Tag Archives: television

Central Park

Among the annoyances of having to work for a living (aside from having to work for a living) is the getting to where your workplace is – and, assuming that, as in most American locales, short-sighted politicians with lobbyist bucks in their PACs have helped to eviscerate your town’s public transportation, then the getting requires driving. And driving requires a place to park. And, if you do not work in the ‘burbs or on the prairie – where fine arable soil now lies, out of sight and out of mind, beneath flat, parched and blacktopped acres painted with corralling lines and illuminated by buzzing light poles, offering free parking within stroll distance to your office/factory/shop/cell – then you pay to stow your vehicle on a razed-building footprint that’s now a lot, or in a multi-story garage building within some city’s limits.

ParkingGarage

For the past seven years, I’ve been doing just that – committing my car to minimum-security lockup for eight hours a day while I do somewhat the same for myself. Two parking garages have been involved, and to me they seemed, though structurally different in subtle but noticeable ways, very much the same in personality and affect: floor after oil-stained and grimy floor, dark (even in day), barren (even when parked solid), echoey down its low-ceilinged/vaulted-concrete claustrophobia-inducing corridors illuminated with dim and flickering and green/yellowish rods and protuberances that give every inch the quality of the lighting employed in snuff films, and all tied together with a spiral bow of ramps, and home to the funkiest stairwells and slowest elevators since Otis installed his first emergency-alarm button.

Grim eyesores of our car culture, ugly over-charging profit machines of politically connected and corrupting developers – this is what I have thought of these ubiquitous and obtrusive storage boxes. Personality-less. Places without placeness, and certainly without art.

But, lately, for no good reason, I find myself having a change of heart.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not looking at these lurid architectural layer cakes as some sort of black-sheep member of the Guggenheim Museum family – a twisty path leading to landings on which are not paintings but Priuses – but I have come to realize that these garages are not devoid of placeness, as I thought. In fact, quite the opposite. Especially if American mass media is any gauge, these undistinguished buildings are central to a kind of basic American placeness. In fact, they are redolent of placeness.

Scorpio

It is uncountable how many times in movies that parking garages – whether over- or underground – have been used as the arena for screeching car chases (those echoes, those hairpin turns, those bowling-alley-like high-speed head-on approaches) or foot chases, or muggings, or shootings – way out of proportion to their actual danger or the role they seem to play in our waking lives. Cars race into them, out of them, around and through them; cars with secreted bombs blow up in them, and cars explode out of them, sailing through the air to the ground or water or whatever lies below – an exhilarating propelled dive from imprisonment to freedom without having to surrender the time card and pay the inflated fee to the under-interested drone in the booth.

all-the-presidents-men

Do we hate and fear these places so much that we impose our nightmares on them? Or are we drawn to them because they are the most closed of public spaces, and anything can happen in them – placeness tofu, bland in and of itself but taking its piquancy and identity from added spices? Structural Zeligs that blend in but are present at key events? It was in a parking garage that Deep Throat met with Bob Woodward. It was in a parking garage that Jerry and George and Elaine and Kramer were lost in a Pirandellian episode that was among the most existential in television history. Deborah Sorenson, of the National Building Museum, suggests  that, depending on the structure, they are either cliff or cave, and she lists dozens of films and series that have used parking garages as the focus of plot points.

Seinfeld

Maybe they had no placeness until the movies gave it to them. But they have it now. Maybe 20 bucks for an all-day piece of this uber-American mass-media theme park is not a bad admission price … and you get to park your car, too.

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A City in Your Hands

Last time, we wrote about how the place in which a newspaper is put together – the newsroom – can influence the look, feel, sound, artfulness and even success of that newspaper, and that the current changes in newsrooms, and moves to new digs, might help account for or contribute to the medium’s general decline, at least here in the U.S.

But, there’s another thing we’ve been thinking about that has to do with newspapers and their future, and that has to do with the way newspapers look.

Obviously, the way a newspaper looks is important. Many millions of dollars are paid each year to high-priced designers and consultants to make newspapers more appealing to the eye. These professionals tinker with typefaces and white space, column width and story length, all towards making the product a clean and easy read, with the hoped-for result that this rehabbing will improve circulation and/or attract advertisers – and, all the while, restricted by the limits imposed by newspapers having to look like newspapers, having to be able to fit on and be run off on a printing press that can’t easily be customized, and requiring a limited universe of paper type to be its medium.

