Wednesday, January 18, 2017

American Experience: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (WGBH Educational Foundation/PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a PBS American Experience broadcast on “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” which was actually filmed in 2009 (do they rerun this every time there’s a Presidential transition?) and written, produced and directed by Barak (no “c”) Goodman. I was worried that they’d try to remodel the history of the Lincoln assassination and pass John Wilkes Booth off as one lone nut, when in fact Lincoln was killed as part of a conspiracy by Confederate diehards hoping to achieve by decapitating the U.S. government what they had failed to win on the battlefields of the Civil War. Goodman’s program noted that in mid-August 1864 Lincoln was convinced he was going to lose his re-election campaign to Democratic nominee George McClellan, the bizarrely incompetent general who’d done his best (inadvertently) to lose the Civil War on the battlefield and was now running as a peace candidate — until the big campaigns of Generals Grant and Sherman in the south, and particularly Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on August 31, 1864, convinced Northern voters that the war was just about won and they should stay the course.

The conspiracy included three actual assassins: Booth, who was picked to kill Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre because as an actor who had frequently performed there his presence there would not attract suspicion (anyone seeing him around the theatre would presumably think he was just rehearsing for a future production); John Powell, who assaulted Secretary of State William Seward with a knife and literally severed his cheek from his face, but Seward survived (and not surprisingly the original newspaper accounts of Lincoln’s assassination directly made the connection between it and the attack on Seward), though with a bad facial scar he had for the rest of his life; and George Atzerodt, who was supposed to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson but lost his nerve and got drunk instead. (As I noted in my comments on the movie The Conspirator — about the trial of boarding-house owner Mary Surratt for allegedly being part of the conspiracy, though the only evidence they had against her was a number of the conspirators were living at her boarding house and her son John was involved — one of the many ironies of the assassination plot was that Johnson, a notorious alcoholic who got his Presidency off to a bad start when he delivered his first speech after Lincoln’s death clearly “under the influence,” escaped the plot because his would-be assassin was also fond of the bottle.)

One point Goodman made was that Booth identified himself with the historical Brutus, the lead assassin of Julius Caesar; Booth’s father had been named Junius Brutus Booth (and he too had been an actor, as were Booth’s brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr. — indeed Goodman points out that the Booth family was one of those in which brothers took opposing sides in the Civil War: Edwin played most of his engagements in the North and supported the Union, while John Wilkes played in the South and endorsed the Confederate cause). Goodman depicts the Booths as an acting dynasty, like such later families as the Barrymores, the Powers and the Fondas, though he does not mention that Edwin Booth was considerably more popular — indeed, at the time a lot of people thought John Wilkes Booth had killed Lincoln just to do something that would make him more famous than his brother. (The 1955 film Prince of Players, a biopic of Edwin Booth with Richard Burton playing him, is largely about the career fallout and blacklisting Edwin suffered after his brother killed Lincoln and he was blamed.) Indeed, The Conspirator included a bonus DVD that had one of the most bizarre historical artifacts ever: a postcard advertising a production of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar with all three Booth brothers appearing. No fiction writer would dare make up a tale of one of the most notorious political assassins of all time acting in a play about another of the most notorious political assassinations of all time!

The show was generally well done, though it made the conspiracy seem less extensive than it really was and it ducked the question posed by the film The Conspirator, which was largely about the decision of U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to try the alleged conspirators not in a regular court but in what amounted to a military tribunal. It also covered the enormous outpouring of grief that accompanied the special train that took the coffins of Lincoln and his son Willie (who’d died in 1862) from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois — though it also mentioned that the Union victory in the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination did not heal the political polarization that had brought on the war in the first place and still hung on when Andrew Johnson (picked by Lincoln as his running mate as a gesture of unity to the South, since he was a Senator from the secessionist state of Tennessee but had refused to leave the U.S. Senate when his state seceded) pursued such a “soft” Reconstruction policy, including signing on to the Southern states’ “Black Codes” aimed at returning African-Americans to near-slave status, that Northern Republicans accused him of Confederate sympathies and ultimately impeached him when he fired Edwin Stanton (whose honest management of the War Department was credited by a lot of Northerners with having made the Union victory possible) from his Cabinet.

