Monday, April 21, 2014

When Cable Sucked

Many things about our 21st century existence never cease to amaze me, and I am not talking about the device in my pocket that can be a computer, phone, and hold my entire music collection.  I am equally amazed at the vastly superior quality of coffee and beer in this country compared to three decades ago, and with the rise of basic cable television to respectability.  I want to talk about the latter today, because back in the 1980s few could have imagined shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men even existing, much less on the lowly and much-maligned medium of basic cable.

In the first place, the cable pre-history before digitization meant only a limited number of channels were available, and there was no "guide" function to tell you what was on.  My mother is an assiduous neat freak, and as a child I had to watch the TV listings section of the local Saturday paper like a hawk, lest my mother toss it out with the rest of the newspaper.  (Her TV watching habits are so regular, rare, and narrow that she never needed the listings.)  Much of what was on consisted of cast-off, unwanted crap from the networks.  The reruns were often shows so slight that they never made it to network syndication, and the movies of B-grade quality.  Cable was so scuzzy that they had their own awards show (The Ace Awards) because no cable show was ever going to win an Emmy.

It's hard to say when exactly cable started getting respectable.  It became less of a joke roughly between 1987 and 1991, dates that marked the advent of NFL games on ESPN and CNN's coverage of the Gulf War, respectively.  I miss my old low-rent cable, and here are some reasons why:

Cubs and Braves Games
My love of baseball was nourished by WGN and TBS, since they were so starved for programming back then that they broadcast all of the Cubs and Braves games, respectively.  I really learned about baseball by listening to Steve Stone's commentary during Cubs games, and to this day will watch games played at Wrigley on TV just to rekindle old childhood memories.  Oddly enough, the experience never turned me into a fan of either team.  I got sad in later years when both networks cut back on their baseball coverage.

USA Up All Night
My love of guilty cinematic pleasures and so-bad-it's-good movies originates in many a Friday and Saturday night spent watching the fare on USA Up All Night hosted by Gilbert Gottfried on Saturday and Rhonda Shear on Friday.

Music Videos On MTV
I read an oral history of MTV a couple of years ago, and realized that the folks behind MTV were ingenious because they got their programming for free.  The record labels paid for all of those videos, which were much more interesting and compelling than anything any one cable company could have afforded to produce at the time.  I've written a lot about music videos on this blog, suffice to say that they captured my youthful imagination like little else at the time.

Odd Movies
Every now and again I will be flipping channels and see that a cable station in running a Star Wars or Indiana Jones marathon.  Such a thing would have been a complete impossibility in the days of old cable.  On old cable you'd be much more likely to see a Billy Jack or Walking Tall marathon.  Yes those movies are silly by comparison, but they are damn hoot, something there's just too little of these days.

Odd Sports
Before ESPN was the "Worldwide Leader" they filled their hours with roller derby, monster trucks, kick boxing, and Australian rules football.  My dad and I loved to watch these events together, it was a real bonding experience for us.  We especially loved Australian rules football, a sport that combines some of the best attributes of football, soccer, and rugby.  The international programming that ESPN resorted to probably made me a more cosmopolitan, broad-minded person.

Old School CNN Headline News
I was a huge lonely nerd as a kid and abnormally obsessed with the news.  Our local podunk paper had little international news, so I loved watching CNN, back when it was a hard news channel with a heavy emphasis on global events.  I liked Headline News best, since I could get a thirty minute newscast any time of the day, complete with sports highlights at 19 and 49 minutes after the hour.  I was bored and living in the middle of nowhere, so there was nothing more exciting than seeing footage of things like the anti-poll tax protests in Britain or the Ayatollah's funeral.  This once humble channel, which is now a haven for bad morning shows and Nancy Grace, did a lot to educate me about world events.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Track Of The Week: Blind Willie Johnson, "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground"

Last night I was motivated by Good Friday to sit down and watch Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew.  It's an amazing film in that Pasolini takes the techniques of Italian realism (spare dialogue, non-actors, stark black and white imagery) and applies them to the story of Jesus, which usually gets the gaudy Technicolor treatment of the likes of Ben-Hur, King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Although Pasolini's sexuality, religion, and politics make him an unlikely chronicler of Jesus (he was a gay Marxist atheist), the film might be the most moving depiction of the Christ story I've ever seen on film.  In this rendering Jesus is both mysterious and utterly relatable, a slight-looking fellow with intense eyes and a fervent manner of speaking.  He comes across as a determined revolutionary, barely concealing his fury at those who refuse to help their fellow humans even while preaching love.  (Pasolini's politics are pretty close to the surface in this regard.)

