Of Some Concern

Of Some Concern

“Be afraid.  Be VERY afraid.”

I’m quoting Geena Davis in David Cronenberg’s 1986 fim, The Fly, but the phrase has come to express humorous pandering to aficionados of tales of horror and suspense in film.  Like the ubiquitous, “In a World …”, the phrase used in trailers by basso voice actor Don La Fontaine, a few words summon the delicious anticipation of fear and relief.  

Why do we pay good money to be frightened?  Who waits in line to ride the “Ferris Wheel of Misfortune” or the “Tehran Neck Cracker”  The Chinese and Irananians apparently.  But here at home, at California’s Magic Mountain, the “X2”, the world’s first four dimension roller coaster, built at a cost of 45 million dollars, if not for the pandemic would be sending merrily screaming patrons into the fourth dimension, beginning with the slow ascent to the ride’s starting point 20 stories above ground.  Then, 3,610 feet later, reunited with Earth, the survivors would likely line up to do it again.  In this case, terror does not come cheap; admission to the Six Flags Park runs about $92.00.

Delicious terror it seems serves some deeply ingrained need in the human psyche.  I’m pretty sure none of my dogs would have paid a biscuit to be hauled 200 feet in the air, then dropped like a rock.  We’re animals too, I know, but something in our highly evolved state appears to need an adrenaline infusion from time to time.

Today’s sermon, however, has to do with the unique circumstance of life that meets me this morning.  In the U.S., we are living the two of the most popular tropes in film history: The Disaster Film, which includes the Dystopian Disease genre, and The Very Scary Crazy Government Film, including the Evil President genre.

Hollywood, usually way out in front in depicting nasty events about to land in our backyard, completely missed the Access Hollywood bus on this one.  I’m not aware of a pandemic dystopia coupled with a rogue despot, but there’s one right outside my door.  

Actually, just to press the point a bit more forcefully, we are living in three separate and equally horrifying proto-disasters:

The Covid-19 virus has just done what viruses do – come up with a mutant strain that is more contagious  That’s the sort of wrinkle even the impressive array of viral outbreak films avoid.  Rabid, 12 Monkeys, Outbreak, 28 Days Later, and Plague brought bad news, especially as it is now clear that both vampires and zombies are the result of viral infection, but none of the zombies, for example, mutated so that a shotgun blast to the brain no longer put them away.

Incredibly, the pandemic has numbed us to the now brutally obvious current climatelogical and meteorological disasters already in motion.  I live in the Pacific Northwest where climate has changed, drought is an issue, and fire is a constant threat.  So, when I step back from the other immediately outrageous crises hitting the headlines, I do think about climate change.  As I step into a meadow and hear no bird song, yes, I remember that biodiversity as already been mangled.  Deforestation?  All around me.  Polluted water isn’t an immediate issue for me, yet, but there’s no reason to believe that it’s not around the corner.

Just to tie all of this together, epidemiologosts and climatologists both point to poor governance as the most pressing danger right now.

When President Trump was elected, John Mulaney suggested that the proper analogy was that of a horse in a hospital.  That was then, when many of us expected an impulsive self-obsessed celebrity to do considerable damage to the agencies of government, and from the start, the horse blundered its way through the safeguards designed to keep a nation on course.  Hollywood loves the bumbling president trope; it used to seem amusing.  The president-might-be-crazy-evil trope is less common and pretty scary, as the nasty career of President Francis Underwood revealed in House of Cards.

Ok, let’s amp things up just a bit more.  Let’s say the rogue president cannot be controlled, and in his self-promotion attracts a constellation of followers, some of whom are armed to the teeth and more than ready to resort to violence in order to reclaim a nation the president has assured them has been stolen.  Let’s say the promise of inclusion, progress, and democracy actually had a foundation of sand, and that race and religion coalesce in righteous anger.  Let’s say a nation devolves into a battle of competing realities. Let’s say that blood may well be spilled as the new president is inaugurated.

