Sunday, December 21, 2008

How to create films that don't suck

I've been meaning to post these for some time now, and with the semester finally over, I can do just that. The great David Mamet has put together an excellent book called On Directing Film, which has pretty much everything a director would need to know about how to direct a film, and many more things that any artist may benefit from. I've read quite a few books during my time in school, and this is far and away the best among them. I've pulled the twelve best lines, for anyone who wishes to meditate on them.

Here they are, in no particular order…

1. It's unimportant that the audience should guess why something is important to the story.
2. If you find that a point cannot be made without narration, it is virtually certain that the point is unimportant to the story: the audience requires drama, not information.
3. The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.
4. The audience will accept anything they haven't been given a reason to disbelieve.
5. To get into the scene late and to get out early is to demonstrate respect for your audience.
6. You cannot hide your objective.
7. The only reason people speak is to get what they want.
8. In film or on the street, people who describe themselves to you are lying.
9. Anything that is not based on things that are within your control is not a real technique.
10. The problems of the individual films will not get easier -- they only get easier for hacks.
11. The task of any artist is not to learn many, many techniques but to learn the most simple technique perfectly.
12. It's not your job to make it pretty. It's your job to make it correct.

Some honorable mentions:

"Almost all movie scripts contain material that cannot be filmed."
"Studio executives do not know how to read movie scripts. Not one of them."
"All you have to do on the set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humor."
"They always talk about the character out there in Hollywood, and the fact is there is no such thing. It doesn't exist. Character is just habitual action."
"The effort that the dramatic artist spends in analysis frees both him and the audience to enjoy the play. If this time is not spent, the theater becomes the most dreadful of marriage beds, in which one party whimpers "love me," and the other pouts, "convince me."
"They (producers) are like the white slave owners of old, sitting on their porches with their cooling drinks and going on about the inherent laziness of the Negro race."
"The film industry is caught in a spiral of degeneracy because it's run by people who have no compass."
"I defy anyone to act where they just came from.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Don't Get Run Over

I often ask myself the question: How many of a person’s decisions are actually his? I mean, after all, whether he is aware of it or not, he has preconceived ideas about every situation. If I’m in another city for the first time, my actions might be more dictated by the stories I’ve heard about that city. And the more I think about it, I’ve decided that not all decisions are made this way. Even if you reach the point where you acknowledge that you are nothing more than a machine processing information, and that you are the sum of memories and experiences which collectively determine your every next step, even then, there is still something missing from the equation.

You’re crossing the street, which was clear in both directions when you started. Halfway to the other side, something inside you tells you to move. Fast. You hear nothing, and you see nothing. No information that logically tells you to move your ass, yet you do so anyway. And it is only after the fact that you learn that had you not done so, you would have gotten hit by a truck.

This is not a logical decision, but rather an intuitive one. I think of intuition as a nonlogical process (not an illogical one). Intuition is, as Ian Xel Lungold predicted (using a very different approach), the next stage in human evolution. I believe these instances will no longer come in fleeting moments, but will come to be about as typical as following a map to grandma’s house.

And we can sure as shit use it now, more than ever. We are bombarded with information constantly everyday. Stress and paranoia are now social and cultural glues, and it would seem alien to not have to think about things logically anymore. Our minds don’t have time to catch up with it all. And advancements in technology are only going to make things worse. We still have teachers who don’t know how to set up a damn Yahoo group.

But I doubt that logic will fade away entirely, at least not for a while. Hell, the age of authoritative figures is still with us to a small degree, but is dying. Before people learned about logic, they depended on leaders for their answers. Before that, well, they probably didn’t know how to ask questions yet. But when logic provided them the possibility of finding out truth on their own, they were initially a bit skeptical.

They continued to be so, until information started to become more available and easily accessible with the invention of the printing press. The early stages of print media really stimulated an interest in finding out your own answers to questions you’ve always had. The pope’s approval ratings dropped, and though there are still millions of people who would jump off a bridge for him today, he has mostly become just another talking head in a whole warehouse of talking heads. Only the most simple-minded people still look to one person for all their answers.

Now we see another game unfolding. Everyone from Joe the Plummer to Ahmedinejad is an authority figure on something. Consequently, they are really the authority on nothing. They are simply symbols and icons. Conversation pieces. Added to that, the voices of the media themselves have become a louder clamor than the subjects they’re discussing. It seems that Rush Limbaugh, Rupert Murdoch, Oprah Winfrey and even Michael Moore have a stronger voice in this country than the people they comment on. The act of talking about someone famous is more informative and entertaining, it would seem, than the actual opinions of the leaders and celebrities themselves.

