Marc Maron is a lot of things, but the reason his name has been in the news the last week is because he is a podcaster. Well, a podcaster who managed to get President Obama as a guest. Maron’s podcast is called “WTF with Marc Maron”, and there is no mistaking what the “F” stands for ... Maron begins his podcasts by proclaiming, “How are ya, whatthefuckers, whatthefuckbuddies, whatthefuckeneers” ... you get the idea. He usually starts with general ruminations, and then gets to the week’s interview. He’s cranky and has a knack for getting guests to say things they might have kept to themselves in another context, but Maron mostly has guests he likes, and there is a friendliness to the show, even when it is biting.
How and why Obama ended up as his guest isn’t all that weird, at least not in 2015. What is true is that Maron’s fans hoped that he wouldn’t hold back just because his guest was the most powerful man in the world.
Maron records in his garage, and so his street was closed off, Secret Service took over the block, and the President made his way into the garage. Usually, a host tries to make his guest comfortable in the first few minutes, but it was the other way around this time ... you could hear a bit of nervousness in Maron’s voice (and why not), and it was Obama who began by looking at the stuff on the walls and commenting, as if it was just two guys hanging out.
Was Maron co-opted? Yes, and again, why not? What did people expect? I’ve often said that I’d have trouble being angry with any president, even the ones I hated most, if I had them over for dinner. I might think the man had been the source of war and destruction, but how could I bring that up? “Mr. President, could you pass the peas, and oh, by the way, you are a war criminal.” OK, I might have found it easy to do that if my guest was Dick Cheney. But at the dinner table, the president isn’t my enemy and I’m not a journalist. I like to think I’d offer my opinions honestly, but the truth is, if the conversation never rose above how good the pot roast was, I’d likely leave it at that.
So Maron led the conversation in some interesting directions, but he served mainly as a set-up man. Obama sounded more casual than usual, but the words coming out of his mouth were often rather boilerplate. He never admitted to anything new ... when Maron brought up the good old days of college, no one said the word “drugs” but there was a kind of frat-boy good-natured “drink and smoke” thread, and other than the most virulent anti-Obama listener, nothing about such topics was particularly illuminating. The conversation gave the illusion of being “true”, and Maron led Obama into areas where we got a glimpse of what it’s like to be President that felt very “behind the scenes”. But for the most part, in the context of just sitting in some guy’s garage, Obama portrayed his accomplishments as being evident. He also said he understands that some wish he had gone farther, but that as President, he has to confront the realities of our system, and accept that he’ll only be able to lead us incrementally.
Maron didn’t ask things like “how does it feel to kill innocent people”, and I can’t believe anyone thought that was even a possibility. In fact, this was the key to why Obama was there in the first place. He knew that however cranky Maron can get, he has a fundamentally good heart, and he would know how far he could go with the leader of the free world, just as I would if I were having the President over for dinner. Maron was dressed casually ... it’s a radio podcast, on one level that didn’t matter, but the pictures got out, and while Maron was clean, not a slob, he looked a lot different from Obama (who, as POTUS, must present casual as “rolled up my long sleeves”). It made a visual that suggested more dogged questions than Maron offered.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m knocking Maron’s performance, which was human and completely understandable. But if there was the slightest chance that Maron would actually bring up, say, the deaths of innocents, Obama would never have done the show in the first place. It was just another version of the President turning up on The Tonight Show. Maron was less fawning than most hosts, but he was always respectful, and Obama is excellent in those situations, seeming like a regular guy who got high in college, then like a really smart guy who rules the world, then like a father who dotes on his kids, and never saying anything that will get him in any trouble that didn’t already exist. He wasn’t going to say anything for which he’d have to later apologize for.
In the end, like so many hyped affairs, the lead-up was more exciting than the event itself. I’m glad Marc Maron got some attention, but I don’t think people in general will remember this six months from now.
Yesterday, for a Facebook Throwback Thursday, I posted a video of Joe and Eddie singing “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight”, a song I loved when it came out in 1963. The only video anyone seems to have which shows Joe and Eddie “singing” the song (rather than just showing a 45 RPM record going around while we listen to the audio), from a movie called Hootenanny Hoot:
It’s an odd clip. Obviously, they are lip syncing, but that’s not unusual. What is weird is that Joe and Eddie were clearly filmed separately from the crowd scenes. Also, it is clear that if Joe and Eddie were actually in the same place as the audience, they would be the only black people in the room. And if there had actually been a Hootenanny concert featuring everyone who performs in the movie ... well, Joe and Eddie would still be the only black people in the room. Honestly, I’ve never seen the movie, but my guess is Joe and Eddie are the only people of color in the entire film.
I posted the video on Throwback Thursday because of a slight connection I have with the singers ... they met at a middle school in Berkeley that my mom and both of my kids attended.
This morning, the video exists within a disturbing context: the Charleston church shooting. In Hollywood, Joe and Eddie stopped by the hootenanny to sing their hit (after the place had been cleared of an audience of white people). In Charleston, a young white man entered a meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and started shooting. He murdered nine people.
