magic formula that would make the broomstick stop carrying the water, he found he’d started something he couldn’t finish.”

Here is just about the entirety of Mickey’s brief appearance in Fantasia:

There is no dialogue in Fantasia, only pieces of orchestral music set to the accompanying action of a fairy-tale-like fever dream akin to an acid trip–complete with fawns, fairies, and unicorns–with a barely coherent narrative roughly spanning the mythological and scientific creation of the universe. And the creation of the universe begins once Mickey lets loose this magic of the broomstick that he cannot turn off.

Why am I spending so much time on Fantasia of all Mickey movies?

In Fantasia, for the first time, Mickey Mouse was a clear stand-in for Walt Disney himself. Mickey’s eager seizing of the wizard’s magic tricks is a perfect metaphor for Disney’s use of technology in his films (Steamboat Willie and The Band Concert); the magic broom carries the water to the cauldron as a piece of technology would assist its creator; but when Mickey realizes he cannot turn the broom off his attempts to thwart the broom creates only more brooms, and the cauldron begins overflowing with water, and it’s out of this overflow that the rest of the movie begins to make sense as a creation myth. The overflow creates the universe. Mickey’s foibles reveal the spirit of Disney’s Universe because the spirit of every Universe is equal to its downfall, and in Fantasia Mickey’s flaw is seizing upon magic he doesn’t yet understand so he can dream. And Disney said many times, “There’s a lot of the Mouse in me.”

Mickey Mouse was the first piece of lightning Disney ever caught, financing the early years of animated shorts by treading new ground in sound and color technology, always with Mickey as the tip of the spear, until the 1940s & 50s when Disney began pioneering still a new era of animated feature films and caught many new bolts of lightning (Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, etc.). Mickey then was only a very small part of Disney’s animation, and by the late 1950s & early 60s was all but retired as a character, appearing mostly in cameos or straight-to-video animated shorts. Other than the company’s logo and forever spokesmouse, the once centerpiece of the dynasty fell into the background.

Five years after the release of Fantasia, a 1945 article in the Irish Times wrote of Disney,

“Disney has been called everything from a genius to a philosopher—and denied that he is any of them. As a matter of fact when the English novelist, Aldous Huxley, praised the philosophy of Mickey Mouse cartoons and asked Disney how he arrived at their underlying subtleties, the answer he is reputed to have received was: “Oh, we make pictures for entertainment, and after they are made the professors come along and tell us what they mean!”

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 2

 

7, 39, 43

A group of special ops is sent to a remote desert town thought to house a dangerous group of terrorists. The town in question has already been bombed and is reduced to ash, but recent intelligence indicates that many terror cells are housed underground and all precautions are being taken to ensure that this particular group of terrorists is neutralized. Under the command of Squad Leader, the team lines up behind an embankment of rocks and gets into position.

The group is going through the shambles of the clearly primitive (and yet once vibrant) village when one particular solider, Thirty Nine, notices a single building which mysteriously has been completely untouched. A warehouse containing rows of bright & shiny red Toyota Land Cruisers. Having seen cars like this in old movies, Thirty Nine stops to appreciate the old-fashioned vehicles with rubber tires and combustion engines.

“Drop your weapons,” a voice says from behind.

Around two dozen terrorists surround the special ops with aimed weapons, easily outnumbering them.

“Drop them now.”

Thirty Nine and the others drop their weapons. The terrorists quickly rip off their helmets, deprogram the distress signals, and lead them at gunpoint to an encampment with torches and a wooden fence with sharp posts. The camp looks as though it has been quickly built within a craggy space of rocks unobservable from the air. There are small huts scattered throughout and a small tower in the middle of the camp. The ops are taken to the huts in groups of three and stripped. In Thirty Nine’s hut are also Seven and Forty Three. They are tied to the walls with old ropes and left hanging. They’re tied tight so their limbs turn swollen and purple.

Two days go by, and none of the guards and/or terrorists come into the hut. The men discuss their predicament but know also that they are most likely being recorded or observed in some way. They’ve learned how to move slightly and shift their weight to accommodate the uncomfortable position of hanging from a wall.

