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Blanking Out with Jon Stewart

Remember the show about nothing? That was the tag for the popular 1990s comedy Seinfeld, which marked the rise of nihilism, the worship of the nothing, in American culture. This incessant sneering at values, any values, is rampant among what passes for today’s intellectuals: various leaders, artists, and politicians. Nihilism is everywhere, in cynical TV animated programs such as The Simpsons, South Park, and the defunct Beavis and Butthead and numerous live action examples in movies and television. From smart but cynical Seinfeld sprang smart but sniveling comedians, such as Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (with conservatives Denis Leary and Dennis Miller on the right), who routinely engage in and dominate what’s left of the nation’s political discourse. Appropriately, earlier this week, the nihilist-in-chief made an appearance (the first by a sitting president) on one of those shows, Stewart’s aptly nondescript Daily Show on Comedy Central. Just as appropriately, the twin nihilists, put-down artist paired with a put-down president, apparently talked for the duration of the program about nothing.

Now the nothing worshippers are having a rally about nothing, conveniently timed as a sort of counterstrike against those idealistic Tea Party activists who care deeply, passionately, and openly about America and have no shame in saying so. Messrs. Stewart and Colbert are planning a congregation in the nation’s capital to accomplish nothing. Presumably, their legions of fans, water cooler cynics from coast to coast, will follow like lemmings into the abyss. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, which tried desperately to make sense of the affair, the two jaded comedians are refusing to disclose details about Saturday’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” as they call it. According to an official description, it’s a rally near the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial “for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat.” Stewart told CNN’s Larry King last week: “This is not a political rally in any way, shape or form.”

Then what is it?

As indicated in the above quote, Stewart prefers to define the rally by what it is not, insisting that the rally for nothing is not intended as a response to Glenn Beck’s recent conservative rally in the same location or a rejection of the Tea Party movement. In an interview with NPR, Stewart said the rally is non-partisan and non-ideological. Last month, he told NPR: “I have no obligation to the Democrats or progressives or liberals or unions. We’re not warriors in their cause.” In fact, a Daily Show producer described the rally as a comedic call for calm, adding: “Right now we are banking a lot on the Great Pumpkin showing up.” A rally for nihilists in a city ruled, for now, by a nihilist Leonard Peikoff rightly calls America’s first New Left president? Whatever its outcome, Saturday’s rally represents the culmination of worshipping nothing, which is what millions if not most Americans have done for a long, long time. Unless Americans choose to go by reason instead of blanking out, many will be left with nothing at all. They can start by choosing to think, voting for gridlock and, for once, changing the channel.

TCM’s History of Hollywood: Peepshow Pioneers

Handbill - GTHE GREAT TRAIN ROEBBERYPeepshow Pioneers (1889-1910), the first part of Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, a seven-part series scheduled to premiere on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) at 8 pm (ET/PT) on Monday, Nov 1, is an exceptional piece of business history. Chronicling Hollywood by tracing its origins to the inventors, immigrants, Jews, salesmen and businessmen who were its creators, men such as Thomas Edison (who perfected a device called the Kinetoscope that made pictures move), Auguste and Louis Lumière, Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, Marcus Loew, Carl Laemmle, William Fox, the four Warner brothers, and others during the Industrial Revolution, this 60-minute documentary, narrated by Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music), takes the viewer back 100 years and introduces the exciting new art form that would change the world.

Peepshow Pioneers covers Edwin S. Porter’s film for Mr. Edison, The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the first films to tell a complete story, and how, in 1905, enterprising Zukor and Loew united to establish theaters to show movies, called Nickelodeons (combining the price of seeing a movie, a nickel, and the Greek term for theater). The prospective consumer was among the poor and the emergent middle class, a new phenomenon which American capitalism was creating for the first time in man’s history, not the titled, the intellectuals and the wealthy. Much like Pixar founder and Walt Disney board member Steve Jobs and Apple are revolutionizing personal technology, Mr. Edison built relationships with investors and manufacturers, including Eastman Kodak, establishing the Motion Picture Patents Company (which the government forced out of business) and demanding royalties from filmmakers. Some chose to compete with Mr. Edison, including Laemmle, who formed his own production company and created Universal Pictures.

