Some Men Just Want To Watch The World Bern

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Hey Bernie Bros!

What’s up, fellas? First, I feel you. To a certain extent, I am you. I love me some Bernie, and, to establish some obligatory street-cred, actually knew who he was (and admired him) many years before he decided to run for president.

Secondly, I get it. Check this out.

I have to say, you younger dudes are reminding many of us of the obdurate blowhards who claimed, in 2000, that their only choice was Nader since (as Nader himself said, to his eternal shame) Bush and Gore were essentially two sides of the same soiled coin.

Here’s the thing: quite a few folks knew not only that this was bullshit, but that the feckless and untested Bush wasn’t remotely up to the job. Yes, it was infuriating to witness some of the most irresponsible media negligence of our lifetimes (little did we know it was a test run for the run-up to Iraq), but at least, without the literal benefit of hindsight, it was impossible to prove Bush would be incompetent in ways that made even our most cynical suspicions seem…naïve. Here’s the other thing: we already know, without even the slightest iota of uncertainty, that Trump is not merely a reckless, obscene and ignorant buffoon, but that his election will put the very concept of American democracy in jeopardy. Speaking of Iraq, imagine Trump…no, let’s not even go there.

So, with condolences and admonition, let me toss fifty well-intended turds into your oh-so-pure punch bowl before your precious, but increasingly nihilistic “Bernie or Bust” antics do our nation irreparable harm.

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1. Donald Trump.

2. Trump’s VP? Google “Pence. Abortion bill”.

3. Take a quick gander at the GOP platform. And read this.

4. Imagine, for one moment, that you’re not white, or had a vagina. Or were gay. Or, if that’s too frightening and uncomfortable, what our country will be like for any and all of these folks.

5. Pretend (and this is probably the biggest stretch of all) that you ever, under any circumstances had to work a blue collar job.

6. Contemplate Newt Gingrich as Secretary of State.

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  1. Contemplate Chris Christie. (Not even necessarily in any position of power; just contemplate him.)
  2. Imagine, for one second, this idiot feeling vindicated.
  3. The fact that the cowardly and cretinous Rudy Giuliani has recently inserted himself into the public eye with the typical grace of a rabid ferret in a crowded train, and could easily be named Attorney General, should be enough to make you not only vote for Hillary, but get excited about canvassing for her.
  4. If you seriously believe, for one second, that living under a Trump regime will be in any way cathartic or cleansing, do us all a favor: go live in North Korea for a few months and let us know what you’ve learned.
  5. Have you actually ever read anything by Orwell or Kafka or even the pre-9/11 Christopher Hitchens? Didn’t think so.
  6. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, right? Trump’s another word for it, too — for people who’ve never lost anything, or have excellent jobs or benevolent parents to shelter them from shit when it gets real. Speaking of freedom: everything this concept conveys is something Trump had handed to him or has fought to obstruct his entire life.
  7. Hillary a tad egocentric for your tastes? Fair enough. Think she puts herself first too much for comfort? Okay. Compared to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa and June Cleaver rolled into one.
  8. Think of Hillary Clinton as the pâté of politics: overvalued by the wrong type of people, appalling in its pretensions, bought by well-connected sorts, but undeniably created through expertise and time-tested processes. It, in short, might not be especially appetizing for all kinds of reasons, but fast food it ain’t. Think of Trump, on the other hand, as a worn out chicken breast raised on a chemical and steroid mash inside a rank, concrete factory that is months past its inflated expiration date, then had bleach poured on it for coloration before hitting the meat aisle at Food Lion.
  9. Everyone who really wants Trump to win really hates everything about you.
  10. And they would not hesitate to harm you, physically, if they could get away with it.
  11. And they would be encouraged (and, perhaps, exonerated) by Trump, if he had the power.
  12. Read the short story “Mario and the Magician” by Thomas Mann.
  13. Read something by any writer who lived through a dictatorship.
  14. Read this excellent piece from founding Weeklings editor Greg Olear.
  15. Imagine all the right wing radio listening, bigoted and elderly dunces who detest Obama (because he’s black) and fantasize about them spending their miserable last years ranting in their futons because a woman just became president for two terms.
  16. I would say, imagine Secretary of Defense John McCain, but The Donald prefers Secretaries of State who didn’t get captured. You know who definitely never gets captured? Short-fingered cheese-dicks whose daddy helped them avoid military service in the first place.
  17. At a certain point you just have to grow up. There are few things more appalling than the way sausage is made (literally and figuratively). There are also few things more enjoyable, or American.
  18. You know how you love Bill Clinton despite the ways he drives you crazy because he’s such a gifted natural politician with such cripplingly poor judgment? Hillary Clinton, in virtually every regard, is his opposite.
  19. Read this.
  20. Read this, too.
  21. More knowledge dropped by Mr. Olear.
  22. Put this in your pipe and smoke it.
  23. Donald Trump is the tragi-comic apotheosis of the GOP successfully, for decades, side-stepping all reality-based criticism by insisting the media is liberal. (The only way that story ends happily, and appropriately, is if Trump loses in spectacular, historically humiliating fashion.)
  24. Also, the Fox News-enabled transition from low information voters to no information voters has been deliberate, if cynical, and will have one of two results: epic comeuppance that will rend the GOP into several desperate, greedy and angry (always angry) factions, or the utter collapse of democracy, assuming Trump wins.
  25. Seriously, the distance between Hillary and Bernie, though profound in some regards, is like the gap between Starbucks franchises in any major city. The distance between Hillary and Trump, on the other hand, is not even calculable by man-made means; we’re talking quantum physics black hole time space continuum type shit.
  26. See how long you can make it through this:

33. Am I the only person who, whenever Donald Trump is speaking (invariably about himself), thinks he is a much dumber and more dangerous realization of this classic character?

34. You notice how the Republican Establishment has, of late, tripled-down on calling itself “the party of Lincoln”? That’s not accidental. This election needs to ensure that for the indefinite future they are, correctly, known as “the party of Trump”.

35. Getting back to that Republican platform. Did you know they’re against medical marijuana?

36. And that they are still shamelessly anti-gay marriage, anti-gay adoption and for the farcical “conversion therapy” snake oil? (Follow the money, opportunism and denial, always the GOP Unholy Trinity.) It’s one thing to be unrepentantly bigoted and call yourself “traditional”; it’s another to essentially fly your flag of intolerance and dare people with their hearts and minds on the moral side of history to do something. Now’s the time to ensure you do something.

37. Hey, smart guy: can’t be bothered to be appalled by anti-abortion (even in the cases of rape and incest!) laws? How about when your online porn habits start being monitored and persecuted?

38. Still unmoved? Get a load of this exhaustive (and yes, epic) takedown of all-things Trump by our own Brother Sean Beaudoin.

39. You’ve got your panties in a pretzel over Hillary’s emails, but you don’t realize Trump University alone should be enough to ensure Trump is doing the hardest possible time at Rikers Island?

40. Ever seen Dr. Strangelove? Donald Trump is Buck Turgidson, General Jack D. Ripper, Colonel Bat Guano and Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski, all in one. Only dumber and more dangerous. And much less amusing.

41. Remember this?

42. Just vote for Hillary and then complain and whine as much as you want. That’s what blogs are made for.

43. For the sake of the country, be the one saying “I told you so” each time the media, on rinse, wash, repeat, blasts out the latest manufactured Hillary-related outrage. We can take it; we’re prepared for it. Don’t be the person being told “I told you so” by the rest of us, as our collective future flatlines.

44. Ensure another essential Democratic win just to see if it finally causes this evil motherfucker to implode.

45. Just because Batman had some megalomaniacal tendencies doesn’t mean you rooted for The Joker. (If you did root for The Joker, it’s time, at long last, to move out of your parent’s house. Also, too: see #9.)

46. Every great leader, including FDR, had personal foibles that, if scrutinized the way Hillary’s have been for decades, would prevent them from being elected to their home owners association, much less president of the United States.

47. Imagine the good Bernie can continue to do in support of a (grateful, and accommodating) Clinton administration.

48. Visualize every hero who has fought for social justice in the history of the world. Who do you think they’d want you to vote for? (Hint: not Trump, never.)