Scientology and Its Aftermath, episode 8 (Arts & Entertainment, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on Arts & Entertainment for the last episode of Scientology and the Aftermath, the eight-part “reality” series hosted by apostate Scientologist Leah Remini and this time featuring, instead of ex-Scientologists (aside from Mike Rinder, who had once been Scientology’s principal “enforcer” until he got thrown out of the church), reporters who had covered Scientology and been victims of its take-no-prisoners attitude towards its critics. (The longer this show has aired, the more it’s shown how Scientology head David Miscavige and President-elect Donald Trump are really alike in their thin-skinned natures and the viciousness with which they respond to all criticism. At least two letter-writers in this morning’s Los Angeles Times have commented that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus hasn’t really closed — it’s just moved to Washington, D.C., only now the ringmaster is one of the clowns.) One of the three people featured in this episode was Lawrence Wright, journalist who first wrote against Scientology in The New Yorker and then expanded his articles into a book called Going Clear that was largely about the disillusionment of writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash) and ultimate departure from Scientology, and who noted that “most religions don’t have secrets” (as another anti-Scientology writer once commented, the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t charge you $100,000 before they let you read the Book of Genesis; in Scientology you’re told that you have to reach “Operating Thetan Level III” before you’re psychologically well-developed enough to handle the tale of mad scientist Xenu and the origin of all human problems in his dastardly experiments on the planet Teegeeack, now known as Earth) and “Scientology is a religion that locks you in from the inside.”

Another was Ray Jeffrey, an attorney who took the case of Debbie Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, when they were sued by the Church of Scientology; Cook, Jeffrey explained, was “a victim of her own success” as head of the Flag Land Base, the pinnacle of the Sea Organization (Scientology’s governing clergy, reporting to David Miscavige, who runs the church as chair of the Religious Technology Corporation, which holds the copyrights to all the writings of church founder L. Ron Hubbard); she was summoned to the Scientology Vatican in Hemet, California (though the city government of Hemet tweeted the program producers to stress that the Scientology base camp is not in Hemet but in an unincorporated stretch of Riverside County just northeast of it) and got to experience Miscavige’s management-by-assault style up close and personal. A third interviewee was perhaps the quirkiest: ex-Moonie turned cult deprogrammer Steve Hoxsan, who recalled doing a tour with an apostate ex-Scientologist and comparing notes on how similar the cult indoctrinations were in both groups, including controlling every waking moment of the cult members’ lives (and keeping them awake as long as possible because sleep deprivation itself is a powerful form of mind control), giving them enormous amounts of esoteric material to read and regurgitate on command (while cramming them so full of this sort of information that they never have time to read anything else or to think critically about it), keeping them from any other sources of information and telling them essentially that the rest of the world is lying 24/7 and only the cult leaders and his or her authorities are to be trusted. It occurred to me that this sort of indoctrination goes far beyond cults; as I’ve written in these pages before, medical schools do the same sort of thing to their students, and even beyond that there have been entire countries, including Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union (especially under Stalin) and Communist China (especially under Mao), that have been run as cults, with the added evil that no one chose to be in the cult: they were just inducted into it and subjected to its power by being born and living in the wrong country at the wrong time. Mixed in with the interviews were a number of questions Remini and Rinder had received on Reddit, most of them pretty obvious, including one about Scientology’s attitude towards homosexuality — which, according to Remini and Rinder, is publicly O.K. but privately, or not so privately, condemns it as one of the lower elements on L. Ron Hubbard’s “Tone Scale” of human behavior — though they did not mention that Hubbard drove his Gay son Quentin to suicide.

I’ll acknowledge that the massive amounts of negative information about Scientology that have surfaced over the last decade have changed my point of view about it from regarding it as a silly phenomenon but one that mainly harmed people by taking their money, to a sinister cult comparable to the Moonies, Children of God etc. Indeed, the Church of Scientology is literally worth billions of dollars, largely because Hubbard made the conscious decision that instead of recruiting members from the down-and-out (as the original Christians and many other more recent cults had done), he would seek members from the upper socioeconomic strata to make sure they would have the ability to pay the Church large amounts of money for its “services.” He also consciously recruited celebrities to serve both as financial supports for the Church and as walking, talking advertisements — Remini remembered that when she was on the TV series The King of Queens she was under intense pressure from the Church of Scientology to recruit her co-star, Kevin James, only he already had a religion that suited him and he was quite happy with, and he wasn’t about to abandon it for anything else. One point Scientology has pushed in its recruitment is that it doesn’t regard itself as an exclusive faith — it tells people they can stay a Christian, Jew, Muslim or whatever they are and also be a Scientologists — even though its internal documents say that Scientologists are expected to embrace it “to the exclusion of other faiths” — which hasn’t stopped Louis Farrakhan, of all people, from publicly embracing the technology of Dianetics and Scientology as a way Nation of Islam members can make themselves better Muslims (there’s a bizarre clip of him saying just that in this final program!). Though this series was supposed to stop at the first eight episodes, Remini dropped a big hint at the end of this one that she may continue it — and if she does I hope she goes into the biggest point she failed to mention this time around: the enormous dossiers the Church of Scientology has on all of its members through their E-meter “auditing” sessions, which the Church can use in any way it likes because Scientological auditing, unlike the conventional psychotherapy it resembles, is not protected by confidentiality restrictions.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Open Marriage (MarVista Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Lifetime offered a “world premiere” of something called Open Marriage, a TV-movie from our old friends at MarVista Entertainment, directed by Sam Irvin from a script by Jason Byers and apparently shot under the working title To Have and to Kill. I’d been determined to watch this movie ever since I saw the promos, mainly because — unusually for a Lifetime movie — it features two devastatingly hot guys, Tilky Jones and Jason Tobias — and of course I spent the whole movie hoping that they’d dump their female spouses and hook up with each other! The plot: Becca (Nikki Leigh) is a doctor with a killer work schedule who wants a child and is getting worried because her husband Ron (Tilky Jones) doesn’t seem capable of giving her one — not that they’ve had sex in quite a while. Ron is a struggling builder trying to put a contracting business together but he needs a big job to do that — which he hopes he has when the city they’re in decides to build a community center and he thinks he has a good chance at landing that contract. Becca has a friend from her college days, Mindy (Kelly Dowdle), who’s married to a 1-percenter (though we’re never told just where his money comes from or what he’s doing career-wise now) named Max (Jason Tobias), who’s pretty much the same physical type as Ron — only Max has frizzier hair and Ron has an elaborate tattoo covering most of his left arm, which is the main way you can tell them apart. The film shows us a lot of Ron and Max in bathing suits and nothing else (way to go!) for the straight women and Gay men in the audience, while any straight men watching this get enough glimpses of Becca and Mindy similarly attired in swimwear to get their sort of charge. During one evening when the two couples are having an outdoor get-together Max and Mindy announce that they’ve “opened” their marriage to sexual experiences with other couples. Ron and Becca are reluctant at first, but the mere thought of a four-way with their good buddies turns them on enough they get it on for the first time in months.

