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This Is Self-Loathing

December 9, 2009

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IT’S WHEN you think you’re too ugly
to appreciate beauty.

It’s when you have a dry mouth
but you haven’t been smoking weed.

It’s when being rude at the supermarket feels like bloody murder.

It’s when you can’t figure out why people hang out with you.

It’s when you think you’re shaped like a pear, or a pork chop,
or some unflattering dairy product.

It’s when you always take more than the recommended dose.

It’s when you think you deserve the disease.

It’s when you listen to the Violent Femmes because that one song reminds you of a lovely day in your girlfriend’s bedroom before your heart got all scabby.

It’s when you feel dirty after a shower.

It’s when you feel like a pervert after an orgasm.

It’s when the things that turn you on become the things you hate.

It’s when you shop at Ikea.

It’s when you break mirrors or can’t stop staring into them.

It’s when the tiniest flaw swallows your face.

It’s when you blame yourself for the aging process.

It’s when you can’t stop playing the conversation in your head.

It’s when you’re really quite normal.

Listerine Wants Me Dead

December 3, 2009

In September 2008, I wrote an unkind blog post in which I expressed my deep abhorrence of Listerine Antiseptic Mouthwash commercials. I explained how the enhanced sound of actors swooshing Listerine around in their mouths (courtesy of top-dollar Foley artists, no doubt) is akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. It is a rankling din, and to this day, I can’t understand why Listerine, which is owned by Johnson & Johnson, continues to advertise its product in such a categorically bothersome way. The worst kind of advertising is the kind that creates a negative association with the product, and in this case that disdainful feeling invariably carries over into the supermarket isle. My only intention with the post was to express my hope that Listerine would one day see the folly of its swooshing campaign and stop the commercials altogether.

However, while a handful of readers agreed fervently with me on the matter, the blog post didn’t attract much attention. In fact, it had been all but dormant, virtually unviewed for more than a year, and I eventually chalked the whole thing up to my own idiosyncratic neuroses. Then, at the beginning of this week, something happened. The Listerine post began to attract views, many of them, and they all appeared to be directed by a simple, single-word search term: Listerine.

Since it’s hard to imagine “Listerine” ranking among the world’s most popular search terms, I’ve determined that there can be only one explanation for this anomaly: Someone over at Johnson & Johnson has caught wind of my opinion. The company has clearly launched an internal investigation that will end with a plot to silence me by any means necessary. A $63 billion pharmaceutical company, one of the world’s largest suppliers of health-care products, wants me dead.

I won’t pretend I’m not afraid. However, there is a larger issue at stake here. These commercials, with their Listerine-swooshing actors, must stop, and I’m going on record with this statement just in case I end up dead in a ditch somewhere or floating in the East River. Johnson & Johnson is, after all, based in New Jersey. Granted, it’s in New Brunswick, a place where the scariest thing I’ve ever seen is a drunken Rutgers student singing REM’s “Shiny Happy People” at a karaoke bar, but there is no telling what this big-pharma giant is capable of, and what measures it will take to silence me. If the unthinkable happens, I want this post to propagate my martyrdom.

In a world of global warming, religious extremism, human sex trafficking, deepening economic instability, and Tiger Woods sex scandals, it’s not easy to determine which issues demand immediate attention. But even a single airing of a Listerine commercial is one airing too many. That said, I welcome you to come and get me, Johnson & Johnson. You can’t silence my cause any more than your product can prevent gingivitis.

The End of Reality TV?

September 9, 2009

[An article I wrote for Show Business Weekly.]

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Unions call for new regulations that could change the face of unscripted programming… we can only hope and pray

 ***feature

When CBS’s “Survivor” first debuted in May 2000, the landscape of American primetime television, with its cadre of wacky sitcoms and gritty cop dramas, would soon change forever. It didn’t take long before network execs realized that they didn’t have to pay high-priced actors and writers to draw in huge audiences, and before viewers knew what hit them, shows like ABC’s “The Bachelor,” NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” and Fox’s perennial powerhouse “American Idol” began sprouting up like mushrooms. Each of these shows features everyday people vying for prizes in an elimination-based contest — a premise whose continued popularity suggests that the age of reality competitions is here to stay.

In the last few years, however, the entertainment industry has become increasingly divided over a murky semantic argument between producers, who benefit from reality TV’s current low-budget model, and talent unions, whose members are suffering in a climate where fewer traditional dramas and comedies ever see the light of day. The nature of the argument boils down to a single question: Are participants on reality shows contestants or actors?