49. Have the courage of your convictions: go light your house on fire and send every penny you have to Donald Trump. That will allow you to get it out of your system and repent before you help usher in the apocalypse. Win/Win.

50. Seriously. President Trump? You’re better than that. We’re better than this.

Final words from the man himself.

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Some Day A Real Rain Will Come: What Travis Bickle Can –And Cannot– Tell Us About Tucson (Revisited)

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Voices In Our Heads

You talking to me?

It is the pivotal scene in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and it remains one of the seminal moments in movie history. Not so much because of its improvisational nature, or the uncanny way Robert De Niro (playing the alienated and ultimately violent Travis Bickle) disappears into this character, managing to seem invisible and menacing all at once. Most important, this short scene echoes a question that all of us, to a certain extent, ask the world every day.

“Are you talking to me?” we ask, and the tone may be inquisitive, rhetorical or defiant. It may be those and many other things. Mostly, as we interact in a mechanized, sped-up and increasingly unreal reality, we want to make sure people know we are there. We use our voices, our eyes, our frowns or smiles, our horns, our phones, our e-mail, our clothes and a thousand unspoken thoughts to affirm that our presence does not go entirely unnoticed.

In a way, it was easier a few decades ago, around the time Taxi Driver (1976) was released. There was no Internet, no texting, no cell phones, no cable TV, no electronic anything. If you needed to reach out and touch someone, you had to do just that. It’s possible that with the proliferation of devices and toys, in our information-overload moment (which, as it relates to art, content and information, is definitely not a negative thing), we are lonelier than ever before. This ground has been well-covered and there are compelling arguments on either side. On one hand, it can be conjectured that by remaining indoors, behind a glowing screen, we’ve effectively cut ourselves off from old-fashioned interaction and our communication—however ceaseless—lacks intimacy and engagement. On the other hand, people who in another era (including this one) may be best described as socially awkward (due to a variety of societal and self-imposed factors) have myriad opportunities to connect that simply did not exist even ten-to-fifteen years ago.

And the above observations almost entirely relate to action as opposed to reaction. It’s difficult to accurately gauge precisely how a constant bombardment of content, opinions and steadily louder voices is affecting our perception. Not too long ago it was a common joke to talk about (either in celebratory or castigating tones) how we had one hundred channels to choose from via cable TV. Now we have hundreds of channels, as well as streaming video, social media, blogs, and a dedicated website for every news channel, program and talking head in the world. And all of these voices are trying to tell, or sell, us something. Always urgently, never off message, constantly competing with all the other noise to get inside our heads and influence our opinions in one way or another.

 

Who Owns The American Dream?

You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna’ die in a hell like the rest of them.

It was horrifying enough when we had Travis Bickle types who, for their various reasons, sought violent ends to make some type of statement or try and quell that voice screeching non-stop in their ears, like a demented wasps’ nest. Taxi Driver, though wrongly or at least simplistically described by too many as the story of a psychopath, is very much a cautionary tale about what can happen when an alienated citizen has no one to talk to. The fact that it’s set in one of the busiest cities in the world is less ironic than tragic: anyone who has spent time in a bustling urban environment can confirm that it’s sometimes—if not often—the case that one can feel most alone when surrounded by millions of people who don’t know or care about them.

Loneliness, alienation and even violence are sufficiently commonplace as to be unremarkable facets of American existence: watch the news or consider your own life story. This certainly holds true in any society, particularly our plugged in but often disconnected post-millennial era. It seems safe to suggest these conditions are most rampant and profound in the United States. There are countless reasons and/or symptoms, and they are rooted more in myth than reality. For instance, while America does not have the rigid and stratified class systems that still plague Europe, we do have a collective addiction to the white-washed fantasy also known as the American Dream.

Lest that sound like a facile dismissal of a very complicated and, in many ways useful illusion, there are undeniably certain aspects of the American Dream parable that are provable and worthwhile. The ceaseless influx of grateful immigrants is sufficient testament to the inherent promise of an ostensibly free society. The same promise luring men and women to illegally enter our country is the same impulse that served as a siren song for Irish, Italian and other immigration movements through the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, this speaks to the dream of America itself more than what we call the American Dream. Being able to do something is altogether different from being able to do anything. Most of these immigrants (then, now) are obliged to work excruciating hours doing horrific work at woeful wages, and the only thing making it tolerable is that it is (usually) better than the alternative.

The proposition that any of us, regardless of who we are and whatever our initial station in life can, with the correct combination of industry, initiative and luck, ascend to a status of wealth festers as one of the more powerful, if poisonous fictions our country has produced. More, it is not merely promulgated but actively inculcated: history books and sentimental movies tend to tout the exceedingly rare rags-to-riches allegory while ignoring, denying or conveniently dismissing the typical reality, which is that the working poor are likely to remain exactly where they are. In fact, as we’ve seen in the last few decades, this is more—not less—the case in a political and cultural system that has steadily ensured that those who have more will get more, usually directly at the expense of those who have little.

This dichotomy between what we see on screens or inside magazines is not new, but commercials, ads and websites telling us how can be or who we should be are incalculably more prevalent and powerful in today’s world. Thus, the same types of alienating forces that the lonely, angry and outcast citizens have historically been subject to are alarmingly more intense in a 24/7 info-tainment unreality. Which brings us to the Republicans in general and the Tea Party in particular. The GOP has auto-piloted the Horatio Alger story to the extent that counties receiving the most federal aid will lash out most indignantly (if ignorantly) about the perils of “big government”. Indeed, generation after generation illustrates that those who benefit most from higher taxes (and who have the least likelihood of ascending to the upper tax brackets) are consistently fanatical about keeping taxes low for those who earn the most. There are an unfortunate number of tragedies we commit as Americans, but this is one of the more profound examples.

Someday A Real Rain Will Come…

Loneliness has followed me my whole life…there’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

One of the more devastatingly poignant (or poignantly devastating) scenes in Taxi Driver occurs when Travis sits, silently in his apartment, watching the attractive and fashionable folks dancing on TV. Alone in his sweltering studio walk-up, the look on his face—at once longing, frustrated and confused—reveals the hastening recognition that he will never attain the easy, if superficial, security he sees on the screen. With subtlety and lack of sentimentality (the script is actually somewhat slight, which only underscores the astonishing work De Niro turns in), we see that Bickle is the ultimate loner, an underground entity who is as much insect as human, scurrying in and out of his pointless and preordained routine.

Add to this the fact that he is a veteran, perhaps the most overlooked, yet prescient touch of the film (flash forward thirty-plus years to see how we treat our soldiers when they return from the wars we ask them to fight; little coincidence that it’s the same party that salutes the flag most tearfully who are quickest to slash and burn the programs designed to provide physical—and especially mental—assistance). The result of these circumstances and lack of choices provide us, circa 1976, with a character sketch of someone who, if one thing leads to the next, might opt for a more sociopathic solution to his problems. Importantly, Bickle is not revealed as a man destined to snap; while he is far from blameless for his predicament, he is very much a casualty of the world (the real one and the manufactured one) that he can’t master but must exist in. Therefore when he decides “my whole life is pointed in one direction…there never has been any choice for me”, it is both a confession and a one-man verdict, his indictment against this world.

There is some irony, looking back on the candidate he turns his grim attention toward: Palantine, running under the campaign slogan “We Are The People”, seems to espouse a very optimistic (if clichéd) message. (Further irony in that this notion of a collective synergy only amplifies Bickle’s isolation.) Imagine all of these elements contributing to Bickle’s disintegration placed in the context of our contemporary culture, with venom being spewed 24/7 by charlatans and circus clowns like Beck, O’Riley and Palin. Imagine Travis Bickle watching Fox News each day. If you can, you may begin to see why the concern and loathing of the Tea Party movement had much more to do with what happened this week in Arizona and little to do with comically misspelled signs and morons telling the government to stay out of their Medicare.

Travis gets his guns after a frightening encounter in his cab (and having heard about the violence fellow drivers have suffered). Only after he feels himself finally out of options does he contemplate using his gun on an innocent person (and later, people). Even in 1976, this was sufficiently compelling commentary on the ease with which Americans get access to guns. Today, appallingly, gun laws are looser than ever (and—shocker!—one political party defends this madness with the same tenacity they bring to cutting taxes and eliminating federal aid programs) and instead of a lone madman with one round, we have the sickening spectacle of semi-automatic weapons. Flash forward to Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson.