Dylan (Zach Cramblit), a queeny Gay man who works as a nurse or paramedic or something for Becca at the hospital where she’s a doctor, tells her that he and his husband have an open relationship themselves, though he also warns her that it’s a bit easier when they’re both men (either because they don’t have to worry about getting pregnant or on the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus idea that men are more able than women to detach sex from emotion and have it just for the sheer physical pleasure involved). Ron, Becca, Max and Mindy have their first “open” encounter at Max’s home and set ground rules — they won’t do anything unless all four are involved and they’ll use “protection” against both pregnancy and STD’s. Their second open encounter occurs at a private sex club called Caligula (which made me wonder if they specifically catered to people who want to have sex with their siblings, the way the real Caligula did), which you get invitations to through text messages on your smartphone that tell you what the password is for that night. (No, it’s not “Swordfish.”) The two couples are greeted at the door by an apparition who’s apparently the dungeon mistress of Caligula, Vulnavia (Debra Wilson), a woman of ambiguous ethnicity who’s dressed in a skin-tight leather outfit and looks more at home in the sexual underground than anyone else in the film. The couples’ second encounter with each other’s partners at Caligula is as hot as the first, but midway through the proceedings Max and Becca slip away from one of the dungeon’s private rooms to another, breaking the two couples’ ground rules because they found the furniture in the first room uncomfortable. The seeds of jealousy start to sprout as Ron, left alone one evening when Becca works a late shift (she covered for her Gay friend Dylan so he and his husband could go to a Lady Gaga concert) and Ron runs out of football games to watch, instead going to Caligula alone, where he’s accosted by a woman named Angelique (Cassi Colvin) who comes on to him; they kiss, but nothing more. We also see a mysterious person in a white feathered mask who’s being attended to by two men, one on either side of — well, we assume it’s a she, though there are hints of both Gay and Lesbian goings-on at this mostly hetero club. Still later it’s Becca who breaks the ground rules and goes to Caligula on her own, and had screenwriter Byers stopped there he might have had a very interesting movie about people who think they can handle the sexual underground, find they really can’t, and suffer picturesquely along the way before reverting to monogamy at the end.

One particularly interesting twist is that Ron isn’t entirely infertile but he’s told by one of the doctors at Becca’s hospital that he has only one-one hundredth of the chance of impregnating his wife as a normal man. That leads to the tantalizing possibility that the entire “open marriage” business was stage-managed by Becca as a way of having a child; since her husband couldn’t give her one, she decided to go after Max and see if he could do the job (which could have led to an intriguing sequel 20 years later, as the kid, now grown, learns that his biological father is fabulously wealthy and goes after his money). Instead Open Marriage takes a turn into typical Lifetime melodramatics that significantly weaken it; the two couples find themselves victimized by a no-good rotter who sends texts with photos of them at Caligula. This costs Ron the city contract he was so desperate to get and leaves both couples floundering in a sea of mutual jealousy and recrimination, and it turns out the culprit is … Mindy, who it seems always had the hots for Ron (and maybe a Lesbian itch for Becca as well), and who ends up literally holding a gun on Ron to force him into one last orgy and, when Becca is unwilling to go along, she fires the gun and Becca reaches for an odd antique clock with its own pedestal and clubs Mindy over the head with it, killing her. The cops accept Becca’s self-defense claim and a tag scene indicates that the child she’s carrying is Ron’s after all — he made it in the 1/100th window. Open Marriage offered plenty of titillation (or dickillation) for this Gay viewer — even though the script didn’t give them much to work with in the way of acting, when I can watch a movie with two people as gorgeous as Tilky Jones (despite that silly name) and Jason Tobias and see them mostly wearing nothing but the bare legal minimum, I’m going to enjoy it on aesthetic grounds alone — but it could have been a titillating joyride and a moral tale instead of writing the “villain” character (Mindy was the woman in the feathered mask at Caligula taking the damning photos she later sexted far and wide, costing Ron his job) in and turning the resolution flat and ordinary.

