Clean Energy, or America = ?

Ask me what GasLand, a documentary that lost at the Oscars, is about, and I will probably tell you it’s about how you define the United States of America, and if that definition has any real pull on your actions.

First we need to deal with a word that’s relatively new. Definition from sourcewatch.org:

Fracking (also often referred to as hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking) is a process in which a fluid is injected at high pressure into oil or methane gas deposits to fracture the rock above and release the liquid or gas below.

Natural gas sounds like such a great thing, right? There’s that word natural we’ve already talked about. Natural gas companies almost always have calming blue logos to match that friendly ring of fire we get on our stovetop ranges. And we’ve got lots of natural gas in America, as politicians love to remind us, so that means we have to deal less with dirty Middle Eastern tyrants, and bastards like Gaddafi, a guy we just can’t seem to bring ourselves to punish for killing people.

The problem, or one of them, is that fracking can blow up your house.

The image one remembers most clearly from the film would have to be the explosive tap water. In several settings we see people hold a flame up to their running tap water (in their house) and then it ignites. The water ignites.  

That idea takes a little while to get used to. Although perhaps this is just my ignorance. Reading blogs and articles against GasLand, and they are not hard to find, you might read things like this: “Guess what: methane is common. If you live off well water, you deal with it.”

Maybe there is someone out there with more experience with well water who can tell me if this is true. Is flaming water just one of those things city slickers like me don’t know about?

Because Josh Fox, the director and a self-professed neophyte to the documentary form, believes this specifically comes from the fracking going on in Colorado and other Western states, and which now threatens to infect water supplies throughout New York, Pennsylvania and beyond. It’s not just flaming water, either. It’s brown water. And bad air – days of toxic fog around your house. And your pet’s hair falling out. And your loss of taste and smell. And headaches, maybe brain damage. These are the other effects alleged by those exposed to fracking on or near their land.

The film doesn’t get into the details of whether these good people were paid for their trouble – the whole quest starts when Fox gets a monetary offer for use of some of his familial land – but we can assume they never signed up for the nasty side effects. So where’s Erin Brockovich, you ask? Every now and then her spirit pops up: you hear about some people getting settlements from the gas companies. But it can be very difficult to get any legal traction, because you have to prove causality.

Remember, everyone who ever took Psych 101 or read Freakonomics, correlation does not imply causality. There’s fracking going on around you. Your water’s browner than usual. But can you prove that the one caused the other?

Well, no, not usually, because for one thing you don’t even get to know what kinds of fluids are being used in the whole fracking process. For this you have Dick Cheney to thank. The Bush-Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave loopholes to gas and oil companies that even Richard “Clean Air Act” Nixon would have balked at. Specifically, gas companies are allowed to keep their fracking fluids secret, like the Coke formula. Want more Cheney bashing? How about the fact that he let gas companies use public land – land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), land that we, in theory, all own. It’s on some of this BLM land, being used for fracking, that Fox gives us his other indelible image, that of him playing the banjo with a gas mask on.

So you see it comes down to this thing we call the United States of America. GasLand shows us lots of those so-called average Americans, lots of Joe the Plumbers. And that’s what usually makes documentaries (and reality TV) so damn interesting, the peep factor: seeing regular folks, and not just the character actors Hollywood trots out when they need a commoner sidekick, like this lady:

GasLand, then, asks us just how much we care about these people. There are so many things to care about, to give money to, to raise awareness for. Do we need to give special attention to the things going on in our country, even if the people to whom it’s happening are completely out of our personal spheres? Does a man in Colorado have any kind of tie to me, moreso than a man in Cameroon, because we live together in this thing some people decided to call a country?

Kurt Vonnegut, we know, thinks that countries are granfalloons, false families. There is nothing much that binds two fellow Americans more than any two fellow humans in his book. And, well, even the worst-affected family in Colorado hit by the alleged abuses of fracking has it a lot better than the 1.4 billion people living on $1.25 a day, right? So where should this issue fall on our totem pole of shit-giving?

Of course it could happen to us. It could creep into our backyard, as it does Fox’s. It could blow up our tap water, someday. But we already know this, right? It’s why we go on blindly driving the distances we drive, using the amount of air conditioning we use, fully knowing that things cannot continue this way indefinitely. What price, mobility? Will we turn our country into one where we have to drink out of bottled water all day long, or will we willingly constrict ourselves to a ten mile radius first?

That’s the future I see, when I decide to get Philip K. Dick about our energy options. I see us all having to slouch back to a town and village society, giving up on air travel and extensive car travel, settling for what’s around us. Something’s gotta give. So what is America to you? If it’s Joe the Plumber or the Woody Guthrie stuff, we start making serious sacrifices, right? If it’s just the place where you get your you on, then we keep this party going until we’re all waist-deep in discarded plastic, right? Until all of our mountains have no tops (because coal is also clean, in Bushspeak) and our valleys filled with rubble.