One the third day one terrorist comes into the hut with a knife. The men don’t flinch as he walks around the hut holding the knife in clear view. He stops at Thirty Nine and grabs his testicles and says, “Are you afraid I will cut these off? It would be very painful, no? A man’s worst nightmare. Trust me, they are a useless appendage to you now.” But then, as if he had just suddenly and for no reason changed his mind, the man turns to Seven and makes a swift gesture as though he’s about to cut, and he does; the terrorist cuts Seven’s right arm free from the rope, and Seven lets out a sigh because the blood is now free again on that side of his body and he wasn’t stabbed. The terrorist then very casually walks out of the hut.

“What was that about?” Seven says.

“I don’t know,” Thirty Nine says.

Seven begins trying to untie his other restraints, perhaps to his credit, but the ropes are tied in knots not to be undone by human hands.

“I can’t.”

“Don’t waste your energy.”

Once Seven finally does give up he has a hard time concealing his superiority of circumstance, letting out sighs of relief and speaking as if he’s better suited to free the group now that he has one hand free. But this, of course, is an illusion. He’s no closer to freeing them than he was before. Seven’s free hand only makes the inevitable more comfortable for him. He overcompensates against this newly formed gulf between him and the group by seeming to have a renewed concern for contemplating escape strategies.

“I could swing now to get my arm out the door.”

“Don’t waste your energy,” Thirty Nine says.

On the fourth day another man comes into the hut with a bowl of water and a knife. Without a word he sets the bowl down and with the knife cuts free one hand of Forty Three. Before Forty Three can even let out a sigh, Seven is already drinking the water. “Share,” Thirty Nine says. But Seven isn’t slowing down. Forty Three tries to stop him but it’s too late. Seven finishes the bowl and begins to tussle with Forty Three. And Forty Three manages to get a pretty good grip on Seven’s throat and begins choking him.

“Stop,” Thirty Nine says. “This is what they want. They’re going to kill us anyway.” A group of men gathers at the hut’s entrance and watches Seven die. His body hangs limp on the wall and his one free hand dangles like a marionette’s. And the men go laughingly to the tower and come back with another bowl of water, and then cut Thirty Nine’s right arm free and set the water down again. “Let’s do this the right way.” Thirty Nine nods and allows Forty Three to take the bowl first. He drinks exactly half and puts it back in the middle of the floor. Thirty Nine drinks the rest.

The onlooking men make disappointed gestures and leave the hut.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know.”

“They’re trying to get inside us.”

“What does it matter if we die?”

“We could escape.”

Neither of them sleep that night. Seven’s body begins to stink. With one free hand Thirty Nine turns his body and looks out the thatched roof. The stars are bright, the only light besides the few torches in the camp. Thirty Nine thinks back and realizes he never learned the constellations. They’re not so great, he thinks. They’re just there in the sky like clouds. It would be all over soon and doesn’t matter. Forty Three leans over to Thirty Nine.

“Kill me.”

“What?”

“Strangle me. It’s dark and won’t be on camera. I can’t take it anymore.”

“There could still be a way out.”

“We’ve tried all day. There’s no way out.”

In the morning they bring another bowl of water and a small piece of bread on a tin plate. Thirty Nine and Forty Three are salivating, but Forty Three isn’t looking so good. The men stand in the doorway.

“You take it.” Forty Three’s voice was hardly audible.

“Let’s do halves like before.” The men pay close attention to the dealing. They look to Forty Three for his reply.

“No. You take it and I’ll take whatever they bring next time.” Thirty Nine hesitates, unsure of what Forty Three means by this. Some of the men notice this and looked to Forty Three for his reply. Some didn’t and instead maintained their study of Thirty Nine. “Take it!” Forty Three’s shrill yell pierces the air. The men laugh. Spit runs down his chin. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to cause a scene so he drinks the water and eats the bread. And the men leave with some mixed sense of satisfaction.

Thirty Nine then gets a strong hand to the face and then another. “How could you?” he says. Thirty Nine is trying to shield himself from the blows.

“You put me in a spot. We can’t argue in front of them.”

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

Thirty Nine socks Forty Three in the trachea and he vomits nothing.

“We can’t let it come to this. This is what they want.”

“We’re both dying regardless of what they want.”

By next morning Forty Three is barely hanging on, and Thirty Nine isn’t doing much better. Their heads are hanging as blood is locating itself in uncomfortable parts of their bodies; their lips are cracked; their thoughts are cracked. It seemed like the end. But then a smell lifts them out of the daze. The sweet smell of dinner rolls and hot meat.

The men walk in issuing orders. They have a steak dinner on a tray and big canteens of water.