Boyfriend Killer (MarVista Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Open Marriage Lifetime showed something called Boyfriend Killer, an ambiguous title because at first it wasn’t clear whether it would be about a boyfriend who killed his girlfriend or a girlfriend who killed her boyfriend. It turned out to be the latter: it begins with a scene in which Preston Durro (Michael Uribe) is racing down a road on his motorcycle when he’s chased and ultimately run off the road by a black SUV. Preston dies and the central characters are actually his parents, Sandra Cruz Durro (Barbie Castro) and her long-estranged husband Charles (Patrick Muldoon, surprisingly hot even though hardly at the league of the two young studs in Open Marriage!). The two broke up 10 years previously while Preston was still a boy, largely over Charles’ drinking problem and lack of ambition, but Charles agrees to stay behind and support Sandra over her grief at the loss of their son and also help her collect Preston’s things. Only they have a major conflict with the boyfriend killer of the title, Krystal Kellers (Kate Mansi, playing the part in the same sort of perky-psycho vein as Rose McGowan in the 1998 Lifetime movie Devil in the Flesh and Jodi Lynn O’Keefe duplicated less effectively in the 2000 sequel), whom we first saw in the middle of a knock-down drag-out argument with her father, oil tycoon Nathan Kellers (Frank Licari). It seems Nathan never liked Preston as a mate for his daughter and had someone quite different in mind for her, Jack Davis (Eric Aragon), a rising young executive at his company, and now that Preston is the victim of an (apparent) accident Nathan thinks it’s high time her daughter comes back to earth and marries Jack. What we don’t realize until nearly half the movie later is it was Jack who dumped Krystal; she was so possessive that she not only slipped a GPS tracker on his car but scratched nasty messages on his car door and the inner walls of his Jacuzzi telling him not to ignore her. Jack responded by telling her she had “issues” and she should see a therapist, and Krystal responded by latching onto Preston — who also got tired of her possessiveness and started sending her e-mails telling her to leave him alone and it was all over between them. That hasn’t stopped Krystal from telling Preston’s parents she had moved into his apartment two weeks before he died and from demanding his computer, ostensibly because she paid for it but really so she can have control of every unflattering thing he ever e-mailed, texted or posted to social media against her and delete it all. She presents herself as Preston’s fiancée and flashes an engagement ring which Charles, who previously had to bail Preston out of a gambling debt, knows his son couldn’t possibly have afforded. (Krystal seems to have stolen it from her mom’s things.)

