Thursday, January 31, 2013

TV Repeats Like History
“Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

You know, I am easily amused. The queer thing about being middle aged is seeing history repeat, and wondering: Doesn’t anybody else get it? When politics repeats it’s grim—too grim for here, today. When “the environment” repeats it’s frustrating—I will touch on it, later. But when TV repeats it’s mostly amusing, and so most of what I will dwell on here is TV.

The other day at the bowling alley, where there are suspended color TV screens, I caught a glimpse of a crime show called The Glades. My mind flashed back to a crime show in black and white, Everglades, that began with the hero wielding a little pistol, taking pot shots, while piloting an airboat in the everglades. I had never seen such a boat. I recall two control rudders and a giant fan at the back of “…a fellow there, who will protect these rights, Lincoln Vail of the everglades, …” This was before Vietnam, before idealism collapsed into cynicism, back when you could still sing about large heroes protecting rights. How sad to think if they ever re-make Daniel Boone there won’t be any larger-than-life song about him.

A floor wax commercial for housewives of the time showed a man in a prone position rapidly firing white bullets (like from my daisy Winchester) at a parked jet, bullets that went bouncing off the transparent canopy, as transparent and tough as floor wax. That was before Vietnam too.

A few years back they made a movie version of 21 Jump Street, another detective show. I feel like I’m the only one who remembers an earlier address, and the sound like snapping fingers, like cool steel fans on snare drums, and the cool refrain, “Seventy seven, Sunset Strip.” One of the characters, Kookie, had a fine head of hair, swept back fifties style, and a pop song of the day went, “Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb.” That was back when TV advertising was real expensive, to be used only for really keen products, like, “Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya.”

You probably know that Hawaii 5-0 is a re-make of the popular 1970’s show, a show that had an excellent montage of pictures under the credits. I can remember a budget black and white show, with an ending sans montage, only a still shot of a wall as credits rolled, a wall filled with Hawaiian masks, “Hawaiian Eye…eye!” (Private eye) I’m sure no one else remembers. And why would they? TV back then was merely a repeat of radio plays, heard by the whole family, now moved from the radio set to the TV set, (only one) merely popular culture full of sound and fury, signifying nothing of lasting value. I suppose now for many people pop culture is culture. They don’t know any better.

As I see it, pop culture is like when a mainstream movie is rated in stars, and you can advise perfect strangers on whether or not they will like it. Culture is like an “art movie” when even for a film with 4/5 stars you just can’t recommend it, not unless you know the person you’re talking with. Because Art requires an attention span: You won’t get it until you are willing to sit with it.

Meanwhile, pop culture keeps pinwheeling along with shows like Whirlybirds, (black and white) Chopper Squad, (in color, at the beach) Chopper One, (in California, where they can search the beach) and, after the Blue Thunder movie, Airwolf. Oh, and at last there was a show where they gave the dragonfly to the hero’s buddy (A Black pilot) instead of the hero: Magnum P.I. It had a beach too, again in Hawaii. And say—talk about being desperate for novelty scripts—I dimly remember Ripchord, a show where the heroes with a fixed wing aircraft would parachute into their adventures. That’s one show that won’t be remade.

Ever since the 1980’s, whenever the latest pop culture figure from, say, comic books arrives on the big screen, and when entertainment reporters note his previous incarnations, I am the only one who remembers they’ve missed things. When I hear the 1980’s Superman movie theme I still half-expect a missing homage to the televised cartoon version, but no else recalls it. Just as when they remade Planet of the Apes: While they remembered there was a TV series, no one recalled the original movie trailers. I might have seen a trailer narrated by Rod Serling as he posed the premise, and showed the actor’s real faces next to their made-up faces. I don’t suppose anyone in Hollywood had kept the old trailer footage, for Tinsel town is very disposable, but darn it, not to me, my childhood is not disposable!

Understandably, I’m in no hurry to buy the latest 3-D TV, in real HD, for I know it will be still the same old shows in “new” and “exciting” and “improved” clothing. Still the same old time-filler… not too bad, I guess, for days when it’s too rainy to get over to my library. And what of the future of television? I don’t suppose westerns will come back—now that we adults have replaced nature with suburbs, our children don’t have wild spaces to play in; while we adults don’t want to historically recall how terrified we were of those who took only short-term captives, not “prisoners…”

I don’t expect to ever see a funny remake of “Car fifty-four, where aa-are you-uuu?” (although they did try an awful movie version) Nope, no slapstick comical weekly police shows, not when our urban environment crime is too grim, too real, and we are all too serious.

