Joshua Tree overview

If, like me, you’re from the East Coast, the words “Joshua Tree” probably summon up the U2 album of the (almost) same name.  But it’s also the name of a hugely popular National Park about two and a half hours from Los Angeles.

My wife and I spent a week visiting the park in early April, happy to escape the cold and rainy Northeast.  We were looking for arid heat to renew and cheer us and we got that in spades.  We didn’t come back spiritually refreshed, or anything like that, but we did return with elevated moods.

Here’s an overview of the park, in case you ever want to visit:

The Park Itself

Joshua Tree National Park is a huge expanse of wilderness that includes both the Mojave and Colorado deserts.  It lacks many of the jaw-dropping features of the more famous parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, or Big Bend, but it has a unique grandeur of its own.

The landscape consists of flat deserts populated with cacti, the Seuss-like Joshua Trees that give the park its name and bizarre mounds of boulders.  It was my continual frustration not to be able to take really great photos.  The color palate in pretty monotonous, consisting of variations of brown (ranging from khaki tan to milk chocolate) leavened occasionally by tarragon green, which made it hard to capture the depth or height of the objects.

And it’s hot. Even in April the park can be hot.  Yes, it’s a “dry heat,” but the sun can be baking and by early afternoon we were always too hot to continue hiking.  And to be honest, you’d be crazy to be hiking all afternoon if you’re staying at a place with a swimming pool.

Joshua Tree is probably closer to a major metropolitan area than any other National Park, which makes it an easy day trip from Los Angeles or Palm Springs.  This means its vast expanses can sometimes get a little crowded.   It’s also surprisingly popular as a camping destination.  There were campgrounds everywhere, nestled in between dunes, pinion pines and rock heaps.

Joshua Tree Rocks

A typical rock heap

I’m a little surprised at the popularity of the campsites because the park itself is very unsparing.  No food or potable water is offered anywhere inside the park and there are no showers, ranger stations, lodges, or concession stands. The only sign of civilization are the frequent toilets scattered throughout the campgrounds and at each trail head.  These bathrooms don’t have running water, though, so don’t expect to wash your hands.    The bottom line if you’re camping is that you need to bring in every ounce of food, water or fuel you expect to consume.

A Word About The Joshua Tree

As noted, the park is named after the Joshua Tree, a tall yucca plant with a twisted trunk and three to six branches reaching straight up that are crowned with spiky leaves.  The tree (or “tree” depending on how you define a tree because this is not really a woody plant) was named by the Mormons after the prophet Joshua, who reached out his arms to God in prayer.

The park is aptly named after these trees because they are everywhere.  There are so many of them in the middle of the park that it begins to look like the vineyards in Napa Valley, or more sinister, like an army of zombies.

Joshua Trees

This always reminded me of “The Night Of The Living Dead”

I had always thought that the U2 album was named after the park, but in reality, the album is named “The Joshua Tree,” in other words, it’s dedicated to a specific tree, which is supposed to symbolize the hardiness of the American spirit or some such BS.  Further, the photo on the album cover was shot pretty far away from the park (and by the way, that particular tree has since fallen down, which hasn’t stopped fans from going to great lengths to track it down.)

U2

Attractions — Mostly Hiking

You could spend the better part of a day driving around the park looking at the sites from the car and you’d probably get a good sense of how remarkable the landscape is, but I’d certainly recommend getting out of the vehicle and walking around a little to get the full effect.  The park offers many different hiking trails of various levels of difficulty.  We took some pretty aggressive hikes, but didn’t kill ourselves.  Here are the highlights:

Hidden Valley

This probably the most popular spot in the park. It’s located about half an hour from each of the park’s northern gates so really accessible.  The parking lot to the entrance is slightly misnamed — the sign identifies it as the Hidden Valley picnic area.

hidden valley

The site is a huge ring of stone piles and rock walls with a relatively flat surface in the middle.  To get inside you squeeze through a narrow entrance and once there you feel like you’re in a Disney attraction.  Boulders are strewn everywhere , providing a foreground for the rocky cliffs in back of them.  There’s a one-mile trail around the inner circle of the bowl that takes about an hour to complete.  Perfect for kids and geezers.

The story they tell is that in the 1800’s cattle rustlers used to hide their contraband inside the hidden valley, which was once covered with grass. It might even be true, but the real attraction is the weird landscape and the awe it evokes.

Lost Horse Mine Loop

This is a six mile loop up and around a mountain that’s considered a “strenuous” hike. You can cut that in half if you just go up to the abandoned mine and back, which is what we did.  Total elevation is about 600 feet, which doesn’t sound like much but when you’re my ago you can climb a long way and huff and puff a lot only to discover that you’re only up 100 feet.