“You can have this meal but you must pay. Whichever of you gives us the eye of the other man can have the food.”

Thirty Nine looks at Forty Three who is looking at the food.

“We’ll split it,” Thirty Nine says.

“That’s not how it works,” the men say.

Forty Three lunges at Thirty Nine, tearing at his face. Thirty Nine does what he can, grabs Forty Three’s neck, and still Forty Three is flailing. But Thirty Nine has a bit more strength left. He looks at Forty Three pleadingly but he won’t make contact. He looks wherever his arms are going, pulling Thirty Nine’s hair & neck. Right before Forty Three dies he looks at Thirty Nine. His eyes say something like thank you and then go vacant. The men in the doorway are hollering and having a good time.

“Good job, solider,” they say. “Do you want this food?”

“Yes.”

“We need the eye.”

“…”

“That’s the deal.”

Forty Three’s dead body hangs on the wall. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to do it. Not with these men watching. He takes Forty Three’s chin and notices his dark eyes. Then he puts the head back down and digs into the socket which is much drier than he expected. There is a little sound and it seemed like it wouldn’t come out but, with a little effort, it did. It dangles from his face by its nerve. Thirty Nine pulls it free with a snap and throws it at the feet of the men. One of them picks it up and put it in his pocket.

“You’ve earned this,” they say. The men raucously applaud and put the plate of food before Thirty Nine and he eats it.

“You’re coming with us,” they say and untie him from the wall and carry him out into the sun, to the tower in the middle of the camp.

The tower is a wooden thing like the huts but bigger. The tower is empty inside, a hollow room with a metal platform on the ground that begins to sink like an elevator into the sand, taking the men into an underground chamber. Everything was total dark and Thirty Nine wonders how they’ve acquired a steak since, to his knowledge, there aen’t any cows in this part of the world.

They took him to a room with a woman sitting on a cot. She’s wearing a tight-fitting military uniform decorated with many badges. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and looks at the wall. The men leave, closing the door, and she motions for Thirty Nine to sit on the cot opposite her. He sits down and sees that she’s young and beautiful.

“What do you think of all this?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“No.”

“Do you know what your people have done to us?”

“No.”

“Of course not.” She takes a small controller from her breast pocket and presses a button. The wall across us lights up with images, terrible images of scorched people running in the streets and buildings collapsing in onto themselves. Huge ships are dropping the fire. Thirty Nine recognizes the ships as his own. (He’s never seen the attacks from this angle before.) Large plumes of smoke wade through the streets like chess pieces, in frame after frame, and there were limbless bodies squirming through the streets and scorched babies. “Quite something,” she says.

“We were hitting terrorist sites. Terrorists from your country bombed us first. That’s what started this. It was retaliation.”

“Those mothers and their children do look like a threat to national security, don’t they?” She clicks on the screen again. It’s a video of Forty Three choking Seven. “Yes, your people seem to know a lot about retaliation. I could play the one of you killing him? That one. Forty Three.” She motions.

“No,” Thirty Nine says.

“You think I’m pretty cruel, don’t you?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Of course you have. The Thirty Nine model is temperamental.”

“My name is Thirty Nine.”

“That’s not your name, son. That’s your model. Names are for people. You’re a standard issue, military grade, very life-like thing meant to resemble a person. But you’re not a person.”

“I am a person.”

“Regardless of what you think you are, you’re going to be terminated. If you were human we’d call that execution. The good thing is you’re built with fake flesh, fake blood, so it will still be a very good show. We like that type of thing here, watching it on TV. Keeps the morale up.” She leans closer to Thirty Nine and grabs his chin. Her breath smells like motor oil and her blonde hair reflects the harsh fluorescent lights. “Do you know who you’re talking to, soldier?”

“Your face looks familiar,” he says through squished lips, pinched by the grip under her leather gloves. She stands up. Her crotch was level with his face.

“The President of the United States of America.”

 

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Rejected Story Ideas

I like to write fiction, and have a huge stockpile – binders full! – of really bad stories.

A lot of you guys are writers. You know how it goes. You work on something and then it runs itself into the ground and it never sees the light of day. This is a tragic situation. Only 1% of writing ever makes it into a final draft. And what happens to the rest? It gets thrown away. A lot of good stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the final form has to be cut. Or a premise is developed and it never goes anywhere.

So this is the first – and perhaps last – installment of Rejected Story Ideas. Stuff from my binders that I’ve never been able to get off the ground.