The ideological sway of powerful men is reduced to soundbites which are thrown into the media mix along with advertising, pamphlets, seminars, websites, and further complicated by an exponentially increasing number of laws and regulations on what can and cannot be said, shown or even done. It can be pretty scary, being caught in a torrent of media, especially when most of it is negative. As a result, not only can no one person be looked to for answers, the well disciplined, structured and sound codes of morality that you grew up with appear to break down all around. Every ethical construct becomes threatened, leaving a society with bags under its eyes because it can hardly rest. No longer does anyone have the time or resources to find out if genetically modified foods really are bad for you, or if Avian flu is really going to spread to America, or if your identity can really be stolen so easily, or if a food shortage will create riots in your neighborhood, or if rising gun sales will lead to a more trigger-happy populace, or if my job will be lost to an illegal immigrant, or if crazed fundamentalists are going to attack us again, or if the stock market is on its last legs, or even if we are possibly destroying the whole damn planet. There’s just no time to learn the truth about any of these things, and the media sure isn’t going to help you since it’s actually the problem.

This is why answering the question of what is right or what is true is such a challenge now. There’s just too much going on right now that one HAS to be told what to think in order to think about it at all. But I’m finding myself relying on my gut more than my brain. Sometimes I can’t explain why something is bullshit, I just know it is. If I feel like I shouldn’t be eating something, somehow listening to that instinct seems more reliable than spending a whole day researching FDA conspiracies to find out what’s being covered up.

I could spend a lifetime, in fact, researching alternative medicine, joining anti-war movements, or studying the history of the church, and all in an effort to make sense of the world’s bullshit. And if I pick one area that I’m most involved in, I might. But for everything else, my gut serves as a great bullshit-detector. And perhaps that explains my initial queasiness about a Barack Obama presidency.

I do have a plethora of logical arguments for why I am just a tad worried about the Black Messiah taking office, but it started as just a hunch. Back when there were ten Democratic options, I knew the next president would be either Clinton or Obama, and my money was on Obama. Though this is admittedly better than a McCain administration, I knew I couldn’t trust Obama. Back then it was just a hunch. Now it’s a reality.

In any case, what’s done is done. Realizing that my world is not quite as big as the television makes it out to be, I don’t have to live in panic and hysteria all the time. I’m worried, but I also know that a lot of it doesn’t even affect me, and most of it is out of my hands anyway. I would LIKE him to bring the troops home, sure, but what I REALLY want is a reversal of Arizona’s absurd new liquor laws which are going to force me to go to a class every two years to learn how to do what I’ve been doing for the past five. A class I have to pay for, by the way. I’m more concerned with who will be my next roommate than my next president.

This blog isn’t really even an argument for intuition, though, as an argument for such would be impossible. It’s not something one can argue. But I can say that if you feel it coming on, if you experience a moment where something is telling you not to do something, don’t do it. That doesn’t mean, “gimme a lotto ticket, Charlie, I’m feelin’ lucky!” That’s not intuition, that’s wishful thinking.

The best way I can describe it is to say you’ll know it when you feel it. It might happen during a job interview (on either side of the desk) or while you’re crossing the street. If it does, listen. It’s the only way to pacify the madness of this world.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The New Awkward: A Safety Manual

When I was still figuring out what I wanted to do with my shitty life in that nebulous period between my high school graduation and my clumsy transition into the shitstorm that is the world, I considered at one point a career in teaching. I thought I was good at it, and so while attending a local community college, I took my first and last class on the subject. Introduction to Education. I quickly decided that a future in colonic irrigation seemed like a viable alternative.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the part where I got to sit in on classes and observe, and that was when I had a rather lengthy discussion with a teacher about students’ inability to articulate themselves and to form arguments for believing what they do. The example he used was regarding one student’s high adoration and love for his Jeep, claiming it was “awesome” and “tricked out.” When asked to explain further what he meant, the student appeared to have no idea what he was talking about or why he even liked the Jeep in the first place. He just said, "it's cool."