In this world, it is entirely appropriate to be afraid, very afraid.

2020 We’re Ready To Move On – Part I

2020 We’re Ready To Move On – Part I

… be forgot and never brought to mind?

It’s not over yet.  The pandemic is surging, half the nation believes an election has been stolen, and the Gaslighter General is still rousing his troops to combat.

My hope is to noodle through an amusing retrospective of a year that will surely go down in infamy. Could it have been worse?  Of course, because the capacity for human folly appears to have undergone a growth spurt geometric in its expansion. That said, there is still time for reflection before the next wave of ignomony breaks on the icy shores. What the hell; might as well attempt a jolly wrap up. I don’t have many arrows in my quiver; pretty much only outrage and whimsy at this point, poor bedfellows, but that’s what’s in the tank, so leaving outrage for another day (and there will no doubt be other days clamoring for outrage), let’s hopscotch through the past with a whimsical salute to the year that every dystopian novel in the last decade had promised us.

January – 

Let’s skip the enormously significant and regrettable events of the first month of the year (Wuhan, Impeachment, Justin Beiber and Lyme Disease) to concentrate on some good news.

Books published in 1924 entered the public domain in January of 2020.  There’s lots of reasons to celebrate the arrival of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, My Further Dissilusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman, and A Passage to India  by E.M. Forester.  Forster’s novel is included in the top 100 novels in English, and Forster himself was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature twelve times without a win, a fairly useless distinction to mention as Gaston Ramon was nominated 155 times for the prize in physiology or medicine without a nod from the committee. In this year of slap-dash political tomfoolery and name-calling, Emma Goldman deserves a shout-out as an actual anarchist, so, way to go, Emma!

The big news for those of us in the know, however, is that Edgar Rice Burrough’s most riveting novel, Tarzan and the Ant Men is now in the public domain, an adventure which if properly filmed could move Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson to the highest level of cinematic royalty, and restore Tarzan to his proper ascendency in the cinematic stratosphere. Time does not permit a detailed exposition of the plot, but be assured the King of the Jungle does experience some shrinkage. I may be among the very few who lament the gradual decline in production of Tarzanic epics, but a quick review of the most gripping titles should amp up interest in bringing the Ant Men to the screen.  Here’s a small array of films lingering somewhere in the memorysphere:

1927 – Tarzan and the Golden Lion, in which the Tarzan and the lion team up

1929 – Tarzan the Tiger, in which Arabs destroy Tarzan’s estate and Jane is sold into slavery

1934 – Tarzan and his Mate, in which Jane is captured by ivory hunters

1939 – Tarzan Finds a Son, the first of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzans finds a child in a plane crash whom he raises with Jane, played by Maureen O’Sullivan. In a moment of inspiration, they name the child, Boy.

1942 – Tarzan’s New York Adventure, in which Tarzan hits the Big Apple to rescue Boy who has been kidnapped

1945 – Tarzan and the Amazons, in which Boy is tricked into revealing the hidden valley in which dwell the Amazon women

1946 – Tarzan and the Leopard Women, in which Tarzan meets the fiendish high priestess of the cult of Leopard worshippers

1948 – Tarzan and the Mermaids, in which Tarzan catches a mermaid in his fishing net and saves her from the pagan gods of Aquatania

1953 – Tarzan and the She-Devil, by this time Lex Barker had assumed the Jungle King’s loincloth in three earlier epics and now finds himself rescuing Jane again

1962 – Tarzan Goes to India, in which Tarzan, now played by Jock Mahoney, is summoned to India by a dying maharajah. The less said about Jock Mahoney the better.

1970 – Tarzan’s Deadly Silence, in which Tarzan loses his hearing. Get it? Silence?

