Here We Go Again: Study Published, Headline Appears, Study Not Read, Mayhem Ensues

Here we go again!

1. An article is published in a prestigious medical journal, say JAMA or Lancet.

2. Media coverage reduces what is likely a complex, nuanced article to one headline and several talking points.

3. Public reads the headline , and maybe a couple of the talking points , and — without reading further — applies the headline to their own experience.

4. Public  feels a) confirmed when the headline confirms their experience or b) threatened when it contradicts their experience.

5. Sometimes, without reading further and often without reading the study itself,  the wider public (and sometimes even specialists who should know better) rushes to the cultural barricades to proclaim either the wisdom or fallacy of the study.

6. Lay experts, or those who live with a condition of one kind or another mentioned in the article, speak in support or opposition to the article.

7. Cautious voices urging that the study be carefully read  are drowned out

8. Public conflict rages over findings that people still do not fully understand.

9. Original study setting off this chain of events remains largely unread.

10. People watching this unfold, perhaps people directly affected, become even more confused about whether there is anything they need to do in light of  the study.

11. Eventually a health care professional or first-rate health journalist publishes a careful analysis of what should and should not be safely concluded from the study.

12. This careful analysis remains buried in avalanche of claims and counterclaims that are now driving the public discussion of the study.

I mention this pattern for a simple reason. Perhaps this time, before the battle is fully joined and cacophony is at full volume,  we should read the study ( or read a careful analysis of the study) before we let the frenzy go too far.

I haven’t read it yet, but I will as soon as I am  done with this post.

“Diagnosing and Managing Common Food Allergies – A Systematic Review”
Jennifer J. Schneider Chafen, MD, MS; Sydne J. Newberry, PhD; Marc A. Riedl, MD; Dena M. Bravata, MD, MS; Margaret Maglione, MPP; Marika J. Suttorp, MS; Vandana Sundaram, MPH; Neil M. Paige, MD, MSHS; Ali Towfigh, MD; Benjamin J. Hulley, BS; Paul G. Shekelle, MD, PhD
JAMA. 2010;303[18]:1848-1856.

HPV Virus Connection to Skin Cancer? Problems in Media Reports of Medical Findings

 

WedMD has an article about a possible link between the HPV Virus and subsequent diagnoses of squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma. The article reports findings from research published in the British Medical Journal. 

This is a link to the full BMJ research paper which, not surprisingly, reports nuanced and careful findings that cannot be easily translated and simplified.  Among other things, the findings are qualified by the specific type of HPV virus and the specific type of carcinoma.  

And just to show you how perilous it is to reach any medical or scientific conclusion simply from a quick reading of a headline or article title, take a look at the two headlines from WedMD and  from BMJ (British Medical Journal). 

 

  

They seem clear enough. One can easily imagine someone glancing at the headline, registering the finding,  and moving on. The only problem is that farther down in each article, the authors report that people on long-term steroid medications for chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma are at special higher risk of HPV-associated skin cancer. 

My health science colleagues will almost certainly have quickly realized that these drugs have a mild, immunity-suppressing effect.  In fact, HPVs have already been linked to skin cancer in transplant patients on immune-suppressing therapy and in people with a genetic disease (epidermodysplasia verruciformis) that suppresses immune responses. 

But do you see how quickly a headlined “finding” got more complicated? 

Which leads to an ongoing serious problem: Medical findings, when reported in the quick, brief manner typical of the mass media, are almost never treated with the nuance they deserve. The public reads a headline about an alleged connection between “virus A”  and “heart ailment B”  and almost automatically leaps to a belief in a direct, causal elationship: 

“Oh no, I had virus A so I am going to get heart ailment B!” 

Those of you in the health or social sciences, though, already know where I am headed. The connection might be complex and involve multiple variables. All sorts of other intervening variables might also be at work complicating the possible causal relationship.  

And, while  all of these findings might be clear in the actual research article,  few of them find their way into media coverage. 

In this hypothetical example, it almost certainly would be a very specific genus of virus A and a specific type of heart ailment B. And the connection might only be seen in people of certain ages and even certain ethnic backgrounds.  And the correlation might or might not rise to the level of clear, unambiguous causation. 

This would be just another standard media critique, but something quite serious is at stake. Many news consumers, for good or bad, will be using these findings to reach conclusions and take action. And in the case of health and science news, even highly educated, statistically literate consumers very well might not read the actual research article with all of the qualifications. 

I can’t suggest an easy solution, although I do strongly feel that we need to be concerned about statistical literacy and the place of statistics in everything from elementary to higher education. It is astounding how much news — not only health and science — rests on embedded assumptions about correlation, causation, frequency distributions, variance, and all the rest.   

Armed with such knowledge, people might begin to see that in many cases, the alarming headline they have seen isn’t actually as alarming as they might think. 

Without better statistical literacy, we will continue to be plagued by social panics and anxiety about alleged perils that simply don;t hold up to statistical scrutiny. 

It happens that every guy I know who has gotten a slightly elevated PSA test is also a frequent eater of chicken. But we can’t assume that ……. 

Steve, stop!  They get the point.

Tweets From the Firing Squad

 

The pervasiveness of Twitter is no longer a story. But the types of people who use it, and the settings from which they tweet, continues to amaze.

This, I admit, is one I never expected.

I am still thinking about how I feel about the tweet and its circumstances. I don’t, though, have to think about the death penalty, which I oppose on every ground that some use to support it.

In fact, the absence of an empirically verifiable deterrent effect of the death penalty on homicide rates was, I think, lesson #1 or #2  in criminology grad school. I don’t know if it was before or after the lesson about the extent to  which the mass media distorts what actual statistics tell us about the frequency and  characteristics of specific types of  crime.

The Wonderful, Absolutely Unforgettable Ronettes

  

Ronnie Spector

Someday I want to try and explain this Ronettes thing.  Seriously. 

For ow, all I can tell you is that, many, many years ago in my adolescence, they overwhelmed and transformed everything I thought I knew about music and excitement.    

The performance below is particularly thrilling because- as far as I know – it is the only time that the wall of sound was so elaborately created by a live orchestra. The genius of conductor and arranger Paul Shaffer is on full and glorious display. 

The wonderful Ronnie Spector is — as always — luminous.  What a  thrill to see Nedra Talley. And a reminder that we will never, ever  forget Estelle Bennet. 

If it’s not your thing, skip to 6:38 for the incredible solo drum introduction to Ronnie’s extraordinary renditon of  “Be My Baby.” 

Niall Ferguson Has His Say On the Sudden Collapse of Empire: The Paintings of Thomas Cole

 

Several weeks ago, I posted some comments about a 19th-century painting depicting the fall of Rome. I later found out that the painting is part of a well-known five painting series by Thomas Cole entitled  The Course of Empire . Cole, of the Hudson River School, painted the series in the 1830s.

At the time, I was interested in the fact that the painting seemed to compress hundreds of years of decline into one apocalyptic moment. And I noted that much news coverage seems to also focus on the dramatic, apocalyptic moment at the expense of the complex, historical context in which institutions and states decline and, sometimes, collapse.  Social problems developing over time often only become widely visible with the arrival of a calamity.

It actually turns out that the five-painting series depicts a more gradual decline,  and the specific painting of Rome collapsing (above) that I happened upon was the one when everything collapses. It turns out, in other words, that — while  my point about the media’s interest in sudden catastrophe still holds — Cole’s vision was, it turns out, one of incremental decline and loss of an agrarian ideal.

But get this: Yesterday, a reader of Media and Mayhem pointed out  to me that the historian Niall Ferguson, writing recently in Foreign Affairs, was also moved by the same image, and the other paintings in the Cole series, to write about how the public perceives and understands the decline of empires. The articles is called Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos.

But Ferguson reaches a very different conclusion. Empires, he says,  are eminently capable of quick and catastrophic collapse.  Things can come apart quickly.  Social scientists are trained to look for long-term cracks and fissures in social structures, but sometimes, he argues,  a cataclysmic “final-straw”  brings everything tumbling down.

While I’m still pretty certain that media and culture often elevate the visibility of catastrophe and obscure the subtleties of incremental social change, Ferguson’s argument about the fall of empire is intriguing.

And I find it fascinating that he was inspired by the same painting that led me in a different direction.

More Dennis Hopper, And How Could I Forget? “He’s Alive.” Broadcast January 24, 1963.