It slowly comes into focus: it is easier, now, for more people (except perhaps the politicians and mainstream media, the two most culpable parties) to understand the calculus that made this weekend’s tragedy predictable and, perhaps, inevitable. There are and—as ass-covering TV talking heads remind us—always will be lunatics in our midst who will kill and maim others and there is little we can do (other than disarm them). That said, it is way too easy to suggest this was an ambivalent act with random victims: in the same state the cretinous Sarah Palin put gun-sights on in a map of “targets”. It’s not necessary to pile on Palin, no matter how much blood she has on her carefully manicured hands; it is every bit the supine and opportunistic media’s fault, since they have breathlessly provided this imbecile with a public platform every step of the way. Special disgust, certainly, must be reserved for the reprehensible propaganda machine at Fox News: that so many Americans receive their “information” (and/or marching orders) from these scavengers debases us all.

And so, while the GOP gleefully fed the ill-conceived ire of the Tea Party faithful, they continued to double down on the very things that have caused so many of these folks to feel genuine hardship. It would almost be comical, except for the immorality and the guns. If someone in a red (or blue) state wants to endorse candidates who blithely promise to increase the collective misery, one can only laugh—unless one can’t help but cry. But when we see these candidates urging “Second Amendment remedies”, we need not wring our hands and ask how we all share the blame. No, the bulk of the blame can easily be laid at the spit-shined shoes of the pied pipers leading these rats to the water’s edge. That, an older and/or more cynical observer might suggest, has always been the case. Except now these rats are packing heat and they don’t mind taking out as many of us as they can, smiling as they do it.

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters on 1/26/11 and is now in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

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The Strange Case of Dr. Dennis and Mr. Miller (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

March, 2009

At issue is not whether Dennis Miller, after 9/11, lost his mind and starting cheerleading for Bush, Cheney and the Iraq War (he did). It’s also not an outrage that, coincidentally or not, he is no longer near as nimble or gratifying as he was in his prime (he isn’t). What’s important to acknowledge is that, while his newer material is sorely lacking, when he was on his game, he was the baddest—and brightest—stand-up comedian in the country.

For those of us who have pined many moons, equal parts impatient and incredulous, for his inexplicably unreleased HBO comedy specials from the ‘90s; it’s time to celebrate an overdue victory. Dennis Miller: The HBO Specials is exactly what the doctor ordered for fans who remember the days when a thesaurus was a requisite part of the experience. A comic who could make you laugh and think is never something to take for granted, as they are always in woefully short supply.

Miller, from his snarky heyday as Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” anchor in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, was arguably the most consistently entertaining, and intimidating, funnyman on the scene. After admiring him in relatively small doses during the “Weekend Update” segments, it was something of a revelation to see him stretch out and hold court for a full 60-minute set. Starting with Mr. Miller Goes to Washington in 1988, Miller has made seven official specials for HBO, all of which are collected in this very reasonably priced and highly recommended set.

When Miller performed in D.C. for his first special it was more than 20 years ago, but somehow seems even longer. Impossible, almost, to recall a time when Reagan was limping out of office and Miller was not yet middle-aged. Indeed, he was young, confident and he had a hell of a head of hair. He knew it, too. At this point in his career Miller took few prisoners and no target was spared from his lacerating sarcasm. Commenting on his recent gigs in the Deep South, he sardonically observes “Talk about Darwin’s waiting room…there are guys in Alabama who are their own father.”

Later he laments “You spend your whole life stopping at red lights, then at the end there’s a cruel irony when you die: they let your funeral procession run the red lights on the way to the cemetery.” Regarding born-again Christians who insist he’s going to Hell if he’s not born again; he says “Pardon me for getting it right the first time.”

Perhaps tellingly, he has an (admirably) prescient take on terrorists, marveling at the ways horrendous acts can be justified in the name of God/religion. This is the lovably bratty Miller, a smart-ass with a heart of cubic zirconium: he was more intelligent and better-looking than you, and that was all there was to it. Chevy Chase, the first “Weekend Update” anchor, had the corner on this market for a minute, and then Miller ran with the baton for about a decade.

In 1990 he recorded Black and White which, for me, is on the short list of all-time post Lenny Bruce stand up concert recordings: it is an absolute tour de force and easily justifies the purchase of this entire set. Miller begins with a muted bang, claiming “I’d like to start off with an impression…I’d like to, but I’m genetically incapable.” For the rest of the special he is at the height of his “more loquacious than thou” phase and it’s a delight to watch how unreservedly he revels in his own brilliance.

A few highlights, taken at random: “I view the reunification of Germany in much the same way I view a possible Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reconciliation: I haven’t really enjoyed any of their previous work and I’m not sure I need to see the new shit right now”; “I’m in therapy now, I’m so insecure I get depressed when I find out the people I hate don’t like me”; “(TV preachers) say they don’t favor any particular denomination…but I think we’ve all seen their eyes light up at tens and twenties.”

Of his father, Miller deadpans “My old man made The Great Santini look like Leo Buscaglia,” and on the then-new development of interminable automated customer service recordings, “I don’t stay on the phone that long with friends contemplating suicide.” If you’ve never seen this, you owe it to yourself.

They Shoot HBO Specials, Don’t They?, from 1994, is worthwhile just for its ingenious title, but the show is actually quite satisfactory. Speaking of the post-LA riot tensions, he says “I get pulled over by a cop in LA I don’t even fuck around; I just wind the window down and blow the guy.”

Politically, he has few kind words for Bush the Elder, and no fondness for Reagan, but he’s already dubious at the prospects of Clinton being a successful, or accepted, leader. He actually defends Hillary (!) saying, revealingly, “I think she’s a good woman…we need smart people now; maybe she can help.” And this is a crucial component of his subsequent devolution as a comic: he was never a liberal; he ridiculed pomposity and idiocy which is always abundantly represented on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, he had a particular penchant for calling out the bullying tactics of media blowhards and the baser instincts (fear, power) that the most cynical politicians prey upon, so it’s impossible to ignore the sad irony of seeing him prostrate himself (for a paycheck?) at the fortress of Pomposity and Idiocy at Fox News.

It certainly doesn’t make his old material any less funny; it just makes it a tad bittersweet to look at, all these years later. In any event, and for the record, my favorite moment of the entire show is when Miller delivers an impassioned—and quite moving—defense of James Stockdale (remember him?), lacerating the media (and public) that found him lacking for the sole reason that “he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television”. He ends the show by predicting that the day Dan Quayle (remember him?) successfully runs for president (and he was then threatening to do)” is the day Shelley Winters runs with the bulls at Pamplona.” That’s good stuff.

By 1996 the also impeccably titled Citizen Arcane was in the can, but the first cracks in Miller’s fortress are visible. For starters, he seems a tad lethargic; it turns out the Aspen altitude is getting to him and as he reaches for an oxygen mask, a few folks in the crowd scoff at him. “Well fuck you,” he retorts. “Get a climate!” To be certain, he’s still amusing, and he is still articulate. He offers up perhaps the best summation of Bill Clinton’s frustrating legacy I’ve heard: “The chasm between his potential and his actuality is so vast…and the struggle (to find balance) sets off all his deficiencies.” It’s pretty hard to quibble with that assessment.

But when he observes “we have too many hung juries and not enough hung defendants”, one wonders what his beef is. It turns out, a little bit of everything, as he refers to the US as “one big, violent trailer park.” He is (understandably) outraged at the general inanity of the population, which results in easily duped juries. It just seems odd that for a man so obviously intelligent, he doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) connect the dots between those who are brought to justice and those who have money or influence. In other words, he seems content to scoff at how moronic our talk-show nation has become, but doesn’t seem unduly perturbed that it’s often his fellow celebrities who waltz away from prison time for very obvious—and odious—reasons.

He spends an insufferable chunk of time lambasting the ACLU and has little to say about politicians or the powerful. At one point he declares “I’m looking to make a little bread, build a wall, take care of my loved ones…and stay out of the crosshairs.” Die-hard Dennis Miller fans may have to Windex off their LCD screens after that one.

