Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Han Solo and Greedo Shot At Exactly The Same Time

After a long, unbearably cruel embargo,
Christmas came a week early for my four-year-old son, as we finally watched "Star Wars" together
. It was kind of a big deal, because he has been obsessed with all things "Star Wars" for a couple of years now, and because it was the first movie we've watched with him on the wall -- by which I mean the high-def projector in our basement, on which his mother and I have been secretly enjoying nine feet of Blu-ray movies and HD cable when he's asleep and only when he's asleep, while denying him the narcotic effects of any TV or movies until he's older.
To mark the occasion, and to get as close as possible to the experience I had when I first saw the movie in the theater (I was almost exactly his age in the summer of 1977), I bought the Blu-ray of the latest version of the original trilogy. If there were a Blu-ray of the original versions of the movies -- the versions I saw as a kid -- I would have bought those, but that isn't an option, so I had to settle for the "Special Editions," which of course is the versions George Lucas re-released in the 90s with various digital "improvements" to the special effects.

These improvements caused quite an outcry at the time, and people are still bitching about it now -- when these Blu-rays were released a few months ago there was a big kerfuffle because they voiceovered a comically bad "NOOOOOOO!!" into Darth Vader's mouth in the climactic scene in "Return Of The Jedi" where he saves Luke from the Emperor, to match the comically bad moment in "Star Wars -- Episode III" where Anakin/Darth Vader is told that his wife has died.

Anyway, I hadn't seen any of the original "Star Wars" movies since the Special Edition of the first one came out in 1996. I never saw the other two Special Editions -- I know they're on Spike all the time but I can't take that many Bud Light and Axe commercials at once. At some point, while flipping channels, I did happen across the "improved" band sequence at Jabba the Hutt's palace, with an alien Tina Turner singing a terrible song with a terrible alien backing band, and a little part of me died inside. In any case, even though I lived and breathed "Star Wars" as a kid and into my 20s, I haven't seen any of the first three movies in 15 years.

So it was a big occasion to show it to my kid, and he couldn't have been more excited about it, but I was pretty excited to watch it myself. I know a lot of people didn't buy the Blu-rays because we're all fed up with George's lame changes to the movies, but I do not have the luxury of such a principled stand, because I have a 4-year-old boy in my house. (My principled stand is that I will never acknowledge the existence of the prequels. If he wants to learn about that trash, he can pick it up on the streets, but not in my house.)

So I observed the movie in two ways at once: one, just caught up in the experience of watching it nine feet wide with a pristine, restored, high-def picture, seeing it again for the first time (as the ad for one of the eleventeen previous home video releases suggested), with my wide-eyed little boy; and the other, noticing every little lame thing that had been added via computer. It's really not so bad until Luke and Ben Kenobi go to the spaceport town of Mos Eisley, but at that point I found myself so engrossed in the badness of the added effects I almost lost the plot of the movie.

"Star Wars" is a great, timeless movie, but it's a great, timeless movie that was obviously made in the 70s. There's just something about the film stock, and the lighting, and of course the hairstyles that tells you subliminally, even if you're not thinking about it, that this thing is of a certain moment. So adding mid-90s CGI monsters and aliens sticks out just as much as it would if a hand-drawn, animated Scooby Doo walked across the frame.

But even that wasn't such a big deal. It's only a few seconds of that stuff before it's back to Luke and Ben and Han Solo and a roomful of dudes in 70s-appropriate alien masks, and I'm right back in the movie. (It doesn't hurt that this is where Han Solo gives the movie a welcome shot of charisma despite the fact that Harrison Ford is clearly embarrassed to be involved in this project, and can barely suppress a self-conscious smile in any scene). But I started to tighten up a little when I realized that the scene with Greedo was coming up.

I refer to the scene where Han Solo is accosted by a green, buglike bounty hunter named Greedo, who's trying to collect some cash Han owes to Jabba the Hutt, the local giant slug/gangster. Greedo, speaking in an alien tongue, wedges a little exposition (Han is a smuggler, the Empire is repressive and zealously regulates shipping) before making clear he intends to do Han harm ("I've been looking forward to this for a long time.").

In the original movie, Han replies, "Yes, I bet you have," shoots Greedo under the table, and saunters out like the badass this scene was expressly written to show him as. But in the Special Editions, for reasons known only to George Lucas, through the magic of CGI, a laser bolt was superimposed into the frame, making it look like Greedo shot at Han first, and thus that Han acted in self-defense. Apart from the fact that it looked absolutely ridiculous -- Greedo's shot goes off at a skew angle despite sitting at point-blank range -- this change actually changes the meaning of the scene, which is "Han Solo is a badass who will shoot first and ask questions later." The Internet's nerd community (or is it the nerds' Internet community?) howled in outrage and for once, the nerds were right. It's one thing to fiddle with the movie to make the explosions look more realistic, but softening the basic nature of a character -- everyone's favorite character, to boot -- is too much.