 

My good friend and postwar historian Glenn Speer reminded me of one of Dennis Hopper’s greatest  performances , one that might not immediately be remembered given the focus on his film career. I am embarrassed that I forgot it, because it had an enormous impact on me as an adolescent.

On January 24, 1963, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone aired an episode entitled “He’s Alive,” one of  the program’s most famous and controversial episodes, and one of Serling’s favorites. Serling had even hoped to expand it into a feature film.

The problem was that this episode, and many others — while the best things on television at the time — often relied on one plot thread or surprize ending. This could be brilliant in short-form television,  but it is hard to imagine  stretching some of the ideas into feature films.

Dennis Hopper plays the role of Peter Vollmer, an American neo-Nazi inspired by Hitler.

This is the final, shattering  scene featuring Hopper. I f you would like to someday see the entire episode, you probably shouldn’t watch it given the plot spoiler.

Extraordinary. Haunting.

Thanks, Glenn.

Dennis Hopper 1936 – 2010

  

 

Bring me any ten nerdy college professors who spent the 60s in graduate school, wandering through libraries, working in politics, or engaging in other similarly dangerous, high risk activities. 

My guess is that at least half of them, maybe  more,  would have chucked it all to be 1/10th as cool as Dennis Hopper. 

We fooled oursleves into thinking that he was the guy our parents wouldn’t let us be.  That even worked as an excuse for a while. 

But the day eventually came — sooner or later — when we admitted  something a little more embarrassing: 

He was the guy we were terrified to be. 

Rest well, Dennis.  There have been movie villains and there have been movie villains. But your brilliant performnace as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet  will always stand alone.

Petty the Poet Gets It: Growing Up In SoCal Suburban Drift and Aimlessness

 

Southern California. Adolescence. I may never get it. But neither can I forget or escape it.

Miles and miles of sameness. No center. Crowds in which you feel alone.  Strip malls. Driving 20 miles to a launderette.  Crystal cathedrals. Feeling lost when you know exactly where you are.

Petty the poet gets it.


Perfect Example: The Simple Public Narrative Of Health and Science Coverage Often Obscures Complexity

Complexity. Many of us say we want it. Many of us complain about media coverage that avoids it.

But it”s hard not to notice that news about health — after it  is shaped and formed and telescoped into a form palatable for the general public —  often obscures a much more interesting,  if somewhat unsettling, scientific narrative.

We crave cures, dramatic discoveries, and individual stories of triumph over adversity.  But isn’t it just like the complexity and elegance of science to confound our desire for simplicity with ambiguous findings, uncertain remedies, and stories without neat and comforting endings?

Which leads to E. coli.

I know how many of my health science colleagues already knew about him this, but I’m even more curious about what percentage of the general public really understands the complexity and diversity of multiple strains of E. coli bacteria.  In  fact, there are hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli, many of which are harmless and some that are not.

What Does a Painting of the Fall of Rome Have to Do With News in the Digital Age?

Fall of Rome

Take a look at this  painting.

It is by Thomas Cole (February 1, 1801 – February 11, 1848),  an English-born American artist who is  regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School.

Rome is collapsing in one giant cataclysm —  drowning, suicide, homicide, every other-cide, fires, floods, and more.  This is a complete collapse that will end in total devastation. By that afternoon, by the way.

Seriously, though, what in the heck does a painting like this have to do with modern mass media?

Here we have a painting that takes 500 years of political and economic and social upheaval and telescopes it into one miserable day when everything comes tumbling down. The problem, though,  is that empires and civilizations don’t just collapse in one day, or even in one week. Weakening institutions, political miscalculations, economic hardship slowly create the conditions that make the collapse possible, and eventually inevitable.

This sounds so much like much current news coverage to me. We see the catastrophic and dramatic incidents in which states are both born and destroyed. A statue is ripped down, a fire started, or an angry crowd overruns the capital and does away with the leadership.  Good old-fashioned reality television.

The problem is that these cataclysms come at the tail ends of long processes in which moral and economic  decline and heaven knows how many other factors slowly plant the seeds of destruction.

From looking at this painting, and from watching the evening news, it’s easy to get the impression that the world is a place without a long complex history, a place where one day there is a  Soviet Union and one day there isn’t, where one day there is an authoritarian state called Romania — run by a tyrant named Ceausescu — and the next day he and his wife are running around their backyard being executed after a revolution.

My point is that much culture — still photographs, paintings, and news coverage — is inherently distorted and ahistorical because , while an image captures a moment, the social change leading to that moment can be long, obscure, and frustratingly incremental.

Television news is great at doing car chases, but scandalously inept at all the pre-history and context and build-up that lead to those cataclysmic moments.

And lest I sound like I am blaming the main stream media, ask yourself this question: Would you rather see a drama about the fall of Rome or a lecture about the complex factors that led to its decline?    Would you rather watch footage of exploding volcanoes and villages being buried or see a documentary on the nature of lava?

Believe  me, there are some times when — given the choice — I’m not  sure how I would answer.

Actually,  Cole was reaching for something more complex than a  one-day, apocalyptic collapse.   In fact, this is only one work in  a five painting series he did called The Course of Empire.  The series depicted society as it evolved  from an initial state of nature to more elaborate social organization to empire and, finally, to collapse.  Cole did the series in the context of a time of dizzying social change when many were concerned that rapid industrialization was destroying the romantic, agrarian ideal.

The point, though, is the extent to which so much art, media, and culture captures discrete moments and gives the distorted and ahistorical impression that our world is an inherently “sudden” place.

Society is a process, not a series of sudden cataclysmic moments.

Recent Attacks Against Children in China: Copycat Crime?

  

 

Photo Credit: AP

 At one point in graduate school, too many years ago, I got a consulting job at a major broadcasting company asking me to summarize the body of  research on the media-violence connection and the question of whether high-profile crimes might cause copy-cat incidents. 

 I should have refused. 

 It’s not there wasn’t a literature. It’s that there was a massive, nuanced, complex, and almost limitless literature. And that literature came from every imaginable discipline and reached every imaginable conclusion.  Lab-based social psychology,  ethnography,  psychiatric epidemiology,  anthropology,  biology, and many others were represented. 

 My report actually ended up being about the breadth and complexity of the question itself rather than the answers provided by the research. 

 I mention this only to highlight the fact that this literature is still large and inconclusive, and still poorly understood by a public that consistently confuses the concepts of correlation and causation, aided by similarly confused media institutions.  

 However, to say that the research is inconclusive is not to deny the existence of a number of methodologically rigorous studies  that do show a causal link  between media exposure and subsequent aggression and others that don’t. 

 I mention this as a way of calling your attention to an extraordinary and horrifying series of recent incidents in China in which perpetrators break have broken into Chinese primary schools and quickly stabbed a group of young students and teachers to death. The latest occurred today

 I won’t attempt to tease out all the nuance in the alleged copy-cat phenomenon, but I did want my colleagues to be aware of this series of incidents. 

Sad. Horrifying. And horribly traumatic for witnesses, victims, and family members.

“Sweet little Sheila, you’ll know her if you see her:” The Great and “not as bubble-gummy as you think” Tommy Roe

 

OK, I am prepared for all the ridicule you want to send my way.  Because we are definitely not in the realm of cutting edge music.

But I have always thought of  Tommy Roe  as more than a Buddy Holly wannabe and quite a performer and song-writer in his own right. 

Some of his songs are pop classics and, while they were originally and somewhat unfairly considered “bubble gum,” that term doesn’t begin to encompass his contribution to pop, rock, rockabilly, country, and  — OK — bubblegum.

No question about his best song:  Sheila.

Sweet little Sheila, you’ll know her if you see her
Blue eyes and a ponytail
Her cheeks are rosy, she looks a little nosey
Man, this little girl is fine

Never knew a girl like-a little Sheila
Her name drives me insane
Sweet little girl, that’s my little Sheila
Man, this little girl is fine

Me and Sheila go for a ride
Oh-oh-oh-oh, I feel all funny inside
Then little Sheila whispers in my ear
Oh-oh-oh-oh, I love you Sheila dear

Sheila said she loved me, she said she’d never leave me
True love will never die
We’re so doggone happy just bein’ around together
Man, this little girl is fine

Never knew a girl like-a little Sheila
Her name drives me insane
Sweet little girl, that’s my little Sheila
Man, this little girl is fine

Me and Sheila go for a ride
Oh-oh-oh-oh, I feel all funny inside
Then little Sheila whispers in my ear
Oh-oh-oh-oh, I love you Sheila dear

Sheila said she loved me, she said she’d never leave me
True love will never die
We’re so doggone happy just bein’ around together
Man, this little girl is fine
Oh, this little girl is fine
Yeah, this little girl is fine
Oh, this little girl is fine

A Treat: Conan O’Brien Appears at Google and You Tube HQ

 

Enjoy a hilarious improvised 48 minute “talk” by Conan yesterday at Google HQ.