__

The Professor Trilogy

1

Some scientific entrepreneur—let’s say Elon Musk—finds way of reviving body of FDR within days of 2020 Presidential Race in which Donald Trump is running for re-election. Zombie FDR wins in landslide.

2

Sociologist/professor develops algorithm & test for determining citizens’ fitness to vote. Rules out dumb voters vs. smart voters. Part IQ test, implicit bias test, sensitivity test, etc. Professor is world-renowned researcher. Gives TedTalks, writes best-selling books, is public intellectual of highest order; very witty and likable and good-looking. Work reviewed by many in media as ‘that which will save our civilization,’ etc. Research into political upheavals and human motivation ‘will add to 21st century era of technical and political crises a note of humanity and tenderness.’

In latter stages of development, professor excitedly makes a much covered & talked about presentation to his local government authorities about new findings and voter test. Unexpectedly government eagerly adopts findings & test, and immediately writes as mandate into local voting laws. Now all citizens must take test to vote. Mayor praises professor as guardian of humanist values & unimpeachable genius. Ensuing media coverage reaches boiling point. Begins national conversation re voting rights and government sovereignty. Is freedom dead in America? is one headline. New voting test now weeds out bottom feeders another reads. Professor receives many letters of commendation from well-known figureheads such as celebrities & business people & heads of State, as well as a few crazed death threats on Twitter from people with fewer than 50 followers.

In response to the viral articles & national media attention, professor & newly hired public relations manager concoct event to ease polarized tensions and news coverage. Also, PR guy adds, this will be a way for the professor to show himself as an upstanding and generally nice guy and not in any way above his own critiques of society & public life. The event is a press conference to be held at town city hall in which professor will be the first local citizen re-registering to vote using own test. Cameras are rolling as the professor fills out test on iPad and questions are projected onto a jumbo-screen & Facebook Livestream; questions like: If an elderly lady is clearly seen to be unknowingly wandering into oncoming traffic, how likely are to lend a helping hand and guide her to safety? Check: Very Likely, Likely, Neutral, Unlikely, Very Unlikely. Now if the lady is a member of a minority group? The press conference is relatively quiet and even respectful as those in attendance are marking this as a kind of historic & symbolic event, not to mention highly publicized. The professor answers the last question and rises to his feet smiling. Cameras are popping and there is a general bustling as the jumbo-screen is to reveal the professor’s voting score 1-100 (100 being the highest possible score & anything below 50 being a failing grade). The lab assistant is clicking through a few preliminary screens with infographics displaying specific voting traits, Conservative vs. Liberal, Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Intelligence profile, & Compassion vs. Self-Interest Index. The lab assistant is sweating profusely with shaky hands probably because she is young and on national TV.

But then she clicks through to display the final score and immediately there is uneasiness and slight laughter. The professor’s score is 48 therefore disqualifying him from registering to vote. The professor laughs and the journalists laugh. Very funny, Samantha, the professor says. Now put the real score up. Samantha has a look on her face that is a mixture of panic and wincing fear. That is the real score, she says. Haha, okay. Sam we get the joke really this isn’t the time. Samantha looks at the professor and hands him her iPad. The professor looks at the score, scrolling through pages, & refreshes it a few times, and thinks, Sure enough, and looks up at the crowd which by now are going absolutely bananas, on the phone with their editors & producers, already breaking the story. The guy standing at the voting registry counter with the big pair of scissors lowers them from the red ribbon with a confused look on his face. Microphones are shoved to the professor’s face. How does it feel, Doctor, to be ruled out by our own test? And so the professor becomes the first citizen ruled out… by his own algorithm.

3

The newly elected Zombie FDR adopts the professor’s test at the National level via Federal mandate—one of the most unprecedented uses of Presidential power in United States history—sparking widespread protest. Now the now infamous test is required to vote in any of the states.

The once-lauded professor, now a shamed public figure, has resigned from his teaching & research position at UC Berkeley and is living in exile at an undisclosed location. One foggy evening at a bar in this undisclosed location, as the professor drunkenly hangs his head over a 7th glass of beer, he is approached by a shadowy figure who hands him a slip of paper inviting him to join a shadow organization that is attempting a coup against the U.S. government. They want to stage a cyber attack on the professor’s now ubiquitous voting software which they believe Zombie FDR is manipulating in his favor in the 2024 Presidential primaries. Let me be, the professor slurs. I’m afraid I can’t do that, the shadowy figure says, sticking a syringe in the professor’s leg. The professor faints. The shadowy figure catches him in his arms, and says casually to the bartender, Looks like my friend here’s passed out.