You may think I’m coming down in favor of the green grass and Margo Martindale (she’s the white trash lady above), but I’m not. I like flying to New York for a few days when I feel like it. I drive a long distance in heavy traffic to be in a show. It’s certainly easy to rage against the energy machine – one of my favorite parts of GasLand is when an EPA guy chews Fox out over this very idea – but we’re being faced with no easy decision here, especially when even the information is up for grabs. This guy says gas is clean, this guy says it gives you brain damage. This guy says nuclear’s the way of the future, this guy’s Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome. It’s not like we can all just have a hundred windmills in our lawns and go about our day.

Something’s gotta give. And like I said, I think it’s up to your definition of America and Americans – or the general earth and earthlings, if you’re in Vonnegut mood – that will influence how you feel about energy.

In Georgia we recently got iced in to our houses and local areas for a few days. It was almost like olden times. And I think most of us, after a few days, nearly went crazy.

Love: a DIY post

The Eskimos have fifty words for snow and we have just one to cover the entire spectrum of feelings and actions which we call love. A linguistic outrageousness, right?

Except the Eskimo thing isn’t really true, or at the very least involves you going down a Clintonian verbal rabbithole – what’s an Eskimo? what’s a word? – and we actually have lots of words for various aspects of love (affection, desire, sympathy, pity).

But it surely must be true that love as a word often leaves us wanting, if only because so many different artists won’t stop telling us it’s so.  Take Snow Patrol.

Please.

Haha, see what I did there? But Snow Patrol tells us in “Chasing Cars” that “those three words / are said too much / they’re not enough.” I haven’t listened to the song closely enough to make sure they mean “I love you” and not “are you hungry?” or something but I feel pretty confident.

For an example more worthy of your respect, take Annie Hall. If you have not seen this movie, run, do not walk. Actually I’m sure it’s not for everyone because Woody Allen’s in it, and he’s an acquired taste. But if you have seen it maybe you remember the part where Alvy, frustrated that love is not a strong enough word to contain his feelings, says to Annie, “I lurve you, I loave you, I luff you.”

Not only does the word seem to fail the depth of one’s emotion at times, but the breadth of love that we’ve unearthed in this human experiment of ours begs, at times, for new lingo.

Yes, as I said, we have a variety of words to describe our warmer impulses toward each other (not that love is always warm, I suppose), but surely you’ve had to sit through some well-meaning bore tell you about how the Greeks had three different words for love, and things would be a lot better if we went back to their way.

I’m not an expert, and some quick internet research leads one to believe that the matter is more complicated than these bores would have it, but the quick and dirty breakdown is this:

Agape – Christ-like love, the big L, love of the other above self, twue wuv

Eros – Come on over here and let me be sexy at ya

Philia – I love you, man

There’s also Storge, the redheaded stepchild of Greek love, and I will continue the grand tradition of pretty much ignoring it.

We certainly use eros and philia in parts of our lovecabulary, but I don’t think we exploit them to their full potential. Here are some candidates for neologisms:

Exphilieros – this word has the benefit of sounding like a Harry Potter spell; meaning “out of (friend) love (sex) love,” I intend this to describe the feeling one has when one is out of affectionate love for someone, but still tempted to make that Lady Antebellum phone call; booty call, ex-sex: it’s a way of dressing up those dirty secrets of ours. It sounds better. “Yeah, man, I know Rebecca was a total bitch when we were together but she was at the party and we were drinking and…exphilieros. I’m deleting her from my phone now though. Totally. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Exerophilia – a more complicated and maybe less purely fun emotion; one is no longer sleeping with the person (out of erotic love), but one is still genuinely pleased that they didn’t fall down and break their nose that day; one is happy to see them happy, even if it’s with another person

Have you ever, for example, sent a holiday card to someone you used to be intimate with, and wondered if you should sign it with “love” or “sincerely”? Because sincerely sounds too fake and political but love might make you seem like some closureless wimp? No? Just me? Well, exerophilia.

Both of these words, in one way or another, could be used to describe parts of the main relationship in Blue Valentine, yet another Oscar nominee this season (Michelle Williams, Best Actress). If you’re like me, you watched Ryan Gosling, your man crush, play the ukelele and sing “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love” in the trailer, and you were had at hello. You might also have thought, wait, didn’t I already see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (or the lovable junior version: (500) Days of Summer)?

Yes, you did (or else, run, even faster than for Woody), and it is still the greatest movie about love ever made, but this one’s even more bleak and hopeless! I can’t tell you it’s worth putting yourself through, but I will say that many parts ring true, like the sequence in which the unhappy couple tries to kindle things in a cheap hotel room.

Blue Valentine also suggests that a man’s love is different from a woman’s; Gosling’s character believes that men look for the One, while women look for a dependable mate. Does this set our Hollywood gender expectations on their head? The man is sort of the traditional woman in this movie; his wife keeps dumping shit on him and he keeps eating it. Then when he does have his macho moment, it doesn’t go well at all. Oh dear. 