Aside from the biting comedy, the clip includes a brilliant explanation about how, when precluded by his contract from performing, he turned to the Internet — Twitter, actually — and went viral.

Remembering Helen Wagner on November 22, 1963

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Today I read a headline stating that Helen Wagner had died. She was a long-time cast member of “As The World Turns.”

When I saw the headline, my immediate reaction was to ask myself: Is it possible no one remembers that she was the cast member speaking on live television at the moment when Walter Cronkite interrupted the broadcast to announce JFK’s assassination?

I was wrong. People remembered.

This is Helen on November 22, 1963 close to the moment when Cronkite broke in with the announcement.

A very,very bad day. One of the worst.

Congratulations to Sheri Fink, Pro Publica, and the New York Times: Pulitzer Prize for “The Deadly Choices at Memorial”

  

Photo Credit: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum, for The New York Times

 

Late last year,  I called your attention to a riveting piece of investigative reporting that was a cooperative venture of the non-profit investigative journalism group Pro Publica and the New York Times

Photo Credit: Tony Carnes/ Christianity Today

 

Reported and written by  Sheri Fink and A.C. Thompson,  The Deadly Choices at Memorial describes the frenzied and painful struggle inside a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina as the  staff dealt with seriously ill  and terminal patients. 

Dr. Sheri Fink

 

Today the piece won a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. 

A must read. 

Why Do Things Get So Nutty Sometimes?: Three Indispensable Readings

 

I don’t want to give the impression that dispassionate distance is my automatic response to every bit of craziness that occurs in society.  

I am not always a social scientist. I feel rage and anger.  My first reaction on  hearing some loony extreme view is not to immediately to unfurl the flag and  celebrate the right to free expression. I do eventually celebrate free expression, but that is not until I finally calm down and pull back from some of the nastiness of which I am capable.

Today, though, after a week of hearing some of the most vicious and extremist rhetoric I can recall, I have been thinking  a lot about three pieces of writing that strike me as indispensable in understanding our latest period of lunacy.  Believe me, I almost choked when I heard Sarah Palin talk about “reloading,”  but today I am thinking less about her mindlessness than about how and why we periodically produce movements so drenched in rage and racism. Why does the United States have such a rich and revolting tradition of individuals  like Palin who — while not  even remotely equipped to think with any originality — are brilliantly  equipped to read the rage and stoke the  hate and irrationality of others?

This is obviously a complex question. But just over 45 years ago, in a classic essay entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the historian Richard Hofstadter opened a door on one of America’s  creepiest corners, a place where every loony strain of racism, nativism, millenialism, sexism, homophobia, and nuttyism come together in an incoherent, yet incendiary, brew.   

This where you find the library  for every  imaginable conspiracy theory that a twisted mind is capable of imagining. And this is also the setting for Hateland’s fully stocked pharmacy —  shelves full of folk-devils of every race, ethnicity , gender, and sexual orientation available to relieve anxiety about everything from a recession to an upset stomach.

Hofstadter understood so much of this and I can’t recommend his essay strongly enough.

Also, in today’s New York Times Frank Rich covers some of the same territory. Rich zeroes in on one of the key symptoms of paranoid politics —  a group enraged, out of control, and armed with a lengthy and astoundingly  incoherent list of grievances. These are the sophisticated political thinkers who can weave Chinese food, unpolished shoes, and aspirin into the evidence that finally proves the government’s secret plan to require weekly colonoscopies.

Finally, I recommend the latest annual report of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism, by Mark Potok.  The report is packed with proof that all the hate and incoherence and bizarre conspiracy theories have  attracted adherents, money and angry people  eager to move from anger to violence.

We can laugh all we want at their  mind-bogglingly nutty ideas, but we would ignore them at our great peril.

You don’t have to make sense to make trouble. Serious trouble.

One Heck of a Good Example of the Limits of Fear and Anger as a Political Communications Strategy

 

I am thrilled about the healthcare bill that the President signed today.

My comment, though, does not have to do with the substance of the bill, nor with the arguments on either side. I’m thinking about the opposition’s strategy.

Why do you think the bill’s opponents chose almost “out-of-control”  anger and fear rather than substantive persuasion?  

Last week I was talking with an accomplished historian and one of the shrewdest observers of legislative politics I know.  Each of us have more than a little experience in and around government and politics, and we found ourselves shocked that we virtually never heard the alleged flaws of the bill carefully and rationally discussed by the opposition. All we heard was a lot of anger about bills getting “shoved down people’s throats” and “government takeovers” and “people losing the freedom to choose.”

This only happens in politics when a party makes a calculated decision that a fear appeal is likely to be effective.  So they chose the “fire in a theater” strategy, trying to get people all hot and bothered. Fair enough.

Well, time will tell, but I think they made a huge strategic mistake.

Not that screaming and shouting is always ineffective.   It actually does work with the extreme flanks. The ranting brought the tea-partiers into line. Screaming and shouting even occasionally got me a “Big Hunk” when I was in third grade.

But I think that a broad middle of undecided voters did want to hear a reasoned and calm presentation of their gripes. And all they heard was noise.  Believe me; I know that the opponents thought fear was a smart political calculation. In fact, any professor of media and rhetoric will tell you that fear appeals can, in some circumstances, work.

So legislators made the choice to repeat — almost verbatim — the same talking points about fear and government takeovers that were written and developed by their leaders.

I will always wonder why the opponents didn’t talk to their potential supporters like adults. Their ranting had already convinced their extremists. But they also had a slew of Democrats who were in play, and other possible opponents from the center. And what did they do? They gave them rage rather than reason.

And they lost.

Hey, you’ll hear no complaints from me.  They made a great choice as far as I am concerned. But I can’t stop wondering what they thought they were doing?  Did they even consider that all the rage and red faces would look, not simply indignant, but out of control?

Perhaps, seeing an inevitable defeat, they pulled a “Dylan Thomas” and simply raged against the dying of the light.

Great Songs in Films #4: “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940)

I debated whether to put this clip up given that, while the song on this clip is directly from the soundtrack of the film, this visuals obviously are not.  If any of you can find the clip  from Disney’s Pinocchio in which Jiminy Cricket sings “When You Wish Upon a Star,” please let me know.

Perhaps the most beautiful Disney song ever, “When You Wish Upon a Star” became so popular after it appeared in Pinocchio that it has been used by Disney in various contexts ever since,  a virtual company theme song.

Embarrassing confession: At times when adulthood feels so oppressive, and  when it  seems I can’t summon any of the feelings and images of childhood, it takes only three or four bars of this song to melt away years of cynicism. I tried to think of some appropriate words, but I am simply unable to describe how and why this song, more tha n any other, made me feel so safe and cared for as a child.

It was written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington and first heard in the 1940 Walt Disney movie Pinocchio, and it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year.

The haunting, ethereal voice of Jiminy is Cliff Edwards, a major star of vaudeville and jazz.

The only music that I find even remotely as evocative of childhood are Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), Opus 15, a set of thirteen pieces of music for piano written in 1838. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen and Träumerei are my favorites. 

 

I Confess. This is Something I Never Thought I’d See: Americans Without Health Insurance Opposing Health Insurance Reform!

 

Now I’ve seen it all.

It turns out that an active group of the over 30 million Americans without health insurance — adults and children who scrimp on medications and doctor’s visits — have joined to oppose health reform.

Here they are, and their arguments are unusual to say the least.

Great Songs/Themes in Films #3: “Le Tourbillon” in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim

 

There is a magical moment in François Truffaut’s 1962 film Jules et Jim when the  breathtaking Jeanne Moreau sings a French folk song — Le Tourbillon” (“The Whirlwind”) — to her two male companions. Unable to decide between the two men (played by Oskar Werner and Henri Serre), she sings this song about emotional turbulence.