This first installment of A History of Hollywood: Moguls and Movie Stars, written and produced by Jon Wilkman, who began his career making CBS News documentaries, working with Walter Cronkite and creating programs for HBO, NBC, and the History Channel, is appropriately reverential of, if not always sufficiently thorough about, Hollywood’s incredible history of capitalism, arts and entertainment. Using rare and never-before-seen footage, including an early film featuring gun-toting Annie Oakley and moving pictures of men departing for the Spanish-American War, and important places in filmmaking history, such as New Jersey, New York, and Pittsburgh, the writing and the pictures are astonishing. I haven’t been this excited about watching a larger-than-life story unfold on television since Alex Haley’s Roots. Among those interviewed are various film scholars, studio mogul descendants, and historians, including, in later parts, TCM host Robert Osborne.

Additionally, and underscoring the cable channel’s commitment to quality programming, TCM is currently touring a related exhibit which features unique memorabilia, including an Oscar for Casablanca, a costume worn by Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music (1965), a dress worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939), a red jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (1953), a vest and coat worn by Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921), an original bound script from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a signed check from MGM to John Gilbert, the highest paid star in the silent film era, a vintage camera from the silent film era and a demonstration of a zoetrope, a precursor to motion pictures. The TCM exhibit appears in Denver (Nov. 4-6, during Denver Film Festival) and San Francisco (Nov. 11-12) at the Embarcadero Center and concludes in Los Angeles (Nov. 18-20) at The Grove.

TV: Glee

Glee: The Complete First SeasonHalf-naked cheerleaders, electric guitars from nowhere, terrible jokes about the deaf, Nazis and O.J. Simpson, a stereotypically butch female athletic coach as a villain and themes about confidence, regret, and betrayal…the first season of Fox’s hit musical television show, Glee, is available on DVD and the show is a mashup of styles, songs, and classic stories. After hearing endlessly about this show, which I did not watch in first run, I can attest that Glee is irresistible. While there is plenty to improve upon, the one-hour dramatic musical comedy is humorous, thought-provoking, and poignant. The series is enormously entertaining.

Cashing in on its high school and musical predecessors, ABC’s Room 222, the movie and NBC series Fame, and Disney’s cable movie franchise, High School Musical, and many others in film and television, Glee is centrally the story of a white male authority figure named Will. Gussied up as an egalitarian band of misfits who join the Midwestern William McKinley High School’s glee club, complete with tokens of every politically correct type, it’s relatively wholesome, which is the key to its overwhelming success. Spanish teacher Will instructs the students, each of whom yearn to be treated as an individual. His shrill, shallow, low-down wife calls them “dancing delinquents” and their asinine relationship is the only thing that is pure fantasy in this otherwise reality-based show. With multiple soap opera storylines about true love, teen pregnancy, and budding sexuality, Glee casts a wide net and always roots itself in American middle class pop music.

It works wonderfully. With arena rock staple Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” at its heart and soul, an idealistic counterpoint to the vacant nihilism of HBO’s Sopranos, with its horrible take on the same triumphant song, the glee club travels from formation to the final episode’s competition with reverence for the ideal. The songs, performances, and dance routines are overproduced, overly structured, and they lack pathos at key intervals, but each episode expresses a positive view of life and, sometimes, something unusual to think about, such as envy of those of ability, racism against whites, and what it feels like for a girl, or to be gay, pregnant, or mentally or physically handicapped. Each student shines at his or her best, in clothes, lines, and melodies that capture the possibility, not just the pain, of youth. And not just the young. Will’s love interest with another member of the faculty is the most interesting part of the show and his ongoing power struggle with the masculine cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester, is the funniest. Whether riffing on the empowerment of music by Madonna, a heart-wrenching fantasy sequence to “The Safety Dance” (originally performed by Men Without Hats), or working in enjoyable appearances by Olivia Newton-John as herself, the musical approach is clean, honest and respectful.