Miller’s HBO feature for the end of the century, 1999’s The Millennium Special: 1,000 Years, 100 Laughs, 10 Really Good Ones is a terrific idea that is pulled off with aplomb. Miller focuses on the 1900’s and breaks the century into 20-odd year chunks. He does “the news” (relaying the popular stories of the times with his trademark “Weekend Update” shtick): it is clever and mostly funny. There is a trace of a creeping jingoism that would reach its apotheosis in short order.

Miller takes potshots at a few predictable targets: Russia, Germany and (sigh) France; while it’s an exercise of shooting fish in a rather safe barrel; it’s fair to say that the blood, gore and comedy of the last century provide bountiful material. One of the better moments features the famous picture of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon with Miller remarking “And here we see two of the greatest recording artists of the 20th Century.” This one is the last feature likely to prompt repeat viewings.

Flash forward to 2003: we all know what happened in the three years since his last special. The Raw Feed starts off promisingly enough. Miller laments that he does not masturbate as much these days because his expanding waistline obliges him to slip himself the date-rape drug. Later he says “I was raised Catholic: I went to confession the other day and said (to the priest) ‘You first’.”

He retains some spin on his curveball and it is obvious he still belongs in the big leagues. But then he starts in on the Middle East, and things begin to derail as the stand-up turns into an occasionally ugly right-wing rant. As America was about to deploy forces to Iraq Miller, like many like-minded citizens of the time, is blasé to the point of cockiness. He not only returns to the hackneyed ad hominem toward the French, he boasts that once we’ve “won” in Iraq (quickly and decisively, obviously) the French will be sorry that they blew their chance at the spoils. It’s embarrassing.

Then he lays into Sean Penn with the snide pronouncement “Dead Career Walking”. Of course, two Academy Awards later, Miller was about as accurate with that assessment as he was about the course of our overseas adventures. Lest any of this sound like piling on, I’m saving the best for last: Miller actually pauses mid-performance to utter the words “I’d like to thank George Bush for allowing me to respect the American presidency again.” It is, as they say, to laugh—even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Finally, in 2006 Miller went to Vegas to perform the show recorded as All In. It’s not terrible; Miller is simply too intelligent, too witty and too observant to flop onstage. But one might think he would feel obliged (for the sake of his comedy, for the sake of his integrity) to reign in the rhetoric. Then again, not for nothing is the special is called All In. It takes less than five minutes for Miller to lay into the cowardice of the French.

The rest of the show teeters between Miller’s patented perspicacity and his unfortunate, newly acquired nationalism. Funny bits about being able to access Internet porn anywhere and the plethora of erectile dysfunction commercials give way to longer rants about the dubious science behind global warming, and the benefits of aggressive drilling in Alaska (drill baby drill?). To paraphrase a younger, shrewder Miller, he doesn’t favor any particular political affiliation, but I think we’ve all seen his eyes light up at Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean.

Bottom line: despite his curious and regrettable turn toward the unfunny, Dennis Miller still looms large as one of the five best stand-up comedians of the past 20 years. This egregiously overdue purging of the HBO vaults should come as a welcome relief to fans who remember watching these specials in real time.

Worst case scenario, the first three (and superior) features are all contained on one disc: if you feel obliged to burn after viewing, retain that first disc and put it in the time capsule. The younger generation might be refreshed to see a less bellicose and more beguiling Dennis Miller, and many decades from now, when Miller’s awkward repartee with Bill O’Reilly is a footnote in unintentional comedic history, his greatest work will be remembered, and justly venerated.

http://www.popmatters.com/review/71771-the-strange-case-of-dr.-dennis-and-mr.-miller/

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Some Day A Real Rain Will Come: What Travis Bickle Can –And Cannot– Tell Us About Tucson (Revisited)

Voices In Our Heads

You talking to me?

It is the pivotal scene in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and it remains one of the seminal moments in movie history. Not so much because of its improvisational nature, or the uncanny way Robert De Niro (playing the alienated and ultimately violent Travis Bickle) disappears into this character, managing to seem invisible and menacing all at once. Most important, this short scene echoes a question that all of us, to a certain extent, ask the world every day.

“Are you talking to me?” we ask, and the tone may be inquisitive, rhetorical or defiant. It may be those and many other things. Mostly, as we interact in a mechanized, sped-up and increasingly unreal reality, we want to make sure people know we are there. We use our voices, our eyes, our frowns or smiles, our horns, our phones, our e-mail, our clothes and a thousand unspoken thoughts to affirm that our presence does not go entirely unnoticed.

In a way, it was easier a few decades ago, around the time Taxi Driver (1976) was released. There was no Internet, no texting, no cell phones, no cable TV, no electronic anything. If you needed to reach out and touch someone, you had to do just that. It’s possible that with the proliferation of devices and toys, in our information-overload moment (which, as it relates to art, content and information, is definitely not a negative thing), we are lonelier than ever before. This ground has been well-covered and there are compelling arguments on either side. On one hand, it can be conjectured that by remaining indoors, behind a glowing screen, we’ve effectively cut ourselves off from old-fashioned interaction and our communication—however ceaseless—lacks intimacy and engagement. On the other hand, people who in another era (including this one) may be best described as socially awkward (due to a variety of societal and self-imposed factors) have myriad opportunities to connect that simply did not exist even ten-to-fifteen years ago.

And the above observations almost entirely relate to action as opposed to reaction. It’s difficult to accurately gauge precisely how a constant bombardment of content, opinions and steadily louder voices is affecting our perception. Not too long ago it was a common joke to talk about (either in celebratory or castigating tones) how we had one hundred channels to choose from via cable TV. Now we have hundreds of channels, as well as streaming video, social media, blogs, and a dedicated website for every news channel, program and talking head in the world. And all of these voices are trying to tell, or sell, us something. Always urgently, never off message, constantly competing with all the other noise to get inside our heads and influence our opinions in one way or another.

 

Who Owns The American Dream?

You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna’ die in a hell like the rest of them.

It was horrifying enough when we had Travis Bickle types who, for their various reasons, sought violent ends to make some type of statement or try and quell that voice screeching non-stop in their ears, like a demented wasps’ nest. Taxi Driver, though wrongly or at least simplistically described by too many as the story of a psychopath, is very much a cautionary tale about what can happen when an alienated citizen has no one to talk to. The fact that it’s set in one of the busiest cities in the world is less ironic than tragic: anyone who has spent time in a bustling urban environment can confirm that it’s sometimes—if not often—the case that one can feel most alone when surrounded by millions of people who don’t know or care about them.

Loneliness, alienation and even violence are sufficiently commonplace as to be unremarkable facets of American existence: watch the news or consider your own life story. This certainly holds true in any society, particularly our plugged in but often disconnected post-millennial era. It seems safe to suggest these conditions are most rampant and profound in the United States. There are countless reasons and/or symptoms, and they are rooted more in myth than reality. For instance, while America does not have the rigid and stratified class systems that still plague Europe, we do have a collective addiction to the white-washed fantasy also known as the American Dream.

Lest that sound like a facile dismissal of a very complicated and, in many ways useful illusion, there are undeniably certain aspects of the American Dream parable that are provable and worthwhile. The ceaseless influx of grateful immigrants is sufficient testament to the inherent promise of an ostensibly free society. The same promise luring men and women to illegally enter our country is the same impulse that served as a siren song for Irish, Italian and other immigration movements through the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, this speaks to the dream of America itself more than what we call the American Dream. Being able to do something is altogether different from being able to do anything. Most of these immigrants (then, now) are obliged to work excruciating hours doing horrific work at woeful wages, and the only thing making it tolerable is that it is (usually) better than the alternative.

The proposition that any of us, regardless of who we are and whatever our initial station in life can, with the correct combination of industry, initiative and luck, ascend to a status of wealth festers as one of the more powerful, if poisonous fictions our country has produced. More, it is not merely promulgated but actively inculcated: history books and sentimental movies tend to tout the exceedingly rare rags-to-riches allegory while ignoring, denying or conveniently dismissing the typical reality, which is that the working poor are likely to remain exactly where they are. In fact, as we’ve seen in the last few decades, this is more—not less—the case in a political and cultural system that has steadily ensured that those who have more will get more, usually directly at the expense of those who have little.