Lost Horse Mine

But the trek to the discarded mine is worth the effort.  The views are spectacular especially once you reach the mine itself and hike a little bit higher to the summit, which provides a full 360 degree view of Lost Horse Valley. (By the way, this is another trail with signage issues — there’s no sign on the spur path leading up to the mine.)

Skull Rock Trail

Easily accessible from the 29 Palms park entrance, this is a mile and a half loop trail that begins at skull rock itself — a giant bolder with hollows where the eyes and mouth would be on a human skull.   The skull is very photogenic, with people posing for photos all day long in the “eye holes.”  The trail itself is not too arduous and very scenic — again, if rocks and cacti are your idea of scenery.

The only downside is that the trail is bisected by the main road and for long stretches you can see or hear cars buzzing by, which undercuts the illusion that you are off on a solitary wilderness exploration.  Also, about halfway through the trail you enter the Skull Rock campsite and there are no signs to tell you that you need to walk down the road, among the campers before you pick up the trail again.

49 Palms Oasis

This hike is technically in the park but it’s not accessible through the main entrances.  You drive down a road in the town of 29 Palms to a parking lot where the trail head begins and just start hiking.  In other words, there is no entrance fee.  You walk up the side of a 300 foot hill and down the other side to reach a lovely oasis that may or may not have 49 Palms.  It’s a great place to rest before the walk back.  It’s about a mile and a half each way so a nice morning’s hike.

49 Palms

Two crazy stories about the hike.

First, as we were returning we came across a large tortoise in the middle of the path and an Asian woman who pleaded with us to move the animal far away from the path because if the “Chinese people” came across it, they would take it.  My wife forbade me to touch the thing and fortunately it crawled away on its own.  Later I mused on the improbability of anyone from any nationality carrying this very heavy tortoise out of the park in a backpack.  Was the woman looking for help herself Chinese?  Couldn’t tell.

Tortoise

Then, we walked about a quarter of a mile further and I spied a rattlesnake on a rock next to the path.  He didn’t look too happy and was curled up and ready to spring, which I’m sure he would have done if I’d continued another five feet.  I stepped back and we had a face-off until he eventually slithered off and settled into a completely camouflaged coil under a rock.  Never reach under a rock in the desert!!!

Rattlesnake

Cholla Cactus Garden

This is not really a hike — it’s more of a half-mile stroll through a mass of cholla cacti, which are short cute (but potentially painful) plants that seem to glow in the sun.  I wouldn’t make this a priority but if you are driving from the Park’s north entrance to the south entrance at Cottonwood, it’s definitely worth a stop.

Cholla

Lost Palms Oasis 

I am told this is a great hike.  It’s a “strenuous” seven miles down and back to a canyon with an oasis.  Unfortunately it’s over an hour drive from where we were staying at the southern exit of the park and we could only check it out on the day we left the park for good.  We walked about a half mile in and out and it’s a very nice hike — the geography is slightly different because this is part of the Colorado desert, so there are no Joshua Trees.  But still plenty of rocks.

Lost Palms

Keys Views

Also, not really a hike.  This is a scenic overlook about 45 minutes from the northern park entrances.  You can get out and walk along the overlook, which provides a pretty spectacular view of Palm Springs and the mountains behind them.  The quality of the view depends entirely on the quality of the air.  The day we went was windy so their air was dusty and opaque.

Key View

Hall of Horrors

About five minutes down the road from Hidden Valley is a parking lot for “Hidden Horrors,” which is rarely mentioned in the guidebooks as a destination, but it’s a nice little diversion.  It’s essentially an unmarked half-mile ramble between two ranges of rock heaps.  This place is apparently popular with amateur rock climbers who like to leap from rock to rock.  Better make sure your sneakers have a good grip because a slip could be painful.

Hall of Horrors

Accommodations and Eating

We stayed at the 29 Palms Inn, having learned about from this glowing piece in The New York Times.  This is not really an inn like we’d think of in New England, it’s actually a collection of adobe cottages clustered around an oasis.  It’s a pretty dreamy spot.  We never put on our air conditioning because the thick walls kept the room cool during the day and at night open windows would let in the desert breezes (we’d wake up to temperatures in the 40’s after having been in 90’s heat during the day).

29 Palms Inn

Crucially, the inn had a nice swimming pool, where we’d retire mid-afternoon to cool off in the water, read our books and sip free Arnold Palmers.   There were four or five families with small children staying at the hotel, many of them from the UK or Germany, and it was fun to watch the kids slowly get to know each other and play together in the water.  Eventually we’d learn all their names and reminisce about the days when our own house was full of a gaggle of exuberant toddlers or tweens.

The inn also has the best restaurant in town, featuring interesting California-American cuisine.  Every night we were there the restaurant had set aside a table for a dozen different senior Marine officers, who were either stationed at or visiting the neighboring Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.  Great guys — serious and respectful.  Other than that, it’s first come first serve for tables.  (And people eat early here.  It gets full at 5:00 p.m.)