I’ve got nothing. I don’t know what the connection is between the Joe and Eddie video and the atrocity in Charleston. I know that they connect in my mind in some unexplainable way. I know that when I was ten years old, I liked listening to that song. I lived in a town beyond segregated: it wasn’t that whites and blacks didn’t mix, it was that Antioch, California had no black people in 1963. Black people lived in the neighboring town of Pittsburg. I don’t know how that applies. I’ve got nothing. I know that this seems worse than other killings, not only because there were nine victims, but also because it took place in a church. But don’t be misled. Black people are murdered all over this country, in church and out. It always matters, it is always worse.
I've got nothing.
"At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."
Something I wrote in 1997:
This is what we know. In the future, we will always fuck off. No one will work. You won't feel pain, you'll revel with family and friends. There will be no labor; what the heck, since this is utopia, neither will there be death. No work will be freely chosen, because no work will be done. You will fuck off forever, you will make no sacrifices to the work ethic, you will fuck off in as many different ways as there are molecules in the universe. Fuck work. Fuck off!
I usually start a new week on this blog with a roundup of the movies I watched during the previous week. But I didn’t watch any this time around, so that’s out. I’ve been “online busy”, but not here ... I had the usual movie post, and a couple of Marianne Faithfull-centric posts, and that was it. Most of my blogging went to my recently re-opened World Cup blog, which may get a lot of my attention over the next month.
But I also found myself having “undercover” conversations on Facebook about Caitlyn Jenner. I wasn’t really writing anything, I was just posting links. And there was the “undercover” aspect of those posts (where “undercover” just means I engaged in “conversation” indirectly).
Someone I like, whose interests are often close to my own, and who is a very smart person (i.e. he and I share a lot of opinions), went off on a Caitlyn Jenner rant after the Vanity Fair cover. He said he was “astounded at the money-making pranks of Bruce Jenner” and concluded that “Jenner is a media ho through-and-through and even talking about the douche bag does an injustice to the real dialogue we should be having about women's rights.” I didn’t reply in the comments (hence, “undercover”), but instead posted a link to a short panel discussion of the issue that aired on ESPN’s Outside the Lines:
Having decided that I wasn’t making myself clear, I later posted a link to a piece by Christina Kahrl, who also appeared on the OTL segment. She wrote:
Whether you devour or despise celebrity coverage, Jenner is an important player in that conversation, not only because of what she has to say, now and into the future, but because the nature of celebrity affords everyone else the opportunity (and excuse) to start talking about it among themselves. ...
Take Jenner’s looks and the corseted glamour shot, for example. Sure, there’s a lot of money invested in achieving the look; Jenner had the means to spend it and chose to do so. Some might fidget over women allowing themselves to be sexualized in such a way, but Jenner has made a choice that other famous and beautiful women such as Scarlett Johansson and Kerry Washington have been free to choose. There’s something ultimately transgressive in putting a beautiful 65-year-old trans woman in that kind of company. ...
So let’s welcome Caitlyn. She’s not just a conversation-starter, not merely a celebrity or just a person with privilege that some might envy. She is first and foremost a beautiful woman, a parent, an accomplished Olympian. But most of all, like all of us, she is somebody trying to make her way in the world. Let her do things her way, and karma might just pay you back by letting you do the same.
I was sadly not surprised when my posting of this link led to a comment from a friend that went on another rant against Jenner. In this case, I actually inserted myself into the conversation, asking if the commenter had read Kahrl’s piece. She admitted that she had only seen the Vanity Fair cover that accompanied my link, and hadn’t noticed that I wasn’t just posting the picture but linking to an important article.
I used to write more on this blog about what gets the category tag “Current Affairs”. I do much less of this now, because I don’t feel I have enough personal insight or expertise, but even more, because other people who do have that insight and expertise have already written what I want to say, and I don’t often see the point of just posting a bunch of links. Even here, I am focusing less on my opinion re: Jenner, instead looking at the dynamics of Facebook conversations while letting Christina Kahrl say what I think needs to be said.
There’s another thing. Over the years, I have grown tired of a certain method of bringing up a subject that first insists on establishing a distance from that subject. For instance, “I have never once seen a reality TV series, and I couldn’t name a single Kardashian other than Kim, but I think ...” followed by an explanation of why this one thing a Kardashian did was good. Such an approach is more interested in proclaiming the writer’s immunity from popular culture than it is in making its supposed point. I do this myself, of course, but I try to catch myself in advance. So I didn’t want to frame a discussion of Caitlyn Jenner with my own take on reality television or the Kardashians. My relative ignorance about those subjects does not lead to insights, but rather means I lack knowledge in the area being discussed. So I fall back on links to the work of others.
40 years ago today: The Fall of Saigon.
