Thursday, November 26, 2009

Culture Shock 11.26.09: Count me out of today's 'celebration'

This column originally appeared on Thanksgiving Day 2006.

I gather today is some sort of holiday. Now what is it? Turkey Day? No. That's not right. Oh, yes. Thanksgiving. How could I forget? Well, it's easy to lose track of a holiday that has been squeezed almost to a singularity by the juggernauts of Christmas and Halloween.

In terms of the amount of money Americans spend on them every year, Christmas and Halloween are easily the country's two most popular celebrations. And that's even without anyone getting a paid day off for tricks or treats.

Thanksgiving is under assault. You might as well call it "Official Start of the Christmas Season Eve." People used to get upset when stores and shopping malls put up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. Now, some stores put them up before Halloween. Some people complain about a "War on Christmas," in which Christmas is losing ground to other, more "politically correct" holidays. But Christmas has it easy compared to Thanksgiving.

Yes, dear readers, whether you've noticed it or not, we're in the midst of a War on Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving is folding faster than the Polish cavalry in front of a Panzer division. It's time to take sides.

So, let me be clear about this — Down with Thanksgiving! Now, nobody is going to quibble with a day off work, so assume that if we abolish Thanksgiving, we'll get something else in return.

Let's face it. What's Thanksgiving for? Giving thanks? Well, if that's all, I don't need a holiday to do that, and if I do, how thankful am I, really? Mostly, Thanksgiving is for watching football and family gatherings. The last time I checked, there was no shortage of pro football on TV, even on days not devoted to the ritual consumption of poultry.

But what about all that family togetherness? That's all well and good, I suppose, if watching Aunt Margaret and Aunt Jill down a dozen glasses of sherry between them and then argue about which one of them Grandma really wanted to have the good china is your idea of a spectator sport.

Maybe Charles Schulz can help us? After all, the beloved creator of Charlie Brown and Snoopy did write a cartoon to explain the true meaning of Christmas.

Nope. The only life lesson I've taken away from "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" is that jelly beans and popcorn do not go over well as Thanksgiving dinner.

Maybe Thanksgiving is simply the day when we remember the Pilgrims, who, according to all the history books, came to America in search of religious freedom.

I hate to burst your bubble — well, actually, this is the sort of thing I live for — but the Pilgrims didn't come to the New World for religious freedom.

When they first left England, the Pilgrims went to Holland, the most tolerant society the world had seen up to that time. The Pilgrims had all the religious freedom there they could stand. In fact, they had too much, and they were aghast that their children were taking advantage of the freedoms Holland offered. So, they packed up and came to America, not to get religious freedom, but to get away from it.

Other people can celebrate that sort of thing if they want, but count me out.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Culture Shock 11.19.09: AMC's new 'Prisoner' tries to undermine the 1960s original

The original. Accept no substitutes.

If Patrick McGoohan were still alive, I think his response to the people behind the remake of his classic 1960s TV series "The Prisoner" might go something like this:

"Unlike me, many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment and will die here like rotten cabbages!"

That's what McGoohan's character, Number Six, told his fellow inmates in an episode of the original series. But it applies equally to the writer and producers of AMC's six-episode remake, which aired over three nights earlier this week. AMC's version doesn't just fail to grasp what the original was all about. It deliberately subverts the message McGoohan was trying to get across.

In the original, Number Six is a spy who resigns for reasons unknown and is then spirited away to the Village, a surreal, dystopian prison camp for people who know too much.

Overseeing the Village is a parade of interchangeable bureaucrats who all go by the title Number Two. Each one tries — and fails — to get Number Six to conform. If Number Six can be persuaded to settle down and join this community of numbered inmates, he'll tell his captors everything they want to know. But in each episode, Number Six refuses to play along.

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered," he tells one of the Number Twos. "My life is my own."

Yet that uncompromisingly individualist message is apparently far too radical for today.

This isn't a case of six of one, half a dozen of another. The remake's writer, Bill Gallagher, revealed his hand earlier this year during a panel discussion at San Diego Comic-Con.

"McGoohan's version was about the assertion of the individual and freedom from the class society, freedom from authority. ... And I was interested in, well, what are the costs of that?" he said. "... What if that degree of individualism and selfishness is dangerous? What if it's reaching a breaking point?"

True to his word, Gallagher delivered a "Prisoner" that looks somewhat like the original, but thematically it's the polar opposite.

In AMC's version, Six (James Caviezel) has been stripped of his memories and must spend much of his time just figuring out who he is. As it turns out, he worked for a made-to-order evil corporation that spies on people, and he resigned after seeing something he shouldn't have. His fellow inmates, meanwhile, think the Village is all there is. As far as they're concerned, there is no outside world to which to escape.

The Village, as a result, is no longer a metaphor for conformist society. Instead, it's a stand-in for evil elites who manipulate an innocent, unsuspecting populace. McGoohan's struggle of the individual against society is transformed into a thoughtless, generic fight between society and corporate bad guys.

Appropriately, there is an episode of the original "Prisoner" that could serve as a nice allegory for what AMC has done to McGoohan's vision.

In "The Schizoid Man," Number Six's captors try to make him question his identity by bringing in an exact double. The doppelganger looks like Number Six, and Number Two treats him as if he is Number Six. But the genuine Number Six is too sure of who he really is, even after several brainwashing sessions, to fall for Number Two's scheme.

Ultimately, AMC's "The Prisoner" is just a doppelganger attempting to undermine the original. Accept no substitutes.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Culture Shock 11.12.09: This column is brought to you by the number 40

There comes a time when you realize you're getting old.

It first hit me when I learned Winona Ryder had been cast as Spock's mother in the most recent "Star Trek" movie. But that was nothing compared to finding out "Sesame Street" had just turned 40.