Sandra and Charles finally get their hands on Preston’s laptop, then find that the external drive on which Krystal supposedly copied all Preston’s documents is missing the derogatory e-mails — though fortunately Sandra printed hard copies of them. Unfortunately, like a typically stupid 1930’s movie character, Sandra tells Krystal that she’s done this. Sandra also gets a back-door into Preston’s computer through his twink-ish friend Troy Kreieger (Miguel Fasa), with whose help she figures out Preston’s social-media passwords. Unfortunately, Troy is also a teenage boy with typical straight teenage boy desires, and Sandra worms the information out of him by seducing him. What’s more, she conjures up a plot to murder Jack Davis (ya remember Jack Davis?) and set Troy up to take the fall — only in the end Krystal also tries to kill Sandra, Sandra gets away and tries to flag down a car, not knowing that its driver is Sandra’s hired hit man Devin (Todd Bruno), an ex-con who actually killed Preston for Krystal. Fortunately a second car shows up and its occupant turns out to be Nathan Kellers, Krystal’s dad (ya remember Krystal’s dad?), and ultimately Krystal is taken alive, Jack Davis recovers from Krystal’s stab wounds and it seems the experience has reconciled Sandra and Charles to becoming a couple again. There’s nothing really wrong with Boyfriend Killer except we’ve seen it a million times already; the screenwriter is Christine Conradt but this time she seems merely to be following her formulae instead of legitimately extending them the way she did in The Bride He Bought Online (which she directed as well as wrote), and the direction by Alyn Darnay is functional and O.K. but not really inspired. There’s nothing really wrong with Boyfriend Killer but there’s nothing really right about it, either; Kate Mansi does Perky Psycho 101 well enough, but really, we’ve seen her likes hundreds of times before on this network, and neither Conradt nor Darnay threw in enough variations on the familiar formulae to get us to care this time.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Taking the Stage: Opening of the Museum of African-American History (ABC-TV, aired January 12, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago ABC-TV presented a fascinating if flawed program called Taking the Stage, a ceremony marking the opening of the Museum of African-American History in Washington, D.C. and presenting an overview of African-American culture. It’s happening at a weird juncture in American history, in which the first African-American U.S. President is about to leave office and his replacement won largely by running an openly racist campaign appealing to white resentments against “others” in general and Latinos and Muslims in particular. The show got some aspects right but screwed up on others, and if they had programmed it in a way to show the history of Black American culture instead of just throwing around bits of it seemingly at random, it would have worked better both as education and entertainment. It began with a brief segment showing some unidentified people singing bits of songs by James Brown, and then catapulted us back into the swing era as a troupe including Jean Baptiste and tap dancer Samion Glover did a nice version of Cab Calloway’s 1939 hit “The Jumpin’ Jive.” Then Glover and Patti Austin did Billy Strayhorn’s 1941 “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which became the theme song of Strayhorn’s long-time employer Duke Ellington. After that came the evening’s first miscalculation; they told the famous story of how Marian Anderson was banned from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. in 1939 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and how Eleanor Roosevelt, incensed by the bigotry, not only resigned her own DAR membership but arranged for Anderson to perform on the National Mall. So how did they commemorate this event? Did they get one of the many fine African-American classical singers who have followed through the breakdown of the barriers that confronted Anderson and Leontyne Price and had major careers in opera and classical song, and have one of them perform a Schubert Lied? No-o-o-o-o, they dragged out Mary J. Blige, a perfectly fine singer but in a quite different sort of music, and had her sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” (a.k.a. “America,” a.k.a. the British national anthem “God Save the Queen”) not the way Anderson would have done it, but in all-out “worrying” soul style.

After that they did a blues segment in which Gary Clark, Jr. did two verses of the Muddy Waters classic “Rollin’ Stone” (though not, alas, the final verse that gave the song its title and inspired an early-1960’s British blues cover band to call themselves The Rolling Stones) and the current members of the Alvin Ailey dance troupe did a portion of Revelations, Ailey’s signature dance, set to choral versions of spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” I liked this better than I probably would have if I hadn’t seen a recent PBS tribute to Ailey that presented Revelations complete; at least that gave the excerpt context and let me know what I was seeing and what its artistic point was! Then Dave Grohl, the evening’s only white performer, did a James Brown song called “Love Downtown” with a Black funk ensemble called Troublefunk. The commentator identified Brown and Aretha Franklin as the people who took gospel music out of the Black church and broke it to the secular market — which had me thinking, “Excu-u-u-use me? Haven’t you people heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe? Dinah Washington? Ray Charles?” Indeed, if I had been planning this show a tribute to Rosetta Tharpe would have been mandatory — and I know exactly whom I would have invited to provide it: Brittany Howard, the heavy-set Black singer, songwriter and guitarist of the modern band Alabama Shakes. After that came Fantasia, a modern-day soul singer doing a good cover of Aretha Franklin’s early Atlantic Records hit “Dr. Feelgood,” and then Usher did a surprisingly good James Brown tribute including “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (a record I remember admiring in the 1960’s especially for how tightly Brown’s band played — at a time when so many white rock bands played sloppily and seemed unconcerned with ensemble, it was a revelation to hear Black bands like Brown’s and Ike and Tina Turner’s play tightly and with well-rehearsed ensemble precision), “I Feel Good,” “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Sex Machine.” Usher doesn’t move as well as Brown did — who does? — but he has a good enough voice, a strong sense of rhythm and enough dance moves he was able to pull it off.

Then they flashed back to the 1930’s and 1940’s again and dragged out Christina Aguilera (Latina instead of Black, not that it mattered), Cynthia Ariola (forgive me if I’ve got some of the names garbled) and Renée Alice Goldsberry for a tribute to the Black jazz-pop singers Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne. Cynthia did “God Bless the Child” in a version that, like Mary J. Blige’s “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” threw all the intense soul vocal gimmicks into a song that not only doesn’t need them but loses when Billie’s chilling understatement is replaced by faux “intensity.” (Recently I looked over my blog post about the early-1970’s Liza Minnelli TV special Liza with a “Z” in which she did “God Bless the Child” just as wretchedly; Liza made it sound like one of her mom’s songs and Cynthia made it sound like an Aretha Franklin vehicle.) Renée did Sarah Vaughan’s big hit “Misty” (an Erroll Garner jazz instrumental for which lyrics were later added; still later Vaughan’s beautifully eloquent version was covered — and butchered — by Johnny Mathis; the modern jazz rhythms Garner had built into the song and Vaughan understood instinctively were totally beyond Mathis) and did it quite well. Christina Aguilera did Lena Horne’s (and Ethel Waters’ before her!) signature song, “Stormy Weather,” and did it well enough except for an odd truncation of the lyric (all too many of the AABA pop songs performed that night were shorn of the second “A,” with the result that Aguilera’s “Stormy Weather” had an awkward patch where she sang two lines that clearly were supposed to rhyme but didn’t because of the editing). 