The answer could radically alter the economics of reality shows and threaten their future viability. If the participants are actors, then they are subject to jurisdiction under the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. As union performers, they would be entitled to catered food, regulated breaks and scale pay. It’s little wonder why producers support the current system, which treats reality participants as contestants.

But critics say the existing regulations have fostered a culture of harsh and dangerous working conditions, an issue that was first made public on the set of CBS’s “Kid Nation” in early 2008. The now-defunct show, which followed the lives of children as they attempted to create their own society without adult supervision, ignited an outcry over alleged child abuse when a contestant’s mother claimed that her daughter’s face was burned by grease during production. Other parents complained that the children were forced to work long, grueling hours without breaks.

Some union officials say such conditions are pervasive in reality television. Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director for the Writers Guild of America, told The Los Angeles Times that networks have a tendency to “try to divorce themselves from legal responsibility or moral responsibility for the conditions on the shows.” However, CBS maintained that it did not break child labor laws on “Kid Nation” because the kids were contestants on the show and therefore not technically “working.”

Because the “Kid Nation” controversy involved minors, it added weight to the argument that reality-show contestants are entitled to the rights enjoyed by performers on traditional TV shows. While unions like the WGA and SAG have been working to change existing laws, some believe they are fighting a losing battle. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School. “These shows are very careful to not do any writing, and not hire any writers, which keeps them from producing a scripted show. That’s one thing right there that eliminates the possibility of performance.”

Galinsky, whose school teaches audition techniques to aspiring reality stars, believes different rules should apply to different reality genres. “There are some shows like ‘The Real World’ where there is no competition. I don’t think they should be considered contestants,” he said. “But I think in these other shows, where there are challenges — they’re not acting. They’re contestants on a show.” 

The debate over reality-show participants has escalated even further in the United Kingdom, where the British performers’ union Equity is laying the legal groundwork for future regulations that could influence the entertainment industry here in the U.S. Last week, Equity announced that it plans to propose a motion at next month’s Trades Union Congress Conference that would close a legal loophole that treats reality shows as competitions.

Equity spokespeople say shows like “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The X Factor” make huge profits by preying on contestants’ eagerness to break into show business. “These programs may be very popular with the public but are based on exploitation and humiliation of vulnerable people, which cannot be acceptable,” the union said in a statement.

If Equity is successful in changing the law, British production companies like Talkback Thames, which produces “Britain’s Got Talent,” would have to pay contestants Equity rates, as well as acknowledge their basic employment rights. 

The temptation to try out for a reality show can be strong, even for aspiring actors who hope to have legitimate careers. Galinsky estimates that about 50 percent of his students at the Reality TV School are trained performers looking to explore what the genre has to offer. But even Galinsky admitted that actors should consider whether 15 minutes of fame is worth a permanent stigma. “If you get on a reality show and you want to be a serious actor, you are putting your acting career at risk,” he said. “It’s not that it’s going to kill your career, but people will view you a certain way. It may cheapen their view of how much you respect the craft of acting.”

Three Things I’ve Been Wrong About

July 10, 2009

pumpI HAVE AN embarrassingly poor track record when it comes to making predictions. True foresight requires a wisdom far greater than the fleeting shreds of perceptiveness with which I’ve been granted, and for some reason that keen sense of things to come has always eluded me. Forever mocked by history’s cadre of bold visionaries (the Buzzcocks come to mind), I am forced to stew in the acceptance a maddening limitation, namely that I have no future as a futurist.

Still, a lifetime of misses and miscounts hasn’t stopped me from making predictions with brash presumption, as if my pointed conjecture is destined for canonization in the text of some sacred scroll that will one day be unearthed by future scholars from the caves of Mount Nyainqentanglha. It’s fun to predict — even if one’s predictions end up being a laughable display of myopia.

Consider three of my past misjudgments:

Email has no practical use – My mother, the visionary that she is, signed up for AOL in the early 1990s. The first time she showed me its email feature, I reacted with the kind of wandering disinterest one feels when listening to a Dave Matthews song.  I thought: Why do I need one more method of communication? I can make a phone call. I can write a letter. Nowadays, of course, no one bothers to do either of these things. But email … What can I say? It caught on.

The Strokes are an affront to rock music — I just wanted to slap Julian Casablanca when I saw the video for “Last Night” in 2001. How dare these guys steal from the rock ‘n’ roll gods of prior decades (see Buzzcocks reference above) only to shamelessly re-package a classic sound as if they were bringing something new to the music world? Well, after a while the band kind of grew on me. And, of course, the Strokes have been absent from the airwaves since 2005 — a fact that makes their fetishized brand of low-fi twangdom much more palatable. 

