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Austin Chronicle Letters At 3 AM

By Michael Ventura

JANUARY 12, 1998:  Disappointment of The Year: Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, wanting to like it, trying to convince myself it's as good as "they" say it is. I revere Dylan, but... ah, Maestro, they're praising you again because (temporarily, I trust) you've slid down to their level. You've sung something that neither inspires nor threatens -- something that calls on no one to live more fully. Listless melodies. Trite imagery. Rhymes so obvious they clank. Adolescent angst. Fine for adolescents, but a sad indulgence in a man of 55, any man of 55, much less a great man. I think of Billie Holiday, dead at 44, singing at the end with a crone's voice; broke; hounded by cops; hooked on heroin; yet still when she sang she held nothing back, she'd whisper the word "love" so that it tore right through you as love should. 'Cause, baby, if what you're calling love hasn't the power to tear through you, then don't use the word -- that's what she was about. Nothing could take that conviction from her, nothing could dilute her courage or the way she used all her powers, every time, in her art. Is that too much to expect from the greats of our generation? Then the spectacle of that Kennedy honors Award! Ah, Maestro, if Time Out of Mind were really great then Newt Gingrich wouldn't feel so comfy praising you. Pundits prat about how Dylan's award means that this nation has finally "accepted" rock & roll. Fuck. Rock & roll isn't here to be accepted. It's here to turn things inside out. If it's lost the power to do that, then to hell with it.

Movies. I've been forced to see movies from another angle this year: the angle of folks who don't have the money to go to the movies. A writer who doesn't stand by his reality isn't much use to anybody, and one of my realities is that I've been so broke that spending $20 or $30 for an evening devoted to what are usually affluent retreats from reality ... well, let's just say I've other things on my mind. So I haven't seen enough movies, still less enough good movies, to make a list. But I'm struck by one conversation that seems to take place over and over. Someone says, "Have you seen such-and-such?" I say, "Uh, no. Tell me about it." And they tell me about a movie I could swear I've already seen. Is that a sign of my middle-age, or are the movies themselves becoming middle-aged? Has our sense of possibility become so strictured, and are the acceptable expressions of behavior now so predictable, that rarely is the outcome on the screen a surprise, still less a revelation? I don't mean revelation as "meaning." The grace of Fred Astaire and the intensity of Bette Davis were themselves revelations, no matter the script. How often do we see that on a screen today? Is it because we've acceded to so much mediocrity that we can't bear to watch greatness, we feel too put-down in its presence? You've probably seen more movies than I this year, so the question is for you to answer.

Television. Thirty years ago Star Trek came up with a formula: a crew of specklessly moral folks relate to each other within a structured hierarchy -- a leader, a chain of command, and a task to perform that almost always comes out well. Now TV duplicates that formula in many walks of life. Medicine: ER and Chicago Hope. Law: Law and Order, Michael Hayes. Cops: NYPD Blue, Homicide. It's all Star Trek, it's all about good-hearted hierarchical outfits that swoop down to our aid.



illustration by Jason Stout

This isn't drama. It's indoctrination. The message is: Trust your local hierarchy, trust authority. For when we're not watching television who do we have the least faith in these days? Lawyers, doctors, cops. It's no accident that ratings are good for shows that give us good lawyers, doctors, cops. We want to believe in them. We want our faith given back to us. But fantasy can't restore faith. Not ever. And it's no accident that these reassuring hierarchical authority figures are produced by hierarchical, authoritarian corporations, so that we can be seduced into admiring them -- and, even more, into feeling we need them.

ER especially. It's a diseased society, we're all sick (that's what the headlines say, if you believe headlines); we've all been in a huge collective car wreck. But we can turn to ER and have all these marvelous characters take care of us. They'll handle the emergency. You bet they will. No wonder it has the highest ratings on the tube.