I wondered how I would handle this scene when my son and I came to it. Should I pause it and explain to him that they changed the movie, that Han Solo really is a badass? I think we can agree that to have that conversation with a 4-year-old would be crazy. So I figured I'd just let it go. It seems, though, that George is still tinkering with these movies, because the scene with Greedo has been changed again.

In this latest version, the shot is so quick, with laser beams flying in both directions, that it's ambiguous who shoots first. Just as it registered that the movie had been changed yet again, my son turned to me and said, "Why did Han Solo shoot that guy?" "Because he's a badass, buddy." I can't believe I'm saying this, but it looks like George Lucas listened to his deranged fans and gave them what they want.

That made me happy, but it didn't last long because the very next scene was the other big famous change to the first movie: the scene where Han Solo talks to Jabba the Hutt. Jabba was played by a human actor in a robe when this scene was shot -- the giant slug concept hadn't been thought of yet -- and it was cut out of the movie. For the "Special Editions," the scene was restored and a CGI Jabba was superimposed over the human actor. All the fuss about the Greedo scene sort of overshadowed what a total abortion this other addition is.

Even without the CGI vandalism, this is a terrible scene, and it's obvious why it was cut: it's totally unnecessary. Jabba's lines are all verbatim to the lines Greedo delivered two minutes before. The CGI Jabba doesn't look much like the puppet they used for "Return of the Jedi," and faced with the blocking problem that Han Solo circles him in the scene despite the fact that his huge sluglike tail would have been in the way, Lucas went cute (par for the course, sadly) and digitally manipulated Han Solo to make it look like he steps over Jabba's tail like it's a little staircase. It looks (do I even have to say?) terrible -- like the animation on "South Park." Ford is moved around the frame like a paper cutout.  Then, as the scene ends, Boba Fett steps into the center of the frame and looks right into the camera, which might as well have just been a shot of George Lucas stepping out and giving a jolly salute. "Don't forget about me! I'm still working on these movies! They'll never be done! THEY'LL NEVER BE DONE!!"

Overall, I had a great time watching this movie again. If you got it for Christmas, you don't need to be scared to watch it, and your kids will get the point that Han Solo is not to be messed with.

In the absence of a better closing, here's a "Star Wars"-related comedy short I made a couple of years ago:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tales From The Meet Market

I was standing at the end of the bar looking at my phone. It was my first slow moment in about four hours. The bar had been busy, but it was getting late and things were tapering off -- enough that when the house phone rang, I answered it. (Answering the phone is what the fancy voicemail system and the manager are for. The bartender is for stuffing twenties in the drawer, and that always gets first priority.)

"Hi, are you still open?" asked an adult female voice.
"Yeah, til 4," I said.
"How's your night going?" she asked.
"Great! How's yours?" I probably sounded a little too chipper, like to the point of sarcasm, but she didn't seem to notice.
"What are you doing after work?" That was a weird question. It's not the first time I've ever been asked that by a stranger, but I don't believe I've ever been asked by a stranger over the phone.
"Going home!" This was true. I had to get up in the morning and go to my day job.
"Are you horny?"

Here I paused for just a second. I'm not really eligible to have this conversation. But how often do you get to talk dirty on the phone with an adult female voice? So I say, "Yeah, aren't you?" I do not say it sexy. I say it the way I would say it if the question was "Are you going to try the ice-cream cake?"

"Yeah, I am," she said. She said it sexy. She did not sound ugly, and despite the fact that it could obviously go nowhere, some part of me wanted to go forward with some sexy talk.  
"What do you look like?"
Fun is fun, but I now realized it was time to pull the e-brake. "Six foot nine, Samoan, four hundred pounds," and I hung up the phone.

I thought to myself, that was a pretty funny conversation. Too bad nobody will believe it. I told some people at the bar -- the gang from the bar next door that had just got off work -- what had just happened and they laughed and everything but I could tell, they didn't really believe it.

Then my friend Paul, manager of record that night, comes down the steps. "Paul! Listen to this. This girl just called on the phone--"
"Six foot nine! Samoan! Four hundred pounds!" Paul exclaimed.

Paul had been in the office when the call came in, on his hands and knees under the desk, putting envelopes in the safe. He'd reached up to the phone on the desk and put it on speakerphone so he could talk from under the desk, but I came on the line and took the call while he listened, so he heard the whole thing.

Randomly calling a bartender and hitting on him sight unseen is pretty weird behavior, and I'm sure her dad would be very proud. But from my post behind the busiest bar below 14th street, I have seen more than a few cases of weird behavior in the bizarre mating ritual of the untethered New Yorker with an unobstructed view.

