• MSNBC Is Important For Liberalism, Reliable Information and Intelligent Journalism, But Skipper and Gilligan Helmed It Into the Seaweed


    Before you say it, I will: the title of this piece is an unfairness to the jolly Gilligan and the lovable Skipper.

    Unless you believe the droning fidelity to “appearance of balance” practiced by the broadcast news networks and CNN is something other than a failure at providing truly objective journalism and usefully accurate information, then MSNBC is important. If you regard Fox as anything other than baggy pants farce played as news channel, and Goebbels-style propaganda machinery for the forces of the pre-Enlightenment, then your hair caught on fire and you stopped reading this.

    Numerous media outlets have reported that MSNBC will be announcing major shakeups, more specifically the defenestration of Ed Shultz, Alex Wagner and the Cycle crew, at least for starters. The rumor is that Chris Hayes is being readied for the guillotine. This is especially unfortunate, given that Hayes has reliably provided an inventive and ambitious brand of reporting and analysis during his tenure, first on his weekend morning show, and then the evening show.

    NBC is said to have a strategy (ruh-roh) for MSNBC, reportedly switching more of its programming, especially during daytime hours to news coverage instead of talk. This in itself isn’t a bad thing. But mention of the names Chuck Todd (once a refreshing wunderkind, now an unidentified journalistic object) and Brian Williams (nice guy, amusing man, but you know, what about the lying?) bodes poorly for those of us not enamored of news as Narrative du jour, chosen by careerist Washington chowder heads.

    In all likelihood it also means more of those dreaded Sunday morning news show type Very Serious People, as Krugman astutely labeled them, who of course, only think they are.

    How did Skipper and Gillian screw the pooch instead of Mary Ann and Ginger? For starters, they did what every movie studio fathead and television chief of programming does, they worshipped at the altar of Formula. Get yourself a hit (in this case Olbermann and then Maddow) and copy, copy, copy. The peril of this, absent actual copies of Olbermann and Maddow is obvious. And to make it worse, they lost the original Olbermann (in fairness, everybody does).

    But Olbermann wasn’t just an interesting personality, a man with some edge. He reliably had impressive guests, not just the same old panel of reporters, pundits and talking heads. He had, for example, economists such as Jeff Madrick or Joseph Stiglitz on a regular basis, and wise, seasoned observers such as John Dean. In other words, experts, people studied and knowledgeable about subjects germane to the issues in the news, rather than people simply talking for a living or taking notes while a politician talks.

    Management hired some excellent talent, then proceeded to waste it, shoving it into the same old formula. Ronan Farrow, annoyingly youthful, yet accomplished, clearly was suited for something innovative,  incorporating cultural subjects, pop and otherwise, and non-journalistic personalities into a different kind of format perhaps. Why in the hell did they have him on at one o’ clock in the afternoon, when everybody watching  him was twice his age?

    They hired Alex Baldwin for a Friday night show, who besides being a skilled actor, is an excellent interviewer, as anyone who has heard his podcast knows. Then they fired him for some off-air offensive epithet or other, the usual rite of self-immolating PC. It’s Alex Baldwin. Let Baldwin be Baldwin. Take a Dramamine, hold your testicles tight, and enjoy the ride.

    Alex Wagner also was badly abused. Intelligent, quick on her feet, and obviously interested in more than the real significance of what the senate minority leader had for lunch today, got nailed down in the same omnipresent chair beside the same omnipresent glass desk, with the same omnipresent guests discussing the significance of what the senate minority leader had for lunch today (It was soup, and poor old Harry nearly drowned again). If I’d known who to give the money to, I would have paid the ransom to get her out of there.

    Here’s another clue, MSNBC management and producers, too late to do any good of course, but I’ll say it anyhow: yes, we like your anchors, but  putting them on as guests on other shows all day long is not simply incestuous, it’s boring. Redundancy is only a positive thing in airline operational systems and birth control.

    NBC claims it wants more straight-ahead news coverage, yet it has forfeited hour after hour of opportunity for just such programming every weekend, running a hideous reality crime show mashup like some UHF station in Fucking Nowhere, Utah. They might as well have put up one of those old style test patterns used when networks left the air at midnight, and returned in the morning with the local farm report.

    How about a show called Lockjaw? No talking, and very, very cheap to produce. Just pretty people looking at you from the TV screen as though they like you, they really like you. Better yet, let Aaron Sorkin have an actual news show. Grouchy, idealistic anchorman chews up and spits out your favorite right-wing douche at dinnertime.

    Seriously folks, I hope NBC doesn’t go too far with this impending purge. In the rest of TV news land, liars lie absent challenge, or interruption, one thing said is just as true as any other, middleness is next to godliness, the Very Serious People knock the Narrative du jour back and forth across the net like a deflated volleyball, the world gets dumb and dumber, and I want to fling myself from the top of 30 Rock.

  • Stefan Zweig, Grand Budapest Hotel, And The Writing on the Wall

    The World of Yesterday

    Stefan Zweig is not a household name, but not an obscure one either, though until the Zweig-inspired Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, his was a seldom remarked and sparsely praised literary-historical presence.

    The Vienna-born novelist, biographer, poet, essayist, story writer and memoirist was the most translated author of his time, and in the wake of the Nazi occupation of his homeland, his works and his legacy were all but expunged from history in his native tongue. Arguably his most lasting and influential work was his reminiscence of a time and place, the Central Europe, and in particular the Vienna of his youth and young adulthood during the first decades of the Twentieth Century, The World of Yesterday.