It became a popular hit in France. But I warn you: Once heard, it takes up permanent residence  in your head and will be heard in perpetuity.

Absolutely joyful.

 

Pandora: What Can We Learn From a Digital Music Service That Has Succeeded?

I suppose I have gotten so used to failures in the world of digital music that this story about the Pandora explosion was really a surprize.

There are aspects of the Pandora service that drive  me crazy, but I am curious what you think of it.

Anybody use Slacker?

Whoopee! Criterion Collection Now Available for Viewing on Netflix.

 

Netflix has added much of the Criterion catalogue to the films they make available for instant viewing/streaming. This means that, if you are a Netflix member, much of the 20th century film canon (with an admittedly Western European bias)  is there for you to enjoy.

I would never argue that this is the best way to appreciate a great film. A DVD played on a decent sized monitor will almost always trump your laptop. (In an era when,sadly,  seeing a film on a large screen is almost too much to ask for!)  But if you’d like to check off some classics you somehow missed, this is worth checking out.

I just quickly glanced at the Netflix “instant-viewing” list and saw G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief,  Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, and an incredible treat that I first saw thanks to my colleague Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, Henri-George Clouzot’s Le Corbeau.

I almost forgot to mention that this collection includes Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, a haunting meditation on  rootlessness and loss with a beautiful, spare screenplay by playwright Sam Shepard.

And many more.

Enjoy.

A New Law: The Appearance of Any New Technology Will Eventually Be Followed By Some Egregious Misuse of That Technology By An Entity That Might Include, But Not Be Limited To, The Lower Merion School District.

 

I was about to begin this with the standard “if this turns out to be true.”

But the Lower Merion School District has in fact admitted that they were able to surreptitiously activate the webcams on school-issued laptops and watch students at home.

I’ll probably get angry in a few minutes, but right now I’m just sitting here stunned and speechless at a privacy violation that would seem to set a new standard of odiousness. 

I’ll say this for the Lower Merion School District: At least they did us the favor of violating privacy with such heavy-handedness and lack of sophistication that no one will be able to sanely argue that their actions were in some gray or uncertain realm. This was surveillance at its best and most sinister, straight out of  Orwell.   

And they’re being sued.

Paul Dano: Mark My Words

If you have seen There Will Be Blood, there is no way you could have forgotten Paul Dano’s brilliant performance as Eli Sunday. This was creepiness as high art. Whether his acting went over the top is certainly a fair question, yet this very well have been a film in which his lapse into hyper-lunacy was an absolutely integral part of the narrative.

A performance this unusual and  idiosyncratic by a newcomer has had me wondering: Does he have range? Can he do “super-subtle?” Or even regular old subtle? What else does he have?

Watch Paul. If he can also be playful and versatile, and if he takes his craft seriously, he very well might contend for a spot in the male pantheon with Penn and Depp.

By all means, if you somehow missed There Will Be Blood, see it. Daniel Day-Lewis is also remarkable, and it was great to see him in a role that needed every bit of his bombast.

A Doc Film Appropriate for a Blizzard

 

Actually, I briefly considered trying to be mildly amusing about this, but decided to show some unexpected good taste.

You probably have heard that we are in the midst of a  blizzard here in New Jersey and New York. As I wrote to my students today canceling class in Hunter College’s Department of Film and Media Studies, I somehow remembered to recommend a superb and weather-appropriate documentary that is now available for free streaming on the PBS video site.

Check out the The Donner Party,  a film by Ric Burns.

The story of this ill-fated, 1846 journey to California in the midst of a brutal winter is riveting. As a kid growing up in Southern California, it was a story told many times, as if the desperate attempt to make it to California was somehow confirmation of that state’s status as a mythical golden land.

Andy Borowitz Announces New Social Media “Killer App”

 

Andy is consistently hilarious. And virtually every news bulletin of his makes some larger, more profound, point. No one deflates pretense and arrogance and bloviation with more style and humor.

Today, though, he discovers a social networking technology so brilliant that it  could soon mean the end for Facebook and MySpace.

Tiger’s Collapse. And Now His Resurrection?

 

On December 14th, I shared some thoughts about what might happen to the Tiger Woods brand/franchise in light of his personal travails. I  really had no idea how it would all unfold given the enormity of the Woods brand and the incredible symbolic power of his personality.  Another way of saying this is that  few personalities touched by scandal have had as far to fall.

Well, he fell.  And then fell some more.

As each sponsor either fired him outright or more subtly distanced themselves, it became clear that the whole brand had been anchored by his perceived reliability, toughness, persistence, and solidity.  To use one overused phrase: Tiger was someone you could take to the bank.  To use one even more overused: When the going gets tough, Tiger gets going.

OK, I’ll stop.

The point is that his transgressions were not peripheral to his mythology. They were a direct contradiction of the whole structure of the franchise.  And many of the sponsors capitalizing on  his identity couldn’t run for cover fast enough.

But here is the main point I want to make: Everything we know about the social and economic functions of celebrity suggests that his resurrection  is at hand. Again and again — especially when  the potential financial rewards for so many parties are so enormous — our culture enables even the most tarnished brand to be revived. Apologies are given, forgiveness is sought, and the fallen idol slowly begins the ascent back to the top. We  love the drama of  atonement.

In class, I sometimes state it in the form of a “law:”

The speed with which a public figure falls from grace is only exceeded by the speed with which he or she seeks forgiveness and  is allowed  to return to prominence.

We’ll see.

Great Songs/Themes in Films #2: Narciso Yepes – Romance from ‘Jeux Interdits’ (1952)

 

The little girl on the record label, the character Paulette in René Clément‘s masterpiece Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games) , is the actress Brigitte Fossey.  Now 64 years old, she has had a lengthy and productive career in French cinema.

The theme song from the film, which would be haunting in any context, is a shattering musical backdrop for this film about the impact of World War II on a French peasant family. The composer and performer was Narciso Yepes, an acclaimed classical guitarist from Spain. You very well may have heard the theme without knowing its origin. I have noticed that it is a standard part of the street/subway guitarist’s repertoire.

I won’t spoil the ending of the film,  but I don’t know anyone who has watched the film’s final few minutes who hasn’t experienced either run of the mill sadness or complete despair.

Did Objectivity Kill the News? Some Thoughts from Chris Hedges

 

I am a big fan of the writer Chris Hedges, especially his stunning and disturbing book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.  Hedges has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.

Chris has written a short provocative essay about the negative consequences of objectivity in journalism. I strongly recommend it. 

I am still playing around with it and, because Hedges is not one for understatement, I suspect that I might come out with a slightly more moderate take on the issue.

But, as usual, he has challenged a taken for granted orthodoxy with passion and insight.  What,  he asks, is so great about slavish attention to objectivity if we use it almost ritualistically to avoid, and not face, complexity and nuance. What  about the cases in which fairness might not be justified, when a journalist’s best judgement is that only one, and one side alone, holds up?

I always need time to digest Hedges, but I never need  time to be provoked.

Charles Dickens Takes on Incompetent Bureaucracy: Welcome to the Circumlocution Office

For many years, I rarely read much about politics and government  that really captured the craziness, the reversals, the betrayals, the hypocrisies, and the double-dealing of that loony world.

Then, in 1991 , I saw Tony Kushner’s Angels  in America. Of course,  the primary topic was HIV/AIDS,  but that issue was so skillfully embedded in the politics of 1980s America that I left the theatre stunned at how perfectly the play “got” the workings of  power and influence. At one point Roy Cohn – played that night by the magnificent Ron Liebman — delivers a brilliant and cynical monologue about who matters and who doesn’t at the highest levels of political combat.

I wanted to share another  take on government in fiction that I find comparably compelling and gut-splittingly hilarious.  Check out Chapter 10 from the Charles Dickens novel Little Dorrit. Dickens delivers an angry and biting satire on the incompetence of government called “Containing the whole Science of Government.” He does this through the creation of a fictional government entity called the Circumlocution Office.

Too true And too funny.

My Gossip Confession in the Chicago Tribune: Human Nature and Our Need for Happy Endings

Ok,  so I like gossip. What I don’t like is watching lives unravel. A contradiction? Maybe.

I do know that I have to stop expecting real human beings to produce fairy-tale endings.

I let loose in the Chicago Tribune today.