If teen love is puppy love, what’s the opposite term? What do we call love once it’s pulled us both through the ashes with each other and spat us out on the other side? Junkyard dog love? Junklove, for short?

“Dear Tom, I want to thank you for the three years of junklove we had. They really taught me a lot about myself. Also, I will not be returning any of your emails so please stop writing them.”

I call this a DIY post because I’d like for everyone who reads it to be inspired to think of a loveword of their own, and then share it with us! I’ll give you another example:

Clicklove – gets its name from the click of the phone hanging up after you say I love you, even when you are tired and don’t really feel it or mean it, even if you’re angry at the moment and you want the other person to be kept up all night with irritable bowels; it’s also what you say to each other as you go out the door so you don’t end up being one of those people in a Lifetime movie: “I never got to say goodbye! I didn’t get to tell her I loved her!” (I mock, but surely a trying emotional state to be in; better safe than sorry)

I’m sure you can think of others. But if no one chooses to respond, I’ll just assume everyone in the world was too busy loving each other to write on a blog about it, and that’s fine too.

The Great White Hope, then and now

In the last post I asked about boxing movies with black heroes. I can think of The Hurricane, which I never saw, but which I know to involve racism and civil rights and thus is relevant to this discussion. I saw in Blockbuster yesterday some movie with Samuel L. Jackson as a washed-up boxer which I had never heard of, let alone seen.

Whitey boxer makes for bigger box office. But probably the biggest boxing movie with a black main character is, ironically, The Great White Hope. It’s the story of black heavyweight champ Jack Jefferson, but really he’s just a thinly veiled version of real life boxer Jack Johnson.

Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion, and it was no easy matter getting there. For years, the white champions wouldn’t agree to give him a title shot. They wouldn’t fight him. He was clearly better than anyone else on earth, and lots of people sensed the dangers of letting a white man, in the 1900s, get beaten by a black one.

It’s worth mentioning two of my favorite lines in Rocky. I think the movie struck a chord in part because it’s not a complete fairytale – Rocky doesn’t win; he just manages to hold on to the end. And after it’s over, Apollo Creed says, “Ain’t gonna be no rematch.” And Rocky says “Don’t want one.” But show them the money: we ended up saddled with Rocky II (where those same guys fought again), then III, IV, V and after that they realized it was ridiculous so they dropped the numbers – Rocky Balboa. But the fact that those lines are there, and that they were then so crassly overturned, says something to me about the whole cinematic boxing enterprise. Or the whole boxing enterprise: Jack Johnson got his chance at the heavyweight title because champ Tommy Burns’s racism could be bought away for a $30,000 purse.

Johnson won easily. Police even stopped the fight and turned off the cameras before Burns could suffer the humiliation of being knocked out.

Thus began the “White Hope Era,” in which racist journalists (including Jack London) and bigwigs searched for somebody to be good enough to return the title to the white race. Regaining the heavyweight title was treated as a symbol of returning the white man’s antebellum status, going back to before this curious equality business started.

And Jack Johnson was the worst possible kind of black man to have flaunting his superiority. He grinned all the time – but it didn’t feel like he was doing it in that fun yes massa way. And, as the narrator of Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness tells us, “Jack Johnson slept with whomever he pleased.” Tells us, of course, while flashing a picture of Jack with a grinning white lady sitting between his legs. However, this was no laughing matter.

Johnson’s relationships were his eventual downfall. He was later convicted under the Mann Act. To paraphrase Ken Burns and his writers, the Mann Act barred the transportation of women in interstate or foreign commerce for prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose. It was intended to cripple the sex trafficking industry (still going, by the way), but could be abused to disrupt private relationships as well. It didn’t help that Jack Johnson usually slept with hookers. White ones.

There’s a nice moment in The Great White Hope when the lawmen are trying to figure out a way to use the Mann Act against the black champ. One lock-jawed guy says, “That’s for commercial ass, not this. She’s not a pro.” But another comes to the rescue: “I’ll have to have a word with the fine print boys.”

Ah, the fine print boys. How I’d love to meet them. Here’s the wording:

SEC. 2. That any person who shall knowingly transport or cause to be transported, or aid or assist in obtaining transportation for, or in transporting, in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or in the District of Columbia, any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose, or with the intent and purpose to induce, entice, or compel such woman or girl to become a prostitute or to give herself up to debauchery, or to engage in any other immoral practice…

Pretty fuzzy, right? Nice having laws regulating morality. Though the wording was tightened up later, the Mann Act was used against a wide range of notables, including Charlie Chaplin, Charles Manson, and Buckminster Fuller, which makes it really good fodder for a really great trivia question. Just saying.

But before Johnson was convicted (and chose to go on the run), he beat up a bunch of white hopes. But you pretty much had to be there in person to see it. From 1912 to 1940, the transport of boxing films across state lines was illegal. The motive behind this legislation was Johnson, and the riots which sometimes seemed to take place after he beat up white guys. The “interstate commerce” clause in the Constitution is mightily elastic when Congress wants it to be.