1984 – Greystoke, with Christopher Lambert (Highlander) and Andie McDowell, in which Tarzan discovers that life as a lord is different from life as the King of the Jungle

1999 – Tarzan, the Disney version, made for about 120 million dollars, essentially the basic Tarzan story with music by Phil Collins (Acacdemy Award for “You’ll Be In My Heart”), and source of several adaptations, including a Broadway show and animated sequel, Tarzan II: The Legend Begins (2005), in which toddler Tarzan discovers the meaning of family

The Ant Men await, people.  Let’s get ON this!

February –

Lots to remember here: Covid 19’s casualties swept past those caused by Sars-covid-2, Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape, Roger Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison for witness tampering (since pardoned).  The Senate voted to acquit the President of abuse of power and obstruction of justice.  Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders both won the Iowa Caucus. Oh, and the Boy Scouts also declared Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.  From 2015 -2018 the Scouts had paid out more than 12 million dollars in legal fees and faced hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits in civil litigation, all of which were suspended with the filing of bankruptcy.  

So, what claims top spot in this idiosyncratic romp through February, 2020?  

Obviously, MEGXIT, the decision made by the Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, to remove themselves from the duties, obligations, and perquisites of royalty.  

There are so many chunky bits to this story that the chronicler may have to play fast and loose with fact and conjecture.  Let’s begin with recognizing that there was no Duke of Sussex until Harry married Meghan.  The title was created in 1801 to toss a little sunshine on the various marriages of Prince Augustus Frederick who twice contravened the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.  When A.G. died in 1842, the title was vacated.

We who live without a royal family can hardly imagine the complexities of royal succession, although Netflix’s quasi-historical account of the reign of Elizabeth II, The Crown, has helped put a human face on the inner circle in Buckingham Palace.  Successionary flaps were grim enough in 1772 to force George III (of Hamilton fame) to ask Parliament to help him deal with family issues that had gone haywire.  There is some conjecture that George was monumentally honked off because he had not been allowed to marry the women after whom he had hankered, Lady Sarah Lennox and Princess Sophie Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel.  One has to wonder what acronym might meet the challenge of the Wolfenbuttel exit.

George III met his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz on their wedding day.  The marriage turned out to be a hit; George was devoted to Charlotte, had fifteen children with her, and built Buckingham Palace as a cosy home for her near the Court of St. James.  His younger brothers, however, followed their hearts/loins and married women beneath their station and with pasts that were slightly checkered.  Succession became iffish with each iffy marriage, so Parliament essentially decreed that one’s place in the line of succession depends on having permission to marry the person you marry.  Oh, no surprise, one was also bumped out of line if marrying a Roman Catholic.

To bring things up to date, the Royal Marriages Act was repealed in the 2011 Perth Agreement, and the rules of succession established by the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, which essentially decreed that the first six in line had to get permission to marry in order to stay in the queue.  Charles, Prince of Wales, and first in line, eventually married Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, with permission from the Queen, Tony Blair, and the Bishop of Canterbury despite a firestorm of controversy, and so he remains first in line should the Queen resign or die.  Harry was sixth in line until …

Harry and Meghan.  Holy Cow!  

We went nuts as a nation when Grace Kelly, daughter of an Olympic rower and millionaire czar of a bricklaying and construction empire, married Prince Ranier of Monaco.  Let’s be honest, we had no idea where Monaco was; it sounded like Fredonia, one of the nations the Marx Brothers invaded.  But still, a Prince!  There were others who married royals, some more royal than others, including Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, Caroline Lee Bouvier, Princess Caroline Lee Radziwill of Poland, Hope Cook, Queen of Sikkim, and Lisa Halaby who played ice hockey at Princeton before becoming Queen Noor of Jordan.  Fun fact: all three attended Chapin School in New York City at some point in their educational careers.  Olivia Wilde (Andover) was married in a schoolbus to Prince Tao Ruspoli a family so notably aristocratic that even though the Papacy absorbed its authority, every Ruspoli male child has been a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire since the 13thy Century.