Samantha Mathis is a good actress – The first time I saw Mathis, in 1990’s Pump Up the Volume, I thought, this kid is going places. Mathis stole the show as the film’s cute, caustic love interest. With her expressive smirkiness and thrift-store outfits, she easily upstaged Christian Slater’s dorky basement deejay schtick. I figured it would only be a matter of time before she and I attended the Academy Awards together — she would accept her third Best Actress Oscar, and I would keep busy as a seat-saver. Today, Mathis is hard to find. Her star has be been eclipsed by the likes of Zooey Deschanel, whose dry delivery, dark hair and big blue eyes have made her an emo fantasy of worldwide appeal. Looking back on Mathis’s turn in Volume, I think I just liked her haircut.

Williams Was A Mope

June 17, 2009

My review of Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carre in Show Business Weekly.

This is the Pearl Theatre Company’s last show at its very cool theater on St. Marks Place. The troupe is moving to midtown. (Lame.) But at least we’ll still get to see these fine performers.

VIEUX CARRE
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Austin Pendleton
The Pearl Theatre
80 St. Marks Place

 Review by Christopher Zara

vieux

Tennessee Williams clearly believed that everybody hurts, and there is plenty of hurting to go around in Vieux Carré. It’s easy to see why this lurching 1977 drama is so seldom performed: Although the piece comes equipped with a dark sensibility that is morbidly enticing to the diehard fatalist, its true purpose is somewhat of a chore to extract. You may leave the cozy confines of the Pearl Theatre wondering what you have just seen. It is a personal work for sure — an autobiographical treatise of Williams’s indigent salad days at a 1930s New Orleans flophouse — but the end result feels more like a yellowed photo album than a fully fleshed-out production.

The play opens on an unnamed young writer, played by Sean McNall, as he breaks the fourth wall with salty descriptions of his dilapidated French Quarter digs. He is a quiet, depressed Southern gentleman, with few employment prospects, a nonexistent social life, and a premature cataract clouding his vision. His neighbors, whom we soon meet, range in disposition from mildly demented to completely delusional. Mrs. Wire, the cranky landlady, is at first standoffish toward her young guest, though she eventually warms to him as though he were her own son. Jane (Rachel Botchan), a transplanted Yankee, battles a degenerative blood disease while trying to ditch her live-in boyfriend, Tye (Joseph Collins), an abusive homophobe. The most pathetic of the bunch, an elderly gay artist named Nightingale (George Morfogen), drools over the young protagonist like a rabid Collie, ultimately forcing him to confront his own sexuality. 

The Pearl’s solid ensemble has always been a goldmine of local talent, and Vieux Carré continues that tradition with some excellent performances. Collins is brilliant as the brash and belligerent Tye: His drunken spills are some of the finest to take place on an off-Broadway stage this year. Botchan, whose subtlety is sometimes lost under the Pearl’s weighty productions, finds her true chance to shine in the role of Jane. Her performance is as sweet as it is sad, drawing our most heartfelt affections for the terminally ill woman on the cusp of abandoning all hope. As the central character, McNall is effective in his technical execution, including his spot-on Southern drawl and appropriately sullen demeanor. As a whole, though, his performance fails to resonate as it should — a fault that may lie with the character himself, whom Williams has written as a disconnected voyeur. McNall, a Pearl regular, has proven himself an infectious stage actor, at his best when diving into animated characters like the foppish Algernon Moncrieff in Oscar Wilde’sThe Importance of Being Earnest.

The meandering storylines of Vieux Carré present director Austin Pendleton with an uphill battle, though he handles the material expertly and even with a touch of grace. Very little actually happens during the play’s three-plus hours, yet the characters somehow manage to work their way into our minds. Vieux Carré is typical of an old photo album: It’s burdensome to flip through every page, but we stick with it in the hope that one or two of the more captivating snapshots will make it all worthwhile.

Confessions Of A Beta Male

June 1, 2009

tavern

I NURSE MY vodka and cranberry in rigidly paced intervals, ever so reluctant to participate in the sterile recesses of Upper East Side nightlife. As I subtly size myself up against the other dogs, I notice that they are doing the same of me. We all know the truth: most of us will go home empty-handed. It is simply a matter of numbers. Despite the competitive terrain, my lumbering presence here threatens no one. I am the quiet guy, the guy who doesn’t know the score of the Yankee game, the guy who still listens to Black Flag.

I whip out my cellphone to check the time. It’s early. If I leave now, I can still get a slice at Sutton Pizza without waiting in line. My associates want to stay and drink. “Things will pick up,” they insist. Begrudginly, I agree to stick it out.