    Zweig presents a world that appears to reside in a kind of suspension from history, a golden era in many ways, well past the disruptive and destructive European wars of the Nineteenth Century and before the devastating ones to come in the Twentieth. It was a Vienna, according to Zweig, where intellect and artistic achievement were highly and widely prized, there was broad acceptance of nationalities and ethnicities, indeed tolerance in general, social progress was valued and manifest, Austrians the beneficiaries of what we now would identify as a generous safety net that provided every Austrian with relative, and much welcomed security.

    The world had advanced, as Zweig himself believed, the worst inclinations of human nature and politics if not surpassed, largely, and perhaps permanently set aside, managed, or out of favor. History had reached a moment, rested upon a plateau that an American observer might describe as Jeffersonian, where there was sufficient time and sufficient leisure for, and more importantly, pervasive interest in devoting oneself to higher pursuits, learning, beauty, art, ideas. The prevailing sense was that it would always be so. Austria, Europe surely, and even the world beyond would continue on this path of steady improvement. Obviously it did not, catastrophically so.

    Grand Budapest Hotel, like other of Anderson’s films (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom) has no recognizable counterpart or even familial resemblance to any movie that I can think of, at least not in American film, and certainly not in Hollywood. That he would draw inspiration from The World of Yesterday, which, though it conveys Zweig’s optimistic and congenial nature, also is permeated, naturally, with an abiding feeling of loss, and create such a wickedly funny and clever, and flamboyantly vivid movie, for me at least, affirms again an awe-inspiring knack for creative legerdemain.

    Indeed, the story takes place in a fictional hotel, in a fictional country, peopled with wholly invented characters, and yet, sometimes down to the smallest detail, perfectly recalls a specific time and place. Anderson has said he likewise took inspiration from several of Zweig’s novels, but whatever he put into the pot and stirred, the result is a dazzle of rococo visual style, absurdist plotting and slapstick presentation, all of which still manages to compellingly evoke the Central Europe of the early Twentieth Century.

    Old enough now no longer to be classified still as a wunderkind, like any highly idiosyncratic artist, audiences tend to find Anderson’s work either refreshing, sui generis, touching, thoughtful and invigorating, or else unbearably annoying, gratingly pretentious, gratuitously juvenile and utterly detestable. I will say having read numerous interviews with Anderson, and listened to several discussions, Anderson at the very least isn’t what one might call a literary tourist, and in fact strikes one rather as a literary person as most of us would conceive of one, and remains as far as he possibly could be, from the Hollywood sensibility raiding literary works for the purpose of transforming them into ghastly products, or with good, but misguided intentions, clumsily bringing highly regarded books to the screen.

    What can’t be forgotten, and isn’t by Anderson, is that this world so colorfully recreated in the movie, and lovingly recalled by Zweig, is doomed. In the movie there are both signs and real events to convey that everything is about to change, and in a not very pleasant way. Zweig’s recounting of what transpired is of course detailed and quite specific.

    This is where the import of the book insinuates itself uncomfortably, yet presciently in my view, into the present. Anderson has said nothing in anything I have read or heard that could remotely be construed as revealing any intent for the film to be cautionary, nor is any such quality evident in the film itself. That said, and especially discernible during repeated viewings, there nevertheless is an elegiac undercurrent if not overt aspect in the film.

    Zweig’s own world and the world itself at the time he was completing The World of Yesterday were in such a shambles, it was difficult to know if there would even be a future, much less speculate what it might look like. Yet to the extent all books are written as much for the future as for the present, only a dolt would fail to see the universal warnings in what he recalls.

    Zweig was a traveller and letter-writer, and he had friends spread across Europe. During a visit to Italy in the 1920’s, he witnessed the Blackshirts in the streets of the Italian towns and villages as fascism in Italy was coming to power. In Salzburg, near the border with Germany, where he took up residence after the first of the world wars he became aware of the Brownshirts who regularly crossed the border into Austria to propagandize and organize Austrian sympathizers.

    As sunny as Zweig seems to be temperamentally, his memoir is permeated, quite naturally by despair and disbelief at what has happened to him, and happened to the world. He describes a sense among the Viennese of the time, and among Europeans even more generally, that life will always continue as it is today, always will be more or less, as it is at present. What seemed preposterous then, and for that fact seems even more powerful and tragic now, is the idea that a civilization can indeed collapse, even the most seemingly stable one, even one transformed and demonstrably enlightened.

    What’s more chilling, and even more pertinent to the present I would suggest, is Zweig’s descriptions of his fellow Austrians, the Viennese especially as they encounter the signs, the augurs, the indications of the materialization of the darkness to come, with an almost resolute denial, and later, a blithe fatalism, the two mixing together to render a strange sort of intoxication. Zweig regards it all, when it becomes entirely too concrete, as akin to a waking dream, life taking place around you, but in your dream-state helpless to act yourself.

    To reduce The World of Yesterday to the cautionary would be to unforgivably trivialize it. Zweig had lost everything, his home, his lifetime collections of books, manuscripts and musical scores, witnessed his books banned and burned, friends and family brutalized, the civilized world of yesterday delivered to barbarism. Having fled to England, and eventually all the way to Brazil, the day after completing The World of Yesterday he, together with his wife committed suicide.

    Our own present is unlikely to be mistaken by anyone for an idyllic era. No one really talks about underestimating the forces of reaction or regression, the allure of philistinism, the power of nationalism and xenophobia, fanaticism and the ideologically extreme. I sometimes have that sense of living in a waking dream myself, when I observe the political world unfolding everyday around me, wondering if I am the only one to notice.

    That I see those signs in the present of something dark to come, signs visible, even in plain sight, and the all but the same infuriating complacency surrounding me, it may only be my own neurosis, or my own political imagination unacceptably out of kilter.

    In any case, extrapolate from Zweig, and even from The Grand Budapest Hotel, what you will.



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