Yeah, but, Meghan Markle, television celebrity and beauty, feminist, considered too “racially ambivalent” to play major roles until cast in Suits!  And Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor!  The anticipation of royal apoplexy was delicious, but, and here conjecture runs wild, the garish and complicated melt-down surrounding Diana Princess of Wales, the end of her marriage, and her death made the ordinary stiffness of upper lips give way to somewhat softened lips, or whatever.

Fairy Tale princesses live happily ever after in castles.  It’s likely the Mountbatten-Windsors, however, will shack up in Santa Barbara, no longer feeding at the royal trough, but carving out a day-to-day existence on whatever they are able to earn as just common, everyday, working folks.

March-

Not even going to mention pandemic, plague, death, and world-wide tragedy.

In March, Netflix released Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, identified as an  LGBTQ Documentary, a cultural phenomenon attracting more than 30 MILLION viewers in the first ten days.  There is so much to say about Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin, about the tiger trade, about large cats in captivity, about sleazy animal parks and sleazy animal park owners, about the loyalty of a transgendered veteran who bore no ill will toward the tiger that took off his arm, about Doc Antle’s teen interns, but in the end, the experience of watching the doc from beginning to end was like eating a six pound bag of Chex Mix Muddy Buddy peanut butter, chocolate chip, marshmallow, M&Ms, powdered sugar, and butter with of a quart of buffalo chicken dip and Fritos – intriguing, compelling, inescapable, and more, much more, than a human should ingest without permanent injury.

30 million of us jumped right into what could be called a shared nightmare, one in which the central character who describes himself as “a gay gun carrying redneck with a mullet” plays himself in part and himself decompensating before our eyes.  Joseph Allen Maldonando- Passage (Schreibvogel) is reputed to have had as many as 176 tigers, cubs and adults, in the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park along with assorted other exotics, lions, bears, alligators, snakes, and tiligers. This captor of wild things is also a former chief of police, and candidate for Governor of Oklahoma as well as Libertarian candidate for the Presidency, an aspiration that may not seem quite so unlikely in these troubled times.  Joe is also a curious blend of entertainer/charlatan, author of a number of music videos that are simultaneously plagiarized delirium and retrospective pop masterworks, featuring Joe “performing” music he has lifted without attribution from other artists.  

Several episodes feature Joe’s misogynous feud with Carol Baskin, a self-proclaimed animal rights activist and CEO of Big Cats Rescue near Tampa, Florida.  Joe’s animus toward Baskin features prominently in the deterioration of his mental state, sliding from contempt to the conviction that she fed her second husband to tigers, to the single-minded determination to have her killed.  There was more than enough backstory to Baskin’s cat kingdom without the purported murder and midnight feeding.  This a woman who moved from the breeding of show cats to rescuing bobcats, a woman whose landscaping business made use of llamas in trimming grass.  Baskin’s signature fashion choices involving animal prints (my fave? The leopard print top and tiger striped socks) would in any other season have brought thousands of trick and treaters decked out in cheetah print mumus and floral crown to the streets on Halloween.  Those whose fascination with Carol was unabated quoted her endlessly (“Hey, all you cool cats and kittens”) as she danced her way to a third episode flameout on Dancing With The Stars.

Would Tiger King have arrived with such a clatter had we not been in lockdown and only starting to realize that life as we knew it might never return?  We’ll never know, but the sticky guilt of my immersion in Joe Exotic’s fall from notoriety to madness still haunts me every time I open Netflix and see him kneeling next to a magnificent tiger.

April –

Not a lot of giggles in April as the pandemic picked up momentum.  Lenox Hill, the extraordinary Netflix series documenting the impact of Covid -19 on a hard-pressed New York City hospital would appear at the end of May, but the scale of the surge in April and of the challenge in meeting the crisis is a sobering reminder of the grim reality of death in New York at start of the month..