Just as the filming techniques are unorthodox, so is the soundtrack, which uses passages from 20th century music.  The most effective in this regard is a snippet from Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground," which is a lamentation for Jesus lying dead in the tomb on the evening of Good Friday.  Johnson was a Texas bluesman who may have been the greatest artist of the slide guitar that there has ever been.  It's actually hard to call him a bluesman, since he sang Gospel and devotional songs, but with blues accompaniment and a deep, gravelly voice that gave his words of heaven an unusual earthiness.

"Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" has no words, only an unearthly slide guitar that sounds like it's a transmission from Mars, rather than Texas in the 1920s, and Johnson's emotive, wordless singing.  It puts chills down my spine every time, and reminds me of the pain I felt as a child when I went to do the stations of the cross on Good Friday.  Each year I mourned as if Jesus had died that day, and while my piety is much less intense as an adult, I am still moved when I think of a man who did so much for others dying in such a horrible way, abandoned by most of his own disciples.  As a child I was always haunted by the fact that Jesus himself cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  Forget your hymns, "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" is the only song I know that articulates the utter and complete despair of the crucifixion.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Heartland Doesn't Want To Be Saved

I've always winced at the term "heartland" because I grew up there.  Locals deployed it constantly, affecting a kind of moral superiority over the more supposedly wicked and less righteous parts of the country.  It seemed to me an evasion of a grim reality, like the scion of an impoverished noble family trotting out his coat of arms and wearing a flea-bitten ermine coat.  In reality the "Heartland" is a backwater not at the heart of much of anything in this country whose population loss has occasioned plenty of talk about what can be done to revive it.  Those who have a stake in Great Plains (a term I prefer) like myself know that it is a region in dire circumstances.

Timothy Egan, who knows the area well, wrote the latest entry in this venerable genre in the New York Times last week.  I agreed with much of what he had to say. He noted that irrigation-heavy agriculture is sucking the Ogallala Aquifer dry, and that the recent wave of immigrants from Latin American and Asia to the Plains needs to be encouraged, in order to bring new blood and arrest the alarming population decline in the area.  He could also have added that the proposed Trans-Canada pipeline would cut right through the Aquifer, and a blow-out would effectively destroy the whole area's water supply.

However, I feel Egan missed something crucial, which I know to be true: the Heartland doesn't want to be saved.  If you dare bring up the aquifer's depletion and the need for conservation you'll be treated like a communist.  For more evidence of a lack of desire to change, look no further than how many of the locals are treating recent immigrants.  Instead of welcoming them with open arms, ecstatic that an area that's literally dying off is getting a fresh infusion of young people, immigrants are being met with ugly nativist and racist pushback.  States like Kansas and towns like Fremont, Nebraska, are passing laws intended to drive immigrants from the area and make it harder for them to vote.

What about the youth who grow up on the Plains, you ask?  Those who get an education tend to get the hell out at their first convenience.  They might stick close to home, in places like Omaha, Denver, or Kansas City, but those cities are increasingly foreign to their rural hinterlands.  There are few job opportunities for young educated ruralites, and the culture of the area is so oppressively conservative that those who aren't Republicans, aren't straight, aren't religious, and aren't interested in maintaining a 1950s version of gender roles do not feel welcome.  Of course, the locals actually tend to see that as an asset rather than a curse, since it keeps things just the way they like it.  To say otherwise would challenge the aforementioned sense of moral superiority.