We also ate at the famous Pappy and Harriet’s, which is a sprawling western theme park of a place up in the mountains.  The place is located in Pioneertown, a former movie set that is now mostly a backdrop for selfies. The restaurant is always packed (you should call for reservations weeks in advance) and the southwestern food is heaping.

Pappy and Harriets

Live music starts at 7: a few years ago some lucky patrons were surprised by a short set by Paul McCartney. But Lucinda Williams and other famous roots musicians have performed there.  The walls are covered with posters, photos, license plates, and stuffed animals and there’s definitely a happy friendly vibe.

Another great place to hangout is the Joshua Tree Saloon, which has many of the same elements as Pappy and Harriett’s, including cool decor, live music, and huge piles of food but is more relaxed because it’s not the destination that Pappy and Harriett’s is.

Final Thoughts

I loved spending four nights at the 29 Palms Inn, hiking in the morning, swimming in the afternoon, taking naps and generally chilling out.  If you live in Los Angeles and have never been to Joshua Tree you’re crazy.  This would be a fun day trip and a terrific weekend getaway.

If you’re from the East Coast and have never been to a national park, this would not be the place to start.  Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are must-sees before Joshua Tree.  Yet for really getting away from it all and slowing down, there’s nothing quite like the desert.  By all means put this park high on your list.

 

 

 

 

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Now that we are almost halfway through the new nine-episode season of “Roseanne,” can we do a quick check-in to see if it’s living up to its early promise as a reflection of white working class America in the age of Trump?

The show is just a few weeks distant from those shockingly high ratings for the premiere episode, which, for the first time ever, sympathetically depicted a family of Trump supporters on a scripted television show.  Which means we’re also just a few weeks distant from the critical meltdown that came with it.

I just finished listening to a podcast on Slate.com in which the participants debated whether continuing to watch the show would morally compromise them.  It is the position of Slate that all Trump voters are racist even if they don’t know it, and that by failing to show the Conners as motivated by animus to black, brown and other non-white populations, the producers are whitewashing the dark side of the Trump Base.

There was also pushback from the conservative side too.  The right-wing editor and commentator Ben Shapiro, on HIS podcast, claimed that the show misrepresented the conservative base by showing that the Conners’ support of Trump was based solely on economic dissatisfaction and not by a reaction to the identity politics and political correctness of the coastal elites.

It’s symptom of these over-politicized times that a relatively benign TV show can generate so much heat, and that its right even to exist can be called into question solely because some of the characters voted for the existing president.  It reminds me of the reaction in the 1970’s to “All in the Family,” an earlier generation’s exploration of working class values.  That show was also denounced for providing a platform for the bigoted Archie Bunker, even though Archie was clearly made to be the buffoon.

The difference between “Rosanne” and “All in the Family” is that the latter was all politics all the time, while “Rosanne” mostly hints at politics.  Since the premiere episode, in which Rosanne Conner and her liberal sister Jackie have a fight over their respective votes, overt politics has been mostly off the table.

Instead of arguments about Trump, what subsequent episodes have offered instead are depictions of social and cultural issues that bedevil most families, but especially working class families who are just getting by in a world that largely disrespects them: Rosanne’s an Uber driver now; one daughter is unemployed and living at home again; another daughter is so desperate to buy herself out of the rut she’s in that she accepts an offer to become a surrogate mother for a ditsy upper-class twit – by using her own eggs, no less. Meaning she’d be essentially selling her own biological daughter.

I think it’s fair to assume that the Conners represent that group of swing voters who voted twice for Obama but couldn’t abide Clinton and the globalism that she embodied.  (Of course the thanks they got for voting for Obama is to be labeled racist for not supporting his white putative successor.)  And contrary to Ben Shapiro’s claims that the Conners are not socially conservative, the fact remains that Dan Conner owns a gun, the family prays before dinner every night, Roseanne enacts a form of corporal punishment on her granddaughter when her daughter is too lenient, and their son DJ is a veteran of the Iraq war. They seem pretty culturally conservative to me.

Much has been made of the loving support that the Conners provide for their gender-fluid grandson and mixed-race granddaughter.  And both of those characters do seem to be on the show for the sole purpose of taking the hard edge off the Roseanne character.  But it’s also true that many families, including working class families, rally around their own kin when they perceive a threat from the outside, even if the threat is just from public opinion in general.

In the end, though, “Rosanne” is still just a sitcom, not a PBS documentary.  I didn’t really like the series when it was first on and I’m not crazy about it now either.  It’s occasionally funny, but represents a genre of TV that was already tired when the show first aired in the 1990s.  As a multi-camera show filmed in front of a life studio audience it’s plagued by a soundtrack of people laughing at jokes, quips and set-ups that just aren’t that hilarious. It’s also undone by the standard sitcom need to wrap up all problems and conflict within 22 minutes so the next episode can start fresh.