Now, let me touch on our natural environment, while history is repeating. My father is the only one to remember a species of commercial fish going extinct. He told me this after a government hullabaloo banning certain commercial fishing indefinitely. But none of the TV news reporters remembered what my old man remembered.

Meanwhile, a few years back there was a nation wide outbreak of deadly listeriosis, traced to a plant where the luncheon meat machines had not been properly cleaned. Dad remembers something reporters don’t know… he remembers telling a meat salesman he could detect garlic. The salesman insisted that no, the meat was garlic-free. Dad agreed, and then explained that he had an allergic sensitivity, which meant the machines had surely not been cleaned properly since their previous meat cycle, a cycle producing meat with garlic. The salesman was energized! He had the machines cleaned up pronto. Father told me crews get lazy, standards slip, and history repeats.

As I see it, the simple reality for nature and politics (and it is perfectly OK to me) is that we mustn't get lazy: we can’t ever cease our efforts at moving back the ever-present four-legged rats, just as we do the two-legged rats. New babies are born every day; history repeats; human nature remains. If we “cop out” to say “let George do it,”—if we say “never mind oversight by citizen and government,” in order to make room for “market fundamentalism,”—if citizen inquiry and participation collapses into a peasant-like “quietism,” then, inevitably, history responds with an increase in the rodent population.

The fifties remains my favorite decade, but—I also like Buffy and Angel and an unbelievably good “art show” remake of Battlestar Galactica. Sometimes, I guess, things do get better.

Sean Crawford
Beside the big cathode ray tube
In the big box
January 2013
...What do you think?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Humor, Young and Old

Humor is queer: If a stout old millionaire says, “I wonder what the poor are doing tonight?” then I feel amusement, pity. If an elected official says it I feel revulsion, contempt.

Young Humour
(This is a re-run. When I published this back in April of 2010, I had a lot on sophmoric (student) humor. Now, for "young humor," I am leaving in only one paragraph)

Perhaps as a freshman I was simply in the wrong crowd, one of mostly men. Certainly in my own Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation program, later, of mostly women, the folks were less competitive for their humor, were safe and supportive. But then again, I think the campus was pervaded by a lack of mercy, by an enjoyment of putting people down. It was always a culture shock for me to go straight from the safe-to-be-flamboyant drama student lounge to the big recreation student lounge: Put-downs galore! Perhaps, in my freshman crowd, we simply tried too hard… producing lots of wit but no humor for the human condition.
Old Humour

Now I sit here in surprise... It has just hit me—I’ve become Joseph Stalin! At my age! Or, at least, the Stalin that George Bernard Shaw (GBS) perceived. Shaw was part of a group that traveled to the U.S.S.R. and saw Stalin. Uncle Joe was silent. Shaw perceived the leader, during the visit, as being in a state of amusement. I had thought long ago, back when I was my niece’s age, back when I was going through my GBS phase, that Shaw was mistaken. I still think so, but now I wonder if he was projecting his own sensibility onto Stalin. For Shaw to become a famous playwright he must have scrutinized this world keenly, and perhaps he had to choose whether to be amused or bitter. I believe an earlier famous writer, Mark Twain, faced the same crossroads. Maybe it’s a nerd thing.

Then again, maybe Shaw’s perception of Stalin was right on. After all, if I was a leader with my people worshipping me, putting up statues and murals, buying plates and posters for their homes to portray my noble visage, naming their sweet babies after me, when all the while I was purging (killing) half the generals and ordering an artificial famine in the Ukraine that was killing millions upon millions, well, I’d be amused too. Very amused. Come to think of it, the posters of Chairman Mao, whose wife was a criminal in the Gang of Four, seem to always show him looking “benevolent”…maybe Mao was equally “amused.” You think?

And now, as I set my pen down, I have to smile: I’ve once again managed to relate an essay to my interest in democracy.