Then there was a brief clip of Chuck Berry standing up in the back of a Cadillac convertible singing “Johnny B. Goode,” and then the show swerved into non-musical territory with Tom Hanks and General Colin Powell paying tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the Black pilots in World War II, and presenting their seven surviving members. After that a modern-day singer named Neo (obviously not the one who fought the Matrix!) presented a Michael Jackson tribute consisting of “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Earth Song” — Neo didn’t do the kind of justice to Jackson’s dance moves that Usher had to James Brown’s but his reading of “Earth Song” was surprisingly passionate and evocative of Jackson’s original. After that came one of the most impressive parts of the show, as Dave Chappelle did a segment on Black comedy and, instead of using modern performers to impersonate the pioneers of it, actually showed film clips of Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Nipsey Russell, Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy at their peaks. Using that approach to the jazz greats — showing them in actual film clips instead of misbegotten “tributes” by modern artists — would have measurably improved this show. Then came one of the few spots on the program in which one of the greats of African-American soul music got to pay tribute to herself: Gladys Knight came on and did “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Her voice isn’t what it was when she made the original records but it’s still a beautiful and powerful instrument, and it was lovely to hear her. Then John Legend came on and did a rather limp version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

After that the show did a modern-jazz tribute that consisted of one artist, Herbie Hancock, playing his 1962 hit “Watermelon Man,” first on a Fazioli grand piano (though the name “Fazioli” makes me think that a waiter should be asking me whether I want marinara or alfredo sauce with it), then on a Kronos synthesizer and finally on an Ax-Synth, that odd instrument that puts a keyboard into something shaped like a guitar so keyboard players can come out from behind their instruments and rock out front and center the way guitarists do. I would have preferred if the entire performance had been Hancock at the piano, but the way they did it at least offered a nice capsule history of the jazz tradition as it’s been influenced by rock and electronica over the 55 years since Hancock wrote and first recorded “Watermelon Man.” Then came the inevitable hip-hop segment — which intriguingly paid tribute to people like Chuck D. of Public Enemy and Grandmaster Melle Mel, whose socially conscious rap has long since vanished and been replaced by the racist, sexist, anti-Gay, pro-criminal, pro-capitalist rap crap we’ve all become too familiar with — and it was astonishing to see the President of the United States, sitting in a box with his wife, chanting along with Chuck D. as he rapped, “Fight the power!” (Of course, within six days Barack Obama will no longer be President and he’ll be back to fighting the power instead of being it.) Then there was an ill-advised gospel tribute which for some reason focused on the slower, more hymn-like kinds of gospel until veteran Shirley Caesar came out at the end and rocked out on a modern-day variant of the old spiritual “Heav’n, Heav’n.” The finale featured Stevie Wonder first doing a rather dull ballad called “Love In Need of Love Today” but then ending the evening with a righteous finale on “Higher Ground.” Taking the Stage could have been more sensitively done and more coherent, but as it stood it had some quite good music and made at least some of the points about African-American cultural history its producers clearly intended.

Emerald City, episode 3 (Shaun Cassidy Productions, Oedipus Productions, Mount Moriah, NBC Universal, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on the next episode of the NBC-TV series Emerald City even though I’d found the opening two-hour event the week before (actually two one-hour episodes glommed together to provide a special two-hour kickoff for this 10-episode mini-series) virtually unwatchable, partly because there was something else I wanted to watch at 10 p.m. and partly because Charles had told me on our way back from dinner at Denny’s that he had liked it considerably better than I had. Well, episode 3 of Emerald City, “Mistress — New — Mistress,” turned out to be more of the same indigestible (at least to me) mixture as the previous two: Dorothy Gale (Adria Ariona, doing the best she can with a basically impossible role — I’d really like to see her in something that actually makes sense sometime!) is a young nurse who has been magically transported to Oz, where the Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio, still looking like he’s gone undercover and is hanging out with a group of Oz re-enactors to solve a crime in his old role as Detective Robert Goren on Law and Order: Criminal Intent) rules with an iron hand and wants her executed for reasons writer David Schulner never bothers to explain. There was a quite amusing in-joke in a scene in which the Wizard announces that he, too, is a transplant to Oz and his original non-Wizard name was “Frank Morgan” — the actor who played the Wizard in the classic 1939 film with Judy Garland — though when he started prattling on about the existential threat facing Oz from the ill-defined monster called “The Beast Within,” I joked, “That’s not the beast within! That’s W. C. Fields! He’s still pissed off at having lost the role of the Wizard in 1939!” (Fields was set to play the Wizard of Oz when at the last minute his home studio, Universal, called him back for retakes on the film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, so Frank Morgan got to play the Wizard and Fields was bitter about it for the remaining seven years of his life.) There are also a couple of shots featuring a nice-looking steampunk monorail. I don’t mind that the people in charge of this film (including ex-teen idol Shaun Cassidy, whose production company was one of at least three involved in making it) made Dorothy’s dog Toto a German shepherd instead of the original Cairn terrier — that was about the least of their sins against L. Frank Baum.