This dichotomy between what we see on screens or inside magazines is not new, but commercials, ads and websites telling us how can be or who we should be are incalculably more prevalent and powerful in today’s world. Thus, the same types of alienating forces that the lonely, angry and outcast citizens have historically been subject to are alarmingly more intense in a 24/7 info-tainment unreality. Which brings us to the Republicans in general and the Tea Party in particular. The GOP has auto-piloted the Horatio Alger story to the extent that counties receiving the most federal aid will lash out most indignantly (if ignorantly) about the perils of “big government”. Indeed, generation after generation illustrates that those who benefit most from higher taxes (and who have the least likelihood of ascending to the upper tax brackets) are consistently fanatical about keeping taxes low for those who earn the most. There are an unfortunate number of tragedies we commit as Americans, but this is one of the more profound examples.

Someday A Real Rain Will Come…

Loneliness has followed me my whole life…there’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

One of the more devastatingly poignant (or poignantly devastating) scenes in Taxi Driver occurs when Travis sits, silently in his apartment, watching the attractive and fashionable folks dancing on TV. Alone in his sweltering studio walk-up, the look on his face—at once longing, frustrated and confused—reveals the hastening recognition that he will never attain the easy, if superficial, security he sees on the screen. With subtlety and lack of sentimentality (the script is actually somewhat slight, which only underscores the astonishing work De Niro turns in), we see that Bickle is the ultimate loner, an underground entity who is as much insect as human, scurrying in and out of his pointless and preordained routine.

Add to this the fact that he is a veteran, perhaps the most overlooked, yet prescient touch of the film (flash forward thirty-plus years to see how we treat our soldiers when they return from the wars we ask them to fight; little coincidence that it’s the same party that salutes the flag most tearfully who are quickest to slash and burn the programs designed to provide physical—and especially mental—assistance). The result of these circumstances and lack of choices provide us, circa 1976, with a character sketch of someone who, if one thing leads to the next, might opt for a more sociopathic solution to his problems. Importantly, Bickle is not revealed as a man destined to snap; while he is far from blameless for his predicament, he is very much a casualty of the world (the real one and the manufactured one) that he can’t master but must exist in. Therefore when he decides “my whole life is pointed in one direction…there never has been any choice for me”, it is both a confession and a one-man verdict, his indictment against this world.

There is some irony, looking back on the candidate he turns his grim attention toward: Palantine, running under the campaign slogan “We Are The People”, seems to espouse a very optimistic (if clichéd) message. (Further irony in that this notion of a collective synergy only amplifies Bickle’s isolation.) Imagine all of these elements contributing to Bickle’s disintegration placed in the context of our contemporary culture, with venom being spewed 24/7 by charlatans and circus clowns like Beck, O’Riley and Palin. Imagine Travis Bickle watching Fox News each day. If you can, you may begin to see why the concern and loathing of the Tea Party movement had much more to do with what happened this week in Arizona and little to do with comically misspelled signs and morons telling the government to stay out of their Medicare.

Travis gets his guns after a frightening encounter in his cab (and having heard about the violence fellow drivers have suffered). Only after he feels himself finally out of options does he contemplate using his gun on an innocent person (and later, people). Even in 1976, this was sufficiently compelling commentary on the ease with which Americans get access to guns. Today, appallingly, gun laws are looser than ever (and—shocker!—one political party defends this madness with the same tenacity they bring to cutting taxes and eliminating federal aid programs) and instead of a lone madman with one round, we have the sickening spectacle of semi-automatic weapons. Flash forward to Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson.

It slowly comes into focus: it is easier, now, for more people (except perhaps the politicians and mainstream media, the two most culpable parties) to understand the calculus that made this weekend’s tragedy predictable and, perhaps, inevitable. There are and—as ass-covering TV talking heads remind us—always will be lunatics in our midst who will kill and maim others and there is little we can do (other than disarm them). That said, it is way too easy to suggest this was an ambivalent act with random victims: in the same state the cretinous Sarah Palin put gun-sights on in a map of “targets”. It’s not necessary to pile on Palin, no matter how much blood she has on her carefully manicured hands; it is every bit the supine and opportunistic media’s fault, since they have breathlessly provided this imbecile with a public platform every step of the way. Special disgust, certainly, must be reserved for the reprehensible propaganda machine at Fox News: that so many Americans receive their “information” (and/or marching orders) from these scavengers debases us all.

And so, while the GOP gleefully fed the ill-conceived ire of the Tea Party faithful, they continued to double down on the very things that have caused so many of these folks to feel genuine hardship. It would almost be comical, except for the immorality and the guns. If someone in a red (or blue) state wants to endorse candidates who blithely promise to increase the collective misery, one can only laugh—unless one can’t help but cry. But when we see these candidates urging “Second Amendment remedies”, we need not wring our hands and ask how we all share the blame. No, the bulk of the blame can easily be laid at the spit-shined shoes of the pied pipers leading these rats to the water’s edge. That, an older and/or more cynical observer might suggest, has always been the case. Except now these rats are packing heat and they don’t mind taking out as many of us as they can, smiling as they do it.

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Some Day A Real Rain Will Come: What Travis Bickle Can –And Cannot– Tell Us About Tucson

Voices In Our Heads

You talking to me?

It is the pivotal scene in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and it remains one of the seminal moments in movie history. Not so much because of its improvisational nature, or the uncanny way Robert De Niro (playing the alienated and ultimately violent Travis Bickle) disappears into this character, managing to seem invisible and menacing all at once. Most important, this short scene echoes a question that all of us, to a certain extent, ask the world every day.

“Are you talking to me?” we ask, and the tone may be inquisitive, rhetorical or defiant. It may be those and many other things. Mostly, as we interact in a mechanized, sped-up and increasingly unreal reality, we want to make sure people know we are there. We use our voices, our eyes, our frowns or smiles, our horns, our phones, our e-mail, our clothes and a thousand unspoken thoughts to affirm that our presence does not go entirely unnoticed.

In a way, it was easier a few decades ago, around the time Taxi Driver (1976) was released. There was no Internet, no texting, no cell phones, no cable TV, no electronic anything. If you needed to reach out and touch someone, you had to do just that. It’s possible that with the proliferation of devices and toys, in our information-overload moment (which, as it relates to art, content and information, is definitely not a negative thing), we are lonelier than ever before. This ground has been well-covered and there are compelling arguments on either side. On one hand, it can be conjectured that by remaining indoors, behind a glowing screen, we’ve effectively cut ourselves off from old-fashioned interaction and our communication—however ceaseless—lacks intimacy and engagement. On the other hand, people who in another era (including this one) may be best described as socially awkward (due to a variety of societal and self-imposed factors) have myriad opportunities to connect that simply did not exist even ten-to-fifteen years ago.

And the above observations almost entirely relate to action as opposed to reaction. It’s difficult to accurately gauge precisely how a constant bombardment of content, opinions and steadily louder voices is affecting our perception. Not too long ago it was a common joke to talk about (either in celebratory or castigating tones) how we had one hundred channels to choose from via cable TV. Now we have hundreds of channels, as well as streaming video, social media, blogs, and a dedicated website for every news channel, program and talking head in the world. And all of these voices are trying to tell, or sell, us something. Always urgently, never off message, constantly competing with all the other noise to get inside our heads and influence our opinions in one way or another.

Who Owns The American Dream?

You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna’ die in a hell like the rest of them.

It was horrifying enough when we had Travis Bickle types who, for their various reasons, sought violent ends to make some type of statement or try and quell that voice screeching non-stop in their ears, like a demented wasps’ nest. Taxi Driver, though wrongly or at least simplistically described by too many as the story of a psychopath, is very much a cautionary tale about what can happen when an alienated citizen has no one to talk to. The fact that it’s set in one of the busiest cities in the world is less ironic than tragic: anyone who has spent time in a bustling urban environment can confirm that it’s sometimes—if not often—the case that one can feel most alone when surrounded by millions of people who don’t know or care about them.