One story leaps to mind above all others: I was working at another bar in south Park Slope on a busy Saturday night. The place had a good DJ and there was a nice dance party happening in the back room. A group of ladies came in who I recognized because they had come in a few times over the last few months. I remembered them because it was apparent that they were not born as women. They were good customers, I had no problem with them whatsoever, but they did stick out a bit. (You just can't wear that much makeup.)

They stayed out in the front room while people came back and forth from the dance floor in back. One of them was soon joined by a sweaty white guy in a white t-shirt, a bit of a Kevin, who had been on the dance floor. He ordered a drink, she began talking to him. She was African-American, very short, kind of round. She wasn't as totally, embarrassingly unconvincing as a lady as some of her friends, but you didn't have to look at her long to get the picture.

This fellow talking to her either didn't know or didn't care. He soon lit up and judging by his body language was 100% delighted to be talking to this enchanting discovery. He never stopped looking at her, never stopped smiling, and was soon stroking her hand.

The clutch of people at the end of the bar, who the guy had come in with and were giggling amongst themselves as their friend, seemingly unawares, flirted shamelessly and directly with an obvious female impersonator. They argued whether one of them should step in, physically separate them, and tell the guy what he was doing. But when he took her hand and stared into her eyes, they realized things were about to go to another level and the decision made itself. The argument instantly shifted from whether it should be done to who would be the one to do it.

Meanwhile, this couple was only getting closer, staring into each other's eyes more intently than most new couples (and believe me, I have been present at the conception of many a relationship). Suddenly though, the lady excused herself and went to the restroom. The guy was still beaming even after she was gone. He was totally, visibly smitten.

His friend stepped in and said something. I watched the action from the end of the bar, with his crew. None of us could see what the guy was telling his buddy -- his back was to us -- but the other guy, who was facing us, never came down off his love cloud to even pay attention to what his friend was telling him.

Soon enough, Miss Thing came back, makeup freshened. Concerned Friend retreated back to the end of the bar, and the young couple immediately started making out. The group hit Concerned Friend with a blizzard of questions, and Concerned Friend isn't sure if his buddy understood what he was being told or just didn't care. "She's beautiful," he was reported as saying, over and over.

Seldom have I seen a more passionate bar makeout session than the one that now unfolded before the horrified faces of this guy's friends. But as the facemashing continued, they all seemed to sort of get used to the idea, and decided he was a big boy who might even know what he was doing, and went about their drinking.

After a while Miss Thing excused herself to the bathroom again, and the guy was once again left alone, now not so much beaming as looking like the cat who ate the canary -- very happy and very pleased with himself.

Except now, thanks to the huge amount of makeup his date had been wearing to stay smooth and not stubbley, and to the force and passion of their out-making, the guy looked like a little kid who had just eaten a plate of brownies.

I would gladly pay $1,000 for a color photograph of this moment. $1,020 if it was in a really nice frame.

I have more stories like this but that's enough for now. I'd like to close on a tangentially related note: If you are lucky enough to find yourself in the arms of someone you just met in a public place, particularly a bar, extra particularly if you're sitting at the bar, go ahead and make out with them. Make it meaningful. Be passionate. It's all good, new love is awesome. I first hooked up with my wife that way.

But: you have fifteen minutes before it gets weird. If you must make out longer than fifteen minutes (and I think fifteen is generous -- a lot of people would cap it at ten), once again that's awesome, it indicates a level of interest and passion that most of us envy. We just don't want to see it play out right in front of us. Get a room.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Overcoming Back Pain With Ridiculous Magical Thinking

I was putting a shirt on, reaching behind my back trying to catch the sleeve, when I felt that old familiar sting. Right in the sweet spot, in the meat behind my left collarbone. It hadn't yet spread through the whole muscle -- it was like the first pinprick before the poison goes in.

I knew immediately that I was in for another dance with my old friend Shoulder Pain. Shoulder Pain has been with me on and off since I was about 22. Sometimes it lasts a couple of weeks, sometimes for months, and it is always just delightful. The area between my neck and my shoulder fossilizes, making turning my head, tilting it, or looking up or down bitterly painful. No matter what your lifestyle, this is going to put a crimp in it.

I have probably gone through a dozen or so bouts with Shoulder Pain. The first was undoubtedly the worst. I returned from a snowboarding trip unable to turn my head in either direction. As time wore on, a sharp stiffness spread from a spot by my neck I could massage with one finger to eventually afflict my entire left shoulder and neck, under my arm, and eventually over to the other shoulder. Six weeks in, I could find no comfortable way to hold my head, other than laying on a soft pillow, and 12 weeks in I felt like if I wanted to start crying, I could do it on command, anytime.