On a lighter note, and there really is no lighter note, the bunker months brought socially isolated viewers into streaming application nirvana.  Binging brought a number of films and programs into the national conversation.  Netflix, which claims 31% of streaming time, 6% of all televiosed viewing, reckons that based on an average of about 71 minutes of viewing , the global tally is 150 million hours per day, the equivalent of 18,812 years.  What did we watch?  A quick look at the top ten shows for 2020 reveals something of the range of programing available during the 150 million hours each day.  

From my small corner of the netscape, it seemed the most obvious big winners would be Tiger King and Queen’s Gambit, and they are in the top five, but the most watched show on Netflix (and on Youtube) is Cocomelon, the 3D animation of kids’ music.  I can’t think of another phenomenon to match Cocomelon’s growth from a million subscribers in May of 2016 to a hundred million by the end of the year.  In the plague years, any relief given parents at home with small children is genuinely necessary, so a tip of the fin to Baby Shark and the Yes, Yes Vegetables song.

April –

Vegetables aside, what diversion remained for those not charmed by a chess playing savant?  Well, sports pretty much disappeared to resurface, kind of,  in the fall.  What’s an aficionado of heavy impact, full frontal violence to do in these grim days?

No deadly plague could stop the WWE from presenting Wrestlemania XXXVI – “TOO BIG FOR JUST ONE NIGHT!”

Nobody asked, but the emergence of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) as the provider of top dollar pay-per-view wrestling is a tangled tale, perhaps of little interest to the casual wrestling enthusiast, but then, there are no casual wrestling enthusiasts.  Those of us who came of age in the golden age of professional wrestling, Boomers who saw Argentina Rocca mix it up with Buddy Rogers for the World Wide Wrestling Federation Championship in Madison Square Garden, look back with slightly bruised affection at the theater in the ring we thought was absolutely legit.  Professional wrestling had sprung from grappling sideshow exhibitions during the time that Jack Dempsey was knocking opponents out in the second round and Babe Ruth was swatting homeruns.  Very few spectators wanted to watch grunting sweating men roll around on top of each other for eight or ten rounds ending in a draw, and so, the promoters and wrestlers began scripting and choreographing matches.  Until fairly recently, however, those who ended up in the ring had actually trained as wrestlers.  

Lou Thesz, Vern Gagne, Fred Blassie, the Graham brothers, Walden “Killer” Kowalski, Dick The Bruiser, Rocca, and Sammartino, even preening flamboyant Gorgeous George were all actually wrestlers, a legacy that for the most part continued into the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, with a few notable exceptions.  Wahoo McDaniels played professional football, Haystacks Calhoun was 601 pounds of untrained performer.  Andre the Giant, however, who tipped the Toledos at 540 pounds in the 1980’s and lumbered into the ring at 7’4”, had been wrestling since the age of 18.

Televised wrestling was largely promoted by Vince McMahon, Sr, whose Capital Wrestling Corporation became the WWWF and then the WWF, the corporation directed by Vince McMahon, Jr. in the explosive era of expansion known as Wrestlemania, snatching Hulk Hogan from rival promoters in the American Wrestling Association and beginning the monopolization of professional wrestling culminating in the establishment of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).  The change of name signaled McMahon’s recognition that his performers were actors, some of whom, like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, had successful  careers outside the ring, but it also arrived as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) successfully sued McMahon for violation of that trademark.

 Whereas Boxing only intermittently draws huge numbers in the pay-per-view arena, the WWE churns out star-studded extravaganzas that regularly draw loyal audiences.  The 36th iteration of Wrestlemania, filmed without spectators, was sold as two separate shows, coupled as a package deal.  On the first night in the boneyard, The Undertaker defeated AJ Styles in the main event; on the second, Drew McIntyre knocked off Brock Lesnar, but the real fireworks arrived as Bray “The Fiend” Wyatt defeated popular film star and former body builder, John Cena.  The Fiend, whose 285 pounds of unchiseled flesh sags notably in comparison to Cena’s sleek physique, was born Windham Lawrence Rotunda, one of several Rotundas in the ring.