Too often, though, these designers shoehorn all newspapers into a one-size-fits-all construct, overlaying the project with a look that they prefer or are identified with, imposing the same typeface, structure and attitude to every newspaper they are hired to “fix.” There are, at any given time, certain rules of modernity that these designers cling to and proselytize about, and, soon, newspapers everywhere look like newspapers everywhere else, becoming the Holiday Inns or McDonald’s of the print medium; that is, they are cookie-cutter versions of each other, without individuality outside the masthead,  with the idea that that sort of conformity engenders a kind of comfortable familiarity that also boosts ease of navigability. It’s all about the ego of the designer and his certainty about the superiority of the current (or, rather, his current) favorite user interface.

These artistic attempts, though, aren’t working, at least not in the most important way – saving the newspapers from extinction by attracting more readers and keeping them “under the tent” – and, so, quite often seem like just some bit of graphical snake oil. Of course, no design, however wonderful, can overcome boring content poorly written, and flawed editorial direction. And such small portions: No design can hide the fact that misguided layoffs by management “geniuses” who believe that the way to a better bottom line is by slicing employees and filling pages with wire-service offerings, which leaves little or nothing to read. Ergo, lots of white space to fool the reader into thinking that she is getting just as much news as she used to for the higher per-copy fee she has to shell out in order to come into possession of an anorexic, anemic impostor of the newspaper she used to love to hold.

But there is another underlying problem, we think – indeed, a placeness-influenced problem – that may be at the root of the design and circulation-spiral “fail.”

Here’s what the newspaper I work for, and which is struggling to keep readers, looks like now:

And here’s what it looked like a generation ago, when it was a popular newsstand item:

The first difference, and one that you can’t see easily from these photos, is the page size: the old version was much bigger – inches larger on each side. This partly – but only partly – explains the second difference that is far easier to note: the number of stories in each version. The old newspaper’s pages are loaded with stories – in fact, on these two inside facing pages, 20 of them, including stand-alone photos – while the current version has maybe two stories and a photo on each. This is both a function of changing design ideas, but also reflects the sad reality that there are more stories on those old pages than there are reporters in our newsroom today. Not all of the stories were staff written, but many were. Today, we don’t have the luxury – or the people-power – to produce that many stories. Of course, now as then, there was wire-service copy available, and pages were and are filled with that readily accessible fodder. The point was, back then, that a good chunk of the mission of a newspaper was to give people lots to read for their dime (yes, it cost ten cents), with oodles of variety, and with what Paul Dacre, the editor of London’s Daily Mail, calls  the “human twiddly bits that make for conversations in the pubs.” So much of that fascinating, readable, quotable, water-cooler-ish type of story that made newspapers newspapers is gone these days. Some of that is because of changing attitudes in the newspaper business about what news is (although, when you look at what the Internet portal sites consider news, you realize that nobody ever lost money underestimating Americans’ level of sophistication), some because of changing layout considerations – but some because of a backlash against anything that isn’t “hyper-local.”

And yet, despite this feverish trend that sees the offering of a preponderance of local news as the key to survival – ceding breaking news and national and international reports to the ‘Net, radio or video media – the physical newspapers themselves do not look local; that is, they do not look like where they’re from. And that is a key component of readers’ alienation with the product – a newspaper, we believe, ought to look like the town it’s reporting about. But, as similar, clean and white-spaced designs become the standard look-and-feel of the printed news medium everywhere, the “nowhere-ness” of them will, we think, doom the newspaper. It’s not even just a matter of “face recognition” – that the newspaper you read has a different layout or typeface than the competition; it’s that the product you hold in your hands does not accurately reflect the place it purportedly represents … and it should.

Take the New York Times, for example – it looks like Manhattan, or at least the Manhattan of its readers’ imagination, the Central Park West Manhattan, with its glorious old buildings interspersed with modern skyscrapers, and a peppering of people and tiny swaths of color and greenspace.  Then look at the New York Daily News – also New York, but not the same New York; this is the messy, teeming, crowded, slightly out-of-control New York, and the New York that includes all five boroughs. Each is New York, or, rather, the New York that its readers identify with. And each of these papers is successful because they not only speak to their publics but, in a way, also hold up a mirror to them, and make the readers feel that they are holding their city in their hands. Newsday, though a fine paper, and a tabloid (which would normally appeal to city dwellers and public-transportation riders), never quite gained a foothold when it introduced its New York Newsday because it still looked like Long Island.