Relating this to film (and bear with me here, there’s a point coming), he said a person who goes and sees a film which he doesn’t like should be able to muster up something just a tad more coherent and specific than “it sucked.” Tell me why it sucked, you asshole. That was when he brought up Zoolander. What he pointed out to me was that, after all of the trails and conflicts and adventures the protagonist takes us through in the film, when it comes time for the climax and the resolution, the character hasn't learned a thing. There is no lesson or moral, and to him, the film failed horribly for that reason.

What I extrapolate from that meeting in the dimly lit afternoon hallway four years ago is that if we do not promote change in our characters, or at least in our audience, then what the hell are we doing? Something might be funny, but what is it worth? We can laugh when a character falls, because we fall too, but we shouldn’t be laughing at them but with them, right?

And this brings me to my main point – what I really want to discuss – and that is the possibly detrimental trend in comedy that now seems to encourage this sort of behavior. That which makes us laugh at, rather than with, the characters. The kind of comedy that creates empathy for the characters in the story seems less popular than those in which the main character is mean, taunting, conniving, immature, selfish and bitter towards those around him.

I’m talking, of course, about The Office.

I have often felt uncomfortable watching The Office, in part because I don’t understand what’s so funny, but also because every ounce of laughter that I do have ends up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. For a long time, I thought it was just me. It is a new kind of comedy that Rolling Stone has dubbed "The New Awkward," and The Office is one of its greatest examples. But by comparing it to another show, I am going to argue why The Office, indeed, "sucks."

So let’s begin…


After premiering on March 24, 2005, The Office got off to a shaky start. NBC’s previous attempt to convert a British comedy, Coupling, had been a train wreck, and other single-camera sitcoms like Scrubs and Arrested Development were struggling to find an audience. Thing is, those shows were funny, and were getting rave reviews. The Office, not so much. Some people liked it and some people hated it, but despite its shift from a golden Thursday night position which lost many viewers, the network ordered a second season. And the rest is history.

Michael Scott (Steve Carell) immediately makes his presence known on the show as an arrogant, immature, incompetent, unfunny office manager of Dunder Mifflin, a struggling paper company. There is nothing likeable about this character, and he has pretty much no redeeming quality that I have been able to detect.

Then there’s an office full of losers who put up with his bullshit for no real reason at all. Secretary Pam, for instance, would be the perfect candidate for walking out, and yet she puts up with a superior that belittles her at every whim. Her engagement to a warehouse worker named Roy serves as the office’s only real interpersonal conflict, as salesman Jim has the hots for her. Haven’t we seen this before.

I say only conflict, because Jim’s immature torture of brown-noser Dwight can hardly be called a real conflict. More like a candy-coated speedbump at the bottom of the grand canyon.

Dwight is perhaps the most pathetic creature of a person ever to grace the TV screen. He is a sycophant who exerts his non-authority for our amusement, all the while playing fireant to our boyish fetish with seeing such beings burn under a magnifying glass with silly little office pranks. But hey, that’s funny!

Oh, there’s also Token Black Guy, and Token Ugly Fat Chick, to go along with all of the other caricatures on the show. The Hot Chick introduced in the last episode has more depth than any of the ones I’ve mentioned.

Having said all that, you might be thinking, “but Spoon, you’re oversimplifying. These characters are deeper than that. Honestly.” Let’s see about that.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, let me give you an idea of the kind of characters I’m talking about. In the pilot, a new office temp named Ryan is learning the ropes about the company. We’ve already found out that this office’s branch might be getting downsized or even axed completely, so the very notion of hiring a temp is dubious already. But whatever, let’s go with it.

Right after Michael, in his unfathomable self-love, has just explained to Ryan that he thinks of the office as his “family,” and that the morale is always high, he calls Pam in for a little “joke.” He tells her that she is fired for stealing post-it notes, and she begins crying. This continues for a few moments until Michael begins laughing at her, and tells her she’s “punk’d.” She calls him a jerk and storms out.

Three things to note here. One, the strange absence of a scene following this or even one of those cutaway interviews to suggest that Michael is sorry, or that he even cares about what he did. It’s possible he cared only because it happened in front of Ryan, and God help us if anyone thinks Michael isn’t the most awesome guy ever. Two, Pam never vents, or considers quitting, or even ponders going to corporate. And three, Ryan seems to think there is no problem working at this office, because he keeps the job. When did it become acceptable for a boss to prank fire you? But wait, we’re just getting started.

