Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fixing Stupid

“Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”
- Abraham Lincoln

“I love it loud – right between the eyes.” – KISS

The most watched program on cable, the most trusted name in news is not who you think they are. Although there are maniacal blowhards, sarcastic snides and outright idiots, you can’t judge the most popular show on cable television too harshly. To do so would argue against the will of the people, which have provided this show with unmatchable ratings over the last ten years. It is fair, balanced and shows the true face of the heart of America. The show attracts millions of followers regardless of political affiliation. Thinking “The O’Reilly Factor or “Hannity” by chance? They are eclipsed everyday by the true voice of the people: Spongebob Squarepants.

This shouldn’t be a shocking revelation to anyone who does not eat, sleep and excrete political news shows. Spongebob and the WWE’s Monday Night Raw draw more viewers than any political show on cable television and has for literally the past decade. Ironically, the WWE’s wrestling viewers and those who watch Sean Hannity’s five hours of misinformation each week should have intricate knowledge of the other. Both have characters so larger than life they resemble cartoons (see Undertaker and Sarah Palin) and tend to spout out a “fountain of misinformation.” The late wrestler and commentator Gorilla Monsoon used the aforementioned adage to rip on the commentary of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who looks kind of like a blond Hannity. “Monday Night Raw” is on just once a week, while the airings of Spongebob are as numerous as all the major political shows combined.

Submitted for your examination, the cable show ratings for the week ending January 17, 2010. The week featuring the debut of Sarah Palin as a regular commentator on Fox News which is the cartoon equivalent of when Patrick Star nailed a board to his forehead Indeed, Fox News had boffo ratings for the initial Palin appearances, topped by The O’Reilly Factor’s 4.2 million viewers that Thursday. The appearance of the political Patrick was still no match for the real pink deal as reruns of Spongebob managed to net a larger audience. The argument can be made that this is just a kids show for the mentally disadvantaged but I will give Fox News the benefit of the doubt. There are legitimately intelligent people who watch and contribute on Fox. A few may even have legitimate blonde hair. Fox News does have their Charles Krautheimer and Bill Kristol. Spongebob has Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway. It’s apparent which has the bigger star power.

According to Fox News, they are “the most trusted name in news.” Their claim is not without merit, as their average prime time audience is more than CNN and MSNBC combined. However, their average audience of 3.6 million is dwarfed by the broadcast news of CBS, ABC and NBC, which average over 25 million viewers combined on a nightly basis. I take into account the argument that broadcast news is free and cable is not. But like it or not, kiddos, numbers do speak for themselves. Over 56 percent of American households pay for cable. If we were to “fairly balance” this equation, broadcast news would have an audience of approximately 13 million compared to the 3.6 million watching Fox News. That is still a statistical advantage for the “big three” of 4 to 1. Not exactly the stuff revolutions are made of. Compare this further to the total population of the United States, currently estimated at 275 million. Only 13 percent of American citizens bother to watch the news on TV at all. Apparently, 87 percent of us have something better to do like watch Spongebob or American Idol.

Many people would like to point various polls and statistics showing an imminent conservative revolution. I’m sorry, the pudding is all over my face and there is yet to be any substantive proof that could not be explained by a combination of socioeconomic factors. Think of many of Rasmussen’s polls as political equivalents of Bigfoot sightings (including the deliberate capitalization of the name “Bigfoot” as to give it more authentic credentials. They tend to be skewered, glossy and ultimately as misleading as Sasquatch. Another poll, with statistics far outside the margin of error was released by CBS News January 18th regarding Ms. Palin. In the poll, 71 percent of Americans stated they did not want Palin to run for president, including 56 percent of Republicans polled. Further, despite her massive book sales and media blitz during the last few months of 2009, Palin managed to increase her favorability rating by a whopping three percent, to 26 percent. Now that’s a star, I tell ya! It is entirely feasible Palin’s staff had similar tracking poll numbers as she signed on with Fox News as a commentator to more directly confront her timeslot enemy, Patrick Star himself.