As we know, things reversed pretty quickly, and now black champ is the rule instead of the exception. Take the line from Coming to America: “Oh, there they go. There they go, every time I start talkin ’bout boxing, a white man got to pull Rocky Marciano out their ass. That’s their one, that’s their one.” And we all love to think that the civil rights movement put racism behind us.

But I’d like to let you know that in 2009, Lynn Jenkins, a Republican Congresswoman from Kansas, “offered encouragement to conservatives at a town hall forum that the Republican Party would embrace a ‘great white hope’ capable of thwarting the political agenda endorsed by Democrats who control Congress and President Barack Obama.” Jenkins later said “…I was unaware of any negative connotation. If I offended somebody, obviously I apologize.” According to news sources cited by Wikifolks, Jenkins had signed a resolution pardoning Jack Johnson (long story) just one month earlier. The resolution explained the phrase. Jenkins did not miss a beat: she told us she signed the resolution without reading it.

Reelected in 2010? Oh yes. I grant you that the term can be used in more than a literal sense, or in a tongue-in-cheek manner. For instance, one New Zealand writer calls Princes William and Harry “the great white hope of monarchists.” Ha ha. And maybe Clint Eastwood didn’t mean nothing by it when he cast the part of Hilary Swank’s downfall. And surely not every criticism of Obama has to do with race, just as not all support of him is based on it.

So why do we still feel uneasy?

The Great White Hope made James Earl Jones a star, and an Oscar nominee, and has some quite uneasy moments. There’s a truly odd scene where Jack, down and out in Europe with no one to fight, plays Uncle Tom in a Hungarian production opposite his wife. Dolled up in a blonde wig, his wife asks him why he’s so sad. Dramatic irony, as we know Jefferson actually is sad at this moment, and he says, “Oh Miss Eva, you and the massa so good to old Tom he just got to cry about it now and then.” The film obviously wants to highlight, perhaps even exaggerate, the troubles of being an interracial relationship. It being only three years since the first on-screen interracial kiss (shown only in a rearview mirror), this makes sense. To make things worse, Jack’s trainer comes onstage as Mopsy, the picaninny, in order to sing a song to raise spirits. Jack joins in this black minstrel act, shuffling and tapping, locking eyes with the man who wants him to fight one last white hope, and throw the fight.

Apparently, Muhammad Ali went multiple times to see The Great White Hope when it was on Broadway, and is reported to have said, “I am Jack Johnson.” He didn’t think he was Uncle Tom, though; in fact he famously smeared Joe Frazier with the name, in addition to calling him ugly and a gorilla. Frazier smelled irony: “‘A white lawyer kept him out of jail. And he’s going to Uncle Tom me,’ Frazier wrote in his autobiography.” All this led to another “Fight of the Century,” as the “unbeaten Frazier won a unanimous decision as he handed Ali the first defeat of his pro career.” Actually it spawned three matches of the century, as the fighters slugged it out two more times, including in the legendary Thrilla in Manilla (even got a little slummin slang for ya, baby). Ali won the last two, and part of the allure of that match-up was the fact that both seemed to represent archetypes within their own race (light-skinned and flashy versus the big black buck) and for America at large.

Writer Tim Lane describes the pairing thus:

The story of how the two warriors personified the liberal and conservative factions of American life at that time has become clichéd, yet all of it is true. Ali did it by design, having refused to be drafted for Vietnam War service, being stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from the ring as a result. He claimed representation of oppressed, black America. Frazier’s position was thus created for him. In response to Ali’s provocation he knew no other way than to accept his lot and come out swinging.

Lane calls their bout, with a good journalistic sense of hyperbole, “the day modern sport was invented.” The planets aligned in a special way to make that The Event, the one sports promoters of all kinds would forever dream about – Bird v. Johnson, Manning v. Manning – and so a new kind of sport-as-package began.

Similarly, watching The Great White Hope it feels like James Earl Jones is dragging the old studio system into a new, gritty future. The revolution is already happening: Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate and others have started the takeover in ’67. The greatest decade for American film, the 1970s, is about to begin. But it takes performances like Jones’s to finish the job, surrounded as he may be by old-fashioned looking sets and soundstages, caged in as he may be by old school cinematography. Watching his big metaphorical knockout fight with Jane Alexander, playing his wife, hearing them tear at each other with the dizzying arguments of a couple being torn apart by forces beyond their control, you get a sense as to why the Jack Johnson story still resonates. And watching him later beat up and get beaten by the corn-fed hick in the last scene, you get a sense as to why boxing movies still do the trick. It’s the same motor that runs The Iliad. What’s more elemental than man-to-man combat? Especially when one of the men, Achilles/Johnson, is invincible, if only he’ll let himself be.

Boxing stories can combine all the great conflicts: man v. man, man v. self, man v. society, even man v. nature (watch Sylvester Stallone try to get into shape for the tenth time). They’ll be around forever, and I think the racial and economic undertones will too.

Boxer

Name for me, if you can, all the boxing movies that have black heroes.

Hmm.