Sean Crawford
Agreeing with Churchill that
Democracy is a bad, bad bad form of government
… But it’s better than any other.


General Patton told all of his officers they weren't allowed to give any orders while smiling. If the Muslim Ayatollahs and Islamist leaders always seem fierce for the billboards and posters, well, maybe they are copying Patton. Maybe away from the public, among each other, they are amused at having such power. 

As for those nerds who know too much, or people who are cynical, who seemingly don’t respect the rest of us … well, must they always turn to “quietism” and withdraw from the world? No! Shaw, who wrote with acid in his ink, joined a political group and never stopped trying… I can still picture a fictional doctor, despairing of his world’s media/police state, who would go to a five star restaurant just to “watch the monkeys feed.” He was the teenage hero’s bachelor uncle in Robert Heinlein’s Between Planets, who, in the end, quietly risked his life for freedom

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Is it Art?

“Not life, but a good life, is expected of every citizen”
A popular saying in ancient Greece.
“A life without art is not a life.”
Sean Crawford

“Video games are not art.” In his film review web site, in his essay-journal section, that’s what Chicago Tribune film critic and avid reader Roger Ebert said. Oops—not a diplomatic thing to say. After rousing gamers to a religious frenzy poor Ebert was almost forced to recant. Almost. I missed most of the tempest as I was off on holiday at the time—and no, I don’t “stay connected” when I am away: I have a life. Although I don’t know all that was commented, I do know enough about human nature to predict that people were saying some games are good and I really like them and the pictures are detailed and so forth. And during all this no one was going back to fundamentals and asking, “What is art?”

Of course there is something terrific about video games. One of my favorite web-essayists, Stevey, once said something like if he was on his death bed and asked what had been important in his life he would LIE… and not gasp out “playing video games.” Incidentally, he has posted some fine game reviews, but at no time does he ask, “Are they art?”

I can remember a nice spring afternoon back in the 1980’s, during the first few years of “new, exciting” music videos. (MVs) I was sitting in the student bar with Jay Butler and a friend of his sister. The latter was majoring in art. One of us males must have said that MVs were art. “Music videos are not art,” said the artist firmly. Jay and I looked at each other, thinking we really like them and said, “Some are good.” We were both thinking of the same video, a ‘one hit wonder’ by Aha called, “Count on Me.” Unlike the other MVs, it had a story, told with graphics. Significantly, neither of us could immediately think of a second artistic MV. I thought of this conversation a week later when the art students used washable chalk to do art parodies on the sidewalk. To express frustration, and to poke fun at the ignorant, were the words, “But what does that dog represent?”

Back in the bar, drinking alone, I figured it out: The way to appreciate art is to first take it in. Don’t leap to analyze what you will later feel; just stand and feel what you will later analyze. Slow down enough to honor the artist and appreciate your experience. Only then should you switch gears to the left brain to, say, bring up into words the symbolic theme shown by the little doggie in the left hand corner.

When I took a college course in poetry, taught by a published poet, we didn’t spend any time at all on symbols or meaning. I mentioned this at When Words Collide last summer, speaking to a man I knew from Mount Royal University, a comic book writer and poetry teacher, Richard Harrison. He smiled. “Then you were taught right!”

Of course, for any art, such as poetry, a meaning is still there, even if beyond words: the artist must have something impelling the art. Art must not only have an impulse, but it must be “a work of a unified consciousness.” (Rita Mae Brown) Art by committee doesn’t work. Hence any major motion picture that claims to be approaching the status of art is made by a strong focused director—while the rest of the films, despite their detailed pictures, “in new, exciting, improved 3-D!” are merely meant as entertainment.

Looking back, I can see how music videos, being mostly an edited collage of images, lack any unity of consciousness. They are at best a craft, but not an art. There’s a difference. I suppose a craftsman gets better at his work, better at, say, making the dove-tail joints even more dove-tailed. His latest craft is visible, and everyone agrees “it’s better.” What an artist gets better at is something harder to point to.