Loneliness, alienation and even violence are sufficiently commonplace as to be unremarkable facets of American existence: watch the news or consider your own life story. This certainly holds true in any society, particularly our plugged in but often disconnected post-millennial era. It seems safe to suggest these conditions are most rampant and profound in the United States. There are countless reasons and/or symptoms, and they are rooted more in myth than reality. For instance, while America does not have the rigid and stratified class systems that still plague Europe, we do have a collective addiction to the white-washed fantasy also known as the American Dream.

Lest that sound like a facile dismissal of a very complicated and, in many ways useful illusion, there are undeniably certain aspects of the American Dream parable that are provable and worthwhile. The ceaseless influx of grateful immigrants is sufficient testament to the inherent promise of an ostensibly free society. The same promise luring men and women to illegally enter our country is the same impulse that served as a siren song for Irish, Italian and other immigration movements through the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, this speaks to the dream of America itself more than what we call the American Dream. Being able to do something is altogether different from being able to do anything. Most of these immigrants (then, now) are obliged to work excruciating hours doing horrific work at woeful wages, and the only thing making it tolerable is that it is (usually) better than the alternative.

The proposition that any of us, regardless of who we are and whatever our initial station in life can, with the correct combination of industry, initiative and luck, ascend to a status of wealth festers as one of the more powerful, if poisonous fictions our country has produced. More, it is not merely promulgated but actively inculcated: history books and sentimental movies tend to tout the exceedingly rare rags-to-riches allegory while ignoring, denying or conveniently dismissing the typical reality, which is that the working poor are likely to remain exactly where they are. In fact, as we’ve seen in the last few decades, this is more—not less—the case in a political and cultural system that has steadily ensured that those who have more will get more, usually directly at the expense of those who have little.

This dichotomy between what we see on screens or inside magazines is not new, but commercials, ads and websites telling us how can be or who we should be are incalculably more prevalent and powerful in today’s world. Thus, the same types of alienating forces that the lonely, angry and outcast citizens have historically been subject to are alarmingly more intense in a 24/7 info-tainment unreality. Which brings us to the Republicans in general and the Tea Party in particular. The GOP has auto-piloted the Horatio Alger story to the extent that counties receiving the most federal aid will lash out most indignantly (if ignorantly) about the perils of “big government”. Indeed, generation after generation illustrates that those who benefit most from higher taxes (and who have the least likelihood of ascending to the upper tax brackets) are consistently fanatical about keeping taxes low for those who earn the most. There are an unfortunate number of tragedies we commit as Americans, but this is one of the more profound examples.

Someday A Real Rain Will Come…

Loneliness has followed me my whole life…there’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

One of the more devastatingly poignant (or poignantly devastating) scenes in Taxi Driver occurs when Travis sits, silently in his apartment, watching the attractive and fashionable folks dancing on TV. Alone in his sweltering studio walk-up, the look on his face—at once longing, frustrated and confused—reveals the hastening recognition that he will never attain the easy, if superficial, security he sees on the screen. With subtlety and lack of sentimentality (the script is actually somewhat slight, which only underscores the astonishing work De Niro turns in), we see that Bickle is the ultimate loner, an underground entity who is as much insect as human, scurrying in and out of his pointless and preordained routine.

Add to this the fact that he is a veteran, perhaps the most overlooked, yet prescient touch of the film (flash forward thirty-plus years to see how we treat our soldiers when they return from the wars we ask them to fight; little coincidence that it’s the same party that salutes the flag most tearfully who are quickest to slash and burn the programs designed to provide physical—and especially mental—assistance). The result of these circumstances and lack of choices provide us, circa 1976, with a character sketch of someone who, if one thing leads to the next, might opt for a more sociopathic solution to his problems. Importantly, Bickle is not revealed as a man destined to snap; while he is far from blameless for his predicament, he is very much a casualty of the world (the real one and the manufactured one) that he can’t master but must exist in. Therefore when he decides “my whole life is pointed in one direction…there never has been any choice for me”, it is both a confession and a one-man verdict, his indictment against this world.

There is some irony, looking back on the candidate he turns his grim attention toward: Palantine, running under the campaign slogan “We Are The People”, seems to espouse a very optimistic (if clichéd) message. (Further irony in that this notion of a collective synergy only amplifies Bickle’s isolation.) Imagine all of these elements contributing to Bickle’s disintegration placed in the context of our contemporary culture, with venom being spewed 24/7 by charlatans and circus clowns like Beck, O’Riley and Palin. Imagine Travis Bickle watching Fox News each day. If you can, you may begin to see why the concern and loathing of the Tea Party movement had much more to do with what happened this week in Arizona and little to do with comically misspelled signs and morons telling the government to stay out of their Medicare.

Travis gets his guns after a frightening encounter in his cab (and having heard about the violence fellow drivers have suffered). Only after he feels himself finally out of options does he contemplate using his gun on an innocent person (and later, people). Even in 1976, this was sufficiently compelling commentary on the ease with which Americans get access to guns. Today, appallingly, gun laws are looser than ever (and—shocker!—one political party defends this madness with the same tenacity they bring to cutting taxes and eliminating federal aid programs) and instead of a lone madman with one round, we have the sickening spectacle of semi-automatic weapons. Flash forward to Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson.

It slowly comes into focus: it is easier, now, for more people (except perhaps the politicians and mainstream media, the two most culpable parties) to understand the calculus that made this weekend’s tragedy predictable and, perhaps, inevitable. There are and—as ass-covering TV talking heads remind us—always will be lunatics in our midst who will kill and maim others and there is little we can do (other than disarm them). That said, it is way too easy to suggest this was an ambivalent act with random victims: in the same state the cretinous Sarah Palin put gun-sights on in a map of “targets”. It’s not necessary to pile on Palin, no matter how much blood she has on her carefully manicured hands; it is every bit the supine and opportunistic media’s fault, since they have breathlessly provided this imbecile with a public platform every step of the way. Special disgust, certainly, must be reserved for the reprehensible propaganda machine at Fox News: that so many Americans receive their “information” (and/or marching orders) from these scavengers debases us all.

And so, while the GOP gleefully fed the ill-conceived ire of the Tea Party faithful, they continued to double down on the very things that have caused so many of these folks to feel genuine hardship. It would almost be comical, except for the immorality and the guns. If someone in a red (or blue) state wants to endorse candidates who blithely promise to increase the collective misery, one can only laugh—unless one can’t help but cry. But when we see these candidates urging “Second Amendment remedies”, we need not wring our hands and ask how we all share the blame. No, the bulk of the blame can easily be laid at the spit-shined shoes of the pied pipers leading these rats to the water’s edge. That, an older and/or more cynical observer might suggest, has always been the case. Except now these rats are packing heat and they don’t mind taking out as many of us as they can, smiling as they do it.

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A Dose Of Dennis Miller With An Ian Curtis Chaser

I saw something the other night that really depressed me. It concerns a genius who, for a variety of reasons, could not maintain control. His implosion can be attributed to many of the usual ailments: self-doubt, self-loathing, self-aggrandizement, solipsism, projection, and a latent condition that medicine did little to ameliorate. Oh, and the presumptive intake of questionable substances probably didn’t help either. After some remarkable highs and a steady series of lows bordering on flatlines, he flamed out, career cut tragically and nonsensically short. It was incredibly tough viewing, but I hung in there and (barely) made it through.

And when Dennis Miller’s latest HBO special was over, I watched a movie about Ian Curtis.

More on that in a moment. First, let me attempt to articulate why I found myself –for the first and hopefully last time– actually giving my TV the finger. Boy has Dennis Miller left his lofty perch as one of the premier comedians (and minds) of his generation and careened down to the earth as a shambling cliché of craven opportunism, cynical hackery and anti-intellectualism the dishonesty of which is only exceeded by his shamelessness. And this is coming from a writer who already raised an R.I.P. on his career almost two years ago, begging the question: how much lower can you go than D.O.A.? The answer, alas, is: pretty fucking far. His latest routine, while having its moments (you would know –and be correct to– not take me seriously if I did not happily concede that the man is still capable of displaying wit and invoking laughs; he has a perspicacity that does not dissipate overnight; he is not quite the post-lobotomized Randall P. McMurphy from Cuckoo’s Nest but damn is he headed there at twice the speed of sense), is so bogged down by misplaced bile and blame-the-victim banality, the bright spots are sufficiently shit-stained that you just want to look away, after covering your nose and checking the soles of your shoes.