Still not convinced this is all sham, true believers? Still planning on making incoherent signs and getting angry with a government you could have cared less about until it directly affected your personal bottom line? Well, tea-partiers and conservatives definitely got “something” in a box when the citizens of Massachusetts elected Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate, replacing the late Ted Kennedy. Brown’s election proved one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt: people are pissed at the status quo pro “no” that is Congress and are tired of candidates thinking that a political position belongs to them without any merits. Ted Kennedy’s niece, Caroline, tried to attain a U.S. Senate seat a year ago with her basic credentials being close to nothing besides her lineage. Because she is not completely moronic, she withdrew her candidacy to spare herself the forthcoming humiliation of not being chosen. Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts Senate candidate who would be defeated by Scott Brown, had none of Caroline Kennedy’s foresight. All statistical analysis, points to an individual who really believed she deserved the senate seat and did not have to earn it. Most telling is the ratio of campaign rallies. Scott Brown held sixty-six rallies compared to Coakley’s nineteen, a ratio of over four to one. Add to that several insipid comments directed at Boston Red Sox great (and Republican) Curt Schilling, Coakley’s campaign was literally begging for a political thrashing. It should come as no surprise to anyone that she lost. Had she ran a campaign remotely as enthusiastic as Scott Brown – well, who knows? People are mad and when they are mad, they are quite unpredictable.

It is with these overt feelings in mind, along with continual antipathy toward the government that I believe the state of our historic union can only be summarized with one word: dysfunctional. As more Americans have been given the ability to unlimited information about how our government works - or more specifically how it does not work at all – many citizens have become polarized in their convictions in a fashion similar to that of our popular culture. Either you like “Spongebob Squarepants” or you hate it. Football fans wanted Brett Farve to succeed or fail. There seems to be no middle ground except for the fact that we all look like fools with our pants down there. This is especially true of our government and those “too big to fail banks.” If anger towards Democrats leads to another Republican government, there is no evidence that any specific ideals or practices will change. It seems like everyone wants to save their job at any cost, no matter if that job is to serve the will of the people. This political hubris is not only against what America stands for, it’s downright stupid.

The only feasible means of ridding our country of the aforementioned dysfunction is to ignore the only political idiom Democrats and Republicans agree on: A third party vote is a wasted vote. Trust me, this phrase will be heard constantly throughout this year and always without merit. Watch as both major party candidates for whatever position – be it senator, congressman or governor – use their influence to block third party candidates from debates. Anyone who is truly angry should utilize this anger against to vote against the individuals who undermine our democracy. So what if we elect people to office who are outsiders, lack political experience or the savvy to blend in with the beltway. These decisions, more than any others, are up to us. If your elected officials can’t make a decent crabby patty, then fire them. But don’t replace Spongebob with Squidward or Patrick Star. The results will remain the same. As far as I know, Scrappy-Doo isn’t doing anything these days. Beast Boy is currently unemployed as are all three Powerpuff Girls. As the political ads start flying faster than speeding bullet this fall, remember that true change can only happen if we replace the cartoon characters that currently occupy our political airwaves.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Avatar is Making Americans Stupid

For the record, I like Avatar. I thoroughly enjoyed James Cameron’s latest opus throughout its two and a half hours of visual onslaught. Avatar is a beautiful, bright, shiny and relatively mindless film, similar to many other things Americans love. It has turned out to be one of those “event” movies which draw people to theaters who do not normally go, similar to Cameron’s previous effort Titanic and another modern classic, Home Alone. Not admitting to paying for Home Alone? You lie! As a society, we tend to jump on the proverbial bandwagon when a story gets so absolutely huge it is nearly impossible to avoid conversing about it. We do this with the Super Bowl, American Idol, Snuggies and especially politics. It’s interesting as long as it’s interesting to everyone else. When everyone else has officially thrown the subject into “lameness” (see Home Alone, Barack Obama), the follower does the same. In the case of Avatar, however, succumbing to the hype might be more dangerous than Dick Cheney stuck on Pandora.