I did mind that their treatment of Tip, the character who in the Baum books is a boy who goes through a gender change and becomes Princess Ozma (according to Baum’s biographers, this was a bit of wishful thinking on his part because he wanted a daughter and he and his wife had five sons instead), reversed his “real” identity and ended up being a less progressive portrayal of a Transgender character than Baum’s over a century ago: in this version Tip is really a girl all along, only an enchantment turned him into a boy and then another magic spell turned him back, and when his (straight cisgender male) friend kisses him, suddenly finding her sexually attractive now that he’s a she, she slaps him and he crashes through a railing and falls to his death. The main intrigue in this episode is that, having killed the Wicked Witch of the East, Dorothy is now in possession of — not silver or ruby slippers this time, but bejeweled gloves that supposedly give her the power to control the weather and take over the “Elements.” This is represented by a permanent cyclone hanging over the Witch’s castle, and a skeptical Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who takes the place of Baum’s Scarecrow — oddly the writers haven’t yet concocted equivalents for the Tin Woodsman or the Cowardly Lion, though I once worked out an idea for a science-fiction version of The Wizard of Oz in which the Scarecrow would be an animate plant, the Lion a sentient beast and the Tin Man a robot); instead they treat us to such weird spectacles as three young women committing suicide by jumping on what look like bungee cords (according to the synopsis, they were prostitutes working for the Wicked Witch of the West, but that wasn’t at all clear in the show itself) until they hang themselves; a circus caravan in which Dorothy and Lucas hide out until it’s stopped by the Wizard’s guards (remember that Lucas used to be one of the Wizard’s guards himself); and a heavy-set Black man who guards the Wicked Witch of the East’s castle and threatens to kill Dorothy unless she shows she can control the Elements just like his late mistress did. The people who’ve liked this show have hailed it for combining The Wizard of Oz with Game of Thrones, and while I know nothing about Game of Thrones (I’ve never read any of George R. R. Martin’s source novels or seen the shows based on them) it sounds like the attempt to graft an ultra-serious and rather mean-spirited sword-and-sorcery fantasy onto The Wizard of Oz — and, at least for my taste, it simply isn’t working; despite some flashes of real imagination, it’s just another dreary story whose writers are making one of the classic mistakes in the fantasy genre: because anything can theoretically happen, they make anything they like happen regardless of whether it makes dramatic sense or keeps the plot coherent.

20/20: “My Reality: The Hidden America” (ABC-TV, aired January 13, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show I really wanted to watch last night, and which came on at 10 p.m. after episode three of Emerald City lurched to its close, was an episode of the long-running ABC-TV series 20/20, hosted by Diane Sawyer, rather awkwardly titled “My Reality: A Hidden America.” It’s actually the sort of thing Bill Moyers used to do back when PBS still allowed him a forum, before his private funding dried up and he was forced off the air (a development Fox News star Bill O’Reilly welcomed with unrestrained and unconcealed glee: instead of hailing Moyers as a talented journalist whom O’Reilly could respect even though he disagreed with him, O’Reilly basically saw Moyers as yet another scalp on the wall of an increasingly Right-wing media, yet one more liberal voice silenced and one more bit of competition ended — these people are sore losers and even sorer winners!): a series of interviews across America with people who either once had middle-class lifestyles and have lost them, or were raised to believe a middle-class existence was something they could attain if they worked hard and played by the rules, only to discover the rules have changed and the game has been permanently rigged to benefit the top 20 percent of Americans. The people we meet include Chris Smith, a firefighter in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania who has to work three jobs, one as a firefighter and two as a paramedic, to make ends meet and support his family; Maryland school aide Tracey Coleman, whose husband used to have a good-paying unionized job and now scrapes together however much money he can fixing air conditioners; Kathy Bessey, who moved into the neighborhood where the fictional working-class icon Archie Bunker once lived and has watched the price of those little row houses we remember from the All in the Family credits rise to $800,000; California resident Martha Smallens (I think I got her name right), who has to piece together a living from four, count ’em, four part-time jobs and who is scrambling to cover a 30 percent rent increase; Ronnie Turner, also a Californian, who’s 55 years old and has to commute for four hours each way to a job at Stanford University, where he’s a contract employee who handles the shipments of food for the students; Terence Wise of Kansas City, who works 16 hours a day at two fast-food jobs (one at Burger King and one at McDonald’s) and after working at Burger King for 16 years still makes just $8 per hour; Karen Thomas, who works 120 hours a week in health care; the workers who clean the buildings where the big Silicon Valley companies like Google, Apple and Facebook have their headquarters, some of whom make so little they literally sleep in their cars parked near the buildings where they work because they can’t afford housing in those communities; Michael Johnson, another contract worker who said he used to get vacations, holidays and sick time until his employer took those benefits away from him, one by one; 62-year-old Irma Alvarado, who has spent 28 years as a janitor at Visa; and a segment on Americans who make all or part of their livings by literally selling their blood for plasma (mostly to foreign-owned companies who come to the U.S. because the governments of their home countries have banned paid blood donations).