When the professor wakes up he is in a shadowy room with a dripping pipe somewhere echoing while he sits on a fold-up chair under a single hot light with his hands tied behind his back. The shadowy figure sits across from him with one leg folded over the other, puffing on a cigar. The figure pulls down his hood so that his face is now visible to the drowsy & drugged professor who is slowly regaining consciousness. The professor cannot believe what he is seeing. Zombie Abraham Lincoln. Just as stately and magnanimous as you would imagine, but with flayed and rotting flesh much worse than Zombie FDR. And there is still a gaping hole in his head.

We need your help, Zombie Lincoln says.

I can’t, the professor says.

Now is the time to right your wrongs, Zombie Lincoln says.

But what were my wrongs, exactly? How could I fail my own test? the professor says.

You didn’t fail your own test, Zombie Lincoln says.

What? the professor says.

We had one lad working on that one for a while, a real techie. Hacked the software and manipulated your score, Zombie Lincoln says.

Fuck, the professor says.

Took a lot of work to get that one exactly right, Zombie Lincoln says.

But—but—

Now is the time to right your wrongs.

 

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Interested in the notebooks of writers? Check out The Notebooks of Tennessee Williams on Amazon: 

The Fork in the Road at the End of Looking Down Your Nose

Many cite The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 as the symbolic birth of popular music.

In the decades since the 1950s & 1960s popular music has become almost too big and varied to write about. How to sum up the careers of The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Justin Bieber? Impossible. Each artist uniquely emerged in stylistic and market contexts defined by forces which greatly supersede mere personal talent. There are many talented musicians in the world, but only a few who can also embody a culture and reach a mass audience.

This makes the history of popular music remarkable to study. Just a little over half a century and we have gone from The Beatles to Kendrick Lamar with many decades of amazing music in between.

It was with this sort of doe-eyed plucky optimism that I approached my teenage brother-in-law one day and asked what sort of music the kids were listening to these days because, as a twenty-something old fart, I had been out of the loop for a while, listening to a lot of my old favorites, and was curious what new terrain there was to explore.

This is what he played for me:

 

Congratulations. You’ve been introduced to ‘mumble rap.’

Now, I consider myself to be a broad-minded person but… this was horrible music. Never before had I been repelled by something so mainstream and popular.

This moment was what I now call the fork in the road at the end of looking down my nose.

I hated this music, so I had two options:

1) accept that the pop music industry had left me behind and be ok with that 2) or try and argue that the pop music industry was now irreversibly dumb and this music was proof of the death of a once beautiful and vibrant creative industry.

In the moment with my brother-in-law I picked something like a compromise between these two options, trying to hide my absolute disgust while casually offering up other rappers I thought he could relate to that I considered better i.e. Kendrick Lamar.

That was the end of that conversation.

Reflecting back on this moment was slightly horrific because deep down I had to admit: I was becoming that old person who always annoyed me when I was a kid, picking at the younger kids’ music and recommending they listen to the ‘real’ stuff/the classics that really had the magic, etc. Ew. How did this happen?

Were these old farts right all along? Was the music I listened to as a kid really this bad to their ears? Maybe.

This is of course only a crisis if you’re a big music fan, and I had to admit to myself that, yes, music was this important to me. I believe in the transformative power of music. There have been many nights where an album lifted me out of a depression, accompanied me during a rough breakup, or made the drive to school more uplifting. For all the flack pop culture catches from high-brow critics, I had to admit that pop music has been a constant companion to me, and I wanted to understand it moving forward, but I also didn’t want to give up on what has really touched me in the past.

Still not resolved.

But one way I’ve tried to move forward is to proactively search for common ground and find those spaces in popular music where there is overlap with music that is or has been moving to me in the past. The old stuff will always be there. But younger kids are having experiences I never had and are reacting to art that resonates with those experiences. Who am I to say that my experiences should supersede theirs? Or that the music I heard was any truer to my experience than their music is to theirs?