The main appeal of Avatar lies in the groundbreaking cinematography and 3-D camerawork, the likes of which has never been seen in the history of cinema. The last year or so has seen several films test the 3-D waters in anticipation of Cameron’s movie. A remake of My Bloody Valentine, the Neil Gaiman scripted Coraline, Monsters Vs Aliens and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs showed the appeal - and lack thereof – 3D technology presents. Coraline and “Meatballs” did well in theaters showing the traditional, 2-D versions as well as the enhanced product. “Valentine” was strictly and exercise in scaring in 3-D and it achieved its modest expectations. Monsters Vs Aliens was predicted to be one of the biggest blockbusters of 2009, yet failed to yield big numbers. “Monsters” was the first film of the modern 3-D era to have been filmed with the sole intent of selling the 3-D version. The film featured many scenes designed with the idea that audiences love STUFF FLYING IN THEIR FACE VERY FAST. It did not occur to the producers audiences, even children, might value plot in an era of Pixar masterpieces. Instead, MORE STUFF FLYING EVEN FASTER IN A MORE MONOTONOUS WAY THAN THE FIRST TIME. Repeat. Repeat. END OF FILM. Interestingly, DreamWorks Studio did not hype the DVD release of “Monsters” as much as one would expect from a big budget animated film. Perhaps the upcoming 3-D Shrek movie in 2010 foretells more than the company would care to let on.

The 3-D technology in Avatar is far superior than any used in the aforementioned films. Unlike DreamWorks, Cameron knew the film had to stand on its own from a directorial and traditional 2-D viewpoint. There is little argument left as to if he succeeded. Avatar will gross more than a billion dollars, enough cash to liberate oppressed civilizations in the real world. Cameron also spent the last ten years or so developing an executing the project. He had total control over the film and chose to stake his career on Avatar’s success or failure. Avatar’s triumph, commercially and critically, has thrown the entertainment media into a 3-D frenzy. But has Avatar’s success doomed not only the film industry but also the economic recovery of America?

The admission price to the 3-D Avatar at my local movie house was thirteen bucks, a five-dollar increase from the normal eight-dollar charge. My Adam Koeppe simple math shows a 39 percent extra dip into the pocketbook to see the film in glorious 3-D. I don’t know about you boys and girls, but that’s a hefty price jack where I come from. For a family of four that’s twenty extra bucks. At least the popcorn didn’t come with 3-D salt and butter. Although worth it, the Avatar experience is a spendy one for many Americans. The fallout from Avatar’s success has shown a public hungry for more. ESPN has recently announced they will produce a 3-D sports channel which will show the 2010 World Cup. The media salivates.

As the public celebrates the upcoming development of 3-D television, nobody has bothered to ask the question: What will 3-D soccer look like? Will it enhance the experience so much that the channel is worth subscribing to (believe me, true believers, they’re gonna charge) and also purchasing one of the handful of ginormous TV’s capable of broadcasting said soccer games? Currently, the general opinion of the public is yes. Because everything is going to look as cool as Avatar. This general euphoria is convincing many TV manufacturers to furiously work of a way to present 3-D images without having to don those stylish shades. Without a doubt, they will succeed. The potential of selling millions of TV’s to a public that has recently forked over a few paychecks for HD widescreens is far too tempting to resist. Efforts are underway to remake classic films such as Star Wars to fit the format. As if buying the Star Wars films on VHS, remastered on VHS, extended on VHS, on DVD unextended, DVD extended, and Blu-Ray unextended and extended. That’s not even accounting for how many times people saw them in the movie theater. When my Adam Koeppe simple math adds this up, that’s more than 300 bucks spent on the same bloody films! Yet many are hungry for more. Is the 3-D Star Wars going to have Luke’s hand fly in my face when Darth Vader whacks it off? Will it give me the feeling of AT-AT’s stomping on to my sofa? Will the Cantina scene give me the feeling of an intergalactic dance party right in my own house? Answer I will, young consumers. No.

A 3-D reimagining (or whatever you want to call it) of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or the Matrix will just give you a visual experience similar to that of the old Viewmaster discs: a super-position of one image in front of the other. That’s it. The films were made with a 2-D wall. I’m sure the geniuses in charge will try to make the jump into hyperspace more trippy but is that worth the purchase of an entire new entertainment system? A few thousand bucks to see a few enhanced segments? The current consensus is yes. We want to see STAR WARS AVATAR! LORD OF THE RINGS AVATAR! MATRIX AVATAR! SAW AVATAR! HANGOVER AVATAR! HAROLD AND KUMAR AVATAR! Americans have always been in love with possibility more than reality and having as opposed to having not. There is little evidence suggesting the 3-D craze will be any different.