Rhetorical Combat Fought at the Highest Level: The President and the House Republicans

My personal political beliefs are not a big secret. They are firmly and passionately held.

As a Professor, though,  I have always done my best to create a classroom in which students are comfortable expressing diverse views.  I am not sure I have always succeeded. Talking about fairness is one thing, but body language and tone of voice can tell quite a different story. I try.

Media and Mayhem, though, is not primarily a political blog. That does not mean it does not deal frequently with politics. It is that imparting my political views is not its main purpose.  It  has always been primarily for my students and other students of media and culture. But I am fully aware that nothing can really be extricated from the political. 

All of this is to say, in a much too windy way, that when I watch an event like today’s face-off between President Obama and House Republicans, it would be a little dishonest  for me to claim neutrality. I am a Democrat, probably left of President  Obama, who admires the president enormously.  Having worked in politics, though, and having thought a lot about political and communications strategy, I can generally watch a politician appear before an   audience and give a pretty fair evaluation of who won a particular skirmish. I am more than willing to concede that a politician I admire may have performed horrendously.   And I have often had the uneasy experience of watching debates in which people with whom I disagree perform infinitely better than those representing my point of view.

Having said that, and with full awareness that that the president faces close to impossible challenges, I would like to suggest that this week’s State of the Union address by President Obama, followed by today’s face-off with the group of hostile House Republicans, was as good as political communications gets.

Yes,  I know that success is usually measured by how many minds you are able to change. Sadly, this does not seem to be an era in which any minds are changed very easily, regardless of argument or evidence. But simply as a strategic attempt to increase his advantage in the battle for public opinion, and as an attempt to speak to a larger audience of citizens whose  support he will continue to need,  these were two memorable days in the history of the presidency. They also illustrate many principles of persuasion and argument that we should all keep in mind as we make our cases for how we wish the world would work.

The president was neither apologetic nor defensive about his views. At the same time, though, he used words and tone and body language to make clear that he was clearly aware of, and had been chastened by, his failure to enact some of his key initiatives. He conveyed a sense of urgency, but did it without the kind of intensity that suggested fear or panic.  He seemed to say: “I’m here. You’re going to have to deal with me. I have deeply held principles that guide my actions. But we are all in this together and I’m not going to be a jerk about it.”

He also used what appeared to be spontaneous humor to disarm opponents who  looked more than a little strange when, at first straining to keep poker faces,  they sat on their hands and almost refused  to acknowledge that the president was in the room. I respect their right to disagree and to employ whatever political strategy they think is best, but I’m not sure they realized  how strange it looked to be stubbornly refusing to acknowledge anything positive about the president.

The president saw those poker faces, but looked them straight in the eye,  suggesting that he had just made a proposal that they certainly should be able to applaud.

Come on, he seemed to ask, you can give me a little bit of applause, can’t you?  

One of the House leaders did applaud, and then laughed. This is rhetorical combat fought at its highest level, and at that moment the president at least temporarily snatched their weapons away, as if in an old Errol Flynn sword fight.

Then, even more shrewdly, he proceeded to list a series of proposals that the House Republicans simply could not have afforded to ignore. They had to applaud. Even when he proposed something for which there is a reasonable counter argument, he stated it in a way that virtually forced the audience to register at least some enthusiasm.

These events, even at their best, are more combat than careful discussion. Each side’s views are inevitably caricatured by the other side, and impressions  matter more than intellect.

But even judged this way, I think it’s fair to say that the State of the Union was a tour de force, and that the president resuscitated and revitalized his presidency as well as any political leader I have ever seen. Of course, in our current frenzied news cycle, this will probably be quickly forgotten. This, though, was a night when many were watching to see whether his recent defeats would make him a little more defensive and a little less bold. He wasn’t.  

It is one thing to be tough and unwavering. It is quite another to be warm and humorous.  I have known politicians who were superb doing one or the other. But to do both at the same time,  and to do it when the stakes are high and when millions of people are watching, is an extraordinary accomplishment.

J.D. Salinger (1919 – 2010)

J.D. Salinger died today.

When I was 14, my Mom left a copy of Catcher in the Rye on a table in the living room.  Mom had returned to finish college and the book was required reading in one of her classes. I picked it up, went to lie on my bed, and knew that anything left around “accidentally” was probably at least a little steamy. Fourteen year-olds place a high premium on steam.

I was right, although I stopped expecting steam in Mom’s textbooks just several weeks later when, ready for something along the lines of Harold Robbins’s The Carpetbaggers, I found myself searching for the “good parts” in something called The Critique of Pure Reason. No good parts. But I still remember the night I picked up Catcher in the Rye.

I know that the “I never felt understood until Holden Caulfield” trope long ago morphed from iconic to trite.  Over the years, as I would hear others recount the same experience, I would feel less and less like anything special or unique had happened to me that night. I even remember years when my insecurity led me to believe that it was “literary” to dump on Salinger, to consign him to the bin of the obvious and the superficial.

That I was the one who was obvious and superficial would never have crossed my mind. Thank goodness Salinger held up longer than my pretensions.

The first killer-moment I remember in “Catcher” was a hilarious school assembly. I choked with laughter as Holden described a pretentious speech by a bloviating school benefactor being interrupted by a thunderous explosion of flatulence. (Hey, give me a break. I was in 8th grade!)

But even more, I remember experiencing the rest of the book as story after story of a kid whose cynical bravado only slightly, and usually ineffectively, masked his guilt and sadness. It was a revelation discovering that I wasn’t the only smart-ass struggling to keep loneliness at bay. In fact, simply learning that night that I wasn’t so peculiar was enough to lift some of that loneliness.

One episode in particular has stuck with me:  After having been kicked out of school, Holden is on a train going home when he meets the mother of one of his classmates. His cynical side comes first and we learn that the classmate was more than a bit of a jerk. But almost immediately, Holden – afraid to hurt the mother’s feelings – goes into an insincere riff about how great the kid is. And the mother beams. Holden may be filled with disgust at the kid himself, but – when it comes to talking with the kid’s mom – he can only launch into one of his bouts of phoniness. Again and again, Holden’s disgust and rebellion fight it out with his “feeing sorry.”

That’s why I have always felt that the power of the novel lies, not in Holden’s cynicism, but in his losing battle to present himself as a cynic. His effort to play the part of a sophisticated smartass is constantly sabotaged by his inner turbulence and insecurity.

He fails as a jerk.

I know that some view the “feeling sorry” part as naive, as taking the edge off  Holden’s justified disgust with hypocrisy. Why not pass guilt and go directly to alienation? Fair point. That would not, though, have made as much sense to me, not during an adolescence when the rapid-cycling between anger and insecurity, between certainty and complete confusion, was dizzying.

In the intervening years, I have sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed as a cynic. I have hurt others and been hurt myself. I have sometimes wrapped sadness in a veneer of jokes and put-downs. I have also occasionally been smart enough to share rather than hide my scars.

But never, in the years since I first read Catcher in the Rye, have I forgotten just how much I am capable of fooling  myself and just how much, regardless of how I might occasionally act  like a jerk, I will always be rooting for that jerk to fail.

I hope that, to at least some extent, he has.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today; Leonard Bernstein and Beethoven in Berlin

This morning, in that twilight between sleep and wakefulness, when hallucinatory dreams are in full force, I started to hear the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. It was magical. Then I woke up.

A few hours later, I was still thinking about the incredible 9th when I remembered Leonard Bernstein’s performance in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It took only a few seconds of googling to be reminded that it was performed at Berlin’s Königliches Schauspielhaus exactly 20 years ago this evening, December 25, 1989.


It was an amazing performance.  So much came together in one extraodinary  moment – Bernstein’s career, the crumbling of the corrupt, authoritarian  East German government,  and a piece of music celebrating joy and freedom that culminates with the words of the poet Schiller, somewhat modified by Beethoven:

Be embraced, you millions!

This kiss for the whole world!

Brothers, beyond the star-canopy

Must a loving Father dwell.

Be embraced,

This kiss for the whole world!

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,

Daughter of Elysium,

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity

The whole thing is available on You Tube. These are the last six minutes as they were performed 20 years ago this evening.

Ravel’s Bolero? Yup.

Music borrowed for use in  a film does not remain unchanged in the process. Oh, the notes on the page stay the same, but the way the public perceives and hears a piece of music can be affected for decades by one high profile appearance  in a  film. Skilled filmmaking can fuse with great music in a way that elevates both.