Desperate for relief, I ignored my accountant's advice and went to a chiropractor.  She did not help me.  If anything, she made it worse: moving my head into exactly the positions that sent electrifying, sharp pain right down the center channel, the positions I had been training myself for the last three months to avoid. I tried to relax and let her do her thing but my body tried to protect itself on instinct, and resisted everything she tried to do. I left $300 poorer and in more pain than before.

Around this time, some of my best friends were living in a big house/small commune situation -- a 5-bedroom house in Northern California that was home to my friends (a married couple with a baby), plus another couple with a baby, a really weird guy with a shaved head that preferred nudity, and a prickly lesbian couple clearly not thrilled to encounter men in any context. Other than my friend, all the women in the house were new-agey massage therapists, and I longed to ask one of them, any of them, for help with my shoulder.

I craved a deep, kneading, yet gentle massage of the meat behind my collarbones like I had never wanted anything else, ever. The way you can taste a burger the second you lay eyes on it if you're hungry enough, when I saw any one of those three women I could already feel how healing a simple shoulder rub would be from someone with the right touch. But I was young and broke and did not perceive any social cue or conversational opening to ask any of them for help. The lesbians were frosty to males in general, and the other one was busy with a 2-year-old. I never asked any of their fees, but I was made to understand that I couldn't afford them.

One night they had a huge party at the big house/small commune, and with my inhibitions lowered I found myself on a small couch in a small room with the cuter of the two new-agey lesbian massage therapists, who was also the one who seemed most viscerally averse to my presence (as a straight male). Of the three new-agey massage therapists I was afraid to approach for a free shoulder rub, this one is the one I saw as least approachable. But my inhibitions were lowered and I assumed hers were as well (it was going around that night) so I blurtingly begged her to help me with my neck.

She touched it for a second, and asked me how I hurt it. Then we talked for about an hour, and she didn't touch me again until I gave her an awkward hug at the end of the conversation. That conversation has, in the 15 years since, been the basis of my having not quite conquered, but found a way to manage my semi-regular visits from Shoulder Pain.

She grilled me about everything. She started by having me describe the pain, and how it developed, and then she asked about my work, my family, my love life, my diet, my hobbies, hopes, dreams, everything. My inhibitions were lowered, so I answered all her questions in full. Then I sensed we were coming to the end. She began to speak in the tone of a summation:

"Every time you touch your neck -- and you haven't stopped touching it since we've been sitting here -- you say something like 'it hurts so bad' or 'it's not getting better' or 'I've tried everything.' Your body listens when you talk to it, and you're telling it it's hopeless. Tell it it's getting better."

Here I have to mention that under any other circumstances, I would have laughed in this person's face for that advice. Even now, it sounds like the worst kind of New Age feel-good hippie crapola, and I'm embarrassed to even type it.

"Try and picture what's wrong. You keep calling it a 'pinched nerve.' Picture what a pinched nerve looks like, and then picture what it would look like if you had a time-lapse of it healing."

Again, I realize this is ridiculous. I'm having second thoughts about this blog topic. Is it too late to write about Sex and the City 2?

"You have a lot of anxiety, and you're holding a lot of stress in your shoulders. Your body wants to heal, but your anxiety is kind of drowning it out -- your muscles got extra tense trying to protect the tweak in your neck, and once it starts hurting you start focusing on the pain. Try to focus on it getting better. If you feel it hurting, try to imagine that the pain is just part of the healing process, that you're feeling your muscles mend themselves. Your body wants to heal, you have to stay out of its way."

How did I feel about all this at the time? Above all, I felt bitterly disappointed that I only got about 8 seconds of shoulder rubbing. I also felt like everything this girl was telling me was total bunk, and no likelier to make me feel better than lighting a certain kind of candle (which she also suggested). But the fact is I was desperate, and in the particular state of mind most susceptible to this kind of thing. If she had told me to shout "Beetlejuice!" three times I would have tried it. So I imagined what my pinched nerve looked like and I tried not to say it hurt out loud and I said "it's getting better" to myself like a mantra. A week later, the pain was completely gone.

So, even though I know it sounds totally stupid and hippy-dippy to almost everybody, myself included, when I get the familiar pain, as I have probably a dozen times since and as I did putting on my shirt last week, I realize that I'm in for another round of agony, but I'm able to overcome it pretty quickly. Rather than being in excruciating pain for months, I can straighten myself out after an excruciating week or two.  As I write this, Shoulder Pain tapped me on the shoulder nine days ago, completely ruined the best part of a week, but today is the first day I feel like I'm totally back to normal. The little games I play with myself have changed over time, and are now more my own invention than what the new-agey lesbian massage therapist started me off with.

