Saturday, September 3, 2011

“Much Ado About Nothing”

It is most satisfying to return from an hiatus and enter with another aside from the Bard, a tradition (if such exists) at this blog.

It has been an odd week; some might say ‘biblical’, were they inclined to be overly melodramatic as, it seems, the entire broadcast Media is wont to be. The earthquake, a 5.9er I am told, was weak enough to provide comic relief for anyone from Japan, or our West Coast. (My Tweet? “Has anyone seen Chicken Little running out of the Capitol Dome screaming about the debt ceiling?” One thing about electronic haiku: it forces the prolix to become tidy.)

These lamentably feeble comparisons aside, however, they are nothing in light of the East Coast weekend weather event. Our region suffered a far greater physical impact from the political effects of shifting winds than any in the atmosphere.

But first, the actual atmosphere surrounding this should be noted. From this outpost in the East Village, the humidity alone was a telling point. When flesh sticks to everything, your thinking becomes tacky as well. Just envision a world without air-conditioning: would it ever have been possible to ship tech sector jobs to the tropics? Then there was the darkening skies. Watching this come in was the textbook definition of ominous. Outside of this, the number of conversations one hears impending towards the immanence of the eschaton falls quickly into absurdity.

WOMAN ON CELL PHONE IN ELEVATOR LOBBY: …I’m as prepared as I can be. I’ve got my batteries, my water, my Jack Daniels…

WOMAN ON BUS ON CELL PHONE: …Trader Joe’s is cleaned out…Just things like capers, cocktail olives, and pickles…Why all the canned goods? Like how long is this going to last?...

Food forays being paramount though, on my last rip out Saturday morning, I wanted to put something on the iPod suitable for impending doom and found “Atom Heart Mother” by Pink Floyd quite fit for the occasion. Brooding, slow, almost grimly pompous with trombones and French horns heralding the apocalypse. Which was, in this case that not only was the woman on the bus right, but both Trader Joe’s AND Whole Foods were already closed. Unless it was only meant as an augury of the first rain bands coming in once I’d gotten out of the last L train before the system began shutting down at noon. This was a city primed for DRAMA! (…or dharma? Never could remember the diff…)

Which brings up the rest of the evening’s score: a mp4 disc with 15 albums of the soundtracks from Godzilla movies. “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)” (by Akira Ifukube) hit the perfect note to follow Floyd’s bombast. We often overlook this aspect of the package in our youthful passion for daikaiju (Japanese name for Japanese monster movies), more excited by the conflict between two or more manifestations of the battle between Ego, Superego and Id, or Anima and Anime, if you’re Jungian than springtime. The beauty of the recycled themes is recognizing that the way the best noise comes from brass: the trumpets blaring on a four-note alternating leitmotif while tympani pounds and booms, the symbols hissing, all ending with a gong!!! This is all a fair example of the production values of telejournalism.

Which is what I meant by political, of course, and spin control, inflated rhetoric, photo-op positioning, etc., and its attendant battles for our consciousness and attention. But it is not the MSNBC/Fox kind. It is the policy of panic.

The central theme here is our complicity in a pact with fools: a/k/a—our media.

All those preparations and all those warnings and press conferences—it seemed like we had to pay attention because, at any moment, things might turn ugly, quickly. Perhaps it was necessary, in some way, to make us feel calm and secure and content, but certainly all the better to make mandatory evacuations work, to empty the streets for better passage of emergency vehicles, and aid in getting service back on line faster. This is good for the public service sector who need this kind of cooperation and hat’s off to them. And wouldn’t it have been nicer and in the interests of full disclosure, for Mayor Bloomberg to have said, “I am on top of this situation…because I fumbled the ball last winter”?

Dream on.

It’s just that all these things would be more laudatory were they not also part of a massive con. Say what you want about New Yorkers; they know a shell game when they see it. It may have had the desired effect of making the world safe for democracy, but make no mistake: a benevolent dictatorship is still a dictatorship.

This nothing new in the news. There will always be a few out there who still carry the torch for investigative journalism, but they are giving way too much to the same sweep of events that brought infotainment to the fore of all the major outlets. (This phenomenon was noted by Tom Brokaw as beginning with the O.J. Simpson trial and the 24-hour-a-day coverage that it generated.) Those who promulgate this waste of our attention will argue that an overload of data and live on-air standups and “BREAKING NEWS” crawlers are empowering. They will say the great thing is that they offer so much choice, and if you don’t like it, you can always go somewhere else. Yes, and when everything looks the same and sounds the same and says the same things, where is the choice? Offer a menu to a herd of cows.