An entire episode is devoted to diversity. The writers of The Office decided that the best way to deal with this subject is to have its vilest character organize a diversity meeting of his own whereby employees are encouraged to be separatist to each other. At one point, a black man wearing a notecard that says “BLACK” and a woman wearing one that says “JEWISH” are supposed to treat each other like the race on the card. As if this premise wasn’t the most awful exercise in comedy already, the anxious Michael adds, “c’mon! The Olympics of suffering here… Holocaust versus slavery!”

You can see now why this show is a recipe for sadness.

Even Jim, who might be regarded as the moral center of the show (as well as Pam), isn’t free from the shackles of excessive character flaws. Not only is he something of an office bully to Dwight, he has a lot of vanity and cockiness about his work, and isn’t beyond using male machismo to win the affections of a certain secretary who is currently engaged. I don’t even need to watch the show beyond its first season, which I have not yet done, to know they will be married before the show is off the air.

And what about Pam? Innocent victim, or naïve submissive? I’m leaning toward the latter. As if being with an asshole of a boyfriend wasn’t clichéd enough, continuing to work for a man who will call an attractive purse peddler “new and improved Pam… Pam: 2.0” right in your face is perplexing to say the least.

I am a writer, and though I still have a lot to learn, I do understand that characters must have flaws if they are to seem vaguely interesting to us. But part of that interest comes in seeing change. I watched the entire first season, and even though there were only six episodes, I didn’t see even a trace of development or change in any of the characters. On top of that, the characters are not even aware on any level that they have flaws, except for possibly superficial ones.

In addition to this lack of change, I noticed a lack of real problems and situations. Building a whole episode around a girl who is trying to sell purses to employees which leads to predictable superficiality and contrived plot twists isn’t exactly the most interesting way to create conflict.

And that seems like the perfect place to begin my comparison with another show, one which takes a group of equally vile characters and does conflict and character development RIGHT.


STARVED was a series which only lasted seven episodes. FX pulled the show when it was forced to chose between it and It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia (a lesser triumph, in my opinion). The decision probably had more to do with its controversial nature than with the quality of the programming, and we all know to whom advertisers place their loyalty.

The truth of the matter is the show has more to do with self-love and narcissism than with eating disorders. Let me tell you what I’m talking about.

Our four beloved characters are seated at a booth having lunch in a resturaunt. Billie, a recovering anorexic, talks on her cell phone while cleaning her food scale, which prompts an argument with main character Sam about her sexual lifestyle. He constantly vies for Billie’s attention because he secretly has a crush on her. She punctuates many of her responses to Sam's trivial drama with assertions that the only concern that is important to her is not winding up 82 pounds and hospitalized.

The third breakfast plate arrives for Dan, a three-hundred-pound overeater who has put off gastric bypass surgery several times. He justifies his extra helping by saying he “had” to have sex with his wife last night. “You don’t want to have sex with her?” Billie asks him. “Not when the Cowboys are on. Thank God it was only the Bucks they were playing. See, next week, it’s the Eagles, and I’ll get to see that one, cuz I gave it to her last night.” To which Sam replies, “maybe you need a divorce instead of surgery.”

A messege pops up on Sam’s laptop from a girl who is interested in Sam. He is excited at first, until he learns that she is 5’9” and 140 lbs. “You think 5’9” 140 is fat?” asks Billie. She provides her well-thought out theory on how the fashion and food industries have conspired to make 5’9”/120 the standard, but is laughed at by Sam, who thinks her estimate that his waist is 34 is ridiculous (he will measure it later, and it will be 34).

Billie runs off shortly to wash her carrot, and while she’s gone, Dan ponders if he thinks Sam’s dick weighs more than her carrot. Adam, a black cop with bulimia, agrees to the challenge and so, with something to prove, they all proceed to weigh their dicks on her scale. This last part of the scene is really what the whole show is all about. The extent and depth of their superficiality and competitiveness is distilled in such crystalline acts as this. The writers of this show don’t need to rely on conventional bragging and childish bravado – they bring in the hammer. They say, “when people are insecure and have a constant need to reassess their greatness, really all they are doing is prick-waving. So let’s have them whip out their pricks.” The whole show is written like this.

This theme of insecurity runs throughout the entire show as well, and makes very strong connections between things like male machismo and latent homosexuality. It also addresses, at first directly and then indirectly, the sexualization of food. “Don’t eat that girly food,” one commercial says, for example.