I can't be inspired to write about the usual topics here, not with Baltimore. Here is a picture of today's baseball game between the visiting Chicago White Sox and the home Baltimore Orioles:
This inspires comments like "Your broadcast today from an empty Oriole Park is full of auditory delectables ..."
Reading about Ben Affleck and the existence of slave owners in his family's past ... I understand his embarrassment, having found out similar information a few years ago:
One of the more chilling parts of that will: "Old Ben to make choice of his master among my children."
I’m not sure if this qualifies as a film or a television series ... I’m going with TV, since that’s where Ken Burns always ends up.
Burns’ style is so recognizable that I know it quite well, even though the only other one of his documentaries I’ve watched to the end was Baseball. I don’t know why I haven't seen more ... they always get good reviews, and I do like documentaries. Anyway, as my previous viewing demonstrates, I tune in when the topic is particularly interesting to me, like baseball. So you can infer something about me when I tell you I made it through all 14 hours of The Roosevelts.
I was raised to believe that FDR was the greatest American president. Not by my parents ... my dad was pretty much on the border between Democrat and Republican in those days, and while my mom and I often discussed important topics, they tended more to philosophical concerns than political. But her mother, my grandmother, loved talking politics, for hours on end. She was a New Deal Democrat, and she loved Franklin Roosevelt. I can’t count the number of times she told me about FDR’s dog, Fala. She had a box set of LPs titled F.D.R. Speaks that we would listen to ... it had his four inaugural speeches, a selection of Fireside Chats, the “Day of Infamy” speech, and yes, the one where he talked about Fala. She would explain the context for the various speeches ... this would have been around the mid-60s, I knew very little beyond what she told me.
Like many fans of FDR, I’ve often wondered how the country would be different if LBJ hadn't screwed up on Vietnam. And I’ve wondered why President Obama hasn't done what Roosevelt did. My friend Jonathan Bernstein, who has forgotten more about the U.S. presidency than most of us actually know, was good at reminding me that it’s not 1932 any longer.
The selling point about The Roosevelts, beyond the part where it’s the latest epic from Ken Burns, is that it looks at three members of the family instead of one. From Teddy’s birth to Eleanor’s death covers just over a hundred years. They were connected by more than blood, and Burns keeps things moving forward by effectively intertwining their stories. Naturally, Teddy dominates at first, Eleanor blossoms most in the final hour, and Franklin gets lots of screen time (as perhaps befits a man who won four presidential elections). Burns is known for presenting a seemingly unbiased narrative that nonetheless is driven by Burns’ own beliefs. As Matt Zoller Seitz noted:
Where real history is concerned, Burns is as much of a cinematic mythmaker as John Ford, Steven Spielberg, or Oliver Stone. You’re aware that what you’re seeing isn’t a just-the-facts recitation of what happened and to whom, but one filmmaker’s presentation of a particular political worldview (mainstream liberal, optimistic verging on rosy, but hypersensitive to issues of race, class and gender that other big-ticket documentaries tend to gloss over).
The other key to The Roosevelts can be found in the subtitle: “An Intimate History”. While the series covers a century’s worth of history, it also spends significant time delving into the psychological makeup of the three protagonists. This can be a bit tricky ... the more we learn about them as people, the more we empathize with them, the more we are willing to accept their weaknesses. Eleanor comes across the best here, perhaps because she’s the only one of the three who wasn't President. Her mistakes were not as crucial to the world, so we are left with the good things she accomplished, and there are many. Plus, by outliving the others, she gets the last word ... the majority of the final episode is devoted to her life and career post-Franklin.
There is another kind of trickery involving the personal lives, one that Michelangelo Signorile addresses effectively. Burns spends plenty of time telling us about FDR’s many affairs, and how they impacted his relationship with Eleanor. Those affairs are not off-limits ... they help make this “an intimate history”. But Burns consciously chooses to leave out part of the story entirely:
It's long been discussed that Eleanor Roosevelt had a close and deep relationship with the Associated Press reporter, Lorena Hickok, with whom she went on a road trip, alone, across the country, and who even had a room in the White House for a time -- and those facts are included in the series. Also included is the fact that Eleanor had friends and colleagues with whom she organized on women's issues who were lesbians, some of them in deeply committed relationships.
But the way Burns treats all of this is to discuss Eleanor and Hickok as close and intimate "friends" -- he has Doris Kearns Goodwin telling us Hickok was "in love" with Eleanor, almost as if it was one-sided -- but never using the "L" word, or even raising the possibility of sex, seeming to view that as sleazy.
He then quotes Burns saying, “This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts] not a tabloid”, and asks, “Why is it ‘tabloid’ rather than ‘intimate’ to speak of the possibility of a sexual relationship between two women?”
Signorile also discusses lesser-known items about FDR’s role in anti-gay scandals, “lesser-known” to me, at least ... I hadn't heard about them before.
I mention this mainly to show how even a director like Burns, who seems to cover every possible angle of his subjects, invariably leaves something out, with the decisions about what to avoid being the choices of a specific individual “mythmaker”.