Yet the playful Glee is unabashedly daring in its own way. In an age of cynicism, with sneering television personalities testifying before Congress, it takes courage and imagination to showcase tunes such as “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, “Heartbreak Beat” by the Psychedelic Furs, or “The Lady is a Tramp” to express the idea that the good is possible here on earth and one ought to pursue one’s goals if based on reality and do it with passion, drive, and integrity. Wiping off the cultural slime (or slush) that engulfs us, Glee is gleeful about all of that. Whether in Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” or Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity”, each performance is a step toward competition; an expression and a progression in revolving narratives of distinctively original characters. Every aspect of the production, including the cast, is excellent.

The premiere season DVD is a good product, if nothing sensational. As usual, extras without much substance appear on the box for marketing purposes, and much of the material is more fan-oriented than informative or entertaining. Bits include a video jukebox to play performance scenes, video diaries, tidbits, and features on fashion, choreography, and the final episode’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen) performance. Nothing lasts longer than 15 minutes and most are not worth watching twice, though some bonus bits are fun. On one feature, co-creator Ryan Murphy says he hopes the audience at least feels Glee‘s love for each song. After watching the first season, I do.

Memphis Beat

Jason Lee leads a new cable television drama, Memphis Beat, which premiered on Turner Network Television (TNT) earlier this week. Judging by next week’s episode, “Baby, Let’s Play House,” which I recently previewed, this one-hour series is middling but it has potential. Lee plays Dwight Hendricks, a police detective with roots in the city’s blues music scene, and he contends with a kid’s claim that his dad was kidnapped, a colorful partner, and an ex-girlfriend with whom he still has sex. It’s a lowdown affair. The problems mostly relate to a distinct lack of conflict and spotty directing of the talented cast. Juliette Lewis (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) guest stars as the kid’s mother and the episode I watched also features Celia Weston as Dwight’s mom in a thematically related subplot. The tie-in works well, thanks to series regular Alfre Woodard as the cop’s boss, but the show (created by West Virginia-native Joshua Harto) needs to punch up the crime, the stakes, and the performances (the ex-girlfriend character adds nothing). But the riff on Memphis as a convergence of interesting characters is in tune.

Korean War, Old Amusement Parks, and Norah Jones on PBS

Three summer programs on the government’s Public Broadcasting System (PBS) look interesting.

In Unforgettable: The Korean War, Korean War (1950-1953) veterans recount their memories of America in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when young Americans were drafted by the government and shipped off to defend South Korea as United Nations forces against the invading Red Army in the north. For three long years, Americans fought North Korea and Communist China to save South Korea. The men recall the “un-won” war that never ended, which the Truman administration did not even want to call a war (it was “the Korean conflict” or a “police action.”) Finally, it was called the Forgotten War (for more on the Korean War, read my book review of Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950 and my interview with its author, Martin Russ). PBS airs the program in the High-Definition (HD) format from 10 pm to 11 pm ET, Monday, June 21 (repeats 6/24/10, 10 pm to 11 pm ET).

PBS will re-broadcast a 1999 program, Great Old Amusement Parks, about the pre-Disney days before theme parks, when amusement parks were the places where families gathered for a cool escape on a hot summer day. Among the featured parks: Playland in Rye, New York, Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in northern California, where people can still ride the merry-go-round. The special also checks out some classic wooden rollercoasters and other rides (airs 8 pm to 9 pm ET on Wednesday, June 30). Later this summer, Soundstage features singer and pianist Norah Jones, whose debut album sold 18 million copies worldwide. This episode was filmed earlier this year at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City, with Ms. Jones performing a blend of covers, hits such as “Don’t Know Why” and “Come Away With Me,” and tracks from her newest album, The Fall (airs 10 pm to 11 pm ET, Thursday, July 1).