Former New England Patriot and part-time wrestler Rob Gronkowski hosted the event which was pre-recorded in several venues.  Wrestlemania 35 generated more than 165 million dollars and generated about 50,000 hotel bookings.  Covid-19 Wrestlemania pulled in about 25 million from pay-per-view, merchandising, and income from other shows, and did not bring the anticipated hotel bookings to Tampa.

May –

Too grim not to remember: George Floyd was killed by police responding to a “forgery in process” call.  Derek Cahuvan knelt on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and fifteen seconds; Floyd stopped moving after four minutes.  Protests across the nation demonstrate wide support for the Black Lives Matter movement and growing reaction from the right, referring to protesters as Antifa anarchists. 

Scrambling to identify any lightness of tone is increasingly challenging, but there were two notable personalities who kicked up some dust in May, raising the sorts of questions that used to matter greatly before we started dying by the hundreds of thousands. Celebrity allows no relief from public scrutiny, but in these cases, the celebrities themselves tripped the alarm. 

Before introducing the celebrities, I will again indulge whimsical conjecture.  If those who are celebrated are celebrities and those who are nominated are nominees, what words then apply to those who are venerated, or castigated, or  mutilated, or generated.  The Italian terms castrati apply to those castrated to maintain a soprano or contralto voice, but would we use the term placati for those who are placated? Is Elvis, who according to legend died at the stool, a constipato? 

OK, moving on.

May was some month for Elon Musk, whose monthly output of controversy is impressive.  From his bully pulpit, he tweeted his intention to move Tesla production from California as the state passed measures to restrict the operation of his factories in response to the spreading of Covid-19 across the state.  Musk sued the state and moved to Texas.  The larger story, however, had to do with California’s reluctance to accept A AE A-12 as the name appearing on Musk and the musician Grimes’ newborn child.  Pronounced EX ASH A Twelve,  the name represents “Unknown variable, Artificial Intelligence/love and the couple’s favorite aircraft.”

OK, nobody’s business but theirs, sort of.  Stretching here to find anything to deflect the growing conviction that the next months will likely bring more pain. The obvious next step is to remember the many “inventive” names other celebrities have foisted on their children, beginning of course with the Zappa clan: Moon Unit, Dweezil, and Diva Thin Muffin.  Ed Sheerean’s daughter lucked out with Lyra Antarctica; Gwen Stefani’s kid – Zuma Nesta Rock perhaps less well.  Alicia Silverstone?  Bear Blu.  Kate Winsklet?  Bear Blaze.  Zooey Desschanel tucks in Elsie Otter.  There are a host of other unusual names – Gravity, Pilot Inspektor, Raddix, Exton, Buddy Bear.  Nick Cannon and Mariah Carey named a child Moroccan, but unexpectedly it’s calm and grounded Nicholas Cage who dubbed his kid Kal-El, summoning the persona of Krypton’s favorite ex-pat, the infant who would become Superbaby, Clark Kent, Superboy, and Superman.

And the madness comes full circle as Cage is tapped to play Joe Exotic, the Tiger King.

June –

June was not bustin’ out all over because Covid-19 was still doing the bustin’.  Generally and specifically damage continued apace in a nation on the verge of implosion.  No way I catalog the thousands of tweets from the edge of the Phantom World, each of which has been cauterized on my soul but in desperation, I can mildly comment on one diversion that debuted in June, 2020.

The Bachelor: Greatest Season Ever! 

One hardly knows where to begin.  Let’s start with Mike Fliess, from whose fecund imagination a number of noteworthy enterprises have sprung, including The Bachelor, all three versions of Hostel and two Chainsaw Massacre remakes.  