When I stumble across an old great work I am struck by the feeling: Someone was here. Orwellian authorities, or today’s Islamics, can try to make a female artist an unperson, but if even one great work remains: You know. Truly, “no artist paints only one picture.” The artist leaves an earlier body of work as she develops into her good ability and good taste. Back to music videos: Have they developed? Are they any better now than in the 1980’s? Are there any classics on MTV that musicians today will peer at frame by frame, just as art students in a museum will be peering at, and then copying-to-learn, every centimetre of a masterpiece? And hey, another thing: Thinking back to poor Roger Ebert, are there any classic video games that our children will play? (I answer no, no, no and maybe a simple arcade game)

I’ve been thinking of art and Ebert ever since, following the latest massacre-suicide, he brought up the subject of “fame” on his blog-journal. Fame as motivation for murder. Someone pointed out in the comments how a young man in ancient Greek had torched a great work so he could achieve fame. We suspect the people of his time foiled him: They “pulled an Orwell” by deliberately changing his name for the history books. I commented on fame-killings in the Iliad and Tombstone, and mentioned the vandals. Not vandals in classical Rome, the graffiti vandals in modern cities. Spraying their paint for fame and ego. A commenter replied to me by name to say that graffiti can be art. Well. Really? I don’t think any graffiti artist would study at  length to copy the masters, even if there were any True and Worthy classics of graffiti. Neither would any classic graffiti posters be available commercially.

Suddenly I am reminded of a cartoon strip decades ago in Mad Magazine. At a party a lady notices a painting on the wall.
The host admits he painted it.
“It’s so marvelous,” she gushes.
Then he admits it is a copy.
“But that’s still good!”
Then he admits it’s a paint-by-numbers picture.

Well, let’s not digress into “how to perceive an artist by his many man-hours of devotion to the art.” I  doubt if there's a single graffiti "artist" anywhere who builds up a body of experience by spraying the wall of his mother's basement,  every day or week—producing 365 or 52 new pieces per year. If anyone wishes, I could one day do an essay on man-hours. For now, for “how to perceive if something is art,” I have today covered but a few points on a subject which I’m sure art students could discuss in class for hours. I guess I could number my points and then apply them to graffiti. But no, dear reader, I won’t insult you with a paint-by-numbers conclusion.

Sean Crawford
Living amongst beautiful things,
Including sculptures of Japanese comic book characters,
January 2013

~Can any art be fairly “judged” as being “good?” My favorite web essayist, computer nerd Paul Graham, nailed the topic in his essay, see link.

~What music lovers didn’t know, back in the age of discotheques, was that discos were being used to test market songs. This I learned not from any glossy entertainment mag, but from a dry obscure business magazine. Years later music labels would insist that artists make MVs, again for marketing purposes, again without the music lovers realizing.

~In my very first semester of college I took a survey course in Geography. By the time midterms approached we understood when our terrific teacher, an old Scotsman in tweeds, told us, “If I ask you on an exam to “define Geography” then you have the right to reply “Don’t be silly. You can’t define Geography.” …I’m sure Art is indefinable too, yet well worth many late night talks in the dorms, making the attempt.

~After I delivered a speech based on this essay, my toastmaster club had lots of comments in the bar afterwards. Feel free to add your own comments, since this brief essay could have no nuance, no qualifiers.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Groovy and Graffiti

The nearest I’ve ever been to a spray paint canister was kneeling in the basement beside my brother’s disassembled motorcycle to spray my notebook for school. I needed a certain color and I had no cash. Yes, we had spray cans back in the sixties but I can’t recall any graffiti “art,” let alone anything "classic"; all I can remember is words like “Q. E. grad 19xx” or the phrase “Vietnam is pigs” that met commuters taking the Georgia viaduct into downtown.

Sure, I knew the groovy 1960’s. Recently a fellow commenter on a blog (Roger Ebert’s) replied to me to defend graffiti. He said not all graffiti is vandalism, some is art. He said you don’t need formal training, just creativity, and furthermore, creativity for art in general (not just graffiti) would be squashed by training. I replied he might be right, but he had missed my key term: “man-hours…” What I didn’t tell him was I remembered similar attitudes from back in the 1960’s. Instead I merely wrote grand things about hours of devotion to excellence, hoping to catch his spirit that way. Some day I’ll do an essay about art; today I wish to remember the youth of the 60’s.