And I’m sure you remember that bit I mentioned about the characters in The Office not having real problems? Well, by episode three, Dan will be kicked out of his home by his wife and be living with Adam, and just before the finale, will have a heart attack which will nearly cost him his life. Adam will find his end when Internal Affairs finds out he’s been abusing his authority by extorting food from innocent citizens, and they fire him. Billie will nearly backslide into her eating disorder, and before the show’s cancelled will realize she’s becoming an alcoholic. And Sam’s every effort to start a relationship will turn into an obsession that blows up in his face, leaving him with a bleeding scrotum, swollen testicles and orange Oompa Loompa skin.

Sometimes the characters get better, sometimes they fall deeper into the hole. But there is very real development, and a hell of a lot we can learn. They fail repeatedly, but they try. And most importantly, they know they’re fucked up. This is why they attend Belt Tighteners: “Belt Tighteners is not affiliated with any 12-step or dieting program. We believe we need a more radical solution to arrest our eating problem. By creating a community of accountability and shame, we don’t act out.” This is why the title of the show at the beginning of every episode includes the audio of the group saying “it’s not ok!” This line is actually the essence of the show.


I want to stress that the major difference in the comedy lies in the awkwardness of the situation. In The Office, it is the characters who feel awkward. Every time Michael makes an ass of himself, the characters look pretty much the same: like someone just opened a beer in church. And whether it’s Michael or Dwight or whoever, this makes us laugh AT the person making things awkward. To a lesser degree, we are also laughing at those who have to endure this nightmare as well.

On Starved, the people who feel awkward are we the audience. No one on the show gives a shit how depraved or vile their actions are, but we have to identify with them anyway. There are no moments for us to identify with the spectators in the show, the minor characters who have to put up with this. Usually, if they are there at all, they speak up.

For example, in the first scene after Sam gets rejected by a girl online, he digs in the trash out back and finds a chocolate cake covered in laundry detergent, and just as he’s eating the underside of the cake, a trash man walks up. In The Office, he might have just made a face, the scene would have included prolonged silence as Sam chows down on the cake, and we would have identified with the trash man, thinking something along the lines of, “My god, how disgusting,” making us in turn think something along the lines of, “man, that poor trash guy… must be real awkward.” Instead, the trash man actually asks, “aren’t you afraid you’re going to swallow some of that detergent?” He asks this as if morbidly curious. He might have passed judgment immediately, but instead engages him. Most of the characters on the show do this, in fact. Though the characters are all fucked up and are trying in varying degrees of success to curtail their flaws, there is a degree of openness which removes from the audience the pleasure of being able to see these hopelessly flawed characters as separate from themselves. The end result makes us, the viewer, feel awkward, because we just might possibly relate to the flawed ones.

One doesn’t have to have an eating disorder to relate to the characters on this show. But who wants to admit that they might possibly be as narcissistic, obsessive, confused, perverted, desperate, lonely or naïve as a character in the show? Because the problems they face, for the most part, are their own doing. They are not the result of contrived circumstances and plot devices. You can’t just say “ah, they have a problem which was not their fault… such is life.” The whole premise of The Office is contrived from the start: we’ll take some people, put them in an office, and make them put up with a manager who does no work and is cruel to everyone. Wait, did I say “make them” put up with him? I must have forgotten they can QUIT AT ANY FUCKING MOMENT.

It is possible that The Office improved, but I doubt it. I’m certainly not going to spend another four seasons to find out. In fact, the only other episode I’ve seen, “Dinner Party” from the fourth season, proves that not only do Jim and Pam still work there, they are willing to have dinner with their obnoxious, racist, sexist boss. Starved did more to prove its worth in the first episode than The Office did in six. And I’m still not convinced there is any value to watching the show.


One last note on satire: Despite my disgust of the show, I begrudgingly admit that The Office does qualify as satire. Some might say I’m misjudging the show on that basis, but I ask you to tell me exactly how apparent is the satire when you’re watching it? When you watch Stephen Colbert, it’s pretty damn obvious. But The Office? Not so much. So on that alone, I would say it’s BAD satire. If the viewer is not aware at all times that the program is satire, then it’s failing. It is, in fact, the other thing – the thing it’s trying to satirize.

And what about that? What is it satirizing? Office life, I suppose. But can’t we say Dilbert has done a far better job of that without the constant mean-spiritedness? I have never in my entire life worked for a boss as horrible and vile as Michael Scott. I’ve worked for bosses who were one or two of many terrible attributes: ignorant, strict, patronizing, power-crazed, over-confident, immature, gossippy or lazy. Sometimes even racist or sexist, too. But they all, for the most part, had good qualities as well. And usually only one or two of those bad things at a time, if any. To make the boss a hodge-podge of some of the worst things a person can become is quite unnecessary, and at the very least unfunny.