What’s most amazing is that there is very little sense among most of these people that there is anything they could do collectively to help their own situations; the guy with fast-food jobs at Burger King and McDonald’s joined the Fight for 15 movement to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, and the guy who was sleeping on an air mattress in his car outside the Silicon Valley campuses he maintained was part of a union organizing drive, but aside from those two exceptions all of the people interviewed fatalistically accepted their lot, read self-help books (at least the ones with the time to read at all), and still buy into the American dream that if you work hard and strive as an individual, you will succeed. One of the biggest political questions in this country’s history has been why the American creed of self-reliance and individual effort is so resilient that so many Americans believe in it even though they’re being screwed over by an economy increasingly run by and for the richest Americans. A related issue is why so many Americans revere wealth and buy into the bullshit that the rich are rich because they’re simply better than the rest of us — many of Donald Trump’s voters cast their ballots for him because they figured that he’s a multi-billionaire and a business success and therefore he’s possessed of greater intelligence and sagacity than the rest of us peons and will be able to use his superior mentality and brilliance to solve this nation’s problems. Diane Sawyer and her interviewees did a good job chronicling how America has ceased to work economically for a majority of its citizens, and a lousy job offering any solutions: in her final segment she said that the people who will save the American dreams are the capitalists (who, in real life, have moved so aggressively and persistently to destroy it), pointing to people like Paul Jones, billionaire investor and founder of Just Capital, and Mark Brabham, CEO of Aetna, who supposedly was shocked when he actually talked to one of his janitors and realized just how hard the guy was working for so little money. The idea that somehow capitalists will grow consciences and be the solution to the problems they’ve created is at least as old as Max Weber, who in books like The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argued similarly that the bad aspects of capitalism would be tamed by the capitalists’ collectively growing a social conscience (indeed one could trace it back even further, to Charles Dickens, who wrote A Christmas Carol largely as an appeal to the moral consciences of the capitalists of his time to be less greedy and more philanthropic). But the logic of capitalism militates against altruism (though one could argue that a lot of the real world’s capitalists have followed Ebenezer Scrooge’s career trajectory, spending the first half of their lives viciously and greedily building fortunes and the second half giving them away), and even if Jones, Brabham and the other examples Diane Sawyer depicts are as good as she says they are, they’re going to remain outliers.

If anything, this program shows just how totally the game has become rigged, in which the ultra-rich have created an environment in which not only the government is run the way they want it to (in order to get elected at all, politicians have either to have or raise so much money that they never are confronted with the concerns of the non-rich) but businesses themselves increasingly cater to the most affluent consumers and really don’t need to address the needs of anyone else. One statistic in the program is that American home ownership is at a 50-year low because builders are constructing exclusively for the most affluent buyers, and local governments are writing zoning laws in such a way that only the affluent can afford homes — and whenever anyone tries to build affordable housing, they’re often met with opposition from well-to-do “NIMBY’s” (“Not In My Back Yard”) residents who lobby city councilmembers and community planners to deny permits on the ground that lower-income people will bring dirt, disease and crime to their neighborhoods and lower their property values. The simple fact is that America has become a country that worships greed; instead of being shocked by the boorishness of Donald Trump and the garish bad taste of his residents and developments, all too many Americans look at him with awe and say to themselves, “That’s what I would do if I had his money.” Today’s American ruling class has what all ruling classes throughout history have wanted: not only a system rigged to make them richer and more unassailable, but a population largely enculturated to regard the system as it stands as the way it has to be and even (as Trump’s election demonstrated) with a blind faith that the super-rich who are screwing them are the ones who will make it all better.