On the other hand, great music can be diminished simply by its association with an atrocious film.  I won’t tell you what atrocity of a film used Ravel’s Bolero, in the event that some of my younger students have been fortunate enough not to see it. It is a film that truly gets worse by the year.

I will, though, share with you this amazing outdoor performance of the piece by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic. Part one is followed by part two. Watch how Barenboim lets the succession of soloists get ever so slightly bluesy. Watch the percussion section that, over the length of the piece, moves slowly from being virtually inaudible to all-out thunderous.  Watch an audience that seems stunned into absolute stillness. And finally, watch Barenboim conduct with incredibly minimal movement of his body.

If film X buried Ravel’s Bolero, this 1998 performance is its rebirth. I just regret that it took me ten years to hear it.

P.S. Any comments naming the atrocious film will be deleted.

Jennifer Jones (1919 – 2009)

William Dieterle’s 1948 film Portrait of Jennie, starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten, is one of my problem films.

As a kid I found it haunting and romantic before I even knew what the word “romantic”  meant. For almost 50 years, I have “heard” the music of Claude Debussy that was borrowed for the film’s score, and adapted by Dimitri Tiomkin. It was perfect for a film about a man who falls in love with a ghost, a painting. Ghost music.

The problem is that I tried to watch it sometime this year and many, but not all,  of the moments that gave me the shivers years ago had become trite.  It did not hold up. It crumbled. It was dumb.

I was sorry I didn’t leave well enough alone and let the film remain a part of the magic of my childhood. But no: Mr. Smart Guy had to ask that riskiest of film questions: Did it hold up?  I got my answer.

But the star, Jennifer Jones, was a beautiful, magnetic performer, and Song of Bernadette and Duel in the Sun are just two of the films in her considerable legacy.

She died today at age 90.

Dave Cullen’s “Columbine:” Extraordinary Scholarship and Journalism

I don’t have the time just now to do a complete review that would do justice to Dave Cullen’s extraordinary book Columbine.

But as I watch all the “Best of 2009” lists include Dave’s amazingly  insightful and thoughtful book, I wanted to make sure that my students know just what is possible when an immensely talented journalist and scholar takes the time to understand an event sometimes dismissed as inexplicable.

Dave’s Columbine is the virtual opposite of the standard shlocky true-crime book. In fact, I hate to even mention it in the same breath as those overnight rush-jobs by self-styled criminologists who throw in every rumor and sensational news story and call it a book.  Dave examines — with uncommon care and empathy —  all of the many lives and social forces that came together at that horrible moment and the result is easily the best work about a  sudden act of mass violence I have ever read.

I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Great Songs in Films #1: Dear Mr. Gable, You Made Me Love You, in Broadway Melody of 1938

I deal with enough difficult topics on Media and Mayhem that, to keep myself sane, I occasionally come up  little features that are fun, all fun, and nothing but fun. Today I will start to occasionally share some of my favorite complete songs sung in films.

Warning: Very few of the songs come from musicals, but from films in which a full song with lyrics had a legitimate place in a script and moved a story forward.

My first choice is one of  my favorites,  maybe my favorite of all. “You Made Me Love You,” written for the musical The Honeymoon Express in 1913 by Jimmy Monaco and Joseph McCarthy. Judy Garland sings it to a photo of Clark Gable  in Roy Del Ruth’s film, Broadway Melody of 1938. (MGM, 1937).

The Tiger Woods Brand/Franchise

One of my undergraduate classes, Myths and Images in Mass Media, regularly explores the complex and extremely valuable structure of licensing, endorsements, tie-ins, and ancillary rights that can be built around some celebrities.  At the same time that  the celebrity’s image is created, nurtured, and protected,  deal after deal is negotiated to exploit that image and profit from it.   

This doesn’t require sainthood. There are celebrities cashing in whose carefully crafted and valuable image  includes everything from outlaw to oddball. All that is required is that the celebrity outlaw or oddball have influence with some demographic group that a commercial interest would like to reach and exploit. 

There are even a whole group of serious celebrity earners whose images are shaped and reshaped and exploited long after their absolutely  final and irrevocable retirement, if you get my drift.  In other words, Humphrey Bogart still does commercials.

Which of course leads to Tiger. Not much to say yet, but this will really be something to watch. How much will his personal problems tarnish the brand and how much of a price will he pay? Might we be on the verge of watching the ultimate case of celebrity brand fragility? Could his problems really bring down a brand this valuable?

Watch closely.   There will be a lot to be learned here about celebrity, image, and commerce.

The Empathetic Stance in Documentary Film: Remembering “The Education of Shelby Knox” (2005)

I see films depicting all sorts of human activity and culture and ritual. I see people engaging in incredibly diverse  practices that they use to try and make sense of a sometimes confusing world.

And, while many good documentary films tell the stories of people who have acted nobly,  sometimes they tell the stories of characters who engage in  sense-making practices or rituals that seem to me to be everything from foolish to frivolous to downright despicable.

My bias, though, (and this is something that sometimes sets me apart from those who seem to dwell permanently in ridicule and cynicism),  is that I always try to watch those practices from the standpoint of empathy, understanding, gentleness, and a serious attempt to see the world as the characters see it.  And I also have a bias toward films that take this perspective.  This is not the kind of empathy that condones actions, but the kind that struggles to see the world as someone else sees it.

I  can think of many examples of films that resist using a sledgehammer and instead depict  characters and their  actions with empathy, even when most people would correctly  find those actions to be  unacceptable. I want to know why people do things, what world they see that makes those actions seem logical.  I don’t mind an occasional film that ridicules the ridiculousness of some people’s actions, but for the most part I favorite insight over ridicule.  In fact I find that filmmakers who strive for insight and empathy often end up with films that more completely and fairly condemn someone’s action than those filmmakers who set out simply to make fun.

Just off the top of my head, one recent example is  Rose Rosenblatt’s and Marion Lipschutz’s marvelous The Education of Shelby Knox.  I love this film because it came to each character with humility, knowing that they each had constraints, responsibilities, and a whole life story that brought them to a given moment.

One fundamentalist minister, in particular, expressed views that could not be farther from my own. Yet because of the filmmaker’s attitude towards their subjects, and because they completely resisted making him look like a jerk, I was left with a real understanding of how this man sees the world and why he sees his fundamentalism as an antidote to forces that scare him. I still disagree with him,  with more vehemence and anger than ever,  but it seems to be a more informed and nuanced disagreement than the queasy feeling I had when Michael Moore ambushed Charles Heston.

Yes, Moore ambushed an impossibly foolish man and made him look — surprise! — impossibly  foolish. Congratulations, Michael.  But I did not find that to be even remotely insightful. I want to know more about the motivations and impulses, the historical and social contexts,  that lead to such foolishness. And I am not saying that I want this in even a slightly didactic way.  Audiences deserve  this insight, and they deserve it in the context of an elegantly crafted and edited film.

You really should check out The Education of Shelby Knox. The forces that this courageous young woman confronts are considerable. Many of those who oppose her effort to disseminate good information about sex in secondary schools seem narrow and even venal. But this is the kind of extraordinary film in which even the actions of the ostensibly venal are presented with incredible insight and context.

That will always trump ridicule any day.

A New Media Economy is Coming. So Welcome the $3.99 Short Story.

However the new media economy shakes out, however the money is made,  I am most hopeful that some successful format will be found that will allow the actual writers and creators  to be paid for their labor.  MBAs and assorted media gurus call this the monetization question: Who makes how much and how do they make it?

So welcome the $3.99 short story.

Snow of the northeast, how much do I loathe thee?

Snow of the northeast, how much do I loathe thee?  Let me count the ways.

Oh, I know.  I’ve heard the speech for 35 winters.

“You’ve lived here all these years and California is in the distant past and the sun and waves and all that nonsense was a big illusion and you forgot that the California dream was a fantasy that hid all the ugliness and sprawl and freeways and earthquakes and you get to live in such an exciting place so why can’t you shut up about a place called Laguna Beach that was the center of the world and stop playing the darn Beach Boys music and just settle back and enjoy the:

Change of Seasons!