What makes it worse, worst, is the fill of cant over real intelligence. The meteorologists and hurricane experts go on and on describing the physics of the formation of Irene, its dimensions, speed, millibars of pressure…and still manage to avoid one essential fact. Once an ocean-born vortical storm leaves its native element, warm-to-hot water, it begins to die. By the time it finished wreaking havoc on Kill Devil Hills (a name to conjour with, if any there is) in North Carolina, the eye wall was collapsing even before it reached Washington. All the worries about the storm surge were not going to be realized, that was certain; coasting flooding, yes, but rain does enough to New Jersey on a regular basis to make calls for disaster relief routine. Common knowledge, and yet no one bothered to take that bite of that apple. Instead, more lip service to the party line: we are in DANGER, DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

The reference to the “Lost In Space” robot, cliché tho’ it may be, isn’t just for effect. The difference between arm-waving wildly and hand-wringing intently is negligible. However, this is the same fact that emerged from my musical box: you want people to respond emotively, you hit them with every iota of sentiment and experience you can, and—the key factor—in bite-sized chunks. The cuts on the Godzilla albums are no longer than 3 minutes, tops, most just cues under 2, and—equally important—repeating key themes. In this instance, rapid-fire cut-aways one after the other, with almost no one staying on talking head in the rain, to notice that all he or she was getting, really, was wet. If anything else, it was usually being the object of derision by screen-hungry teenagers, out in the blow to have bragging rights about anything, which a major portion of their existence. Then comes the radar, then the graphics, then, the commercials, then the bumper intro with the stacatto motif of the event: omninous, breathless and, most assuredly, the augury of a monster…not, this time, in a wobbling laytex costume.

The meaning is clear: the sum total of its scope couldn’t hope to live up to the noise generated by it. This isn’t a reference to the damages, which are significant, as much as it would ill become this blog to refer to this as the Lemming Factor; especially for those who had property damage and the loss of loved ones. It is all very well and good to insult those who deserve it, but not those who don’t. Yet when you stop and think about it, the “better safe than sorry” attitude of civil administrators and FEMA officials, it becomes trite, if only in retrospect. Which also where today’s graphic comes in. This is a brochure distributed to all downtown office building lobbies…on Wednesday. Yes, talk about closing the barn door after—and how much did it cost to print up these little bundles of paranoia? Like we needed to be told Manhattan is an island?

What was the ostensible reason for hating Communism? Totalitarianism, rule by one voice: the State. What they called “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and…like what do THEY know about running a government, eh? Well, what should be shunned as well is the dictatorship of the Dictationists, the Telepromptarians, the People Who Speak With One Voice. And what is that?


Yes, trivialites and aesthetics—this is what this boils down to isn’t it? Well, when faced with the melodrama of the Media, why not? What we are left with, then, is a script written to turn reportage on an exceptional storm condition into something between a war and a World Cup match. You doubt? Listen to the verbs—thundering, crashing, blustering (and that’s just to describe the on-air talent)—and the widely-vaunted “team coverage”… To hear them talk you’d think that nothing could be greater or worse than this beach, that surf, those winds, and them interviews with passersby who are asked questions like “What is your greatest fear?” and never a one with the wit to answer: “Dying penniless, alone and unloved,” trying to make them into sage examples of native wisdom when they best they can offer is a chuckle and shrug: “Naah. I just wanted to see what it looked like out here.” All one can do in the face of such dull responses is to further exhort for more extempore panting prose of the moment’s portents in those hyperinflated tones to punctuate every line with a punch. Didn’t anyone ever tell them, when they were Communications Studies majors, that the only place you can add crescendo upon crescendo is in music?

If all this sounds like an overreaction, it is. Then again, when you’ve spent that much time absorbed on one topic, everything becomes enlarged, much like the subject matter itself. This text itself (talk about "meta") is an example of the kind of hyperinflation that occurs when a heated discussion boils up from beneath the quiet surface and explodes in furious gusts across a set path. For all the bombast, it will have little impact. Hence the Bard up top, who knew a thing or two about "sound and fury/signifying nothing".

Still, where's Inshiro Hondo when you need him?

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