And yet the show, as old-fashioned as it is, remains immensely popular, especially in local markets that Trump carried in 2016.  It appears that conservative white voters, who still represent a very large segment of the population, like to see themselves depicted on TV, just as blacks like to watch themselves on “black-ish” or gays like to see themselves represented on “Will and Grace.”  Why it took TV a year-and-a-half to understand that there’s a huge underserved audience out there is another story, but in the meantime, someone is making a lot of money off the idea to bring back “Rosaeanne” and set it in Trumpland.

 

 

 

 

Facebook_Iowa_34

There are times when I wonder if I am really so out-of-step with the day-to-day zeitgeist of our wonderful country.  How did it come about that everyone collectively decided that Facebook was practically the worst company in the world and that Mark Zuckerberg needed to be frogmarched to Washington and keelhauled before a couple of Congressional committees?

Like Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” the our public thinkers are supposedly shocked! shocked! that Facebook leverages our personal data for its advertisers.  But anyone who didn’t know until last month that advertisers were using our Facebook data to promote their own products is, not to put too fine a point on it, a moron.  Did they not notice that Facebook is a free service and that the only way to support all those servers and graphic designers was through advertising?  Didn’t they think it was odd that when they clicked on an ad for a particular product they were subsequently barraged with more ads for the same product?

The truth is that I don’t really care who has my personal Facebook data.  I just downloaded my file to see what was there and it was pretty dull.  It includes my name, email, age, school, job history, political leanings, marital status and Facebook friends current and former.  That is already publicly available on my page.  It also includes the Facebook sites, ads, games, quizzes and other ephemera that I clicked on over the course of the last ten years.  The fact that this might become available to strangers does give me a slight pause because maybe I don’t want people to know I once played Farmville, but there’s nothing truly embarrassing in this data.

Here is what Facebook does NOT have on me that many other online sites do:  my social security number, my credit card number, my medical history, my drug prescriptions, my income, my online shopping history, or my criminal record (which is nonexistent, by the way).

And they don’t have my search history, thank God.  If Google had been the one that was  a little sloppy with my personal data I would be REALLY pissed.  Some of that could be truly embarrassing.

If anything, my gripe with Facebook is that they don’t do a good enough job of dispensing my data.  I almost never notice the ads in my feed because they are so irrelevant to me.  If there’s a true scandal at Facebook is that they are charging advertisers good money for spots that are ineffective.

But let’s be honest, people aren’t really mad at Facebook because of privacy.  Instead this tantrum is about making it into the latest scapegoat for the election of Donald Trump.  I think most of Facebook’s critics understand that the company didn’t really do anything to swing the election.  I mean seriously, have any of these people ever even been on Facebook?  If there is any voter who decided to vote for Donald Trump because of something he saw on Facebook, I would like to meet him and commit him to the home for the dangerously naive.

Those of you who lived through the 2016 election probably remember that Facebook was a toxic place that ruined friendships; if anything the nasty posts and counter-posts only served to reinforce voters’ existing leanings, doing little to convert potential voters from one side to the other.

Facebook first came under fire in the fall of 2016 with allegations that it had allowed Russian trolls to plant “Fake News” on users’ news feed (remember those innocent days when “fake news” meant stories that were literally made up and not just news pieces that the President doesn’t like?)  No one could seriously argue that these stories had any significant effect on voting and the early grudge against Facebook slowly died away.

Then came the big revelation about Campaign Analytica.  It transpired that a conservative data firm had tricked Facebook into giving them the personal data of 87 million users, deceitfully held onto it when Facebook demanded its return, and then tried to help the Trump campaign develop targeted Facebook ads.

The interesting thing is, the Obama campaign essentially did the same in 2012 (see more on that here.) No one screamed about Facebook being careless with our personal data when the news media’s favorite candidate was playing fast and loose with our privacy.  In fact, I distinctly remember stories about what digital geniuses the Obama campaign were (here’s one New York Times story where the digital team admits to grabbing data without Facebook’s permission and not being forced to give it back once Facebook figured out what was happening.)  The Obama team even bragged about how the pulled the wool over Facebook’s eyes.  As Investors Business Daily points out:  Obama’s campaign director, Carol Davidsen, even tweeted that “Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing.”

I doubt that anyone really thinks that the Data Analytica breach swayed any votes.  Among other things, the Trump campaign claims they didn’t actually use their data for targeting because the Republican National Committee’s lists were better.

Look, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to get off Facebook: 1) It ends up draining your time and hurting your concentration; 2) it makes you dislike your friends who just won’t stop popping off about politics or posting pictures of their meals; 3) it makes your life seem inadequate when you see what your friends are up to.