And I had to think maybe the music I liked as a kid wasn’t better by some objective standard. Maybe I had just been there as a young and impressionable kid to appreciate it. Perfect fodder for grand-scheme marketing campaigns. Maybe there was nothing special and sacred about those artists per se, and they were just one small piece of a larger tapestry that is beyond any one person’s ability to comprehend it, which twists and turns down unexpected paths.

Who knows.

I think can live with that interpretation.

So with that I leave you with what my little brother-in-law and I could agree on:

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The Boring Sameness of Celebrity Cover Stories

One of the most bizarre and popular forms of journalism is the magazine cover story/ celebrity profile. To get a clear idea of what I mean, examples can be found here, here, and here. These are Esquire on Shia LaBeouf, GQ on Brad Pitt, and Vanity Fair on Chris Pratt, respectively.

What I find so hilarious about these pieces is the current in-vogue approach used by the these journalists to couch their supposedly laid back narrative. Each one begins their piece, in the very first sentence, as if they are telling a unique first-person story:

Shia LaBeouf is nervous about this story—“I have so much fear about this thing,” he confesses to me when we first meet…

Brad Pitt is making matcha green tea on a cool morning in his old Craftsman in the Hollywood Hills, where he’s lived since 1994.

Chris Pratt wanted to cook me lunch—you can tell a lot about a person by the way they cook.

I don’t know what it is about these sentences that absolutely kills me. Maybe the forced casualness. In our age of entertainment, whatever this age is, we want our stars to be down-to-earth, person-next-door types, when in reality, to understand even the most basic components of their life, one must account for these processes & formulas that are able to harnesses billion-dollar-generating star power. These are secular gods. There is no way around the rituals.

When I arrive, I see LaBeouf through the window. He is alone at a four-top, his eyes trained forward, unmoving. As I approach him, he stands to greet me. His outfit is Valley Dad: well-fitted if unassuming khakis and a sweatshirt.

Pitt wears a flannel shirt and skinny jeans that hang loose on his frame. Invisible to the eye is that sculpted bulk we’ve seen on film for a quarter-century. He looks like an L.A. dad on a juice cleanse, gearing up to do house projects.

He [Pratt] was wearing a flannel shirt and jeans and had let his beard grow to stubble. No shoes, just socks. He’s a big guy, six feet three in boots, 220 pounds, in shape, and has the knock-around ease of a regular guy drinking campfire tequila on the set of a John Ford movie.

These are three different journalists, although you would never know that by simply reading these articles. Of course they probably didn’t have final say editorially, but still. It’s all the same sort of thing: here is a big star and yet, wow, look at how damaged and complex they are. And here is Shia LaBeouf doing artsy poses in a $4,000 bomber jacket:

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Oh, and here’s Brad Pitt wearing a $485 shirt doing, uh, well, I don’t exactly know what:

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Now, let’s catch up with Chris Pratt about his hobbies as he casually steps out of a race car:

chrispra.png

What interests me most is that, despite the obvious amount of money spent on these cover shoots, creatively, they seem remarkably half-assed. They all evoke the same images and boring scenarios.

I keep imagining an ancient corollary in which Virgil describes a casual interview with Caesar Augustus. Like a washed-up wanna-be Gonzo journalist.

He invited me into his palace. Greeting me at the gate, he wore a surprisingly casual brand of toga and sandals. C’mon in, he said, waving me in and, as we passed through the palace gates, he haphazardly spanked one or two concubines on our way. I just want the people to know that I am a normal guy, you know, he said. We just like to have a little fun around here.

My Favorite Rapper is a Woman

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Lauryn Hill, Source: The Atlanta Black Star

1.

I have been a music nerd for a long time—it’s difficult to judge my favorite music without waxing nostalgic. The associations that go along with my favorite records and songs are deep and span periods of my life that seem epochal but still tangible. I remember the lost childhood art of boredom and the freedom music provided from it; for instance, long summer evenings mowing the grass with a Disc-man in the pocket of my cargo shorts, or listening to the radio on the bus to and from school while looking out the window. The accompaniment to this impressionable period tends to stick in the mind regardless of its quality.

But sometimes you get lucky and listen to something really good that holds up over time.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was one such album which brings to mind long afternoons at my first summer job as a ride operator in a local arcade. The arcade was empty on particularly sunny days—kids were at the pool or playing outside—and the managers, older high school kids, would take long “smoke breaks,” which meant they were going to sneak booze out back by the dumpster, leaving the staff to watch over the tedium of unused games and ugly carpeting. During these times I would sneak an earbud and listen to music.