And the worst part about it is the notion that it is ok to laugh at these things. It seems to be ok to laugh at these people when they fail, rather than with them. It’s nicer to know that we are not like the people in the show when they are at their worst. The distance is comforting. It allows us, like the characters on The Office, to fuel our egos and believe that there is nothing wrong with us. We can go to school the next day, or to work, or to a friend’s house, and reminisce over the moment when Dwight pedantically tried to define a hero like the loser he is, or when he paid a homeless woman to be his date just so he could be included. That’s funny, right? No. It's just sad.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Note to Self

Where have you been? You don’t call. You don’t write. I don’t even know who you are anymore. You left without warning or provocation. No card or vase of flowers or mint to place on the bedsheets. All I hear from you are vague stories of who-did-what-now, and none of it seems real to me. You went into hiding for, goodness, seems like ages now. There is so much that I’ve wanted to say to you, and if you’re listening, please don’t take any of this the wrong way.

We have unfinished business. I know we may never come to reconcile our differences, but you must know that I feel a part of me is being chipped away slowly, and has been since you left. There are so many clichés and recycled metaphors I could blather on about here – the lights are on… the house is a cold shell… etc, etc – but that is why I need you here. Nothing is genuine anymore. It has all become a clever set of parlor tricks and illusions. Sure I could tell you that there is a bucket of acid in the pit of my stomach, but even that is borrowed, probably from Yeats or Joyce or someone out there with something meaningful to say.

But I have nothing meaningful to say. I am like a cardboard cutout of some character in a story. I have taught myself how to get by in this world by tricking people. I am a salesman – a charlaton – a faker. I convince people to enter my home and look at my little nick-nacks and conversation pieces. Some stay long enough to try my lemonade, but learn fairly rapidly that the scene is hastily deteriorating into an episode of Seinfeld. I win over those enraptured by light shows and do-hickeys and gismos and spy gadgets and spectacle. They stay long enough to escape the minutae of their own lives by joining briefly the Tupperware Party that is my life. This grand Bundt cake.

All of the meaning in my life is gone, and has been for some time now. I get by, sure, and some people in my situation might rather maintain the company of their boring selves to the greatest lengths, just so that they won’t have to face what they’ve lost. I need the conflict you bring me, because with it comes the meaning I seek. I am willing to sacrifice my comfort, because I have nothing left to lose.

But what about your life? Are you going to hide forever? There is much we can learn from each other, you know. I wish I could say I enjoyed our talks together, but its no secret that they were fun for neither of us. But we were younger then, all caught up in the mix of figuring out how shit works and why everyone seems to want to keep us down. The more disconnected we became, the more empty and sedated I felt. The more I thought that simply taking it would be the easiest way to deal. I could have used you then, because you are stronger than I am. I have the brains of a fox, but possess the courage of a doe.

And so what now? I have no idea if you will ever get this message, but I just want you to know that as long as you are not here, I’m wasting my time. The story of my experience is incomplete without you, and I think that it’s about time we have ourselves a little cup of coffee and talk.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

People should be more selfish, not less

Humans are the masters of mediocrity. They live in the happy median between two extremes and will do anything in their power to remain that way. Whether it’s the Pope, the Jihad or the President of the United States of America, the extremists will eventually lose when they remove the majority from its comfort zone.

There was a great moment in the new Batman film – a film that should be applauded for its dark, moral complexity alone – where Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne are having a dinner conversation about Rome in its time of peril and domestic tumult. One man stood up and took charge of the city when no one else would and for a time took matters into his own hands, and it was considered a public service. But this man eventually kept the power for himself, and became the first in a long line of Ceasers to gain and maintain power. And maintain they did, for a good 400 years, at least.

That seems like a hell of a long time for people to just follow self-appointed rulers. But the truth of the matter is no one really gives a fuck what’s going on around him unless it affects their ability to acquire food and take a shower (this may be coming to a head in this country real soon, but don't expect any revolutions until then). They prefer comfort over action. Ask anyone today why he wants more energy alternatives such as ethanol or hydro-electric, and the number one reason you’ll get is money. They’ll play ball if it saves them money, but no one, save for a small minority of – you guessed it – extremists, really gives a shit about the environment.