The Fighter, a Mark Wahlberg baby, received seven Oscar nominations, and is considered a shoo-in for not one but two acting awards. In the continuing Oscar series, we ask, what is it about boxing? Sportsinmovies.com reminds us that “Boxing films are the only sports related films to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, and they did it twice (Rocky, Million Dollar Baby)! These gritty films bring us death, depression, imprisonment and ultimately…victory!”

But it doesn’t even need to be dramatized. Joyce Carol Oates believes boxing is “America’s tragic theater.” Early heavyweight champions used to perform on the vaudeville circuit, showing off their shadowboxing, their physique, and the odd hobby. An interview with Norman Mailer, who boxed and who wrote about boxing, gave us this:

Interviewer: At one point you compared the boxer thinking about being in the ring with his opponent and the terror of contemplating that blank page as a novelist. There’s a similar battle that’s going to ensue.

Norman Mailer: No doubt. I’ve written at times about the spooky element in writing. You go in each morning, and there’s a blank page. Maybe it takes five minutes, maybe it takes an hour. Sooner or later you start writing, and then the words begin to flow. Where does that come from? You can’t pinpoint it. You always wonder, “Will it all stop tomorrow?” In that sense it’s spooky.

M-W says the first known use of “boxing,” defined as ” the art of attack and defense with the fists practiced as a sport,” happened in 1605. Boxing glove, by the by, did not come into use until 1841. That’s over two centuries of bareknuckle brawls. Curiously, pugilism, which one would think is the older of the two (because it sounds fancier) is not listed as known until 1791. Pugnus is Latin for fist, in case you’re wondering. Pugnare is to fight. Pungere is to prick.

But the standard definitions leave much unsaid about how we like our boxing, or how we like our boxing stories (and really, boxing stories eclipse the real thing anyway – have you ever watched actual boxing? It sucks). I’d like to propose that dictionaries add “poor or black, perhaps both” to their definition of boxer. Oh, and there can be an addendum that reads “now with some Latinos, too.” Although it should also read “when used as a metaphor, almost always white.”

Search your feelings, Luke; you know this to be true. Boxing may be old but remained illegal in many parts of the United States into the 20th century. It’s two guys trying to kill each other, after all. We already understand why it’s what boxing historian Bert Sugar calls the sport “of the dispossessed,” of the lowest rung on the ladder.

The Wards, featured in The Fighter, certainly fit that category. They’re poor, loud, large, smokey, boozey, and druggy, at least in one case. And they’re IRISH. Then, to add insult to injury, Micky Ward’s first opponent in The Fighter is black. He’s twenty pounds heavier than Micky and we’re told he’s just gotten out of prison. So, to start things off, Micky gets the snot beat out of him by a giant criminal black man. But Micky gets some other Others to whip. A later opponent, Sanchez, dances to the ring to some mariachi kind of tune, but later goes down from what looks a lot like a sucker punch. I grant you that Micky’s final opponent is white – and we’re talking British Isles white. But he is foreign, so he’s got an accent and stuff and all his fans boo at our homegrown hero, who walks to the ring to the sweet strains of “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake. It’s not as obvious a choice as Bonjovi would have been, but you get the idea anyway.

White America wins, just as we did in Rocky, the quintessential boxer flick, where the short but muscled white guy goes the distance with the tall tailored black champ.

Of course, Rocky wasn’t really about race. It was about the little guy, the underdog, the working man. America was in troubled economic times then, just as we are now when we see Dicky and Micky redeem themselves. “Hollywood’s Class Warfare” is the title of a recent New York Times article by film critic A. O. Scott, and a picture of the Ward boys from The Fighter introduces it. The article pulls together an impressive number of 2010 threads to weave a thesis of a “countervailing mystique” (talk about a non-working-class phrase) that “clings to the streets of Lowell” (Fighter’s locale) and other Americana zones. “The common trait of these places…is tribalism.” And since movies “exist partly to smooth over the rough patches in our collective life,” (and that’s an idea worth ruminating on for a few moments), it makes sense that films set in these places rally the American tribal feelings within us, and indeed might be completely calculated to do so. Think of Bruce Springsteen with his butt in front of the American flag and the dirty rag in the pocket: tribe, baby. Reagan tries to appropriate those feelings by using “Born in the USA” as a campaign song, and Springsteen told him to stop.

But when we rally around tribe, we never rally around college-educated diction or Susan Sontag essays or NPR. The New York Times is specifically snubbed in The Fighter, actually. No, we rally around places and people that don’t pronounce all their consonants, every time. We rally around “clans,” which is the word, with its connotations of tight-knitness, and, yes, ferocity, that most writers use to describe the Ward family. Even NYTimes readers get off on that stuff. Clans, tribes, slang, meth. We slummin’, man.

Another Oscar darling this year, Winter’s Bone, is all about meth and the clans of Missourah. It’s not all that good, but NYTimes folks are liking it, because, as my clever sister put it, “‘poor people are poor!’ movies always go over well at Oscar time.” The picture is of the main character teaching her little sister how to shoot squirrels so they can eat. Yeah.