But then there's The X-Files and La Femme Nikita -- the dark side of TV. The X-Files gives two contradictory lines at once, a mix the characters on ER would find unbearable: "The Truth Is Out There" but "Trust No One." Young people love this show because it reflects their fears of how treacherous and unreliable the world beyond high school seems (and, God help us, usually is). While cable's most popular show, La Femme Nikita, gives us the ideal of the beautiful, almost untouchable blond that's been an American icon for half a century -- but she's reappeared in the Nineties as a hit-woman who can't trust anyone, but who is unconvinced that the truth is anywhere. What graces this show is the disturbing presence of its star, New Zealand actress Peta Wilson. The sly hints of bisexuality in a gorgeous woman (TV's usual "deviants" have to look as unthreatening as Ellen); the spectacle of an actress whose face can register three or four reactions at the same time -- TV won't let this complex a performance into a realistic drama, because then it would have to extend its sense of permissible reality. So it takes an actress like Peta Wilson and puts her in an utterly over-the-top concoction about hit-women, terrorists, conspiracies -- and, within that, she's allowed to give performances fit for a Tennessee Williams play. So, if you're not out for reassurance... if, like me, you're a connoisseur of desperation, believing, as Tennessee put it in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, that "Truth is something desperate and Maggie's got it"... then tune out La Femme Nikita's plot and watch Peta's performance. 'Cause Peta's got it.

(The same can be said of Homicide's Andre Braugher, who should have won the Emmy but wasn't even nominated -- a black man of his intelligence and intensity is just too much for white folks.)

But Peta Wilson and Andre Braugher aside, the reality of TV has been summarized by Leonard Cohen: "The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor." Not just the poor in money, but the poor in possibility. Poor in how much reality one can permit and admit to. Poor in where one's horizons end. Poor in how far one bends over in order to survive. For these poor, the true poor of America (no matter what's in their bank account), TV is a devourer that eats at one's sense of reality and consumes one's precious, precious time. It exists not to entertain, but to relieve us of the burden of filling our own hours with our own possibilities. People who take that burden upon themselves are dangerous to the status quo, and TV exists now solely for the purpose of maintaining the corporate status quo.

Music. While we mourn the death of Townes Van Zandt, and hunt (without much luck, I'm told) for Butch Hancock's new CD You Coulda Walked Around the World, nothing shows up the poverty of the American "music industry" (a phrase that damns itself) more than the fact that the most inspiring release this year was the re-issue of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. These recordings, done circa 70 years ago, display a depth and variety that's absent from our radios -- but not from us. It's crucial to remember this. To remember that everything in Smith's anthology is still within us, and that the art of art is to keep faith with it, dig for it, and give it form and voice.

Books. Amid the tidal wave of muck that's flowed from our publishers this year, two extraordinary books will be around for a long time: Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic. Yes, Small Things is a bestseller and its author is gorgeous (a reason one friend gave for not reading it) and she's made millions. But savor the elegance and immediacy of her language; the originality and directness of her form; her uncompromising vision, balanced between the necessity of how we must love, must reach one another in order to reach ourselves, yet how dangerous it is to love in a world where everything is set against the volatility that happens when people really connect. (Would this book have been a bestseller if it were about America instead of India? I doubt it.) While in Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus sets out to re-discover America through its music -- specifically, the music of Smith's Anthology, Bob Dylan, and the Band. Marcus sees that every American, in this fulfill-the-dream country, is "obligated to begin the story again from the beginning, in his or her own heart." His book is about that effort, that necessity. It's a restatement of America, both for those who've forgotten what the word means and for those who are desperately trying to remember. "The question of the existence of the republic was also the question of how to pass the time on a rainy afternoon."

Well, fellow consumers (we used to be called "citizens") of the United Conglomerates of Microsoft-Nike (which used to be called "America") -- as a New Year's greeting, let me leave you with words Miguel de Unamuno wrote half a century ago, words we need today and we'll need even more tomorrow:

"'Light, more light,' the dying Goethe is said to have cried. But I say warmth, more warmth -- for we die of cold and not of darkness."


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