Let's take this last round as an example. I somehow pinched a nerve between my neck and shoulder when I was putting on my shirt, and that hurt for a moment. Almost immediately after, my shoulder and neck muscles started tightening and I started feeling pain when I turned my head. That pain was, I imagined, the muscles surrounding the affected nerve, going on the defensive, trying to stop me from further injuring it. (Is this in any way medically correct? I have no idea. That's not the point.) Once muscles get that clenched up, it's hard for them to unclench, and anxiety -- anxiety about getting your muscles to unclench included -- is not helpful.

I have trained myself, once the onset of Shoulder Pain begins, to be conscious of when I am clenching the shoulder muscle, and I have learned that once Shoulder Pain begins I have an unconscious tendency to clench it about 99% of the time. So when I'm in the throes of Shoulder Pain Week, I constantly check in with myself: am I clenching? If I am (and I almost always am), I consciously (but slowly) relax it. It is truly amazing what you can catch your body doing without your permission.  Many, many times I have noticed that I was not very comfortable in my chair and then realized that I had one shoulder completely clenched up to my cheek and my back twisted around and over like Quasimodo.

A lot of people have back pain, and there are very few things worse. I don't claim to have solved the mystery of back pain. I'm sure it comes in flavors and intensities that I cannot fathom. I don't mean to suggest for a moment anything as facile as "it's all in your head." I don't want to say that I've learned to heal myself by the power of positive thought -- that's also too facile. It's more like I've learned not to make it worse with the cancer of negative thought, or anxiety. It is not always easy to tell yourself "it's getting better" when it's clearly not. When it hurts, Oh My God It Fucking Hurts. I struggled with it all last week and even while trying to Jedi Mind Trick myself I was full-on miserable for two or three days. 

But I tried to remember: I knocked something out of whack putting my shirt on, my body needs time to heal and the best thing I can do is stay out of its way: sit up straight, keep everything aligned, don't tense up. And now I'm back to not even noticing that I have a shoulder, because everything's fine. I have no idea if my experience can be helpful to anyone else, but it's what I've been thinking about this week, so there you go.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to run a eucalyptus bath with tea tree oils, light some therapeutic scented candles, and rub some healing stones on my Ouija board.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Eschew Obfuscation