My magic crystal dodgeball stares into the future and sees a few unfortunate blows to the financial groin. Many Americans will go into super-nasty credit card debt to become a super-cool 3-D household. This type of TV upgrade is not cheap and there are very few who can honestly afford it, considering they are still paying off their 60-inch plasmas. Yet millions will buy, unfortunately proving our society has learned absolutely nothing about financial restraint in the face of economic hardship. Laid off from a secure job? WHO CARES? 3-D! Retirement eradicated by Wall Street? WHO CARES? 3-D!! Your children’s college education? 3-D! 3-D!! Over the top, blowhard attitudes are exactly what thrust our country into our economic mess. Real estate for profit? 3-D! Debt? What debt? 3-D!!!

Most important, companies will use this lunacy to bombard our despised banks with requests for loans on unproven products. Despite wanted or unwanted regulation, lenders will be pushed into billions of dollars of lending to finance the production of these electronics. Imagine, if you will: a cell-phone company wants fifty million dollars to develop the first 3-D smart phone. That’s crazy, the loan officer replies. Who wants to watch a 3-D image smaller than a baseball card? Contrary to popular sanity, that loan will happen. Who’s going to say no to 3-D!! I’d stake my entire 3-D baseball card collection on it. Believe it or not, I have quite a few.

There will be at least one movie studio that will also believe this fallacy. The grand poobahs will decree they will make the biggest, largest, most-bestest 3-D movie ever! They will hire a crack team of fifty writers to write it. They will hire a great director like Brett Ratner, McG or Michael Bay to make it so. They’ll be more people involved in this production than the Olympics. It will be re-written by James Patterson, James Frey and the band James. It will be about some big thing that has yet to be big enough so it has to be bigger – in 3-D! It will be bigger than life! Big! Big! Big! And it will fail. Horribly. Horribly, horribly. Heaven’s Gate failed and who could have doubted Michael Cimino’s talent after The Deer Hunter? The concept of Cinemascope failed with Cleopatra, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz who helmed films such as All About Eve. When the 3-D movie of doom strikes, it will be harsh. Cleopatra came close to destroying 20th Century Fox. The failure of Heaven’s Gate bankrupted United Artists. The 3-D hype will destroy at least one company, possibly more.

Remember 8-tracks? Beta-max? Mini-discs? Laser-discs? TurboGraphix-16? Dreamcast? You don’t? You Lie! We’ve all invested our money in something that didn’t pan out be it technology or even a relationship. For all our enthusiasm, there still has to be something – or someone to blame for the fallout. There are few people who have the testicular fortitude to admit they were wrong. I still thing the Sega Dreamcast kicks major butt over PS2, Game Cube and Xbox. Someone usually has to take the fall because it sure wasn’t our fault.

When 3-D busts, the movie studios will do what they do best: blame someone else. They’ll drag Sean Astin, the fat hobbit himself, back on the Academy Awards telling why piracy is still the scourge of the film industry – even after successes like Avatar. Americans who spent buttloads of money on 3-D televisions and DVD players that are the equivalent of Atari 5200s will do what they do best: blame someone else. Maybe we will blame the President, whoever he or she may be. Maybe we’ll blame the companies who sold us this 3-D super-awesome stuff because it wasn’t that super-fantastically-awesome. We might blame our kids who wanted it all so bad for Christmas we had to mortgage the house to provide it. We might even blame Satan for our debt. It’s a better alternative than reality. From the days of the crusades to the days of colonization to the days of the Gold Rush, it’s never our fault when the tide turns.

When we fail, it is in our nature to push the “reset” button. Just one more chance and we can do it a little better. We seriously need to stop this. Life has no reset and there are no guarantees of extra chances. Sometimes the movie sucks, the concert blows or the love affair wasn’t meant to be. Failures, as hard as they come, need to be admitted and learned from. If we don’t, we’re just another footnote in an never-ending addendum of excuses. If we embrace 3-D, we learn nothing from economics. We are just pushing “rewind,” expecting the movie to end better. Eventually, the film stops and there is a blank screen. What happens next? The remote – and your life – is in your hands.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Who Decade?