That’s when I notice the girl in the grey hoodie. She could be 22 or 42: dimly lit taverns have a way of making everyone look the same age.  From the opposite end of the bar, our eyes meet. She flips her elfin bangs away from her face and smiles. The first glance is delightful, but it’s over so quickly that I am prepared to dismiss the encounter as a fluke.

My weakness for girls in hoodies compels me to take a second look. This time, however, my view is obstructed by Jeter, a six-foot-three powerhouse with a flat-top haircut who takes the stool right beside hers. (I only assume his name is Jeter, because it’s written on the back of his jersey.) The two of them begin what appears to be an effortless chat. They could be husband and wife or complete strangers, but their chemistry is undeniable. It also turns my stomach.

As I stir my drink in defeat, hoodie girl gives me a reason to hope. Twice during her conversation with Jeter, she looks past his neckless head and smiles in my direction. I wonder what good it will do me, though, seeing how his steely frame is planted between us. But the gods of bladder control are on my side. Jeter, having downed two pints of pale ale in a span of six minutes, leaps up from his stool and makes a b-line for the men’s room — as if he were filming one of those “Gotta Go Right Now” commercials.

Staring down a clear path to the hoodie girl, I am now left without excuses. She is a mere ten feet away, but the distance between a few friendly glances and a genuine introduction seems like miles. My trepidation is compounded by the knowledge that Jeter will soon return. I am terrified to push ahead, and yet if I don’t take this chance, I know it will mean weeks of relentless self-censure. The dog in me will never forgive the wimp. He’s a bit of a jerk like that. But how can I make a move if I’m frozen in fear? Finally, I am shaken into movement, when one of my associates taps my shoulder. “This place is a washout,” he says. “What do you say we go over to Sutton Pizza?”

I nod with little hesitation and lead the way to the exit. A slice will hit the spot right about now.

That Was An Invalid Response

May 19, 2009

robophone1

IN CHILDHOOD, we often dream of the future and wonder, with wide-eyed optimism, about the amazing technological achievements that we might live long enough to witness. Perhaps we see The Jetsons and eagerly anticipate the day GE will unveil the first Food-A-Rack-A-Cycle. Or maybe Total Recall turns us on to the idea that a vacation to Mars will one day replace our annual trips to Orlando.

As the years pass, anticipation gives way to one letdown after another. Finally, we’re left with the undeniable realization that yesterday’s fabulous future is today’s pedestrian present. Life is not nearly as exciting as science fiction led us to believe it would be. Oh, sure, the Internet was a nice surprise, and Star Trek prepared us for cell phones some thirty years before they became commonplace, but big deal. These are minor victories at best — consolation prizes in a primitive world devoid of anti-gravity belts and jet packs. Consider that the year 2015 is a mere six years away, and the bustling skyways Robert Zemeckis promised us in Back to the Future are still a pipe dream.

This brings us to robots — perhaps the biggest lie ever told by pop-culture futurists. Where is Rosie the robot maid? Where is KITT the talking car? Hell, I’d settle for Twiki from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. These sentient companions are noticeably absent from our lives, and yet slick inventors have added insult to injury by slipping talking robots into our phones. Not cool talking robots, like HAL 9000, but the kind that are slyly disguised as instruments of customer service. Who among us has not attempted to get through to a customer service rep, only to become so frustrated by the endless levels of automated menus that we admit defeat and go away?     

As robo-phone technology has gotten more sophisticated, consumers have paid a dear price. It’s no longer enough that we’re forced to push buttons for 45 minutes before we can get a human being on the line. Now we’re prompted to give our commands verbally. “Please speak your 16-digit account number now,” says a hollow voice.

I used to dream of the day I could talk to robots. As a kid, I would have visions of shiny femme-droids serving drinks and finger foods at my request. I have to admit, the reality is a letdown. Talking to robo-phones is just plain humiliating, not an awesome taste of the future, but a flaming hoop through which we are forced to jump by business owners who will stop at nothing to keep from having to talk to their customers.

 Quite often, when faced with robo-phones, I succumb to phone rage, at which time I will just hold down the Zero button until I overload the system. Sometimes this tactic will get me instantly to an operator. Other times the system just hangs up on me. It’s worth the gamble, though, because there’s no better way to blow off steam than pounding on a keypad in a fit of blind rage. Yes, you feel kind of silly afterwards, but the heat of the moment offers a nice rush.

One day, I will regale the younger generation of a time, long ago, when a fellow could call up a business and be greeted by a real person. Even now, it seems like such a bygone concept.