But you’re just kidding yourself if you think you’re making a moral stand about the 2016 election or protecting your privacy.  There are plenty of worse actors to boycott than Facebook.

 

MLB.TV

Last week was the beginning of the baseball season but in our house it’s really the beginning of Over The Top season.

Over The Top, as every MediaPost reader probably already knows, is television programming that does not arrive via antennae, cable or satellite.  It includes subscription-based services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, free and ad-supported services such as Crackle, and transactional services such as iTunes and Amazon Instant Video that allow users to pay for individual pieces of content.

This is where baseball comes in.  I live in a different DMA than my favorite team, so the only way to watch the games is to stream them over the Internet on MLB.TV. Since I’m already a heavy streamer of Netflix, HBO Go, and Amazon Prime, adding baseball games to my TV options crowds out most traditional television except for the prestige Emmy-bait shows like “The Americans” and “Better Call Saul” that return this month.

I’m not alone in going increasingly Over The Top.  Nielsen reports that two-thirds of homes now have Subscription On Demand devices and that among those households, ten percent of TV viewing is streaming.

The traditional networks are racing to catch up and nearly every one of them now offers an SVOD service.  This makes it theoretically possible to drop the cable bundle altogether and cobble together a personalized TV platform of favorite networks and SVOD services.  All this comes in the face of a steady increase in cord-cutting.  According to the Leichtman Research Group, only 79 percent of households paid for cable or satellite service last year, down from 88 percent in 2010.

But as appealing as a 100 percent Over The Top world sounds, there are still downsides.

The biggest problem with Over The Top is inconvenience.  There’s still nothing as simple as watching traditional TV: turn on the set; click around to find something you want to watch; watch.

Not so with Over The Top.  For starters there is no simple way to gain access to all the major SVOD services.  I have an Apple TV device and every time I want to watch something on Amazon Prime I have to hook my laptop to the TV via an HDMI cable.  This is like having one TV in the living room for NBC, CBS and Fox and another one for ABC and ESPN.

I’m also not crazy about the way streaming services handle ads.   Netflix and Amazon Prime are ad-free, but MLB.TV needs to fill the time between innings and for some reason – legal, I assume – it does not run the local ads associated with the local broadcasts.  Last year MLB filled the time with commercials that were not even as good as the one’s you’d see on your local origination channel.  Seemingly between every half-inning they we running ads for an umpire training camp.  I probably saw that commercial 250 times – 200 times more than any other single ad in 2017 – and still I declined the opportunity to become a major league umpire.

Still, cheesy ads aside, MLB.TV is a major success for the Over The Top principle.  Only Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have more subscribers.  Baseball doesn’t have the buzz of other sports like football and basketball, yet with 162 games a year and an ability to tap the deepest reservoirs of family nostalgia, it’s still a major source of summertime programming; it’s primary appeal is that it provides a vehicle for people who are away from what they consider their “real” home to remain connected to their younger selves.

This is a lesson that other Over The Top services can learn from.   Over The Top works best for subscribers who have similar general interests (local sports, entertainment, the arts) but different niche affinities (a specific team, a movie genre) that couldn’t be supported even on a cable network.   This is the formula that makes Netflix a powerhouse even though only a handful of its shows (“Stranger Things,” “The Crown,” etc.) are as well-watched as traditional network hits.

So play ball.  Technology has added a lot to the TV viewing experience in the last ten years but nothing quite measures up to the satisfaction of watching my favorite baseball team all summer.

atlanta-tv-show.jpg

The transformation of television into a fractured platform with hundreds of shows seeking loyal niche audiences means we no longer have a common TV culture, but it does give us a chance to learn about populations we really don’t know much about.

HBO’s “Girls,” for example, provided an unsparing look at Brooklyn’s hipsters, portraying many of them as selfish, entitled, or near-psycho – a sub-subset of America that’s alien to most viewers.

The comedian/rapper/writer Donald Glover has taken a page from the “Girls” playbook with “Atlanta,” another series that shines an unsentimental spotlight on a population that’s usually in the background on mainstream TV.  But instead of the privileged, overeducated white women in “Girls,” the main characters in “Atlanta” are un-privileged black men in the urban South.

Privileged or not, what the “Girls” and “Atlanta” characters have in common is a struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world that apparently exists solely to thwart their dreams – dreams that do not include taking or keeping jobs that require discipline, patience or other bourgeois values.

“Girls” creator Len Dunham and Glover, two of the most talented and hard-working artists of their generation, have both created series focused on lost and aimless versions of themselves.  Dunham’s Hannah Horvath aspires to be a famous writer but keeps making bad choices that screw up her prospects.  Glover’s Earnest “Earn” Marks has so mismanaged his life that he’s perpetually homeless and broke, spending half his time trying to scrounge free food and a place to sleep.

