Bob Schwartz

Category: Entertainmnet

Diminished Capacity for Wonder

“Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away.”

This from David von Drehle in Time, about the end of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years:

Though it might sound quaint, there was a time when people could be astonished.

Before super­computers fit into shirt pockets and Presidents tweeted. Before moving pictures were beamed through the air. Before moving pictures.

Not only could people be astonished—they enjoyed it. Loved it enough to pay for it. And so businesses sprang up to meet the demand. The astonishment industry was called the circus.

And what an industry it was. Picture yourself in a quiet American town of ordinary people doing nothing even remotely astonishing. One day, a couple of strangers show up with handbills and paste to cover the town with circus posters. SEE the fearless lion tamer. THRILL to the death-defying wire walkers. GASP at the woman on the flying trapeze. Your brain did the rest. By the time the circus arrived via boxcar or truck, you were desperate to have your mind blown. Elephants—real, live elephants, thousands of miles from Africa or India—pulled the ropes to raise the tents. Inside you would see a man ordering tigers around, women poised on the backs of cantering horses, human pyramids walking on high wires with nothing to catch them if they fell.

On May 21, the most famous circus of all, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, will end its 146-year run, not with a whimper or a bang but mostly a shrug. Death has been a long time coming. A company press release put much of the blame on the recent decision, made under pressure from animal-rights groups, to stop using elephants as performers. But in fact, the Greatest Show on Earth has been headed for this day since the 1950s, when the same force that killed vaudeville—television—drove the storied operation out of its vast canvas big tops and into ho-hum auditoriums and arenas….

Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away. Sex is everywhere, and entertainment is on demand. Nostalgic parents have been struggling for a couple of decades to hide their disappointment from their children after seeing what the circus has become: a deafening soundtrack of recorded music backing a dull program punctuated by strobe lights, foreshortened performances cut to Internet attention spans, a rip-off of $6 sno-cones and $20 flashlights.

Meanwhile, the children have been struggling to understand why their parents would care. Nothing can compete with the circus that they hold in the palms of their hands.

I saw a lot of things at the circus. I saw a man shot out of a cannon, and much more. I was little and could not imagine all the things I would later see—in the world, in my mind, on a screen. We don’t always recognize the things that shape and twist us. Maybe the circus gets some of the blame or credit. Either way, it was wonder full.

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Not Born Bored

Here we are now
Entertain us
Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit

A study by Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation finds that, among other things, lots of high school students are bored. Suggested solutions included making teachers better and the experience more interesting.

There are some other possibilities, but to consider them we should look beyond high school.

First, people are not born bored. Babies are not bored. Everything is interesting to them.

People do grow up and develop something called boredom, about which we don’t spend nearly enough time defining or considering. We just lump it into the avoid-or-eliminate category, and associate it with pain. Fortunately for the suffering bored, at this moment in history we may have the most options for escaping boredom ever.

Pointing to high schoolers or young people in general as the easily bored is unfair to them. Plenty of their elders pursue ways to keep things constantly interesting. Mobile phones at dinner tables are not the purview of those under 21.

There’s no doubt that high school is not what it should be, never has been, and deserves attention and improvement. The same goes for the hourly and daily and yearly lives of many people, just like those students stuck being in a place they don’t want to be and doing things they don’t want to be doing.

One small suggestion: Don’t be bored. Put another way, instead of regularly working hard to eliminate boredom, once on a while eliminate boredom as a category of experience. You don’t have to think like a baby. But you might discover that seeing everything as interesting, even awesome, can provide some incredibly cheap and available thrills. And while we wait for high school to improve, maybe that’s something we can try to get across to our kids. Once we learn to practice it ourselves.

Coming Out: How Cosmetic Surgery Is Like Being Gay

South Park - Tom Cruise

In case you haven’t noticed, the noise surrounding Renee Zellweger’s about face sounds just like the conversations we have about celebrities being gay: did she or didn’t she, is he or isn’t he?