Yes, that is the much-touted pathetic alternative to sunshine back here.  The change of seasons.  I am told I should believe that the mystical “change of seasons” is actually something more profound than what it looks like — a depressing moment when we change from a warm and sunny and hopeful world to a cold and overcast and hopeless world.

So I ask again:  Snow of the northeast, how much do I loathe thee?

You see, it really doesn’t matter that I have spent more than half my life in New York and New Jersey. Every year I try to get myself in the frame of mind for a real hot-chocolate, fire-place, and wool sweater winter. Every year I tell myself that I won’t just love the movie Fargo, but that I will also love traipsing around in ice and snow and even love the pitch black of night that comes at around 4:40 PM in the afternoon.

I will nest. I will turn on the stupid Crockpot and put on sox. Maybe I’ll even buy one of those idiotic zip up blankets they sell on the infomercials, the ones that look like straight-jackets.   I will turn inward.

And every year I loathe it. 

Thank  goodness for one exception: We have friends down the block who punctuate winter with a beautiful and moving celebration of Christmas, an observance they center more on the lessons of the nativity than the crowds of the mall.   But that’s not for a few weeks.

Today we are having our first snow.

So feel free to join me in welcoming the first snowfall with my traditional celebratory ritual, the viewing of the web cam.

This is Poipu Beach on the Island of Kauai, where the sun shines and the waves break , a place where you turn inward as a spiritual exercise and not because it’s too disgustingly wet and cold to open the front door.

And this is the change of  seasons:

The Taxi Takes on Terror

Some of you who occasionally read Media and Mayhem know that I often think about the often troubling and strange place where media and culture meets  tragedy and catastrophe.

That is why I want to call your attention to The Taxi Takes  on Terror,  an ambitious effort by a talented young artist to confront terror and  find  common ground between diverse people through the surprizing lens  of a taxi in crowded Mumbai.   Vandana Sood is a graduate student in our MFA program in Integrated Media Arts at Hunter College.  Her thesis project is a mesmerizing use of both video and other new media tools  to examine the aftermath of the Mumbai massacre.

What makes the project so fascinating is that the “frame” she chooses for her exploration are the taxi cabs of Mumbai, spaces both public and private in which drivers and passengers — surrounded by the passing tumult of street life — try to make sense of such painful events. As Vandana asks on the home page of her web site:

“What happens when people from different class backgrounds, literacy levels or religious faiths sit across from each other in a taxi and take a journey together? Can this setting provide fertile ground for a rich dialogue about modern terrorism?”

The results of her  journey through the tumultuous streets of Mumbai are at once profound and beautiful.  And the temporary coming together of diverse people in a taxi does turn out to be an extraordinary moment for reflection and expression.  She captures a number of these interactions on film and also gives us a fascinating glimpse at the taxis themselves, vehicles that — inside and out — are extraordinary objects of art.

I invite you to take a look at Vandana’s The Taxi Takes on Terror.  It is a work intended to stimulate discussion and debate. Feel free to leave comments and engage in the discussion she has initiated.

And see just what is possible when a talented video-maker and digital artist  — working in the aftermath of an epic act of terrorism —  chooses the unique context of a taxi  to explore matters of conflict, violence, hope, life, and death.

A Giant Chorizo With Tires: Welcome to the Weinermobile!

Courtesy of my friend Dominic, an absolutely loony blog about the goings-on inside the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile as it travels the country — really imaginative marketing using new media tools.

I bring it to your attention for several reasons. 1) I find it stunning that the Weinermobile, an icon of 1950s hot-dog branding,  is still alive and kicking. 2)  It summons memories of one of the single greatest days of my life, the day in in 1960 when the Weinermobile visited Grovecenter School in Covina, California.

3) It reminds me of an incident three years ago out in the Jersey burbs. At the time, there was an immigrant family from Northern Mexico in the neighborhood whose 7 year-old son would come over and play with my daughter. One day, he was over when I heard that the Weinermobile was going to be visiting the nearby train station that morning.  I had to go and I had to take the kids.

But first I had to call his Mom, who spoke no English,  for permission.

And that phone call was the unforgettable memory:  In one five-minute phone conversation,  I learned that there is no amount of non-native fluency, no number of years of study and immersion, no amount of  Mexican music and literature to which you can be exposed that prepares you to even approach explaining a Weinermobile in Spanish.  All I remember is saying something about some guy who thought it would be cute to put wheels on a giant chorizo.

I do, though, remember her perfect reaction, which she sort of mumbled across the room to her husband and which she didnt seem to intend for me to hear:

For this we went through years of legal immigration procedures? A giant  chorizo with tires?

Waiting to See Which Media Outlet, If Any, Will Eternally Shame Themselves By Paying White House Party Crashers for Interview

Actually,  I hope none of you are even wasting 5 seconds of time thinking about the fame-starved loony-tunes who crashed the White House State Dinner this past week.  I certainly would not have been were it not for this AP story reporting that Mr. and Mrs. “Even a Tux and Gown Can’t Hide Our Essential Stupidity” are now trying to sell the rights to an interview.

No shock, of course.  “Cashing-in” after having done something stupid, and having media outlets willing to pay,  is a great American tradition that includes all sorts of  noble behavior. In fact,  I think  Michaele and Tareq Salahi have earned themselves a place of honor right up there with people who dump medical waste on beaches,  laugh at people when they trip and fall, or bring  whoopee cushions with them to church.

We are talking major-league idiocy.

But their stupidity might, I repeat might, be about to be quickly surpassed.  Because any media outlet with even a pretense of seriousness that actually does pay the Salahis for an interview, or that in any way enriches these pathetic jokers, will immediately knock them out of first place on the National Registry of Shameless  Stupidity.

The world will always  have jerks.  Many of us, myself included, will on occasion be those jerks. And the world will always have people willing to reward jerks.

But there is no reason that the rest of us  have to stand back and be silently complicit.

This is the precise moment when we should be watching,  and watching closely, for any evidence that the Salahis have been paid for an interview.  If this happens, the name of the offending media outlet should be blogged and tweeted and printed and sung and shouted until the whole world knows who decided that this was valuable news.

Then, only one task will remain: Each of us will have to ask ourselves  how and why we might have been complicit members of an audience that, again and again, has proven itself willing to watch these paid interviews with people like Mr. and Mrs. “Even a Tux and Gown Can’t Hide Our Essential Stupidity.’

 

A Special Comment on the Tragic Stabbing Death of Dwight Johnson

Moments ago I received the comment above about my last post. I have a response:

Cassandra: If I am interpreting your comment correctly, and you are Dwight’s cousin,  I want you and your family to know how very sad I am about what happened.  I cannot even begin to imagine the pain that all of you are feeling. I am thinking a lot  today about the fragility of life and the speed with which it can be tragically and cruelly ended.

Only the photographer can speak about the photographs themselves  and the decision to take them when she did. I reported the story that appeared  in the New York Times to students of mine who I thought might learn something valuable.

But I have a confession and an apology:  I am not happy with my initial reaction. I did think the incident and the photographs taken were vivid and interesting evidence of the speed and confusion with which these tragic events unfold.

But the minute I saw your email, I realized something else: My first reaction as a news consumer reading about the tragedy should have been concern for Dwight and all of you who today are living with this unbearable pain. My knee-jerk reaction was all too typical:  I  let the details of the incident obscure the single most important fact, i.e., that a precious human life was lost.

I once wrote an article about this very issue and you can read it here.  I wish I had remembered what I wrote. We all have to struggle to remember the foundation of grief and raw emotion that is always right there beneath the daily flood of events.

My only thought about the actions of the photographer  comes from work I have done studying how sudden traumatic events unfold and how they are covered in the media.  Explaining why people act  in certain ways under such extraordinary circumstances is almost impossible.  What seems logical moments later — and even days and weeks later —  often was not as obvious in the moment. Many of us, myself included, look back with regret to incidents in which we acted one way and not another. Our decision may have had tragic consequences. And sometimes we should have known better.

Much of the time, though, what we should have or could have done only becomes clear after the fact, and we have to be very careful not to judge ourselves too harshly. It is so important to remember just how fragile and human we are.

But what matters today is Dwight. I am thinking about you and your family.

All best wishes and deepest sympathy,

Steve Gorelick

A Subway, A Young Photographer, and a Stabbing

What a story.

Take a look at the kind of photographs that were taken by a young photographer  in the midst of  a frenzy of sudden violence on a subway.  This will occur more and more in an  era when most of us carry around some sort of camera device.

