The Death of Civilized Debate

A documentary is making the rounds, in the theaters last spring and now on PBS and On Demand, that is a reminder of how politics used to be different. This is not by way of a discussion of the current political season or any commentary on the campaigns or their positions. I will not drag us there; I have promised. But this historical  view, “The Best of Enemies,” which chronicles a series of debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, hearkens back to the days when the tone of debate could be intelligent and civil. What a concept!

The popular notion is that America does not like intellectuals. Our tall tales and folk heroes are often about simple men who get the better of the fellow  with book-learnin’ through common sense and American knowhow. Conventional wisdom is to disdain “eggheads” and to embrace the Common Man.

But Americans do enjoy – or used to enjoy – the intelligent presentation of political opinions that they themselves hold dear. In 1968,  when ABC decided to host a series of conversations between two intellectual giants who held very different views, America watched and embraced – individually – their beloved smarty-pants of the Left and the Right. Continue reading “The Death of Civilized Debate”

SBIG: Mothra and Florence Foster Jenkins

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I don’t know where my childhood went wrong. I was exposed frequently to art museums and the best music – both classical and jazz. The shelves were full of Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, Faulkner, and Plato; the walls were covered with Bruegel and Pollock.  My mother had no sense of humor. (Technically, that’s not true, she thought Bertolt Brecht and Edward Albee were hil-arious!)  My father had no appreciation for Star Wars or Steven Spielberg, and took us as children to see West Side Story and Rashomon instead. Yet, somehow, since I was a wee bit of a thing, I have always loved bad art.

Bad movies, bad music, bad theater, bad painting, bad poetry. There is a whole subgenre of the arts within each of these categories. Performances that were fiercely bad, sleep-inducing, screechy, ridiculous, and downright dreadful. In the Kaj household, we even labelled it in our classification system as SBIG – So Bad, It’s Good.

April showered me today
And got me kinda wet.
I wasn’t looking for the rain.
Glub, I’m a rivulet!
–From Spectrum, Author’s name withheld to avoid public shaming

What Makes The Performance Bad?
There is a fine line between dull and wretched, and we have to examine wretched just a bit, to understand where that line is drawn. Bad can take on many forms – maudlin, boring, insipid, confusing, blurry, not believable, or overly predictable – when it comes to films. This is tricky when it comes to comedy, because comedy can be highly subjective. You like the Hangover or Jim Carrey; I detest them. Yet vulgarity or farce on its own is not necessarily bad, but subject to personal taste.  You don’t “get” Monty Python; in our house, it is considered to be part of the genius canon.  Does that make any of these bad or good? Probably not.

The heaviest disagreement comes over whether something is “great” or one of the “greatest.” We will come to blows over whether to include Borat or Dumb and Dumber on a Best list. There is less disagreement about whether something is universally bad. Don’t believe me? Gigli. Howard the Duck. Fifty Shades of Black. Need I go further?

Music is easier to identify as bad. Off-key, strange lyrics, poor phrasing, off-key, off rhythm, constantly changing key, mispronouncing words, did I mention off-key? Is the song really only a chorus repeated over and over? Can the band play the instruments? A theme starts to emerge, that transfers to painting, poetry and so forth. Did the artist fail at what they were trying to achieve?  Do the mountains in a landscape really look more like ice cream cones? Does the interpretive dance consist mostly of hair flinging? Is the poem so cloying that it makes you cringe?

What Makes it So Fiercely Bad It’s Good?
The common theme to the best of the worst seems to do with pain. Painfully bad. Cringing, wincing, covering the ears or eyes (or nose!!!!), the performance takes entertainment which might just be mediocre into another realm entirely.

Boring, on its own, is not sufficient. A little flat in pitch isn’t really funny. A dumb script is fairly common; we need to have wooden acting, stupefyingly bad special effects, inappropriate product placement, and maybe the sound boom showing, to crank a bad performance up to that mythical level eleven.

Continue reading “SBIG: Mothra and Florence Foster Jenkins”

The World Must Be Peopled!

Can you fall in love under duress? If you lived in a world that required you to mate for life OR ELSE – could you do it? How would you do it? Would you try to fake it? Could you be convincing? What if you had to fool the Spousal Police?

Now the fact that you will turn into an animal if you fail to fall in love with someone during your stay here is not something that should upset you or get you down.
– Hotel Manager, The Lobster

There is something intriguing and dare I say it? fun about a movie in the alternate world, dystopian as the critics call it, the world that seems like our own but is just Off. The Lobster, a 2015 movie now making the arthouse cinema rounds is one of the most interesting movies I’ve seen in a long time. It takes place in a society like our own, with modern dress, skyscrapers, freeways, and hotel swimming pools very much like our own. But it becomes quickly obvious that there is something different going on.  In that sense it’s more like a puzzle, like The Sixth Sense or Fahrenheit 451 or the Memento. Something is different.

20160524lOBSTER3The first part has to establish that difference and to give it shape. We don’t need to know why the rules are this way, not at the outset, but we need to know what they are. The setup in The Lobster is that the adults without mates are required to become “guests” at a hotel. They must couple up within 45 days or they will be transformed – surgically, and the less said about those gory details the better– into the animal of their choice. The couples must be validated to the satisfaction of the authorities, so you can’t just pick somebody. Tests must be passed. When the guests are given shotguns to help reinforce the rules, the consequences of failure are clarified. Continue reading “The World Must Be Peopled!”