We are so used to thinking of this kind of mentality as “apathy,” myself included. But I now think the matter runs much deeper. A person’s inability or unwillingness to act should not be couched in such language that makes him appear to be right or wrong for doing nothing. It shouldn’t make him think that he has to write to a congressman, or lobby against a tobacco company, or lay down in front of a Caterpillar tractor to save an Oak tree, or donate money to a campaign, or solicit pamphlets and books about nutrition or drugs or crime or pot or God or whatever – it shouldn’t make him think that if he doesn’t do one of these things that he’s a bad person and that he cares about nothing and no one but himself.

If people actually cared enough about themselves, they wouldn’t constantly place burden and blame outside themselves. “Oh, the police didn’t get here fast enough,” says someone who doesn’t care enough about his own safety. “The doctor gave me the wrong diagnosis,” says the person who doesn’t care enough about his own health. “The mechanic broke my car,” says the ignorant man who doesn’t care enough about anything that he owns. Be your own mechanic for a change. Be your own doctor. Be your own security guard.

The point is, if people cared just a little bit more about their own lives, the world would be much better off. They wouldn’t rely on every Mexican or shop clerk or waitress to give them what they need. This doesn’t mean being heartless and uncompassionate, it simply means being responsible. The trick is this: whatever you CAN do for yourself, do for yourself, or learn. Don’t blame our leaders for your problems. That’s how Rome ended up the way it did. Not that Rome didn’t have good leaders, because for a time, they actually did; there was no war and everyone got along great – for a while.

Having leaders is good when times are bad, but they’re just people who can’t be expected to handle everything, and certainly shouldn’t be granted limitless power and authority. Besides, the kinds of people attracted to leadership are usually very idealistic extremists of some sort or another; just because they aren’t Islamic extremists (the only thing we seem to think of when that word comes up) doesn’t mean their views aren’t extreme. Someone stands up and says “I believe what we need is a theocracy,” and if enough people agree, then it stands, and it works. To them it’s not extreme, but to others, it very much is. And we bomb those people. Because we’re extreme, too.

Being mediocre at a lot of things is what made men like Einstein, Newton, Franklin and Edison so great. They weren’t one of a kind people, they were simply ordinary men thinking outside of the box. We made gods out of them with our teachers and our textbooks.

And that is why man is not usually seen as the mediocre person he is: the in-between doesn’t get nearly as much ratings. People want to believe in something bigger than them, because it gives them hope, not to mention a sense of self-worth. I can't imagine why, since it in turn makes them powerless. Were they to realize that great men are actually common in this world, they might be forced to become great themselves. And that requires sacrifice. It’s easier to believe that one day some deus-ex-machina-like hero will decend out of the clouds and save them all in the end.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

There Were Bombs Over Tucson Today

Today was special. At least, when I woke up this morning (or rather, this evening), I sensed that today was a special day. Was it because I had spent the second night in my new place, and now, having gotten most of the work done on the apartment, I may now relax and prepare for my pseudo-housewarming tomorrow? Or perhaps it’s a special day because the monsoon which has been inching its way in our direction for the last few days has finally caught up with us, hence giving me that little burst of creative inspiration which always comes with such weather. Or maybe, I’m just happy to be alive, knowing my friend’s girlfriend just suffered a heart attack.

Actually, I’m told that this day is a special day because 232 years ago, our ancestors said fuck you to a greedy tyrant. That was when, by the good graces of our Lord, our brave men fought against the oppression of insatiable bankers and gluttonous monarchs on the other side of the Atlantic. God bless America.

Well, they did fight a good fight, anyway, and win they did. A whole lot of blood and tears went into that revolution, which was followed by a desperate attempt to learn from past mistakes by creating a system of government that was most fair and reasonable to all who were willing to play ball and make sacrifices. It wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now, but at least they understood what was at stake.

Now, in the 21st century, I ride my bike to work as the storm clouds continue to hover over Tucson. It’s nighttime, but the utter lack of stars in the sky is somewhat ominous. God bless America? Well, as long as you don’t count Tucson this year.

There are still, however, hundreds of fireworks going off all over the city. All around, people are on rooftops and parking garages watching in awe at the light show. It’s probably the most exciting thing they will see or do all month, and so they put all of their eggs in this basket. Lucky for them, they probably won’t disappoint themselves.

It does say something about how far we’ve come in ten generations that the most iconized Fourth of July tradition is still the very expensive re-creation of wartime explosives going off – as entertainment. As if the most fun they had during the revolution was blowing shit up.