Messaging is very important in politics. If commitment can be judged by execution, then messaging is not only the most important thing to the Republican Party and its public representatives, it's the most important thing to anyone ever. 
In any given news cycle you can depend on the right side of the aisle to be basically unified in their language, right down to the words they use. They didn't "cut welfare," they "enacted welfare reform."  They didn't talk about a "tax cut," they talked about "tax relief." Whether it's by massive conspiracy or total coincidence, they all somehow seem to get on the same page with regard to any subject of debate; not only do they all uniformly agree on everything always, they all use the exact same phrases and formulations to discuss it. In this, they can rightly be praised for being exceptionally good at staying On Message. They are not wrong to do this: anyone would if they could, including the perennially disorganized Democrats. After 30 years of electoral pummeling at the hands of the invincible GOP message machine, Democrats are finally starting catch on and are now trying to do it too. (They don't want to "raise taxes," they want to "raise revenue.") But they are so late to the party and so bad at it, they are like the shambling, unrehearsed, out-of-tune Grateful Dead on their worst night compared to the GOP's tight military precision, a la the original JB's.
If that tight band has a bandleader -- the guy who writes the tunes, makes sure everybody knows his parts, and tells everybody when to hit it and when to quit it, the Republicans' James Brown has been Frank Luntz.   Luntz is one of the leading architects of Republican syntax over the last few election cycles. He is the man who suggested that everyone with an (R) by their name said "climate change" instead of "global warming" and "government takeover" instead of "healthcare reform." We can thank him for guiding George W. Bush to victory in 2004 in part by renaming "inheritance tax" "the death tax." (Because while few of us have an inheritance to defend from taxation, everybody dies and the idea of being taxed even in the grave is easy for anybody to hate.) He analyzes the issues of the day and recommends language to his clients (invariably Republican officeholders) to best turn public opinion to the clients' position. Luntz is also, it appears from his frequent appearances on The Colbert Report, a nice guy who takes his job seriously but sees the humor and the sport of it all; a guy who will throw elbows on the court but slap you on the back and buy you a Fribble after the game.  You see what I mean? From these clips I get that Luntz is very intelligent and very savvy and not particularly interested in what his clients will do, or have done in the past, once he gets them into office; only that he gets them there and lives to spin another day. And on that front, his record speaks for itself. So, anyone interested in current public discourse should find it very interesting, as I did, that Frank Luntz announced to the Republican Governors' Association, as he did this week, "I'm so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort... They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism." I think that may be overstating things: I doubt Occupy Wall Street is changing how many people are thinking about capitalism, but people do seem to be thinking about it, which is probably a good place to start grappling with the mess we seem to be in. But it seems that Frank wants to prevent that. Critics of Occupy Wall Street complain that the movement is leaderless and faceless and has no clear demands, but this completely misses the point of the protests -- which, to be clear, I am in no way involved with and have barely followed, despite spending my days in an office 1.4 miles from Zuccotti Park. I almost went down there when Radiohead was supposed to play, but I'm lame and I didn't (and neither did Radiohead). Apart from the lack of a singular voice, the big knock on the protest was the drums. Everyone complained that the drum circles were annoying, and that they proved that the whole thing was just a bunch of shiftless hippies. I have no doubt that they were annoying and less than powder-fresh, but they got on the news every day for a month. Isn't that the whole point of a public protest? To make noise, to get attention? It seems to me that the point of Occupy Wall Street is the same as the point of a baby crying. The baby doesn't have a unified voice either, so you have to consider the whole situation and try and figure out what's wrong: did he get enough to eat? maybe he has gas. better check his diaper. is that a rash? The media has been forced to do the same thing with Occupy Wall Street. Do they want to redistribute wealth? Overthrow capitalism? Or just reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act? (What is the Glass-Steagall Act?) With no spokesman or leader to get a quote from, reporters were forced to talk to a whole lot of people with a whole lot of grievances, some of which even made it into their stories. With no clear agenda to give an easy thumbs-up or thumbs-down to -- Ban The Bomb! Save The Whales! Protect The Rainforest! -- the curious are forced to actually Google "occupy wall street" and read about a wide range of issues, most of them having to do with poverty and wealth and the value of hard work and rules and fairness and banking rules. "Occupy Wall Street" might as well be called "talk about Wall Street" -- and if it were, I don't think anyone could deny that it has been a major success. Love it or hate it, support or dismiss it, people have been talking about Occupy Wall Street, and the wide and varied topics under its umbrella, for quite a few news cycles, and that's the entire point. But don't these hippies want to overthrow capitalism? Look: Things like this always draw out the crazies and their crazy pet issues that are never going anywhere. I heard a guy on the radio arguing in favor of shifting the U.S. economy away from money and to a "point system," and of COURSE that's the clip they're going to run. The media did the same thing covering Tea Party protests. That didn't mean everybody there was crazy, and it doesn't here either. But if capitalism, warts and all, were the subject of a full, fair, Freedom-Of-Information-Act policy debate in this country, winner take all, I think it's a given that capitalism would win easily on the merits of its best qualities, whatever its flaws. If capitalism ran against Obama in 2012, capitalism would win in a landslide, right? If People magazine had a Sexiest Economic System Alive issue, capitalism would be on the cover every year. I really don't feel like capitalism is in danger. Recent events have shown that it is not quite perfect (am I a hopeless partisan naif just for saying that?), but look: if Grandpa drove his Buick into a median strip, would you euthanize him?  Or just get him new glasses? I don't think anyone wants to Do Away With Capitalism; there just seem to be a few people with some thoughts on keeping it from driving into the median strip again. Oddly enough, capitalism's staunchest defenders seem reluctant to have that kind of warts-and-all debate -- at least not without working the refs a little first. Messaging is important, so Frank Luntz offered his ten Do's and Don'ts for how Republicans should discuss Occupy Wall Street to the assembled Republican State Governors last week, and they are quite telling:
1. Don't say 'capitalism.' "I'm trying to get that word removed and we're replacing it with either 'economic freedom' or 'free market,' " Luntz said. "The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we're seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we've got a problem."
Here I think Frank gives the public too much credit. I'm not so sure people see a connection between a staunch set of anti-tax, anti-bank regulation policies and "defending Wall Street." Also, maybe capitalism is immoral and maybe it isn't, but at bottom that is what we're talking about here, right?
2. Don't say that the government 'taxes the rich.' Instead, tell them that the government 'takes from the rich.' "If you talk about raising taxes on the rich," the public responds favorably, Luntz cautioned. But  "if you talk about government taking the money from hardworking Americans, the public says no. Taxing, the public will say yes."
This feels the same as calling a used car "Pre-Owned."
3. Republicans should forget about winning the battle over the 'middle class.' Call them 'hardworking taxpayers.' "They cannot win if the fight is on hardworking taxpayers. We can say we defend the 'middle class' and the public will say, I'm not sure about that. But defending 'hardworking taxpayers' and Republicans have the advantage."  
Traditionally, pretty much everyone in America has believed themselves to be "middle class." Notice how no politician ever talks about the "upper class" or the "lower class?"  It's because they know that poor people aspire to be middle class, and rich people don't ever want to admit to being rich. (It's not polite to talk about money.) But as unemployment stays high, it appears that some rent-paying, Hyundai-driving middle-class folks are starting to suspect that they may not be in the same middle class as that guy with the Lexus, the boat and the summer house. Either he's risen out of the middle class or I've dropped below it, but we are not in the same class.
4. Don't talk about 'jobs.' Talk about 'careers.' "Everyone in this room talks about 'jobs,'" Luntz said. "Watch this." He then asked everyone to raise their hand if they want a "job." Few hands went up. Then he asked who wants a "career." Almost every hand was raised. "So why are we talking about jobs?"
It seems to me that the major trick the GOP has pulled, in regard to getting poor people to vote for the interests of rich people, is in appealing to their aspirations. Poor people vote against raising the top marginal tax rate not because they believe in fairness, but because they don't want to pay those rates in the event that they ever get rich themselves. Here again, by talking about "careers" instead of "jobs," we're appealing to aspiration rather than reality. But it may be a bridge too far. People just want to feed their families, and this might drive that home more than appeal to people's ambitions. But what do I know? Frank's record speaks for itself.
5. Don't say 'government spending.' Call it 'waste.' "It's not about 'government spending.' It's about 'waste.' That's what makes people angry."
I think we can all agree on this: Waste is bad. Even the flamingest liberal doesn't like to see waste. The question is exactly what is wasteful, which is another debate the Occupy Wall Street people are trying to start, which again I don't see as a bad thing.
6. Don't ever say you're willing to 'compromise.' "If you talk about 'compromise,' they'll say you're selling out. Your side doesn't want you to 'compromise.' What you use in that to replace it with is 'cooperation.' It means the same thing. But cooperation means you stick to your principles but still get the job done. Compromise says that you're selling out those principles."
No argument there: Just ask the Democrats that voted for Obama last time.
7. The three most important words you can say to an Occupier: 'I get it.' "First off, here are three words for you all: 'I get it.' . . . 'I get that you're angry. I get that you've seen inequality. I get that you want to fix the system."Then, he instructed, offer Republican solutions to the problem.
Tellingly, Frank did not take this opportunity to offer any such solutions, which I'm sure he could have gotten from one of his clients. Maybe he left them on the plane or something.
8. Out: 'Entrepreneur.' In: 'Job creator.' Use the phrases "small business owners" and "job creators" instead of "entrepreneurs" and "innovators."
This whole "Job creator" meme is an interesting one, firstly because it is a perfect example of how effectively Republicans define the terms of debate and the discipline they have in sticking to the script, but secondly because the primary goal of any business is to keep costs down and profits up. If a business owner could do literally everything himself, thus keeping every last penny of his profits, that is exactly what he would do. They don't hire people because they're in the mood to spread the wealth, they do it because they need the help. They are constantly looking for ways to maximize efficiency so they'll need less help, so they can kick more of the profits upstairs, as the last decade or so of radical downsizing proves. Capitalism doesn't really get more basic than that. So it's a little puzzling to see this treated so black-and-white. Business owners very frequently do create jobs, but they are also on vigilant lookout for ways to eliminate them -- not because they're evil but because they're in business to make money.
9. Don't ever ask anyone to 'sacrifice.' "There isn't an American today in November of 2011 who doesn't think they've already sacrificed. If you tell them you want them to 'sacrifice,' they're going to be be pretty angry at you. You talk about how 'we're all in this together.' We either succeed together or we fail together."
*dry heaving*
10. Always blame Washington. Tell them, "You shouldn't be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington. You should occupy the White House because it's the policies over the past few years that have created this problem."
I agree, with some small amendments: Washington's policies in regard to Wall Street over the last 30 years or so have created this problem. Wait, I think that's exactly what the protesters are saying! Maybe we can patch this up!
BONUS: Don't say 'bonus!' Luntz advised that if they give their employees an income boost during the holiday season, they should never refer to it as a "bonus." "If you give out a bonus at a time of financial hardship, you're going to make people angry. It's 'pay for performance.'"
Now look: I don't necessarily agree with everything these protesters are saying. I'm not even exactly sure what they are saying, and I have no interest in listening to it with live drum-circle accompaniment. But I am interested in the debate they have started, and hearing the issues debated fairly and on the merits. I think that as adults, we should all be interested in that. Isn't capitalism strong enough to withstand a little scrutiny? I really think it is. But every time I see one of Frank's acolytes spouting all these clever rephrasings and reframings, and attempts to end the discussion before it even starts, I will remember that they are not actually thinking about what they are saying, but reciting talking points handed to them by a strategist who is really just playing a game, and who once said that having his professional metier called "Orwellian" was a high compliment. A "Pre-Owned" car isn't any less Used, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who can see that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bootsy Collins Deserves Better