Remember This Guy? Neither Does Dennis Miller

When I wrote my review of his then-recent collection of HBO specials (in early 2009), I figured Miller had gone about as low as a once-sentient citizen could go, and perhaps once the economy revealed itself to be the bad hairpiece it was, even a suspiciously hirsute fellow like Dennis would see the error of his ways and maybe, maybe even offer up a mea culpa of sorts. Not a chance. He has double…no, tripled down, and he not only has no regrets about the Dubya debacle, it’s quite clear that he misses the man whose boots he used to lick on Fox News. Perhaps I should not be surprised by this (and I reckon I wasn’t) but it’s a testament to how much I once respected Miller that I can’t help being disappointed.

Here is how on-target his present-day political acumen is: he ridicules the health care legislation (“Obamacare” apparently is the agreed-upon G.O.P. code-word to denigrate the initiative) by suggesting that with young adults (some may still call them kids) allowed to remain on their parents’ health plans for a few more years (while they are busy looking for the jobs that don’t exist), we are turning this country into a bunch of medical marijuana smoking slackers. Aside from the inanity of this observation, I wanted to tell Miller it was still a tad too soon to be auditioning for Andy Rooney’s role as out-of-touch-asshole Emeritus. His riff on Guantanamo (“what’s the problem? it works!”), aside from being factually wrong, morally repugnant and farcical on purely logical levels, is on par with the Fox News ethos: hold your breath, put potato chips in your ears and, well godamnit, GO U.S.A.!

He continues to ridicule global warming (“hey, this means I can play golf in December”, etc.) and shrugs off the national debt (which, obviously, Obamacare and neither voodoo economics nor those moderately expensive –and, naturally unmentioned– wars has wrought) by saying “Hey, we’re America: let’s just not pay it!” For a man who is ostensibly concerned about the next generation being a bunch of Bill and Ted’s on a government-sponsored not-so-excellent adventure, he sure sounds like a man whose mind has been hijacked by Keanu Reeves. In a particularly grotesque bit of starstruck sycophancy disguised as an anecdote, he rambles on about getting to meet the great Frank Sinatra. Ironically, this is in many ways as revealing as the political shtick: at this point in time even the most sentimental saps who love the Old Blue Eyes legend –as well as his music– can acknowledge that the man himself was a bigoted, bullying shmuck. What then does it say about someone who is already famous drooling over the opportunity to spend time with the then-senile and increasingly misanthropic crooner? Maybe they had the same scalp surgeon. Or perhaps it has something to do with getting old and washed up and increasingly falling back on jingoism and nostalgia for the good old days when white bread was what you ate and who you ate with.

Remember This Guy? Neither Does Dennis Miller

Here is a Cliffs Notes overview of my lengthy, aforementioned assessment from two years ago:

Miller was never a liberal; he ridiculed pomposity and idiocy which is always abundantly represented on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, he had a particular penchant for calling out the bullying tactics of media blowhards and the baser instincts (fear, power) that the most cynical politicians prey upon, so it’s impossible to ignore the sad irony of seeing him prostrate himself (for a paycheck?) at the fortress of Pomposity and Idiocy at Fox News. It certainly doesn’t make his old material any less funny; it just makes it a tad bittersweet to look at, all these years later.

The devolution was slow and increasingly brutal: by the time an HBO special from ’96 rolls around, he spends an insufferable chunk of time lambasting the ACLU and has little to say about politicians or the powerful. At one point he declares “I’m looking to make a little bread, build a wall, take care of my loved ones…and stay out of the crosshairs.” Die-hard Dennis Miller fans may have to Windex off their LCD screens (if they ever see) that one. By 2003 it was all-ugly all-the time: (when) he starts in on the Middle East…things begin to derail as the stand-up turns into an occasionally ugly right-wing rant. As America was about to deploy forces to Iraq Miller, like many like-minded citizens of the time, is blasé to the point of cockiness. He not only returns to the hackneyed ad hominem toward the French, he boasts that once we’ve “won” in Iraq (quickly and decisively, obviously) the French will be sorry that they blew their chance at the spoils. It’s embarrassing. Miller actually pauses mid-performance to utter the words “I’d like to thank George Bush for allowing me to respect the American presidency again.” It is, as they say, to laugh—even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Bottom line: at issue is not whether Dennis Miller, after 9/11, lost his mind and starting cheerleading for Bush, Cheney and the Iraq War (he did). It’s also not an outrage that, coincidentally or not, he is no longer near as nimble or gratifying as he was in his prime (he isn’t). What’s important to acknowledge is that, while his newer material is sorely lacking, when he was on his game, he was among the baddest—and brightest—stand-up comedians in the country.

All of which has to be the oddest segue ever into a discussion of Ian Curtis. If you are a Joy Division fan you probably caught Control when it first hit the screens (and streets) in 2007; if you still have not seen it, you should. If you are not a Joy Division fan, you should be. If you don’t believe me, believe this and this and especially this. 

If you are still not convinced, try this:

If you’re still not convinced, isn’t there a Dennis Miller special you should be watching?

Having just written in some detail about the sad, redemptory and mostly inscrutable life of Syd Barrett, it was impossible not to make several connections between these two extremely brilliant and deeply sensitive souls. Each of them gave us a lifetime of work in the most abbreviated artistic lives, and each was gone from the scene before most folks ever had a chance to catch up to them. Arguably, many folks are still struggling to keep pace with what they did more than thirty and forty years ago, respectively. And while there is no question that a cult of personality is inevitable when charismatic rock stars die early (Hendrix, Joplin, Holly and Stevie Ray), particularly if they die by their own hand (Cobain, Curtis and, to varying extents, Morrison, Moon and Bonham), there is still a difference between the ones who left too soon and those who may have changed the world –even more than they already did– had they managed to stick it out. Therefore, envisioning what Ian Curtis may have offered in the ’80s and beyond is…difficult. Far be it from me to fan the facile flames of myth-making, but Ian Curtis has more in common with Syd Barrett than a handful of albums that continue to influence musicians today.

Think about it: what would Syd’s music have sounded like in the ’70s? (And after?) I’m not suggesting or implying it wouldn’t have sounded incredible, but I also wonder. And I don’t think his enigmatic end justified the means, but I’m content not only with the handful of documents he did leave behind, but the import they accrue considering a would-be career cut off so bluntly. Likewise, was there anything else for Ian Curtis to prove? Changing the face of music (listen to these songs: even if you have never listened to a Joy Division song, if you were alive in the ’80s and have had ears the last two decades you’ve heard them channeled through the myriad acts who’ve absorbed them like oxygen) was, arguably, enough and quite well done for a two-year tenure. If Piper At The Gates of Dawn and Unknown Pleasures are not on the short list of all-time great debut albums nobody else belongs in the debate.

Considering the legacy of Syd Barrett, I suggested the following:

There was so much more for Syd to achieve… or was there? Do we dare ask for or expect more from any artist who gave so much? Is it both selfish and short-sighted to wonder what he may have achieved in the ‘70s and beyond when we consider what he’d already done? Did Syd pay the ultimate price for fame and artistic immortality?

I could have said the exact same thing about Ian Curtis. Watching the movie (and I also strongly encourage anyone who is interested in Joy Division, or that era in general, to check out the magnificent 24 Hour Party People, featuring the incomparable Steve Coogan), I mostly felt a tremendous sadness. Before he was an artist he was a father, a husband and a human being. On all of those levels, even (or especially) the prospects of fortune and fame could not quell the desperate gloom he struggled to keep at bay. (His offstage and onstage epileptic seizures are the stuff of Dostoyevesky, figuratively and literally.) It makes your heart hurt, and then the music helps heal you; if only it could have healed them.

Finally, I want to resist the urge, but since I also just wrote at some length about Bill Hicks, I can’t help myself. Comparing and contrasting the lives and careers of Ian Curtis and Dennis Miller on the same day goes beyond cheap irony and seems to suggest a sardonic reiteration of artistic inequity, as it’s tended to play out past and present: the great ones are too often hampered (and/or inspired) by their fragility and are inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder; the hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by the unreflective Hoi polloi.