Granted, traditions exist for the purpose of reminding us of things we’ll eventually forget; namely, “that one time that awesome thing happened to those probably-cool people.” Whether it’s the Super Bowl party you have every year or whatever, it’s still that one time we had that awesome party. Let’s not forget that. Great. Sign me up for two. But what does it say about us that we need these things to progress? How are we to become better people if all we do is reminisce? Not that nostalgia is bad, but when it’s all we are, how can we possibly move forward? And if we pin all that we are to a day, like we pin all that we are to a book or to a person or to anything, then that thing rules over us. It becomes sacred, and we become submissives to it. (god bless america)

And so this day will pass for me like another rung in life’s ladder. I know in my heart what made America great over two centuries ago. It wasn’t a perfect system then, but it was the best they could come up with. And it was pretty good. I’m the last person to talk it up nowadays, of course, but I don’t passively wave a 99 cent flag and think that makes me a patriot, either. I still believe in what makes America great, even if it is dying. I don’t need sparklers and pinwheels to remind me. In fact, they only remind me of how truly fucked we are.

As planned, I’ll have my friends over tomorrow evening. It’s not a birthday party for my friend who’s turning 34, or a Fourth of July BBQ, or even a housewarming. It’s just a party. A gathering of friends and acquaintances, which doesn’t need a reason at all. It’s more genuine if there’s no reason anyway. I shouldn’t need an event centuries ago to tell me if I should have one or not. And I’m sure God would agree.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

How many good people go to Hell?

Folks, I have something to get off of my chest. Perhaps I’ll get a lot of hate mail for this proposition, but I want to challenge anyone to consider what might be described as a spiritual Gedanken experiment: Is modern Christianity really the best way to becoming a better person?

I just got done hearing a sermon being preached in the backyard of our neighbors who have a soup kitchen for the homeless everyday at five. A black man was shouting very loudly, and no doubt passionately, about who is going to hell and who isn’t. “You must repent and turn from your wicked ways… God sees what you did… You’ve been listening to the devil, the father of lies, the breeder of evil… You’re running out of time… Don’t wait until you die to repent, because when you die, you’ll know how much time you had…” On and on and on. Oh, and I think he said “God loves you.” I’m pretty sure he said that. Maybe.

After spending time to consider this, I thought, “is it really the sign of an honest faith that you must frighten people and make them feel ashamed, in order to thrust upon them a doctrine of love and peace?” Because when you get down to it, is this not a lesson we can learn without such bells and whistles? Do we not possess the capability of becoming better human beings without a barrage of verbal lashings from those we suppose are trying to help us?

This is pretty common knowledge, granted. If a person doesn’t claim to be a Christian it is usually because they don’t see how it will help them to become one, or because from their perspective, it hasn’t appeared to make a lick of difference for the hypocritical Christian ramming it down their throat. At times like those, I would rather take advice from the side of a Drano bottle.

But I’m less concerned about the more public notion of the boisterous and vain Christian, and more interested in looking at that core belief which every Christian must hold to: the only way to find salvation is by submitting to and accepting Jesus Christ. Now some may desire to nitpick at how I characterize what they believe, but again, I’m trying to figure out if it makes you a better person. Regardless of which Baskin Robbins’ flavor of Christianity you like, they all have in common the idea that your willingness to submit to God is crucial.

It’s not hard to see why this kind of “now I have the answer, now I just have to tell everyone about it” mentality spawns self-rightousness, vanity and pride. Most Christians compartmentalize this, as if it’s akin to a child screaming his head off in a candy store: “That’s bad behavior, and we don’t condone it.” Is that true? Isn’t every Christian doing that by virtue of your very own creed? Isn’t your God telling you that there is only one way, and if your friends and family don’t follow, they are going to cook in the oven of eternal torment? Aren’t you being self-rightous right as soon as you declare me to be unworthy of eternal life, or of God’s love?

Please stop me if I’m missing something. It just seems like if any such benevolent version of Christianity existed, either as Rosacrucianism, Gnosticism or otherwise, today’s edition needs a lot of work. If there are any people out there who honestly believe their purpose is self-fulfillment and personal enlightenment and who claim that Christianity is the path they've chosen to do so with, then kudos to you. But regardless of your faith, Christian or not, do everyone a favor and look in a mirror. Find out within yourself if you really have the right to call another human being a “lost soul.”