Fliess first hit it big with Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?, essentially a beauty pageant ending in a marriage, enormously popular and all set to become part of the Fox lineup until it was discovered that the multimillionaire wasn’t all that millionairish (the toilet in his backyard may have given a clue) and that a charge of domestic violence had brought him a restraining order rather than a million bucks.  Marriage annulled.  Former bride posing in Playboy.  Series cancelled, Fliess bounced back with his pitch for The Bachelor, essentially the same basic premise, substituting hot tubs for the swimsuit competition.  

The second iteration in 2003 was a home run, of course, spawning the near-neighbors: The Bachelorette, The Bachelor Canada, Bachelor In Paradise, Bachelor Pad, Bachelor in Paradise:  After Paradise, The Bachelor Winter Games, The Bachelor Presents: Listen To Your Heart. 

What Hath Fliess Wrought?  Well, a number of imitators, his own restraining orders after being charged with harrassing the stars of Baywatch and threatening his own wife if she failed to get an abortion. He’s got more than a hundred million bucks stacked up, however, so i9f you want to marry a multimillionaire … I’m just saying.

Bachelor offspring and wannabe spawn: Love is Blind, The Circle, Dating Around, Love Island, 90 Day Fiancee (OK, this one is worth its own article – coming soon!), Married at First Sight, Siesta Key, Temptation Island, Ex On The Beach, and my holiday favorite, The Twelve Dates of Christmas.  

Those of us whom have wandered into the lovescape and have wondered at the odd precision with which drama erupts on a weekly basis have only one other less guilty, fairly brilliant place to land – Unreal, the scripted and often remarkably true to form “drama”: series presenting the underside of a reality series entitled Everlasting.  Inspired by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film, Sequin Raze, the pilot was write by Shapiro, who had broken into the field with High School Reunion before becoming a producer of The Bachelor, and Marti Noxon, who wrote some of the most interesting episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was a consulting producer on Mad Men, and creator of HBO’s Sharp Objects.  

Reality itself has become a Mobius striptease as we languish in social distance, as all the “real” housewives demonstrate.  I’m not lingering in the check out lines of grocery stores these days, so I have no idea what sorts of Reality/reality crossover is screaming from the tabloids next to the gum and candy.  

That’s more than enough to contend with in one shot, so Part II of the Year that God Forgot will be appearing soon on a Cogitator near you!

Behind the scenes …

Behind the scenes …

Looking back is always a bit dicey, and having come through the year we’ve just endured, the first instinct is not to open the treasure trove of memory.  In my case. However, I do have a string of indelible experiences that I’m pretty sure fall outside the range of the ordinary.

For a number of years I was entrusted with the task of bringing a wide range of intellectual, cultural, artistic, and spiritually uplifting speakers and performers to a weekly convocation of faculty and students at a small but highly esteemed boarding school nestled atop a mesa near Santa Barbara, California, its back to a national forest, its gaze down and out at some of the most highly prized surfing spots on the Pacific coastline.  It’s a splendid location and one that speakers, performers and spiritual pilgrims find edifying; it’s also within twenty minutes of a major university and ninety minutes from Los Angeles.  Who couldn’t book the best in a situation such as that?

Who couldn’t?  

The range of successful performances ran from gospel choirs to neuro surgeons, from film stars to recovered gang bangers.  Leonard Cohen’s backing singer? Hallelujah!  David Crosby?  Sure.  Russian jugglers?  Da.  Nationally celebrated storytellers?  By the dozen. 

Irish harpist?  Paralyzed hockey player? Canadian folk musicians?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Major triumph?  No doubt – The Regurgitator!  If you have never seen Stevie Starr swallow a pool ball, razor blades, sets of keys, padlocks, and virtually anything else you toss at him, check out any of the several videos posted on Youtube. The following is but one short snippet  of Starr’s extraordinary “talent”.