"Sesame Street" debuted Nov. 10, 1969, and has been a fixture on PBS ever since, making it the longest-running children's program on U.S. television. For Generation Xers like me, "Sesame Street" has always been there.

It began as an experiment to see if television could be educational. Eight years earlier, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton N. Minow had declared television a "vast wasteland." In retrospect, Minow's blunt assessment seems like pure elitism. But back in the 1960s, lots of people took government bureaucrats seriously.

Aided by experts in early childhood education and child psychology, Children's Television Workshop — now called Sesame Workshop — hoped to create a TV show that could teach young children basic reading and math skills, along with social skills they would need in elementary school. CTW succeeded, but fortunately, it didn't always listen to its experts.

The psychologists advising "Sesame Street" didn't want the show's human cast to interact with the Muppets created by Jim Henson's workshop. The experts thought mixing reality with fantasy would confuse children. And that's why people don't take child psychologists seriously anymore, either.

Those of us who grew up with "Sesame Street" remember the alphabet and counting lessons. But what we recall most fondly are the characters.

Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, the Count and Kermit the Frog were some of our best friends. Their popularity allowed Children's Television Workshop to evolve into a multimedia empire, built on royalties from toys, movies, clothing and books.

Somehow, CTW missed one opportunity. How there never has been a spin-off series starring Oscar as a slob and the Count as his obsessive-compulsive roommate remains a mystery.

We also loved the songs. "C is for Cookie" and "It's Not Easy Being Green" were part of our preschool soundtrack. Who doesn't know at least some of the lyrics to "It's Not Easy Being Green"? Al Gore probably hears that song in his head every time he thinks about his carbon footprint.

Despite being a money machine, "Sesame Street" receives federal funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, making it a political target for both left and right. A rumor that "Sesame Street" was adding a homosexual character — besides Bert and Ernie, I mean — incensed some social conservatives. And Ralph Nader, the nation's self-appointed killjoy, has complained about the show's token corporate sponsorships.

But the worst sin of which "Sesame Street" is guilty is letting Elmo come to dominate the show.

For anyone who remembers the show's pre-Elmo heyday in the 1970s, Elmo is like Scrappy-Doo or Cousin Oliver. He is an annoying interloper who steals time from more entertaining "Sesame Street" characters.

Children nowadays, however, seem to love him. Probably that's another sign I'm getting old.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Culture Shock 11.05.09: Be all the Jedi that you can be

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" is probably the most unlikely film that can justifiably lay claim to the phrase "based on a true story." The film, which opens Friday and stars George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, is based on author and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson's 2004 nonfiction book of the same name about a top-secret psychic spy unit within the U.S. military.

Just in case you missed that, I'll repeat: The book is about the U.S. military's top-secret psychic spy unit.

The movie version takes certain liberties. For instance, Clooney's character is a composite of several people, and the movie itself is played mostly for laughs. The book, however, is Ronson's best attempt to get the goods on probably the strangest program on which the U.S. government has ever squandered taxpayer money.

If you've ever listened to much late-night talk radio, you may already know part of the story.

One of the players is Maj. Ed Dames, who was a frequent guest on the "Coast to Coast A.M." program back when Art Bell was still its host. Dames claimed to be — and in fact was — a member of a secret "remote viewing" program intended to spy psychically on potential threats to Truth, Justice and the American Way. Remote viewing means just what it says. It means viewing events occurring someplace else, often on the other side of the world, and possibly seeing into the future, too.

When Dames wasn't safeguarding the American Dream, however, he was attempting to unravel deeper, more meaningful mysteries, such as the true identity of the Loch Ness monster.

Eventually, for whatever reason, Dames went public and told his story to credulous broadcasters like Bell. He also went into business, teaching others how to perform remote viewings. Not too long ago, on late-night TV, I saw a commercial for his remote viewing training seminars.

During his appearances on Bell's radio show, Dames made a lot of wild and inaccurate predictions, some of which Ronson chronicles in his book. One was that President Bill Clinton would be killed in April 1998 while playing golf. Eleven years later, the former president is still hitting the links, along with the lecture circuit.

The military eventually shut down its psychic spy program, claiming it had yielded no practical results, and this is one instance when I'm prepared to take the government at its word. But in the aftermath of 9/11, it seems like some of the military's experiments in unorthodox techniques — the ones that don't violate the laws of physics — have resurfaced.

While Dames is probably the most famous figure to emerge from the U.S. government's flirtation with the paranormal, he is merely a supporting character in Ronson's story. The main players are Lt. Col. Jim Channon, who sought to remake the U.S. Army using New Age philosophy, and Channon's main supporter, Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine, who commanded the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command from 1981 to 1984.

Channon wrote the manual for the First Earth Battalion. The battalion was never formed, but the manual advocated techniques that would supposedly turn U.S. soldiers into sensitive, caring Jedi warriors who could see the future, become invisible and even walk through walls. According to Ronson, Stubblebine was especially keen on that "walking through walls" bit, but Stubblebine's nose wasn't.

One of the soldiers Channon trained could supposedly kill a goat just by staring at it, and Ronson's search for that soldier makes up most of the first quarter of his book.

Unsurprisingly, nothing seems to have come from the paranormal aspects of the First Earth Battalion, but where there are Jedi, there are inevitably some who embrace the Dark Side.

Ronson uncovered information linking some First Earth techniques to the incidents of torture and abuse at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison. If being exposed repeatedly to Barney the Dinosaur's "I Love You" song isn't torture, I don't know what is.

Any story that starts with psychic soldiers and ends with the War on Terror has got to qualify as unlikely. But that doesn't make it untrue.