To me the 60’s were captured by a scene in a comic book where comedian Jerry Lewis is responsible for some kids. (None of his kids will have long hair!) He looks in on them in a garage, to make sure they are being productive with schoolwork. All is well, he thinks, as one of them is reciting to the others: “Yea, didst the sword of Damocles hang above his head, suspended by a hair.” Jerry doesn’t look up; he doesn’t notice the suspended electric guitars and wigs… The kids shared a widespread belief of those days that anyone could have a good band, if they ramped up the volume and had long hair. And likewise, if you were merely creative enough then you could be a good artist at anything.

We had slogans like Question Authority and Power to the People, along with meetings in mass circle, with everyone being equal. (like the free school in the movie Billy Jack) It was as if along with our spoken aloud feeling that hierarchy was wrong for groups, there was also a silent feeling that hierarchy was wrong for art. For example: Instead of a hierarchy of a few master filmmakers like Hitchcock and Kubrick, along with many journeymen and beginners, everyone would be equal. No youth would see themselves as being only an apprentice. A documentary made at the time, by the National Film Board, shows young filmmakers running through the grass and filming car taillights in slow motion to create red streaks. In the 60’s there was a lot of experimenting, streaks and so forth, justified by the label “new!” but surely the experiments were semi-consciously to avoid hierarchy, avoid comparisons.

Whether we wielded a camera or a paintbrush or a spray can, we of the 60's were the same youths who grimaced when our teacher told us that Hemmingway could break the rules of grammar because first he had learned the rules. And we responded to our grammar lesson like kids: “Aww, do we have to?” Youth was ever thus. Three thousand years ago the complaining pharaoh’s son, struggling with geometry, asked his tutor for an easier path, a special royal short cut. The tutor replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.”

But we all sought short cuts, wanting to be spared the long and narrow road. For my part, a sane part of me knew I was wrong one day as I told a guy my own age about my philosophy for martial arts sword fighting: “You should be real creative, improvising from moment to moment what you will do.” And he replied: “Yah, but you only get that creative freedom by long tedious repetition of certain moves.” And I grimaced and knew he was right, and shamefully filed the moment away under “lessons learned.” Since then I’ve learned to be suspicious of anything that appeals to my laziness… or to my superiority towards another race, religion or creed (Don’t trust the older generation!) or to my self-indulgence in strong emotions like hatred. (Make the rich pay!)

If learning fencing takes a long time, so does boxing. I read once that a boxer’s manager is careful to match him with successively harder opponents, but only with people close to his own ability, lest he have all his self-confidence clobbered out of him. I suppose it’s a question of balance: seeing the world-class boxers on TV but focusing on your own ring craft. Or knowing, say, what the master poets are doing but still being joyfully tempted to recite one’s own poems, uninvited, in public. (Incidentally: either ask for an invitation, or do without.) It’s like not being scared of one’s towering epic novel, pushing aside writer’s block to instead write just one page at a time.

For how one’s art can be not hierarchical but territorial see the life changing (for me) work The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

In my youth the year 2001 seemed so far away; now it has come and gone, but I still remember. I think we all have moments of youthful insanity. The 60's was a time when youth encouraged each other to sustain and draw out such moments for a few years. Call it mass insanity. I was there but—As a Kubrick character would say, “Dave, I’m feeling better now.”

Sean Crawford
While the snow flies
January 2012
Surely the demographic for graffiti so-called "artists" is like the demographic for the humour magazine Cracked where this scathing article appeared, "Six harsh truths that will make you a better person."

~The Frisbee was a 60's way to avoid hierarchy in sports. No one grimaced as they fumbled, no derisions, for it was a new relaxed “sport” you didn’t have to be “good at.”

~The 60's was when Zen Buddhism caught on. “Words build your world,” a Buddhist told me. They say the president has never uttered the words “war on terror.” In his world it’s no wonder he genuinely thought an attack that killed four Americans, smack dab on the anniversary of 9/11, was merely a protest that got out of hand.