A middle-aged, middle-class suburban white guy like me doesn’t know much about either hipster Brooklyn or black Atlanta, so these shows broaden my experience a bit – or at least I think so. Frankly, I’m in no position to know if “Atlanta” is a fair representation of that community. When I’m watching it, I’m always asking, “Is this what life in poor black America is like?”   This is an important question because there aren’t a lot of TV shows that realistically depict the African American experience in America.

There have been African American-themed TV shows since “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” in the 1970s, but most were produced by white people for white-dominated audiences.  “Atlanta,” however, makes few concessions to white sensibilities and does little to assuage white guilt through the feel-good endings you’d get in a traditional sitcom.

But if the show does little to let whites off the hook, black viewers can’t take much heart from it either.  Earn comes from an intact family and once won a golden ticket to the upper echelons of American society – a scholarship to Princeton.  However, instead of graduating and following his classmates to Wall Street careers, he dropped out and is now a couch-surfing deadbeat dad who’s not-very-successfully managing his cousin’s nascent rap career. In other words, he’s had plenty of chances but sabotaged himself.  But he’s a role model compared to his drug-dealing, thieving associates, who, while not stereotypes themselves, engage in behavior that would make a rightwing think tank tsk tsk.

There’s enough dysfunctional behavior in this surreal scene to fuel a Charles Murray best seller. Also, please note use of AR 15.

Earn is a fish out of water in his old Atlanta neighborhood.   He never falls into the local dialect and can still pass as an Ivy Leaguer among the city’s upper-class blacks.  He’s middle class enough to be his cousin’s interlocutor with white music executives.  Yet he’s so out of favor with his respectable parents that they won’t let him sleep over at their house.

Because he’s articulate and smart, Earn acts as the audience’s emissary as we travel through this strange land.  And because this is ostensibly a comedy, this really is a very strange land.  One character keeps a live alligator in his bathtub; in another episode, an invisible car knocks down people outside a club; in a third, a black man is cast as Justin Bieber.

Here’s the scene with the invisible car

And then there are the every-day experiences that are actually pretty strange when you come to think of it: Earn’s rapper cousin inexplicably becomes more popular each time he gets nabbed for a crime; a rich white dude marries into the black intelligentsia and tries to be blacker-than-thou; and strangest of all – people judge each other solely on the basis of skin color.

Although there are few whites on the show, the effects of racism permeate the world they created.  Poor blacks are hassled by black government workers and preyed upon by black thugs.  The characters repeatedly refer to each other with the N-word. This is a show with African American characters so dysfunctional and unsympathetic that no white person would dare write or produce it.

But is it “true?”  Back to my original question – is this what poor black life is really like?  It’s been universally praised by black critics and intellectuals, and it has high ratings among black viewers, which certainly gives it credibility (although I have to suspect that the show’s African American audience is significantly more upscale than the world “Atlanta” depicts).

Or maybe asking whether “Atlanta” is “real” is the wrong question.  No one should mistake a sitcom for a documentary or research paper.   What we want from a work of art is for it to convey a universal truth about human nature and help us sympathize and understand the characters a little better.  Here’s where Glover succeeds.  He is so honest about his characters’ failings that you actually do understand and feel a little closer to them.  And that’s the best you can hope for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

grace-and-frankie

Netflix’s recent free agent signing of Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy sure caught the attention of those who buy, make and comment on television content.  By spiriting away two of the most prolific TV producers of our time, the streaming service not only secures more content for itself, but also denies its network rivals access to two content factories.

The broadcast and cable networks must be looking at Netfilx’s open checkbook and wondering how they can compete for talent.  They see tentpole shows like “The Crown,” “Stranger Things” and the Dave Chappelle specials — which don’t come cheap, but which have become the closest thing we have to must-see TV now that “Game of Thrones” is off the air for a year.

Essential to Netflix’s strategy: not just those massive hits, but also aggressively micro-targeting a vast spectrum of the television audience.  Some Netflix shows are aimed at my mother and others at my son.  There are gay shows, Hispanic shows, African-American shows, rural shows and sophisticated urban shows.  And most of them are probably not that expensive to produce.

This micro-targeting ends the tyranny of the 18-49 demographic, thank God.  As far as Netflix is concerned, an 85-year-old subscriber on Social Security is as valuable as a 33-year-old investment banker.  That’s how we get hit shows like “Grace and Frankie.”

Micro-targeting also makes everyone feel they have a place in the television universe. Because Netflix holds up a mirror to all but the tiniest identity groups, no young members of a minority community will be able to complain in the future that when they were growing up they never saw anyone like themselves on TV.

If I were a TV executive, I wouldn’t be worried about Netflix’s hit shows, but about the “good enough” shows that emerge from this micro-targeting.  The high-quality, appointment TV shows on network and cable can hold their own against Netflix.  It’s mediocre TV that seems most threatened in the long run.