There are three kinds of cosmetic surgery: the public kind that can be explained as the result of exercise and nutrition (body shaping and toning), the public kind that is hard to explain that way (obviously enhanced breasts), and the private kind that is (sort of) meant to be private (vagina rejuvenation, penis enhancement).

Questions about the public kinds can be met with a variety of replies, all of them valid:

Yes.
No.
No comment.
It’s none of your business.

This remarkably parallels the situation of those who are “suspected” of being gay. Sometimes it is made public, sometimes it is kept private, sometimes it is treated matter-of-factly: it is what it is, it’s my life, take it or leave it, so what?

Admitting to plastic surgery is in many contexts (including and especially entertainment) as delicate as admitting to being gay—even if the fact is relatively obvious. One of the many reasons the late Joan Rivers was so beloved, why what was obnoxious in others was endearing in her, is that the fact of her many plastic surgeries was a prime subject of her own bits. As with other topics, she just gave you the finger, laughed, and had you laughing too.

In the scheme of all but the tiniest matters, Renee Zellweger’s face is inconsequential. But as with all the tongue wagging about the sexual preferences of some celebrity, it exposes unanswered and mostly unspoken questions about how people feel about certain things. Many people still don’t know exactly what they think about major or minor voluntary body mod, any more than they may have totally resolved their deepest puzzlement about homosexuality, no matter how genuinely progressive and tolerant they are.

For better or worse, we are actually seeing a bit of that in the Renee Zellweger situation: along with an avalanche of typically mindless chatter, there has been some useful discussion about the nature of celebrity, privacy, aging, feminism, and health. It is unfortunate that this has to fall on a single individual’s shoulders, with so much collateral and gratuitous hurt. But if we are careful, we might just learn something, mostly about ourselves. How rare and valuable an opportunity is that?

Illustration: The obvious illustration for this post would be yet another photo of Renee Zellweger, which neither the world nor she need. Instead, above is a frame from South Park, the 2005 episode called Trapped in the Closet. It is widely considered the show’s most controversial episode, which is saying something. In it, the fearless and brilliant and culturally incorrect Parker and Stone managed to skewer (eviscerate?) both Scientology and the rumored homosexuality of Hollywood stars. In this scene, Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet (where he will ultimately be joined by John Travolta). Nicole Kidman, his then-wife, is trying to talk him out. As I said, culturally incorrect, and probably intolerant and spiteful in light of all that’s written above. But it is funny, and not surprisingly, it is the equally fearless and funny Joan Rivers who also took on the very same subject. Laughing and thinking. What a combo.

The News and the Wheel

The Wheel - Jerry Garcia

The wheel is turning
and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go
and you can’t hold on
You can’t go back
and you can’t stand still
If the thunder don’t get you
then the lightning will

The Wheel
Jerry Garcia

If you are still listening to, watching, or reading the news, oh boy. If the world seems out of balance, that’s not just the news talking. That’s the way it is.

Thousands of U.S. troops sent to fight Ebola. No troops but planes and bombs to fight thuggish madmen disguised as religious fanatics whose organizational name we can’t keep straight. Honored gladiators beating their wives and children. Police shooting the people they are sworn to protect. The most powerful legislature in the world doing nothing when something is called for, something when nothing is called for, and blabbering on when silence is golden. Rampant use of destructive drugs, demonizing of less destructive drugs. Speaking of drugs, powerful pharmaceuticals interrupting your entertainment with the news that they can cure you, but may also kill you, harshly and slowly. And that’s just for starters.

Every time that wheel turn round
bound to cover just a little more ground

Won’t you try just a little bit harder
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?
Won’t you try just a little bit harder?
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?

Breathe. If it seems like madness, that’s because it is. But it’s our madness and we just have to live with it. Being strong and smart will move us forward, but it’s never enough. Being strong and smart will not, for example, cure our madness, and like those very high-tech pharmaceutical drugs, can do more harm than good. Misplaced confidence in our strength and our brains is like putting a thumb on the scale. Which is no way to get in balance.