More to the point at hand, look at the two versions of the paper I work for. The old format looks like the place it came out of: a congested, gray, gritty urban place, with lots happening in it.

The city itself is no less busy or crowded these days, yet the current paper looks far more homogenized and lacking a distinctive personality: a placeness. 

Big city newspapers are dying because they have been made to look like the wrong place – they look like the suburbs and not the metropolis. Just as one-size-fits-all does not work in the design of papers, there is no one-city-fits-all, either. Each city, each town has its own personality, and the newspaper of that town should have that same personality or, in the case of competing papers with different circulation publics, the personality that fits that population cohort.

What differentiates a newspaper from, say, a web-based news site is that there is, when it is working properly, a personal relationship between the newspaper and its reader that is, in a way, akin to the relationship that sports fans have with their home teams. Teams are composed of many different elements (the athletes) from many parts of the world, but they come together and wear a unique and identifiable uniform, with cherished logos and colors, that fans recognize as mirroring themselves, in some strange empathetic sort of way. Newspapers must never forget that they are the home team, and should dress the part.

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The Grim Repurposer

A while back, I wrote about my mother’s 20-year-old TV – a Sony Color Rear Video Projector, model KP-41EXR96 – and how it outlived her and how I felt compelled to keep it going, in her memory. It has been eleven years, almost exactly, since she left this mortal coil and, now, the television has decided to join her. It finally flatlined; the three color lines of red, blue and green overlapping into a kind of bow tie formation: crossing in the center and separating fanlike at the outer edges; a butterfly with no membrane left between filaments in its wings, only the skeletal remains. In its last gasps, the image would try to expand and go to a black screen with the word “VIDEO” in green appearing in the upper right-hand corner. You could see its jittery struggle and then, when it could sustain it no longer, the picture would collapse back down into the three lines: the green one, although a mere eighth of an inch thick, still visibly sporting the now distorted “video” in its condensed, narrow space.

Looking like some sort of other-worldly typography, I thought it was attempting to communicate something. Or was it, like “Hal” in 2001, A Space Odyssey, just deconstructing and returning to its most rudimentary programming? VIDEO, hmm. It was all about video, it was created for video, its mere existence was for the purpose of video, its lifeblood was video. Was it crying, “Mama?” Was I crying, “Mama?”

Then, click, it powered itself off. So, there it was: big blank screen, hulking carcass, weighing probably 200 pounds. I was reminded of that time, years ago, when our cat Matthew died in our house. Matthew was a cat whom we had inherited from someone else, so I called that former roommate of Matthew to let him know. He was sorry, but he had just recently lost his dog, and we talked about our losses. My recollection of that conversation is that, although we both were truly sad, there was the reality of life changing to death, instantly, and then leaving this physical thing – sometimes a largish thing, this body – to deal with. A practical matter of disposal (for want of a better term) that needed to be addressed. This set was the 200 pound dead elephant in the room.

Understandably, the TV set was not a living thing, so the absence of a personality was not being felt here. Nevertheless, there was a long history and a sense of duty and stewardship to get beyond. But, suddenly there was this corpse, and the room could use some breathing space (if you know what I mean), so, go it must. But how? I mean, it was big enough for the two of us to be buried in it, maybe with a little adjusting and bending, but it was large, larger than a Coupe de Ville trunk (if you know what I mean). And compounding this issue was that we wanted to do the right thing in disposing of it. I wasn’t thinking about a military send-off, but, instead, a responsible and ecological solution to our predicament; in other words, not a landfill. Heck, this thing could poison and pollute the Earth for generations to come. (This concept is something which I struggle with daily on a very small scale, like with a screw-top on a bottle.) Did I mention that this set was a behemoth?

So, the place of waste is a conundrum. I have always been of two minds: waste not, want not; and leave the smallest footprint possible. And there you have it – I am drowning in stuff, a) because I like it or can use it (sometime, somewhere) and b) because I want to get rid of it carefully and meaningfully – mindfully. I assume that someone made this item carefully and meaningfully and, having taken it in, I have the responsibility to move it along in the same manner. What to do?