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Rush Limbaugh: Don’t Hate The Player, Hate The Game

Beneath contempt? Of course.

Shameless? Obviously.

A ludicrous, cowardly ass clown? Clearly.

A bullying blowhard? Yup.

A self-aggrandizing huckster who sells snake piss to imbelices and laughs all the way to his drug dealer? You know this.

Are we really surprised by his latest lowering of the bar?

I’m certainly not.

(Which isn’t to say I almost caught myself shaking my head, not quite in disbelief but in a kind of awed amusement: there he goes again. Seriously, when you not only live in the slimy detritus of talk-radio sewage, but make a (very remunerative) living doing so, there is literally no bottom, nowhere further to sink. Indeed, the gig almost necessitates a blind, ceaseless strain to burrow further and deeper, getting to darker places. In other words, Rush’s latest outrage is merely another day at the office.)

For centuries, Punch and Judy shows were all the rage (literally). Our appetite for self-destruction is neither new nor novel; we’ve been perfecting ways to taste the pain for as long as we’ve been upright (and before that we swung from trees throwing shit at each other; before that we crawled in the primordial ooze and threw up on one another). The closest thing we have to these spectacles today is Reality TV and Talk Radio. While some humiliation, desperation and a whole lot of narcissism makes the Reality TV carousel go round, there is an element of selfishness that cuts the inexorable humiliation. In other words, it’s an equal opportunity farce: it’s like gambling or playing the lottery, chances are decent you’ll gain nothing, and the rules could not be clearer. Talk radio, on the other hand (as has been discussed and documented many million times by critics more astute –and interested– than myself) is predicated upon an uneven playing field. The prophets of fury and despair (like so many religious hucksters) offer the illusion of solidarity to their disenfranchised followers. By preying upon their real (or affected) sense of dispossession, these self-declared saviors offer solace by validating the ignorance, prejudices and pains of their flock.

We see it with Limbaugh, we see it with Glenn Beck and we’ll see plenty more of it from Sarah Palin now that she has fulfilled her destiny by getting a platform on Fox News — the purest source of propaganda money can buy.

So what?

Should we protest (and play right into his hands) Limbaugh? Of course not, that will only empower him and augment the sanctimony of his shtick. It’s not often you can call someone a vampire and a whore at the same time, but more than anyone in modern times, Limbaugh is the worst possible combination of everything we despise in humanity. And here is the thing, unlike virtually all the other vermin who fatten their wallets by fomenting unrighteous indignation, there is not a single redeeming value in anything this clownish swine says or does. Nada.

But this was all abundantly obvious almost two full decades ago.

If you want to get fired up, if you really want to feel frightened, consider the fact that Rush’s ratings will skyrocket after today’s shitstorm. Think about that. And be truly mortified for where we are, as Americans. What is most repugnant, when you stop and contemplate it, is that there would be even a single person who might hear Limbaugh’s calculated and cynical hogwash and agree. Or, worse, feel inspired by the way their chosen one brings the hate. The plain, putrid reality is that there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who do. And will.

Just like there are tons of people who will walk over rusty glass for Sarah Palin. If Limbaugh or Palin were offering these people (the bigots, the uneducated, the willfully ignorant, the impotent imbeciles, as well as the doctors, lawyers, teachers and parents) anything –money, peace, progress, hope— it would just be politics as usual. Or as they used to say, That’s Entertainment.

But the fact of the matter is, nothing is being offered. And the worst part of the whole deal is that the most (superficially) faithful and dedicated believers are being sold a bill of goods that is straight-up nihilism. While Fox News gets their Fascist on, and Rush gorges his fat ass on profitable cynicism, these has-beens and never-will-be’s find the voice that never answers them in church, or at the office, or in their cars, or in the bedroom or –worst of all– in their own dark and empty heads when the lights go out.

It is, and always has been, a game. Let’s stop laughing at it (or ignoring it) and start hating it back. 

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Camille Paglia Needs an Enema

I have a confession to make.

I read Camille Paglia.

Of course, being a grad student in the early ’90s, it was impossible to avoid Paglia in the Cultural Studies circles. Most of us regarded Paglia’s work the way one later considers a case of chicken pox: it’s something you suffer through and appreciate never again having to endure. With chicken pox, you can’t contract the virus a second time, even if you tried. With Paglia, all you need do is avert your eyes if you stumble upon something she has written. And I certainly have not purchased, much less read, anything she has printed since my Feminist Literature seminar in ’93.

However, as an avid reader of Salon.com, I can’t help but notice she (somehow, inexplicably) remains a contributor to the site, weighing in once a month with her invariably repetitious, insipid pronouncements. And like the tortured narrator unable to overcome his perverse compulsions in the Edgar Allen Poe story, I am incapable of resisting. Each time I click on that link I know I am, to quote Poe’s narrator, “committing…a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it–if such a thing were possible–even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”

But here’s the thing: despite the platitudes, the incessant self-referencing aggrandizement, the myopic appraisals of modern society, the deliriously cockeyed political discourse, the ravenous appetite for Cliche, I return. Once a month some folks see the moon and turn into werewolves; others are drawn inexorably toward salon.com. Not to worry, there will be no defense of Paglia’s prose or even an ironic attempt to pass this off as an awkward case of slumming, kind of the way Patrick Bateman cleverly tries to rehabilitate Phil Collins and Huey Lewis in American Psycho. No, I read the monthly articles for one simple reason: they are a delivery device for the letters. Each time out, one suffers through (with several laugh-out-loud moments guaranteed) the relatively short piece and is rewarded with pages upon pages of responses which are amusing, vitriolic and often unassailably accurate. And the really hilarious ones come from those who try to defend Camille. Check it out some time.

Give Paglia credit for this much: she seems to comprehend what is at stake and subsequently lowers the bar each month. Each time you think, “Wow, did she really just defend Rush Limbaugh while invoking, for the tenth time in a row, Vamps and Tramps?” Or, “no way she just raved about Sarah Palin while bashing, for the tenth time in a row, the feminist establishment?” But she did. Yes, she did. This month’s installment is another beauty, wherein Paglia (shockingly) defends Limbaugh (and not just the man himself or the clownish concept of his fame, but Limbaugh’s disgusting deployment of the “Barack the Magic Negro” song), and she reiterates her bizarre and inexplicable lionization of the laughable Sarah Palin.

Month in, month out, the pattern is predictable: Paglia remains a solipsistic hyena who believes she is shaking things up by obsessing about the worst tendencies of liberals and holding them up as the standard. She then doubles down by being audacious enough to rationalize some of the more insidious aspects of the right wing which she valorizes as salt of the earth Americana. In other words, she manages to embrace cliches, not comprehend the cliches she espouses, and in the process manages to be something worse than a caricature.

The result? A ceaselessly chattering champion of intellectual refuse like Rush Limbaugh, Madonna and The Titanic who is myopic enough to think she’s operating outside the system. It amounts to speaking loudly from inside a comfortable box and Paglia continues to make a career out of it. Not unlike Fox News, she thinks her view is balanced because…she says it is balanced. Unlike Fox News, one wonders if she really does believe the shit she shovels onto the screen.

Not much has changed since 1991, when the inimitable Molly Ivins bludgeoned Paglia with this hysterically funny demolition. The piece was an instant classic: it is worth reading, and retaining. Any part of it is quotable, but here is the spot where Ivins sticks in the stiletto:

What we have here, fellow citizens, is a crassly egocentric, raving twit. The Norman Podhoretz of our gender. That this woman is actually taken seriously as a thinker in New York intellectual circles is a clear sign of decadence, decay, and hopeless pinheadedness. Has no one in the nation’s intellectual capital the background and ability to see through a web of categorical assertions?

I concur. So do many other people. (Read the letters!) So why would Salon keep such a polarizing blowhard employed? Um, I am not an expert in the business side of these types of matters, but I suspect it is precisely because…she is a polarizing blowhard. She opens her mouth (figuratively speaking) and that stuff comes out (figuratively speaking) and it draws the flies (figuratively speaking). That is good business.

In sum, Camille Paglia is so full of shit she needs an enema. And yet, while our world would not be less full, it would be less funny without her. Rave on, say I.

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