Record Store Day 2014

Record Store Day 2014
That’s not a record store:

Spotify

This is a record store:

Amoeba Records

Record Store Day
Saturday, April 19, 2014

“I think it’s high time the mentors, big brothers, big sisters, parents, Guardians, and neighborhood ne’er do wells, start taking younger people That look up to them To a real record store and show them what an important part of life music really is. I trust no one who hasn’t time for music. What a shame to Leave a child, or worse, a generation orphaned from one of life’s great beauties. And to the record stores, artists, labels, dj’s, and journalists; we’re all in this together. Show respect for the tangible music that you’ve dedicated your careers and lives to, and help It from becoming nothing more than disposable digital data.”
– Jack White

Thor Gives Birth to Twins

Thor
Nobody wants to hear from word nerds. They just stifle creativity and block linguistic evolution with their definitions and rules. Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland is the man (or eggman): words mean exactly what anybody says they mean.

Except they don’t, or they can’t or shouldn’t. If you tell a doctor you have a pain in your leg, and she examines and treats your arm, because leg now means arm, everybody has a problem.

Here’s the TMZ story that’s been widely picked up:

Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky — Give Birth to Twins
Thor’s Got Twins Now!

3/20/2014 4:14 PM PDT BY TMZ STAFF
EXCLUSIVE

Chris Hemsworth and his wife are at Cedars Sinai Medical Center right now giving birth to twins … TMZ has learned.

It’s ultra-high security in their hospital suite … we’re told 2 security guards are standing at the door.  Chris is strolling the hallway and is being escorted with a guard.

Chris and his wife Elsa Pataky already have one baby — India Rose Hemsworth who is now 22 months old.  She’s about to have a couple new siblings.

Chris and Elsa were married in 2010.

This led to headlines like this one in the New York Daily News:

Chris Hemsworth, wife Elsa Pataky giving birth to twins

Nobody may care, except for mothers, doctors, and Mrs. Chris Hemsworth, but “giving birth” is not the same as parents having a baby. “Birth” is variously defined as “The emergence and separation of offspring from the body of the mother” or “The event of being born, the entry of a new person out of its mother into the world.”

Chris Hemsworth can be a proud and involved daddy. So can Thor. But neither of them can give birth, no matter what TMZ or the Daily News say.

Rock and Roll Prophecy: Show Biz Kids

Show Biz Kids
Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves you know they
Don’t give a fuck about anybody else
Show Biz Kids, Steely Dan

Pop music self-reflection has been around for decades. The wonderful Lorde does a take on it with Royals, looking at superstar excess from the perspective of a regular teenager. Jethro Tull sang “When you’re too old to rock and roll but too young to die” in 1976—without a time machine to watch 70-year-old Mick Jagger prance around the stage almost forty years later.

But when it comes to visionary, nothing beats Steely Dan’s 1973 Showbiz Kids from the Countdown to Ecstasy album. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen always cast a little bit of jaundiced eye on society, show business and fame, which along with their musical sophistication and eclecticism made them a lock to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Their lyrics are often poetic, obscure and ambiguous, but Show Biz Kids is just plain straightforward. Show business, including pop, has had its share of bratty, self-absorbed behavior from star children of all ages. So it’s nothing new, and it may not be more over the top than ever—even if it seems that way sometimes. The poor people are still sleepin’ with the shade on the light while the stars come out at night. Once in a while these days, it appears, as Steely Dan sang, the show biz kids don’t care what they do or how it looks.