Look at two examples from the last decade to see how they fit these patterns of boxing, race, and class.

When Million-Dollar Baby comes out in 2004, we’re maybe at the height of the culture wars of the Bush era, it being an election year and all. The Abu Ghraib story breaks, Terri Schiavo’s starving to death, nobody’s happy (alright, exaggeration), and we get an Oscar-sweeping movie about losers and death. I’d like to just remind us that the chick who beat sweet little Hilary Swank up badly enough to, well, you know if you’ve seen the movie, looked like this:

Hilary Swank played self-admitted white trash in the film, so we rooted for her. Bush was able to cast himself as more blue collar than John “married to Heinz fortune” Kerry, even though the Bushes are more blue blood Connecticut than anything else – so he won.

The next year we got Cinderella Man, a Depression era feelgood. By this point we know we’re stuck with Bush, so it’s time for a tactic change: shit sucks, but watching a (white) guy beat people up makes us feel better. Bring em on.

There are many other examples. You might even throw in a mention for On the Waterfront, not a boxing movie per se but a bona fide classic where one of the most famous lines in cinema – “I coulda been a contender” – is said by a poor young man bemoaning his now fixed state as a citizen of “Palookaville.” Like that film, Cinderella Man is also noteworthy because it reminds us of a simpler time when boxing belonged to white folks. Have you seen the Conan sketch where he plays the old-timey boxer who gets repeatedly pummeled by black guys? It’s true that these days our boxing stories are much more about triumph of the poor than they are triumph of the white. But it wasn’t always that way. Conan’s sketch was echoing the very true story of Jack Johnson. Not the guy who writes sleepy songs about pancakes.

In part two we’ll see how the ghosts of boxing’s past continue to haunt the sport, and haunt our culture.

Art, 2

Banksy sold this sucker to my left for over half a million dollars. Just saying.

By the end of Exit Through the Gift Shop, it’s very difficult to figure out who’s joking on whom. Whom’s joking on whose?

Banksy tells us early on that this isn’t about him, but about someone more interesting than he is. That guy is Thierry Guetta. At some point in the 80s, Thierry got hooked on taping his life. It is suggested he started because his mother died suddenly whe he was young, and he hadn’t been told of her illness, and hadn’t been able to say goodbye. He started taping everything so as not to miss anything. He was like a one-man reality show crew; the camera was always rolling and his friends learned to ignore it.

I’m in the middle of studying Werner Heisenberg, and so I had our pop culture version of the uncertainty principle in my ears as I watched this: you can’t observe a thing without changing the thing observed. But is it possible, with the digital explosion, in this post-Truman Show age of ours, that we’re approaching a real point where you can observe people without changing them, because we no longer feel different when being observed? We’ve grown completely desensitized to it?

Another of the Best Doc nominees, Restrepo, ties in to this. It’s quite familiar ground by now, a documentary about soldiers, but parts of it feel fresh because the men seem so relaxed and candid around the camera. Parts of the film are even their own footage; we are all turning into our own documentarians.

Back to Thierry. Through some family ties, he becomes involved in the world of street art, and he becomes part historian part accomplice for a number of names in that circle, but the one that eludes him is Banksy. He’s dying to meet Banksy. Through a twist of fate, he does, and Banksy – uncharacteristically, his friends note – lets him in, all the way in. They even stage a Guantanamo piece at Disneyland.

Then it gets weird.

One’s sense of foreboding first kicks in when Thierry is sent off by Banksy to do some art of his own. This is purely to get him away from his own footage, which Banksy will craft into a film (turning it against Thierry in the process). Okay, fine, but all Thierry does is paste this image of himself and his camera all over Los Angeles. His first art is his own image. Maybe we should have known from the beginning, when we’re told he makes heaps of money by buying old clothes and selling them to the Los Angelese as vintage. I won’t even go into the oddities of fashion and art, because I know Miranda Priestly is in the shadows somewhere waiting to tell me how my Target backpack owes itself to Balenciaga.

At, least I hope she is. Hello, gorgeous.

And that’s what Thierry is, the Target of street art, or even pop art, really, because he quickly moves from the street to the gallery. You and I realize that street art gallery is a contradiction in terms, but that has not stopped Banksy and others from creating massive exhibits (Banksy’s had a literal elephant in the room) and making massive bucks from them.

Thierry thinks big. He gets an old TV studio, and then he hires a whole team of graphics people and propmasters to make his art for him. All he has to do is put sticky notes on the pages of art books that he wants to crib from, and then his people make them chic. At one point we do see him being wheeled around (he’s broken his leg), spattering paint randomly onto 200 identical Elvis prints in order to make them “collector’s pieces.”

Behold.