Even in this era of peak TV, some people just turn on the TV to see what’s on and work that remote until they find something that catches their eye.  But channel surfing is what Netflix is all about.  The company doesn’t advertise specific shows, relying instead on its algorithm to promote a show specifically chosen for you on its home screen. If that show doesn’t appeal to you, then you can just start scrolling down the program list to see what they have to offer — a list designed specifically for you, with many “Because you watched XX, we think you might like YY” suggestions.

I’m not crazy about this system of content discovery, which creates a closed loop of viewing.  I recently watched the terrific British show “Lovesick,” about a group of single friends in London trying to sort out their romantic problems — and now I’m bombarded with recommendations for shows about other 30somethings who can’t find their way.  Watching one great series on a particular theme doesn’t mean I want to watch a half dozen so-so shows on the same theme.

lovesick-netflix

What I would really like is an easy-to-scan directory so I can find what I want on my own.  Netflix is such a bottomless pit of content that I don’t know what I don’t know.   And it’s only going to get worse. The new content keeps coming so fast that I feel like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory trying to keep up.

Having said all that, genre searching on Netflix is much more satisfying that channel-surfing on a traditional cable television service. Clicking up and down channels is mind-numbing, and chances are you’ll be joining a program that’s already in progress — fine if you’re catching an episode of “Seinfeld” that you’ve watched a dozen times, but not so great for a show you’ve never seen.

So congratulations to Netflix for creating two disruptive businesses: first, the mail order DVD company that put Blockbuster out of business, and then the streaming video enterprise that could well shut down some marginal broadcast and cable networks.  Keep it coming — but just find a better way to tell me how to find it.

This reminiscence about Pauline Kael appeared on November 7, 2011 on a now-defuct blogging platform and I am saving it here on WordPress.  It still holds up, though.

Pauline Kael

When I was in college, and in the years after that too, my friends and I would never go to a movie without asking, “What’s the Biblical interpretation?” This was our little joke of asking what Pauline Kael thought of it.

As the then-film critic of The New Yorker, Kael was the most powerful voice in film criticism, maybe the most important critic of all time, and we followed her religiously. To us she was the Bible and if she told us to go to a movie we certainly did.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when movies mattered a lot. No person with cultural pretentions could afford not to have an opinion on the latest offerings from Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. We would go to 40-50 movies a year, and some might be terrible, some might be great, but regardless, they made us feel more alive and more in tune with our inner selves.

This period of youthful cinematic exuberance has been vividly brought to mind by the recent revival of Pauline Kael, through the publication of her biography “Pauline Kael: A Life at the Movies” by Brian Kellow, and the Library of America’s decision to issue a volume of her film writings, “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael.” All of a sudden, after years of barely hearing her name, here she is again, all over the place – in every newspaper, magazine or NPR program, with critics and reviewers using the biography as a jumping off point to testify about what she meant to them.

And she meant a lot to a lot of people. She attracted fervent admirers, who became known as “Paulettes.” These acolytes were almost all men and aspiring critics themselves who orbited and basked in her reflected glow. James Wolcott, David Denby, and others in this gang doted on her every word and loudly amplified her opinions.

She was one of those writers who made you feel smart just by reading her. I didn’t always understand what she was trying to say and I didn’t always like some of the movies she championed, but I always felt she was making me more thoughtful and intellectually curious. She could be exasperating, abstruse, hectoring and sometimes clearly off her rocker, but always passionate, intense and intelligent. And I was entranced by her. I didn’t know at the time there were Paulettes, but if I had been, I would have signed up.

Kael was lucky that she reached the height of her critical powers when she did. If she had been a major critic in the 1950’s, she would have gone crazy trying to analyze mainstream movies. But by the time she joined The New Yorker, movies had become a cutting edge art form and the American cinema had begun to produce a flood of innovative and challenging films.

In 1967 she published one of the most important essays in film history – a 6,000 word consideration of the movie Bonnie and Clyde. This was her first major piece for The New Yorker and it essentially saved the movie, which had opened to dismal reviews from more staid critics. The essay caused such a sensation that Warner Bros. reissued the movie and this time around it became a major hit.

The essay created a new way of looking at movies – a more visceral, personal and intellectual way. And it became the intellectual foundation for an American “New Wave” of cinema. It’s important to remember that when “Bonnie and Clyde” came out, American film was still dominated by family musicals like “The Sound of Music,” Hollywood spectacles like “Ben Hur,” old fashioned westerns, silly comedies, and high-minded (but boring) dramas like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The counterculture that had begun to change the country was not yet apparent on the big screen.

Kael saw that “Bonnie and Clyde” was the beginning of new American film sensibility. It was violent, cynical and amoral. As it happens just two months ago I strong-armed my son into watching it with me, and I can report that it’s still a disturbing but invigorating movie. The protagonists are both pitiless killers and existential heroes at a time when society itself was pitiless towards the common man (the action, of course, takes place during the depth of the Depression.) The film-making itself is vaguely experimental with clear references to the French New Wave that had hit European cinema a decade earlier.