These spontaneous pictures, with all the frenzy and fear they depict, are an unusual window into the precise, confused  moment when panic strikes in a public place.

Things You Might Check Before Reporting Your Car Stolen

Directly from the pages of my local New Jersey community newspaper, local  journalism at its best:

Tuesday, November 17, a resident of

________Road reported that a motor

vehicle that he had borrowed from

his son-in-law was stolen from his driveway,

where he had parked it and left it

unlocked. According to police, the vehicle

was later located in a neighbor’s

driveway, where it had apparently rolled

after being left in neutral.

Bill Sparkman: Suicide, Not Murder.

This is a very sad post.

And despite some of the research areas in which I work, I am not a big fan of sadness. I don’t like it at all.

Students and colleagues sometimes laugh when I tell them I love joy and music and gut-splitting laughter. Because there isn’t too much of that in studies of media and violence and catastrophe.  I mean, it is only rational for someone to open our college catalogue,  see a grad seminar entitled Disease and Disaster in Media and Culture — and wonder if the instructor is rowing with all oars in the water. (Actually,  all his oars aren’t always in the water, but that’s another story).

I can only say that my fascination and curiosity  about violence was born of an intense curiosity about the effects of crime and violence on society and social institutions, everything from families to nations.  I won’t bore you again with childhood experience that planted this seed.

The sad story I want to share is about a murder that turned out not to be a murder.

On September 13, 2009, a US Census Bureau employee named Bill Sparkman was found hanged in an isolated location in rural Kentucky with the word “Fed” scrawled on his chest. This was at a time when anti-federal rage was on fire across the country in the form of  health reform town meetings being mobbed by people who find any government involvement ion health care to be a mortal sin.  (These , by the way, are overwhelmingly people WITH health insurance.)

The immediate assumption was that Bill Sparkman had been murdered.

It is easy to see why the media jumped on the murder narrative. All of us need to come up with some story that makes something horrible even slightly comprehensible. The murder of a “Fed” was as plausible as any other theory, and the fact that it took place in Kentucky summoned distant memories of the feds who came looking for illegal moonshine during prohibition. The story received enormous coverage.

The problem is that Bill Sparkman was not murdered. The official report just released details an elaborate suicide plan in which Mr. Sparkman would fake  his own murder so his son could collect his life insurance.

This is, of course, achingly sad for both Mr. Sparkman and his family. But I raise the story in Media and Mayhem to make an important point. There are times when everything about an incident points to one explanation. But this is precisely the point when a skilled journalist or media consumer or plain old citizen will ask what at the time seems like a dumb question: Yes, it looks like a murder, or yes it looks like a stranger abduction, but what is every other even slightly plausible explanations that has to be ruled out? Why might this NOT be what it looks like?

Supposed stranger abductions, for example, are only very rarely actual stranger abductions.

Very few people did that in this case. And it is a lesson to be learned and mulled over again and again.  The obvious and the plausible are often wrong. Sometimes that is because someone wanted to create a false impression to hide their culpability and sometimes no one is at fault. The guiltiest “looking” person can be innocent. And the most innocent looking person can be guilty. The point is that society gets in deep trouble when it jumps to conclusions based on looks and other stereotypes.  The single most horrifying story I have ever seen of a  “guilty” man who turned out to be completely innocent is detailed in the riveting HBO documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt.

The trick of responsible citizenship, the kind of citizenship in which we place a high premium on truth, is to  never accept the obvious narrative immediately and to always  await the inevitably complex and nuanced details that are really what  make us human.

Finally, responsible citizenship requires our compassion. Oh,  we can be angry at a man whose deception scared a lot of good people . But we also might at least consider feeling compassion, even grief,  for a human being in such personal pain that this kind of scheme seemed the only way out.

The Family Stories That Surround You: National Day of Listening

Don’t ever forget that they very family that may surround you with all sorts of contradictory feelings — everything from love to anger; from dysfunction to support — is also a source of oral hsitory and audio narrative that  might someday mean a lot to you, either as a tool for self-exploration or as a way of sharing your family history with generations to come.

Learn audio. Record. Collect. Don’t wait.

Sundry Recommendations

I have some miscellaneous and  enthusiastic recommendations.  They may not be everyone’s cup of java but they sure grabbed me, each wonderful examples of the reach of compelling content being extended by digital tools.

1) The first is outright embarrassing: Because, for a guy who at least tries to convince himself that he is wired,  it turns out that this “new”  discovery from American Public Media has been around since  2001.

Many of you farther along on the “wired” continuum already know about Krista Tippet’s Speaking of Faith, an American Public Media production billed as “public radio’s national conversation about belief, meaning, ethics, and ideas.” Well, I had no idea. And I simply want to pass on that, if you are someone who at least contemplates matters of the spirit, God, holiness, and compassion, you must give Krista’s broadcast a listen.  It moves back and forth between many of the world’s religions and, rather than working the typical extremes of the age of fundamentalism,  most of the discussions take place in the messy, complex middle where most of us actually live.

One broadcast worth downloading is a panel discussion with Krista, David Brookes and EJ Dionne discussing the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr..

Another program on German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is riveting.

2) I also recommend a new on-line version of a class entitled “Justice: What is the Right Thing to DO?” at Harvard taught by Michael Sandel that has long been one of the University’s most popular courses.  The entire course, filmed elegantly with multiple cameras capturing student reactions and questions, can be seen here.

3)  A great guide to all of the podcasts and courses and provocative discussion freely available for download can be found at http://www.openculture.com/.

4) Finally, and I will understand if you are a little skeptical,  is the incredibly rich and fun Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Each week they will send you a podcast of one of the biographical entries read aloud. I can only tell you that they are amazingly absorbing, incredibly entertaining.  Yes, I used the word “fun.” One week it is the famed, hard-living UK footballer George Best. And then comes poet Phillip Larkin. These are not standard reference entries. They are brilliantly written short takes on lives,  they have a point of view and — sometimes if the subject calls for it — they are hillarious.

Their podcast of the biography of spy Anthony Blunt is a great place to start.

5) Finally, to hear some extraordinary true-life story-telling from an organization doing all it can to keep the spoken, performed story alive, check out the podcasts from The Moth.  Real people. Real Stories. Performed live. And a lot of laughter, pain, and everything in between.

Fun stuff.

My Ten Favorite Films: A Revised List

Every time I talk about top 10 lists,  I always start with the  disclaimer that I know  how pointless they are.

And then I ask myself:  OK, if they are  so pointless, why do I have so much fun reading them and doing  them and sharing them?

No good answer, In fact, making lists is far from the only pointless thing I do.

Today, I am adding some new films and slightly changing the order.   It is not a 10 best list.  It is a list of my ten favorites. A  list of 10 best films  would be beyond nervy given how many films have a legitimate claim to inclusion.

But it seems perfectly fair to make a list of ten favorites since they are, in fact,  only my favorites.

My favorites have stayed the same for over a year.  But for the last few months I have been mulling over “No Country for Old Men”  and “The Lives of Others.” (Now I can really hear you saying: This guy need a life! Who has time to mull anything over?)

Seriously, I want to make some changes to my list.  But according to ground rules that some friends of mine and I set up many years ago in a UCLA dorm room, I have to remove one film for each one I add.  I posted my last 10 favorite about a year ago. Here is my new one along with a list of contenders.

Comments welcome. Lists welcome. Ridicule welcome.

My Ten Favorite Films as of November 15, 2009

1. Dekalog

2. Godfather 1/Godfather 2

3.  Salesman

4. The Lives of Others

5. Amarcord

6.  Goodfellas

7  No Country for Old Men

8  Fargo

9. Rear Window

10 Night and Fog

__________________________________

Other Contenders (not in order)

Midnight Cowboy

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Au Revoir les Enfants

Shop on Main Street  (1965)

It’s a Wonderful Life

Jeux interdits

Come and See

Smile

Atlantic City

Three Kings

Das Boot

The General

Paris, Texas

Shoah

Invaders from Mars

Strangers on a Train

The Graduate

The French Connection

Double Indemnity

Les Enfants du Paradis

Les Diaboliques

Psycho

Le Salaire de la peur

Sunset Boulevard

The Exiles

The Last Laugh

Hotel Terminus

Happiness

The Third Man

M

The Marriage of Maria Braun