At the time I had no idea about the political significance of Lauryn Hill, her activism, or what her struggle embodied. All I knew was that The Miseducation didn’t sound like anything I’d heard. The drum kit on the first track “Lost Ones” was aggressive but ambling; a thumping guitar hung on the back of the offbeats like a Bob Marley song, and there was this woman rapping: a tenor voice which was smooth and at ease with itself.

3.

The theme running through The Miseducation is inseparable from its sound. In the opening skit there is the sound of a school bell ringing and a teacher taking attendance. A flamenco guitar strums chords in the background. The teacher calls for Lauryn Hill but she’s not there. “Lauryn Hill? Lauryn Hill?” he says.

There is no one ‘right’ interpretation of what this means but the implication is: this is Lauryn Hill’s “miseducation,” and in the title track “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” she opines:

I look at my environment

And wonder where the fire went

What happened to everything we used to be

I hear so many cry for help

Searching outside of themselves

Lauryn’s solution is the classic artistic solution—her “miseducation” is individuation. In “To Zion,” an ode to her newborn son and a celebration of motherhood, she sings:

But everybody told me to be smart

“Look at your career,” they said

“Lauryn baby use your head.”

But instead I chose to use my heart

Implicit in the artist’s journey is the belief that the truest expression is the individual’s. When the collective weakens or becomes conventional, the job of the artist is to breathe life back into it with a new expression which is easier said than done. The Miseducation is not just a title but a description of Hill’s mission to revivify hip-hop by weaving together previously unacquainted elements to create something original.

In an interview shortly after the release Hill talked about the personal meaning of Miseducation:

“Every day it means something more, actually. People automatically thought, she must have not done school, or the teachers didn’t teach anything. But that wasn’t it. The meaning behind it was really a catch and me learning that when I thought I was my most wise, I was really not wise at all. And in my humility, and in those places where most people wouldn’t expect a lesson to come from, that’s where I learned so much… It’s contrary to what the world says is education, this education came from life and experience.”

4.

Much of Hill’s solo effort was prefigured in her previous work with the Fugees (reggae samples, mellow beats, and political overtures) who, as a group, were groundbreaking in their own right, but The Miseducation is unobstructed by other voices. Like many artists who are exploring new territory, Hill pushed hip-hop further by critiquing it. She sings in the song “Superstar”:

Yo hip-hop, started out in the heart

Uh-huh, yo

Now everybody tryin to chart

The Miseducation critiques hip-hop in both form and content. Hill raps on most of the songs but not all, and even on the rap heavy songs—“Lost Ones,” “Doo Wop (That Thing),” and “Final Hour,”—she carries a melody throughout. Therefore it’s from both within and without that she’s able to critique, with one foot in and one foot out of hip-hop. The Miseducation transcends genre by blending elements from rap, hip-hop, neo-soul, gospel, reggae, and traditional Caribbean music. No one before or since Lauryn Hill could blend these elements with as much taste and restraint.

5.

Hill is concerned with more than the technical and personal. She is overtly spiritual. Even her most catchy songs find a way to invoke the metaphysical:

Talking out your neck, sayin’ you’re a Christian

A Muslim, sleeping with the jinn

Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in

Who you gon’ tell when the repercussions spin?

Showing off your ass cause you’re thinking it’s a trend

Coming partially from without, Lauryn Hill was in a unique position to express this even deeper critique of hip-hop culture. Instead of focusing on the outward trappings of fame & excess, The Miseducation is a series of introspections, aided in part by allusions to Rastafarianism, Christianity, and personal experience:

I wrote these words (I wrote these words) for everyone who struggles in their youth

Who won’t accept deception, in instead of what is truth

It seems we lose the game

Before we even start to play

Who made these rules?

This was not the first time these themes were explored in hip-hop but The Miseducation was the popularization of a new kind of positivity in a genre that was struggling to define itself (after the violent deaths of its biggest stars, Tupac and Biggie Smalls), and was desperate for a note of hope.

6.

When I was a kid I listened to a lot of bad music—trendy, cheesy, ephemeral—I listen today and cringe. How could I have been so deluded? But there are a handful of artists I listened to that stood the test of time. I listened to many of them in that dusty old arcade. I first discovered Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” and John Mayer’s “Continuum,” those lonely summers.

The only time I got in trouble for listening to music is because I got caught listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

I got caught because I was bobbing my head.

 

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