While the poor people sleepin’
With the shade on the light
While the poor people sleepin’
All the stars come out at night

After closing time
At the Guernsey Fair
I detect the El Supremo
From the room at the top of the stairs
Well I’ve been around the world
And I’ve been in the Washington Zoo
And in all my travels
As the facts unravel
I’ve found this to be true

They got the house on the corner
With the rug inside
They got the booze they need
All that money can buy
They got the shapely bods
They got the Steely Dan T-shirt
And for the coup-de-gras
They’re outrageous

Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves you know they
Don’t give a fuck about anybody else

Veterans Day and Busby Berkeley

Gold Diggers of 1933
Gold Diggers of 1933 may be the strangest of all classic movies—and the one that has the most to say about Veterans Day 2013.

It is classic because it is still entertaining: snappy, cynical dialogue; singing and dancing that may be a little out of style, but Busby Berkeley production numbers that are still wonders of the world, in part because they were actually performed and filmed on sound stages—no special effects or shortcuts. Your jaw will drop in astonishment and delight.

The strangeness is that framing this jollity is a movie about the Depression—not as a backdrop but about it, head on. Nowhere is this incongruity more obvious than the close of the movie. There is a penultimate mega-happy ending, where the three down-on-their-luck showgirls marry the three rich Boston bluebloods. But just then, there is one last song and production number: Remember My Forgotten Man.

In 1932, most veterans of World War I were out of work, as were so many others. In 1924 the government had authorized a longstanding practice of offering bonuses to those who served in war. This took the form of Certificates of Service, which matured over 20 years, and were to be paid in annual installments. But in the midst of the Depression, the veterans didn’t need that money down the road—they needed it right now. A movement for immediate redemption of the certificates gained momentum (the amount was tens of billions of dollars in today’s money). So in 1932, 43,000 marchers—veterans, their families and their supporters—gathered in Washington in what came to be called the Bonus Army, to demand cash payment. This was rebuffed. President Hoover and Republicans in Congress believed that this would require a tax increase, and that a tax increase would delay the recovery of the economy.

These were the Forgotten Men. As the tragic climax of a musical comedy, we watch a sordid street scene, narrated in song by Gingers Rogers. She is now surviving as a prostitute, married to a war veteran abandoned by the government and the nation. On stage we see the troops marching off in glory to cheers and flag-waving, only to return broken and injured, with no one to greet or comfort them—or even to remember them.

Remember My Forgotten Man

I don’t know if he deserves a bit of sympathy,
Forget your sympathy, that’s all right with me.
I was satisfied to drift along from day to day,
Till they came and took my man away.

Remember my forgotten man,
You put a rifle in his hand;
You sent him far away,
You shouted, “Hip, hooray!”
But look at him today!

Remember my forgotten man,
You had him cultivate the land;
He walked behind the plow,
The sweat fell from his brow,
But look at him right now!

And once, he used to love me,
I was happy then;
He used to take care of me,
Won’t you bring him back again?
‘Cause ever since the world began,
A woman’s got to have a man;
Forgetting him, you see,
Means you’re forgetting me
Like my forgotten man.

Maybe the musicals of the 1930s are old-fashioned and for a lot of people unwatchable. Maybe Busby Berkeley is just some campy choreographer whose over-the-top numbers are funny but incomparable to today’s digital masterpieces. Then again, maybe ending a popular entertainment with a bleak and uncompromising plea to our national conscience isn’t a bad idea—and never goes out of style. Remember Our Forgotten People, circa 2013.

Lesson from The Voice: Caveat Inspector

The Voice
The Voice is now the dominant singing competition on television, having surpassed, probably permanently, American Idol. There is a lesson from The Voice that goes beyond just music, a lesson that goes to the heart of what has become a more media centric/entertainment centric society.

The reasons for the success of The Voice are pretty simple:

A substantial number of solidly talented and interesting contestants.

Panels of likeable and helpful celebrity coaches, with real musical expertise and real chemistry between them: Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton in the fall; Shakira, Usher with Levine and Shelton in the spring.

The show process begins with the uber-concept in the show’s name. The first round is a blind competition, where the panelists can hear but not see the contestants sing. It is, at least in part, all about “the voice.”