~I guess the “older generation” in Arabia is still up to their tricks against youth. I can’t think of a single old bomb maker or old clergyman being a suicide bomber. The oldsters continue to encourage insanity. (Like the Stacy Keach character in American History X) And if the youth madness, this time around, is being sustained for more than just a few years, then it is partly because the clergy are embedded in a public that either believes in violence… or believes in silence. …Perhaps change will start over here with baby boomers, with the same Arab Americans who spoke up in the 60's to educate the South Africans about apartheid. I can envision the T-shirts, in Arabic and English: Silence equals death.

~While I really like my epilogue, the artist in me wishes I could have stopped my essay, nice and tidy, with just my name, without footnotes... But every artist is also a citizen, and war is never nice and tidy.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Community and Health Centers

With all due respect to middle class hospital administrators, I wish to shake up a common misconception, a false assumption, about community health centers.

Here’s an image: if you take your magical chain saw, lop off a big corner of the hospital, big enough to have several rooms, then tie a giant rope around it and fly it off by magical helicopter and land it in the community, what do you have? A small hospital. Not a community health center.

When the city was about to make a “small hospital” error, they first had a public meeting. There the administrators found themselves confronted by people from an existing old community health center. (This is dimly remembered hearsay, from an Alexandra community health center nurse who was present) The first question stopped them in their tracks: “Is the board of directors going to be more than half members of the community?” After a few more questions the doctors admitted they didn’t know what a community health center was, and they went back to the drawing board, humbler and wiser.

As you know, such centers are often set up in the older, shabbier areas within walking distance of downtown. Here’s an image: One evening I was standing on the sidewalk along skid row, surrounded by other men, just outside a shabby bar that featured exotic dancers. One of the dancers was outside, protesting. It seems that, supposedly due to “fire regulations” she was not being allowed to perform her act. So she there she was, outside, along with an evening television news crew. As she juggled her flaming batons amidst the bright camera spotlight, something not unexpected occurred: The spotlight panned the crowd. Not everyone had an outstanding arrest warrant, and not everyone was avoiding a spouse, but everyone instinctively moved away, producing a tide of people moving backward.

The point is that although “all men are equal” these men were not merely “just like the middle class only with less money” No. These people experienced different daily concerns than the middle class did. About this time the doctors started up the “community” health clinic “at 8th and 8th” This was, unfortunately, before the aforementioned public forum. From viewing that clinic, I can almost guarantee that no one outside the hospital community was in on the planning. The doctors assumed they knew better. Not so.

Unfortunately, on entering the clinic, the first thing you see is a uniformed authority figure. I shake my head: What were they thinking? I can guarantee you that even minimum wage humble rent-a-cops won’t wear their uniforms into a skid row bar. After entering the clinic, if you are nervous about having a social disease, and you wish to use the washroom, you must go down and around a long hallway, on your very first visit when you don’t know your way around yet, get a key, and then make your way along a different long hall, past the guard, and find the washroom far away from the door. Again I ask: What were they thinking?

Some of the downtown people are aboriginal youth, and some of them are quite artistic. I like how their lines, unlike mine, vary in width. Well. Have any of them been invited to paint flowing lines and homey pictures on the walls? No. Instead the clinic has forbidding long barren white walls. Yes, these white walls are “home sweet home” to a doctor, and yes the walls would look nice and pretty to a middle class guy like Steve Jobs, who liked minimalism. But the inner city is where people like collecting sentimental stuff, where few can define minimalism—and many are fearful of hospitals… with white walls. Yet again I ask: What were they thinking?

Never mind the hospital-medical model. In a hospital, a patient’s number one priority is to get well. In a community served by a health center the folks have their own priorities for themselves and their community… Folks like my mother. While growing up, she was a typical talkative Irish girl. One day she stopped speaking… Luckily, others in the community noticed. The community health nurse, after finding sores in the girl’s mouth, then gave dietary support to the girl’s mamma. My Grandma didn’t know any better: This was a few years before the government publicized its wartime research into the four food groups.

Now I sit here at my shiny black desk, middle class and middle aged. I can still dimly remember the old Alexandra community health center. Alas, it has long been closed. (But it flung off two pieces) It’s been years since I lingered on skid row or entered that “new” 8th and 8th clinic. Maybe it has changed. And maybe people across America no longer assume they know what a community health center is.

Sean Crawford
West of the Mississippi river
December 2012
Footnote: I have a short funny version that I wrote by "free fall" archived in April 2015.