The other night I saw something that initially thrilled, and then horrified me: I saw Bootsy Collins (Thrilled: Bootsy Collins is on TV!) in an Old Navy commercial (Horrified: Bootsy Collins is in an Old Navy commercial?!?)
The first reaction was genuine and from the heart, because I love Bootsy Collins. I love him so much I named my dog after him. I love him so much I named the second dog after Bootsy's brother Catfish in case people didn't get it the first time. (Also, she looks like a cat and smells like a fish.) Bootsy (the man, not the dog) is a crucial player in my favorite band ever: the original JB's, James Brown's backing band circa 1969-71. Bootsy played bass, Catfish played guitar.

Bootsy's bass lines were amazing, lethally danceable. "Sex Machine" is Bootsy. So are "Super Bad," "Soul Power," "Give It Up Or Turn It Loose," "Hot Pants," and "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing." Irresistable stuff. In my many years of bartending I have never seen it fail to make people dance.

My second reaction was reflexive: it's always sad to see people you respect as artists being shoehorned into lame product -- commercials, however you feel about commerce, are nearly always unfunny second-rate product, particularly celebrity endorsements -- because they need the money. (It's a lot worse when they don't need the money. Is Jimmy Fallon really doing commercials for a credit card at the exact moment everyone is figuring out that he has the best late-night show around? Really? The moment it becomes clear that you can hold your very lucrative job for as long as you want it, you take the sketchiest kind of endorsement ever? The credit card company in question once sent me a card I didn't ask for, which I promptly cut up and tossed in the trash; soon after, I got a bill for the activation fee on the card, which I didn't ask for, never used, and hadn't activated. But we're getting off topic.)
As product, the Old Navy commercial is not great. The premise is that Old Navy's new "Incrediboots" are in fact made by Bootsy! Great job, ad execs! Take the afternoon off! Obviously, Bootsy Collins is in an Old Navy commercial because he needs Old Navy's money, and I have no problem with him taking it. The ad is not (particularly) embarrassing or unflattering to him. It's very brightly lit and Bootsy does his cartoon voice shtick and Incrediboots can be had for $15 and nobody gets hurt. Still, it seems beneath him -- this guy is one of the all-time greats. After he and Catfish left the JB's they made a single as The Houseguests -- one of the great funk instrumentals ever.
Then they joined George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, where Bootsy played on most of America Eats Its Young and then began to develop the cartoon voice/star glasses/space bass persona that we all recognize now, eventually leading Bootsy's Rubber Band dressed like a Martian and playing a star-shaped bass drenched in effects. He's stayed in that mode ever since, and somewhere along the way his look has evolved from "visiting alien" to "Ringmaster at circus sponsored by Jeri-Curl." I don't have any beef with that persona, it's clearly working for him, and I do like the space-bass records he made in the 70s and I dig the voice and everything. Everything he's done since leaving James has been great. It just hasn't been as great as what he did in James' band. For proof, I offer a performance of the JBs at the peak of their powers: 0:00-0:27 I also can't say enough about Bobby Byrd, James' stage lieutenant and an amazing solo artist (backed by James' band) in his own right. "Try It Again," "I Know You Got Soul," "Hot Pants" -- great stuff. Here he keeps the "get on up" ball in the air, and fields James' queries about whether or not they all may hit it, or quit it, or perhaps count it off with aplomb. 0:52 You can't miss Bootsy: he's the one in the middle that looks like Big Bird. He must be 6'7" or something. I'm sure the dance steps were mandated by the Godfather but he certainly puts his own swivel in it. He is standing between two drummers because James had a very interesting way of making abrupt tempo changes as a dance number suddenly downshifted into a ballad: He would have one drummer play the dance number and then have the second come in on the ballad, and trade off from song to song like that. 1:05 More bands should have one hot lady dancer on a five-foot platform. What happened to showmanship? 1:23 Bootsy and Catfish are doing the steps together. I love it. Notice here how the line Bootsy is playing is very simple, and never changes. Most anybody who could play at all could play it. But can they play it for eleven minutes? One of the great, underrated skills in music is the ability to play the same thing the same way for a long time without getting bored. This is where the Collins brothers truly excel. 2:25 On to "Soul Power," with a busier bass line but the same tempo. This song, even more than "Sex Machine," is like a class in the power of repetition in dance music. The genius of Bootsy's playing in this era was that he provided an ideal foundation for five or six other instruments to add syncopated parts, while keeping the heads bobbing. He's the focus of the whole band, but you have to concentrate to even notice him. By all accounts, the problem with being in James Brown's band was James Brown. I can understand why the '69 JBs never reunited -- they don't much care for their old boss as a person. But James is dead now, and most of these guys are still alive: Bootsy, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Jabo Starks, Clyde Stubblefield... Catfish is gone, and so is Bobby Byrd, but I can't think of any show I'd rather see ever than a JBs reunion. Take Old Navy's money, Bootsy. You deserve it. I heard the restaurant you opened in your hometown of Cincinnati -- which my sister-in-law described as being like the inside of a pinball machine -- went under, so I'm sure you need it.  I just wish you didn't.