I booked him before he hit the big time, when he was just startingt out, so he and his manager cut me a break so that I could afford to bring him back once every three or four years.  Students who might otherwise have regretted my quirky convocation choices now share the privilege of watching The Regurgitator up close, and occasionally all too personal.  I alone had the greater  privilege of dining with Stevie.  I had to book a table at IHOP in order to allow him to enjoy his favorite/only meal- sausages and bacon.  I did get to see him pull one of his prize stunts on a waitress, however, as he threw back an entire shaker of sugar, drank a glass of water, and brought the sugar up -dry – in the waitress’ hand.

I’ve written elsewhere of some unfortunate convocations, one of which involved a faculty member’s taking the stage when a performer had not arrived, delivering twenty minutes of inappropriate and ill-conceived comedy before being dragged off the stage still barking at the audience. “WHO WANTS TO HEAR A DIRTY GHOST JOKE?  THAT’S THE (BLEEP) SPIRIT”.  Another excruciating half hour was spent held hostage by a formerly talented performer who abandoned his craft in order to assume the persona of The Standup Chameleon. One might think there would be some wit and whimsy in this transformation, but one would be painfully mistaken.  The Chameleon turned out to be a fiftyish fella with a thick New Hampshire accent, dressed in a unitard festooned with hand-drawn portraits of domestic and exotic animals, who decided to teach a resolutely unwilling audience to perform a mind-numbing song while using American Sign Language to punctuate the important messages. 

I’m fine, really.  Breathing.  Breathing.  No Chameleon any more.  Find my happy place.

Those unfortunate incidents aside, my annual trial by fire took place as I welcomed a stage hypnotist to the school, opened up ninety minutes in the evening, and allowed him to unleash whatever mind monkeys he might be able to coax from formerly self-contained and highly effective students.  Stage hypnotists belong to a cohort of entertainers who travel widely presenting essentially the same show, year in, year out.  Most have taped some portions of their act, and all have references and reviews.  

Foolproof, right?

Three significant points to make about stage hypnosis:

  1.  It is absolutely the real deal – not fake.  When they’re out, they’re out!  A good hypnotist is able to do astonishing things.  
  2. You’ll learn astonishing things about people you thought you knew
  3. The mind is a complex landscape, and hypnosis is MUCH trickier than I had imagined.

I watched the tapes, read the reviews, and picked a hypnotist known as Ronny Romm, not the flashiest, kind of corny, but obviously skilled, and he worked with high school kids without getting smutty, as some of the flashier pros did.  I am a huge Ronny Romm fan, not only because he was an absolute hit every time I booked him, but because he was an absolute hit despite having a fairly serious speech impediment.  

There hadn’t been evidence of his stammering on the tapes, so I was on the edge of my seat as he began the act.  When inducing the hypnotic state, his pitch was, “Listen to my voice.  Only the sound of my voice”.  What came out, of course, was, “L-L-L-L-Listen t-t-to ma-ma-ma-ma- my vuh-vuh-vuh-voice.”  It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and the kids went under and stayed under for more than an hour.  

Huge success.

After his third appearance, I fiugured I had better offer a little variety, so  hired a hypnotist that performed at Disneyland.  Great tapes!  Disneyland!

Back to the three points.  There’s not much real agreement about what hypnotism actually is.  The range runs from “heightened suggestibility” to “hypnotic coma”.  I was in the suggestibility camp until I saw evidence of amnesia, then moved into coma territory when my Disney version of a hypnotist failed to notice a kid hit the deck hard.  When I pushed my way to the stage, the pro assured me that he’d have the young man back on his feet in no time.  Two hours later, the student was mildly responsive.  He spent the night in the infirmary and the next few weeks working back to fully comfortable in this universe.

So, the next time?

Here’s R-r-r-r-r-ronny R-r-r-r-r-r-omm!

Now, if you’d like to examine the entire line-up over the decade-and-a-half, I’d love to tell you about the Brazilian mime who convincingly transforms himself into a deer, or the Russian balalaika band, or the guy who juggles twenty balls at a time.