This week began the Knockout Rounds, where votes from the TV audience determine who will stay and who will be eliminated. The first of two nights on Monday was peculiar, anomalous for any singing competition. Of the ten singers who performed, not a single one was criticized, even for a tiny misstep—even though a few performances were very good, some were okay, and some were just not quality singing.

American Idol never quite figured out how to deal with judges’ criticism of contestants. Starting with the original panel, and continuing through the revolving door of judges who failed, there were more or less roles for the judges: the more brutal but somewhat constructive one (Simon Cowell), the kind, encouraging and heart-on-the-sleeve, maybe a little ditzy one (Paul Abdul) and whatever one (Randy Jackson).

There was an underlying issue in all that. There is little doubt that the producers of Idol shaded and spun the show so that certain contestants might rise a little higher than others. Whether this amounted to rigging results is unsubstantiated overstatement. But clearly, with all the elements at their command, producers could shine a different light on different singers, light that might affect voting. A judge’s praise or criticism could certainly be one of those elements.

In so many ways, for the better, The Voice is not American Idol. But the toolbox has some of the same tools: heartwarming or heartrending back stories, strategic song choices, etc. If the panelists/coaches criticism could affect the outcome, on Monday the decision seemed to be to have none at all.

And it was weird. At some point, even as the least trained audience ears could sense a musical problem, you could see coaches forcing smiles and faint praise. One big tell is when a panelist begins by telling a singer how good they look or how wonderful a person they are. Which is utterly ironic, since the show is based on the premise that voice matters above all.

If Monday’s absence of criticism was notable, it was even more apparent as soon as the Tuesday Knockout Round began. From the first singer on, many of the performances received what was in all cases deserved small critiques—never devastating, sometimes not as big as it could have been, but critique nonetheless. It was as if someone behind the scenes had noticed and said: our audience may like certain singers for their look, their attitude, their personality, but the audience isn’t deaf or stupid. We have a panel with four eminently talented musicians, and while we don’t want brutality, their credibility as judges of performances—their honesty—is on the line.

Which brings us to the greater lesson that should never be forgotten. From the beginning of advertiser-paid media, newspapers to now, all of those media have dual roles to play. They are whatever they essentially do—report news, entertain us, stage competitions, offer ways to publish short messages to the world, etc. But they are all also ways of delivering eyes, ears, hearts and minds to advertisers. There is nothing wrong with this. Nor is there anything wrong with media not being transparent about this obvious dual role and announcing all the things they do to increase the audience.

So enjoy. Get invested in your favorites (this season: Caroline Pennell, Tessanne Chin and Cole Vosberry, all of whom could be The Voice, all of whom deserve success). But remember that in commercial media, along with caveat emptor (buyer beware), it is caveat lector (reader beware), caveat inspector (viewer beware), and on this day of the Twitter IPO, caveat tweeter.

Aurora, Colorado

We are on a forced break from Big Politics and Big Entertainment as usual, in the aftermath of last night’s massacre at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater. Words fail in the face of the still unfolding details about this off-screen horror.

Business as usual will return, as it always does, at its own pace. Meanwhile, there will be attempts to make sense of the senseless. Conclusions will be jumped to, based on varying degrees of information and ideology.

There will be questions about the seeming increase in incidents like this, whether that seeming is based on anecdote or hard statistics.

There will be questions about the prevalence and availability of weapons of multiple destruction (WMD) in our country.

There will be questions about the effect of media and entertainment content on our lives.

All these are questions worth asking and answering constructively, which means openly and intelligently, and not just to score points. There will be time enough for that. Tragedies on any scale can indeed lead to progress and evolution. But there is a fine line so easy to cross, where the incident is just a rhetorical device to make some “bigger” and “more important” point. This can easily dishonor and disregard the basic nature of the loss. All of us who believe this or that, however fervently, have to take care.