Kael not only championed a new type of movie, she was a new type of critic. At a time when most critics spoke with a “voice of God” authority, her reviews were relentlessly personal, peppered with opinions in the second person voice (i.e., “you feel that …”) and the third personal plural (“we respond to this by…”). They are also filled with sweeping statements, idiosyncratic opinions and long undiagramable sentences that would make Henry James proud. Consider the first paragraph of her essay on “Bonnie and Clyde”:

  “Bonnie and Clyde” is the most excitingly American American movie since “The Manchurian Candidate.” The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours. When an American movie is contemporary in feeling, like this one, it makes a different kind of contact with an American audience from the kind that is made by European films, however contemporary. Yet any movie that is contemporary in feeling is likely to go further than other movies—go too far for some tastes—and “Bonnie and Clyde” divides audiences, as “The Manchurian Candidate” did, and it is being jumped on almost as hard. Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it.

Even now, I don’t understand exactly what’s she saying, but I can feel it, like you feel modern art or experimental jazz. I don’t really know what an “excitingly American American movie” is but I do have sense of what she’s trying to convey.

After “Bonnie and Clyde” came other great movies and other great reviews. She couldn’t stand ponderous message films or pretension of any kind (think “Dances with Wolves”, “Gandhi” or the kind of movies that were always up for Oscars.) What she did love were genre films that were true to themselves, movies that others might have considered trashy. Hardcore westerns, crime thrillers and sharp comedies.

She was dismissive of the “auteur theory” propounded by Andrew Sarris, which argued that the director was the author of a film and that the greatest auteurs were the ones who had the most distinctive visual and thematic styles (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, etc.) She argued that a great director was someone who made great movies, even if his films didn’t look alike and were not outwardly the product of the same filmmaker.

Yet if she rejected the auteur theory, she loved her auteurs. She played favorites like no other critic. She seemed to love everything from Brian DePalma, Robert Altman, and Sam Peckinpah – even work that was obviously garbage. But for some reason, she didn’t like Stanley Kubrick – not even “2001,” which she thought was ponderous. And she couldn’t stand Clint Eastwood, claiming that “Dirty Harry” was fascist.

But for all her faults, Pauline Kael truly loved the movies. “Loved” almost in the way you love another human being. The critic David Thomson described sitting next to her once at a screening (see http://bit.ly/vvq20h) and finding her own performance more compelling than what was on the screen. It was a film by Brian De Palma and she was twitching around, making noises and responding almost physically to the celluloid. As Thomson describes it, “the noises she was making — the tiny hedgehog squeaks and raptures — were part of a nearly writhing rapport with the film up there on the screen. She was in love with it. She was, nearly, making love to it.” No wonder she had such sexually suggestive titles for her books: “I Lost it at the Movies,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Reeling,” “When the Lights Go Down,” etc.

The Kellow biography makes it clear why she was in love with the movies – because her personal life stunk and film was an escape. With the publication of this biography it is probable that Pauline Kael will become a case study for motivational speakers. She had a daughter by a cad who refused to support her or the daughter. The daughter needed an operation that she couldn’t afford, so she married another man long enough to get the operation paid for. (Sounds a little bit like “Mildred Pierce.”)

Meanwhile success came hard and it took a long time. She estimated that she wrote a million words, unpaid, for revival theatre newsletters, radio stations and other small publications before she ever earned a dime for her work. She slowly gained a reputation as intelligent critic and then finally got the New Yorker job at age 48. Years and years of writing movie reviews, just for the love of it and then she was the most powerful critic in the country – that’s an inspirational story.

She retired from the New Yorker in 1991, just in the nick of time. The period of cinematic excellence that she presided over had begun to fade as early as the late seventies, with the first blockbusters from Stephen Spielberg and George Lukas (e.g., “Jaws” and “Star Wars.”) Movies started to matter less, as the audience grew younger and studios could make more money on “franchises,” remakes, and gross-out comedies.

The hunger for intelligent movies still exists – indeed, just last weekend I went to see “Margin Call” at a packed theatre in Norwalk CT – but the big money is elsewhere. If Kael were alive today (she died in 2001) it’s hard to imagine her finding a contemporary film worthy of a 6,000 word essay.

Movies are no longer our culture’s dominant art form — that would be television, in an era of “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” TV is not as highly regarded as it should be because it doesn’t have an advocate as passionate and intelligent as Pauline Kael. She would probably reject the premise that TV could ever rival film as an art form, because movie-going involves a dark theatre, a huge screen, and a communal experience. Or maybe not. But what I miss is having the chance to hear her make the argument either way.