I was never a fan of the decade sandwich. The previous two I existed in, the eighties and nineties, were more conglomerates of toys, music, movies and the highs and lows of growing up. There were more instances in a year that any type of trend. For example, my entire memory of 1980 consists of “The Empire Strikes Back,” nothing more. I was six years old, what can you expect? My memories of 1990 revolve around the Minnesota Twins losing a ton of baseball games, video games like “Maniac Mansion” and the general disappointments that come during adolescence. Before the age of the internet (at least as we know it now), we had to rely on significant events, handwritten notes and pictures to document our existence in that period. By the time 2000 rolled around and gave us an election few cared about, (I remember this because I chose not to vote) there was the beginning of email, internet research and a general desire to put things into a larger perspective. Perhaps this was because of age, me being the big two five at the time. Or was the 2000’s the beginning of something else that many of us felt coming. Although hindsight generally gives one the vision of Burgess Meredith at the finale of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough,” many events occurred suggesting that we as a society are indeed running out of time.

Before the 2000 election, I had always voted and was proud to be a part of the political process. Anyone who has known me for a fair amount of time can vouch for my incessant desire to pour over newspapers and do my best to disseminate facts from fiction. There are many reasons I didn’t vote in 2000, the foremost being I thought Al Gore and George W. Bush were idiots. Turns out, I was right on both calls, no matter which side of the political spectrum you reside. As the debacle of the election recount unfolded, I seriously wondered who was in charge of this mess we live in. The second reason I didn’t vote in 2000 was I just didn’t think I had the time - meaning I came home from work at 6PM and just did not care. Like many Gen-Xers, I was becoming dissatisfied with my job and opportunities were shining on the horizon everywhere I looked. Even though I was disgusted with the actual rules of the electoral process, my thoughts still focused on job-hopping. I had a good job at the time, probably one of the best I’ll ever have, but there was so much to criticize when everyone else is offering you something supposedly rosier than what you have now.

2001, the crash of the dot com odyssey. Remember all those ads on every station known to God? This dot com, that dot com, my Grandma sells you time-shares dot com? When all those plastic companies exploded in their own hubris so did the yellow brick road of employment. Unfortunately, I did make a change in employment, not expecting bigger will not mean better. By the time I left the new job it was August 2001. The dot com recession was in full force and there were few opportunities available besides becoming a human tool. I chose to do what any red-blooded American would do in that situation: move back in with Mom and Dad and pick apples. Getting back to nature and forgoing corporate culture was just what the doctor ordered. When 9-11 happened, we stopped working and watched. The people I was around were shocked, as we all were. But there was some semblance of inevitability in the air. It was unspoken in many places in the world, but silence speaks volumes. Rocky Balboa loses. Luke Skywalker gets his hand hacked off by his father. Kurt Cobain commits suicide. The fallacy that we live in a fortress of solitude was broken. People can blame whomever they want for the attack, but anyone with a good grasp of mathematics could theorize something would happen, sooner or later.

After the season apple-picking gig ended, I worked with a friend roofing houses, a far cry from running a music store in Edina, Minnesota a year earlier. Honestly, I don’t think I was great at it but I learned to bust my ass and got to know people in a way I never would have before. Taus taught me more than I can ever repay him for. While we were roofing a house in St. Michael, MN, I noticed half of the houses in the cul-de-sac were unoccupied. They were built but unsold. I thought it peculiar. These gigantic houses without a tenant. So perfect I wanted to buy one except they looked like every other house on the block. I wondered if I lived there, would my neighbors know where my stuff is? I spent the next year drifting, dissatisfied with my life and occupations (or lack thereof) until I chose to make a complete break with everything that was making my life suck. I bounced back into the parents’ house after barely being gone and a good friend was kind enough to offer me a job and with it, stability.