Despite all of this I can't help but love my Nebraska homeland, its wide vistas, laid-back attitude, and lack of pretension.  Whenever I go home I mark in my head just how much emptier and more lifeless it seems with each passing visit.  It makes me sad, especially when I recall my faint memories of how vibrant my hometown was before the farm crisis of the 1980s.  Like an alcoholic friend who refuses to admit they had a problem, the "Heartland" will only heal when it realizes it needs healing.  Don't count on that happening any time soon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My Baggage At The Grand Budapest Hotel

I had off work today because of Passover, and my wife only had a half day at her school.  This meant that with the girls at day care, we would actually be able to go out on a date by ourselves.  We saw a matinee of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which we both enjoyed.

My enjoyment was bittersweet, however.  The historical Central European setting reminded me that I had once studied German history (and European history more broadly) for well over a decade.  I developed a real love of the lesser known period of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and while the film takes place in the early 1930s, the main characters (Zero and M. Gustave) both long to return to the world before the Great War.  That sense of having been ripped away from a more comfortable world feels very real to me.

In recent years my bitterness towards my time in academia has infected my feelings towards my former field of study.  I read a lot of American history these days, and little European history, mostly because it reminds me that my dream of being a scholar of nineteenth-century Germany ended in disaster.  I teach mostly American history at my school, and I'm just fine with that.  I've dreaded ever having to talk about my dissertation ever again, and find myself feeling actual loathing towards it.

Watching The Grand Budapest Hotel reminded me that I still do truly love Central European history and literature.  (When I heard that the film had been inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, I knew I had to see it.)  I've written some book reviews on my field in recent years, and each time I felt my mind working in familiar and happy ways.  Despite those positive experiences, I haven't been able to stop transferring my bitter anger towards my old profession towards what I used to study.  I really and truly would like to continue some of my old research (I've got a long-completed journal article gathering dust), hopefully I can unburden my baggage and allow myself to enjoy something that once gave me such pleasure.  The film is in many ways about holding onto what's good in the past when life and fate conspire against us, I think I can gather some inspiration from that.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Notes On A Trip To Branch Brook Park

Spring has finally sprung here in New Jersey, which meant I spent a lot of this weekend with my daughters outdoors.  On Saturday my wife and I decided to take them to Branch Brook Park, a massive, beautiful landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in Newark that juts into neighboring Belleville.  We were married in nearby St. Lucy's church and had our wedding photos taken in the park, so it was a sentimental journey of sorts.  Although the park has lost some of its glory over the years (I remember the photographer having to get a stray condom in the grass out of the shot,) it's still a wonderful place, and still draws plenty of people.  We walked our giddy daughters along its path, saying hi to the other strollers and enjoying an island of fresh air in north Jersey's tangle of expressways and traffic.

Instead of taking the Garden State Parkway to Branch Brook, we decided to explore the backroads through South Orange, Orange, and East Orange.  (Northern New Jersey is a bewildering patchwork of towns akin to the Holy Roman Empire.)  I began to notice that these towns, like Branch Brook Park itself, were the product of the period between 1890 and 1930.  I began to feel sentimental because that also happened to be the heyday of my rural Nebraska homeland before its long slow decline.  The architecture of these towns too reminded me of my hometown: elegant yet tidy.  There were flourishes, cornices, and bits of whimsy among the brickwork that modernism later killed in favor of sterility.

The industrial growth of the time was cruel and sometimes horrific in its inequalities, but at least it left behind some nice things.  Enough of a public-minded spirit existed to build something like Branch Brook Park in the first place.  If such land was up for grabs these days I am sure it would be turned into a subdivision, corporate office park, or a line of strip malls.  Many of the old buildings in impoverished East Orange have fallen into disrepair, but beneath it all their lovely bones live on, and the city still has its gorgeous city hall it can be proud of.

We live today in a new Gilded Age, one of ridiculous wealth next to grinding poverty.  However, public-mindedness has not persisted, and public institutions are under increasing attack, especially schools.  The new wealthy do not build elegantly, but in a vulgar and ostentatious fashion.  Our era is alarming in it frivolousness and impermanence.  When we are dead and gone there will be little built in our time left around.  I'm still willing to bet that Branch Brook Park will still be there, though.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Track of the Week: Depeche Mode, "Enjoy The Silence"

Every now and then I make an effort to dig up beloved music from my past that for some reason or another I haven't listened to for awhile.  Recently I gave Depeche Mode's 1990 classic Violator a spin, the second CD that I ever bought.