Thierry’s stuff makes you ask yourself, Hmm, how interesting is it to see Warhol’s Monroe grafted onto all different celebrities? The answer ought to be “not that interesting.” About as interesting as turning Warhol’s soup can into a spraycan. About as interesting as melding Miles Davis and a barcode. Suggesting – what? How his image has been commodified? About as interesting as choosing “Life is beautiful” for your title. I don’t care if you’re sincere, ironic, or ironically sincere (Life is so not beautiful it’s beautiful again), you’re not breaking any new ground here.

Banksy says, “Warhol made [these images] meaningless; Thierry’s made them really meaningless.”

And yet there’s a certain pleasure in seeing this same old ground, because this time around most of us non-art-critic-types are quick enough to be in on the joke. It’s low brow appeal, the kind of thing that makes us instinctively given an unearned laugh when someone says “you’re as dumb as Sarah Palin!” Yeah, we say, if only for a flash, Barack Obama as Marilyn Monroe. I get it. I might like to have a t-shirt like that…

Especially if the show has been given a splashy spread in LA Weekly – it must be hip – and especially if Banksy himself has endorsed it. Because that is Thierry’s other brilliant move. He focuses on hype. He chooses a name for himself, Mister Brainwash, or MBW, which even if we think is silly could be the point (he’s laughing with us at himself), and then he gets his buddies to give him blurbs, which they do without realizing what they’ve done.

Thierry’s show is almost a nightmare but instead a grand success, we’re told. He makes lots of money and goes on to design album art for Madonna (making her look like, surprise, Marilyn Monroe). The movie then becomes a series of punchlines as Thierry’s former subjects try to sort their sour grapes from their artistic principles in coming to an understanding of his newfound stardom.

Street artist Shepard Fairey (the man who gave us Tricolor Obama), bemoans “a lot of suckers buying into his show.” Then he admits, “Anthropologically, sociologically, it’s a fascinating thing to observe, and maybe there are some things to be learned from it.”

Like what? “Maybe it means art is a bit of a joke,” Banksy suggests. A Banksyite considers this: “I think the joke is on…I don’t know who the joke is on, really…I don’t know if there is a joke.”

But what’s the difference between his stuff and MBW’s? That it wasn’t Brad and Angelina coming to the opening, as they did Banksy’s, but the second generation hipsters lured by the thrill of being part of the scene? Banksy’s been called a sellout himself. He says it isn’t about the money, and yes his website offers you the work there free of charge to do with as you will (so long as you don’t take credit for it), but he’s a rich man. Is his art genuinely more interesting than Thierry’s or do we simply think it is because, well, we’re sort of told to?

If it wasn’t hard enough to sort out the joke by the end of the film, it gets even harder after the credits roll. There is widespread speculation that the whole movie is, in the word of this blogger, a prankumentary. Banksy created MBW, or perhaps even is MBW (wh-wh-HUH?).

Actually it wouldn’t be the first prankumentary, although I don’t think anyone saw the other one: I’m Still Here about Joaquin Phoenix? No? Well you remember how he was all crazy on Letterman? Casey Affleck made a documentary about how he was quitting acting and growing lots of hair – Thierry is hairy too, hmmm – and making rap music and stuff. And then surprise, Casey Affleck said his documentary was a joke. And the world said, which documentary?

Somewhat more noticeable was when Andy Kaufman used to put everyone on, like when he posed as Tony Clifton (also some resemblance to Thierry). In fact the film Man on the Moon suggests that Kaufman might have faked his own death, and lives on.

Kind of like the end of The Winter’s Tale when Shakespeare has a statue of the dead queen come back to life and reunite with her daughter and husband. Is that real or an elaborate hoax? Is Thierry Guetta real or a Banksy creation? The best artists, like Shakespeare, leave clues pointing to both answers. They do this because they already have our money.

So we, like the best audience members, should embrace both answers. And enjoy each of them for what they might be. And embrace our own definitions of art, and not let people tell us we’re eggheads because we love Kandinsky, or not worry about it when we can no longer count the hours we spent watching 90s sitcoms.

We laughed at Lisa Turtle, after all, because only a doofus asks questions like that. What is art? Come on.

So the joke ends up being on me, for writing about all this.

Or you, for reading?

Art, 1

You remember that episode of Saved By the Bell where Lisa is trying to impress the smart guy and she puts on glasses and says, “What is art? Are we art? Is art art?”

Because I do.

That’s all I have on that for now.

But everyone has a cranky uncle – or maybe you’re the cranky uncle in your life – who has said, upon seeing something in a museum, “Well, I could do that.” Like if there’s just a pile of paint cans in the corner of a gallery, or something that looks suspiciously like a plain white canvas.

The proper rejoinder, of course, is “but you didn’t.” Monkeys on typewriters can produce most of Jennifer Aniston’s screenplays given time. But most of us are busy doing other things. So you did not have the right combination of time, idea, and connections to get that piece of art in the museum where it is now, and so you get no part of the reward. The best you can do is gripe about it in order to feel a little better about however much you paid to get into the museum. So you won’t feel the joke’s on you.