Over the spring of 2003, I decided to “get back” to whatever it is I liked about my life when I thought it likable. I went to baseball games, began reading extensively and started going to concerts on a regular basis. I did not have a lot of money – even as I sponged off Mom and Dad, but I was happy. I started realizing happiness is a far better trait than anything monetary. No matter if it was a good or a bad day, when I went to sleep, I did so with a leap and a smile (I was way into Donnie Darko at the time). On Sunday, July 13th, I went to see Blur at First Avenue with my concert-going friend. I remember about the first five songs, through maybe “Boys and Girls.” After ordering a beer at the bar, I was tapped on the shoulder. “Where did you get that shirt?” asked a tall woman with a big smile. “Suns,” I replied. “Hunky Dory is my favorite David Bowie album,” she said. We began a long talk about music and the greatness of the Blur show became quickly distant. She changed subjects: “Do you like “Doctor Who?” My nerves and doubts quivered at the question, which had been the geek kiss of death on more than one occasion in my life. I overruled myself, telling apprehension to go screw itself. “Yeah,” I smiled. She smiled (although I think both of us were smiling nonstop at this point): “It’s my favorite show. Who’s your favorite Doctor?” Again, shoving conventional wisdom in the subconscious garbage, I replied “Patrick Troughton.” “Mine too! I dressed as Patrick Troughton for a convention once.”

We talked for the rest of the evening. It wouldn’t have mattered if the Beatles or Nirvana with a zombie Kurt Cobain was playing. The only sounds were heard were each other. Eight month later, we were married at the Mall of America, featured music by Kate Bush and Guns and Roses. As I think about the last decade, I have little, if anything to complain about. I watched two wonderful babies born into this world and saw a precocious four-year old become a world-ready pre-teen with enough smarts and sense to skip a math grade. What’s to complain about? I read all these self-centered tirades by media types thanking their stars the decade is over. To them, I ask one basic question: What in your life sucks so bad that you want to forget an entire decade?

According to the almighty media pundits and pontificators, we should all hate the era of 2000-2009 because of terrorists, war, natural disasters, the economy, job security and “Gigli.” Anyone who wants to travel in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine or the TARDIS can find similar problems in any decade in modern history. Take your pick. The nineties had Iraq Part One, Columbine, a recession brought on by the S & L scandal, a lying head of state and at four movies starring Pauly Shore. Similar results are evident if one studies the previous decades as well. It’s all a matter of perception. If your life is better than it was ten years ago, then the “aughts” aught not to be taken with such sadness and despair. If your idea of a successful life revolves putting your investments and lifestyle in front of your family and kids, stop reading right now. Please step away from the computer. Find the nearest toilet. Insert head. Flush. Repeat.

Through the magic of Facebook and older means of communication such as talking, I have seen my friends go through good times and bad. They may have lost a job but I don’t know a single soul who chose to give up on their family or themselves. Their attitude in the face of adversity is stronger than bad guys on Wall Street or terrorists fastening bombs in their underpants. Pictures do not lie. Most of us have gotten married to someone they truly care about. Many have had children and are experiencing the joy, wonder, frustration, exhaustion and love they bring. The greatest of these, of course, is love. I see it every day. In pictures, videos and status updates. I see it in those who are taking their layoff time as an opportunity to spend with their kids. I see it in those who celebrate a party like they were teenagers but put their family first every day. I see us growing up, growing older but still being themselves. Despite the despair shoved down our throats by the media, I see nothing but positivity and hope. When I asked a good friend how he felt about having another child in the face of job loss, he answered: “I’m just lucky.” We should all feel that way. Every day, every decade.

Before we kiss off 2000-2009 into the wind, let us all think about how lucky we are. For one, we’re still here! We have friends and family we care for and care about us. That’s a stronger bond than any job, recession, war or Megan Fox movie could sever. Sure, there’s always things to complain about – it’s just our nature. However, what is good should outweigh the bad. If that equation doesn’t add up, it’s not too late to change the math. There’s a line from an old Jesus and Mary Chain song, “Head On” which states: “The way I feel tonight, I could die and I wouldn’t mind.” It’s the song that went through my head after I met my wife. If you are truly happy, you can feel yourself touch the cusp of heaven. Maybe these moments are memories or something you’ve just experienced. Like it or not, we’ve all had great moments in the last ten years and we are capable of so much more. Forget about the people and things bringing you down. We are so much bigger than all of it and - dammit! – we are better than our adversities. If our history has taught us anything, it is that human desire, ingenuity, passion and love will triumph if we are true to ourselves. The new decade has begun. Let’s blow the stars from the sky.