I was particularly struck by "Enjoy the Silence," the song that got me to buy the album in the first place.  Back in 1990, there wasn't a whole lot of good music on the Top 40.  Sure, there were some classic hip-hop records, but to hear that music I had to rush home from school to catch the tail end of Yo!  MTV Raps.  Because of the local Musicland's draconian enforcement of the parental warning labels requiring ID proof that the purchaser was 18 years of age, many of those records were out of reach for me.  (Thank goodness for a friend who dubbed his copy of Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet onto a blank tape for me.)

Rap music was where it was at for me, and I was one of the few people in rural Nebraska to be listening to Eric B and Rakim on a daily basis.  In the early summer of 1990 I spent many a lazy afternoon glued to the MTV tube, and in between forgettable crud like Poison's "Unskinny Bop" and faddish hits like MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This" I would see the video for Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence."  Its synthesizer and reverb guitar sound would soon be made obsolete by the coming of grunge a year later, but in June of 1990 it was a cooler, more artistic form of pop music than Billy Idol singing "Rock the Cradle of Love."

As a shy and retiring fourteen year old I appreciated the song's basic message, that words are inherently hurtful, and silence a blessing.  Today the lyrics of the song seem a little-heavy handed to my cynical, hard-bitten early middle-aged ears, but the atmospherics of its electro-soundscape still intrigues me.  Depeche Mode was never a true pop band, nor an underground darling, either.  However, on this song they managed to find an irresistable pop hook, something that gave an isolated kid on rural kid a small bit of pleasure in an ocean of cultural refuse.  I loved the song so much that I bought it on cassingle even though I already had the CD.  It was like a secret message in a bottle sent to my lonely rural island, and a reminder today that as much I love music now, it can never truly mean as much for me as it meant back then.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A List of Memorable VHS Boxes

While I was writing my last post on my old video store, I got to thinking about the long-dead practice of shelf-scanning.  Sometimes I'd go into the store not knowing what I wanted, or what I did want was checked out.  That meant scanning the shelves for something to watch, an activity that I never stopped enjoying.  Some of those VHS boxes were so memorable that I can recall them today, even though I did never get around to seeing the films themselves.  In most cases these were B-movies that needed a flashy image to get noticed.  Here's my list, feel free to add your own in the comments.

Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984

As a child the thought of an axe-murdering Santa really disturbed me, but I could not stop looking at this box.

Joysticks, 1983
1981's Porky's spawned a whole genre of "boob comedies" in the early to mid-80s that were perfect for the home video market, especially for those who wanted some titillation and cheap laughs but not hardcore pornography.  The young me was simultaneously thrilled and scared by this box, which was raunchier than most in the boob comedy genre.

The Empire Strikes Back, 1980
I never had to rent this film because I taped it off of TV during its first ever broadcast and then wore that tape thin.  However, I just loved this cover, with the romantic embrace of Han and Leia.  The human element of the Star Wars was never more evident.

National Lampoon's Vacation, 1983
Remember when Chevy Chase was cool?  It was a long time ago, and this was him at his coolest, as far as I was concerned as a kid.  The Star Wars parody of the image on the front was perhaps the first time that I "got" a pop culture reference.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch, 1982
This flick is legendarily bad, and doesn't even feature death-machine Mike Myers.  I've never seen it, but as a kid I found the silhouetted trick or treaters to be especially eerie.

Friday the 13th Part III, 1982
I've always hated slasher flicks (they're usually dehumanizing, misogynistic, and sexually regressive), but many of their VHS boxes intrigued me.  For some reason the image of the bloody blade sticking through the shower curtain, which in retrospect looks tacky, always stuck in my head.  (I guess the movie was in 3-D, so the blade coming out was part of the whole 3-D effects of the film.)

The Pirate Movie, 1982
Here's another legendarily bad movie, this one starring teen idols Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins on the downslope of their careers.  As a kid I was much confused by the combination of the Jolly Roger with naked youth.