And don’t sneer at your uncle, either. At the other end, in the ivory tower amongst the intellegentsia and the art theory crowd, you can have a similar thing only in different clothes: people creating (or endorsing) high-minded notions about what those paint cans and blank canvasses “mean,” so that they can be on the in with the artists. And some people get off on paint cans. But most of us don’t. So we cope with the new either as our uncles or as our professors, or as both from time to time. So the joke won’t be on us.

No one wants the joke to be on him.

A broad statement, but one I feel is pretty safe. Can you imagine a moment when you, or anyone else, would enjoy being laughed at? It is true that if you have a joke pulled on you it can make you feel honored – you’re important enough to prank – but at the same time, it isn’t pleasant in the moment, and you’re much happier when Ashton comes out of the corner and we’re all in it together again.

I’ve always thought that George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” is all about this, and thus in extension about the entire British Empire as loathe to be laughed at, but I won’t go there today.

Instead, in an ongoing series on how Oscar contenders relate to Fuzzy E (alright, I grant you True Grit was kind of a tangential name-drop), I’d like to direct you to Exit Through the Gift Shop, a Banksy film nominated for Best Documentary. If you’re part of the inner circle of hip, you’ve known about Banksy for years. If you’re like me, you might have only heard of him when he did that intro for The Simpsons, or you might be clueless.

Banksy, who has gone to great lengths to keep his true identity a mystery, is a British street artist. No, he’s not one of those people dressed like the Statue of Liberty who went to acting school for four years to learn how to stand very still. But to explain what street art is might be more difficult than you would think, because it gets into a linguistic battle of its own.

Street art is like graffiti, but different. Different how? Depends on who you ask. Some people think graffiti is the real, raw stuff and that street art is for sellouts. The LATimes, in “Street Art vs. Graffiti,” explained how Williamsburg, Brooklyn – a kind of hipster Ground Zero – became a spraypaint battleground: 

The work of street artists is now being covered over by graffiti and taggers who don’t like to see the gentrification of the areas. The latest arrivals to the area are condos, which are being rapidly built and occupied, and changing the dynamic of the area.

So this stuff can be part of class warfare. Others think street art is done by true talents who also have ideas, while any jackass with a spraycan can tag something. The basic ideas of street art aren’t very new. We all saw enough 20th century art to know that modern life sucks, that it’s alienating and we’re all overconsumptive bastards who worship at the cult of celebrity. Got it.

It’s also not revolutionary to think that the wall separating Israel from Palestinian settlements on the West Bank is dehumanizing and cruel. Even the at times overly cautious United Nations can get on board with that. But street art can take that simple idea, add a simple medium (most often spraypaint), and turn it into something breathtaking:

Banksy did this, and other images, in 2005. The Guardian has photos of them, as well as some anecdotes about their creation. For example, apparently at one point “an old Palestinian man said his painting made the wall look beautiful. Banksy thanked him, only to be told: ‘We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home.'”

The Guardian lifted this story comes from Banksy’s website, so it’s quite possible he made it up. But I think it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because it’s so good. It gets to the heart of a major conflict when it comes to art: is it wrong to make something  beautiful out of something ugly?

There’s a 1971 movie called Straw Dogs, made back when “ultraviolent” was an in vogue adjective, which drew (and continues to draw) criticism for its long rape scene, in which the victim, at one or two points, seems to enjoy what’s happening. How irresponsible, the feminists say. How disgusting.

But then take a movie like For Colored Girls.  Yes, I saw it. It seemed like a good idea at the time. There’s a long rape scene in it as well, and while the woman clearly never enjoys what is going on, Tyler Perry decided to intercut the scene with moments from an opera, where a woman sings sad things and Janet Jackson has a single tear descend her cheek.

Whether the woman enjoys it or not, you’re turning rape into art. You’re beautifying it with your clever editing and your thoughtful lighting, your intercuts and your montage and your juxtaposition. What’s the possible benefit here? What’s the benefit of spraypainting the wall? And could that benefit be outweighed by the risk of, as the Palestinian man said, turning an ugly thing beautiful, turning rape into something we’re a little less shocked by, a little more used to?

So “art” becomes a very important label at times. One of Merriam-Webster’s example sentences for the word is, “It’s a beautiful picture, but is it art?” It can separate the pornographic from the aesthetic – in the days of Potter Stewart and the SCOTUS skin flick sessions, it divided the legal from the illegal. It’s how many a teen or twentysomething defends her lifestyle to concerned parents. “I’m not unemployed, I’m an artist.” Spalding Gray, in his monologue Swimming to Cambodia, relates how, since director Roland Joffe referred to his cast as “artists” instead of “actors,” he could get them to do anything.

The word has clout. The word can turn a vandalized phone booth (phone box, technically, it being English) into something that somebody will pay $605,000 for.

Then, if you happen to take that word away, if you say the emperor is naked, you’re going to have some seriously angry rich people. Or will you? Might that collector still take $605,000 worth of pleasure out of that phone box no matter what anyone else says about it? Is it even possible to take away something’s artness? Who decides these things? Does it matter?

See you in part 2.