Well, like a bolt from the blue, an email arrived from an area co-op that occasionally offers an organized effort for mindful disposal of electronics. We have been there before with numerous generations of now-defunct new technology. During that visit the items were weighed and we paid a reasonable per-pound price. Gulp! – the weight issue was scary this time. But this email said nothing about weighing, only that a donation to the recycler was expected. So, the new problem was, how does a two-person operation (us who live with this monster TV set) get it down from the second floor and out to our vehicle? Well, with some strategizing and a largish piece of cardboard, we managed to toboggan it down the long, thankfully straight stairway. It was unexpectedly and surprisingly easy!

We arrived at the recycling lot, fearful that we would be rejected; but, no, some eager young men met us with quizzical looks on their faces. What kind of television is that? they asked. How old is it? they marveled. Yes, it was made before they were born, but in surveying the assorted boneyard of old sets standing around, forsaken, in the parking lot, we spied some in wood furniture-style cabinets that were much older than ours. It must have been the size and bulk of the thing that startled the boys. I am sure they thought that they were surrounded by some old sci-fi movie props. Painful to admit, it all looked very familiar to me. As I pointed out to the young’ns, heck, the car we brought it in is way older than the television set. Anyway, they took it, bemusedly, to be recycled. A happier ending could not have been asked for.

I know I am a little on the wacko end of the spectrum about some of this stuff, although I do have a clear conscience. My sense is, though, that many people have no conscience at all, so they are probably happier and healthier than I am. Lucky, soulless beings that they are. But the issue of this dead device had me reeling and had put forth a new challenge for me (as if there weren’t enough already): of finding a place for its final resting place and finding placeness in the disposition of property. My mission was to balance the right combination of “out it goes” and it having absolutely no impact on anyone else, born or unborn. New term: the placeness of misplacelessness, matter into anti-matter. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. “VIDEO.”

Epilogue: We have replaced the old warhorse with a successor, really a predecessor – a still functioning 1980 17-inch tube TV set – the first purchase we made together in our newfound relationship. No remote control on this one but a still-perfect picture after 30 years. So much for age.

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On the Road to Nowhere

Occasionally, in our quest to find placeness and in our meager attempts to convey its properties and principles, we resort to presenting the opposite: placelessness. We have mentioned (or is it ranted?) about housing developments, overly dense urban space, art misplaced and other place-lacking elements of our daily lives. But we have seen, on-screen, the most placeless of the placeless.

I don’t know about your area, but since our local broadcast television went digital we now have many additional, filler channels that are new to us. By and large, they are even greater time-wasters than the original programming. The absolutely most bizarre and frightening is the traffic station Tango Traffic, which offers a “program” it calls “Jams & Cams.” This 24-hour feed of traffic video cameras attached to light poles on highways, interstates, and major roads shows some of the most placeless sites ever created by humans. These broadcast images are of linear swaths that are horrifyingly empty stretches of pavement, mostly treeless, barren and devoid of life (except for cars and trucks). O, what we have wrought, and here it is being shown on TV, 24/7. Interspersed with the live-cam pictures are occasional graphics thrown in: digital re-creations of networks of roadways with colorful phosphorescent green cars riding through verdant fields dotted with attractive primary-colored signage, much like a child’s day-care center motif. Then it returns to the real views of monotone asphalt and mind-numbing cattle chutes, tiered layers of oil-stained grayness framed by sickly green-coated steel superstructures. The night views are of darkness with flickering lights on approach and in retreat, every view like the dark alleys we were taught to avoid. 

All the while that these placeless places are flashing by like a brainwashing drip into our eyes and minds – eye-in-the-sky views of one horrific location after another in rapid succession – there is a rolling text feed below the main screen that gives route names and numbers followed by delays in minutes, very often in high double digits. Aside from how dismal the images are, the text messages come in with a one-two punch to reconfirm the punishment of moving through and around these byways – and tossed in are some accompanying shots of logjams, ramps, overpasses, a broken-down car here, an accident there. The clips from traffic cams are 10 seconds of motion and, despite the identifier of location in some cryptic militaristic abbreviation of an intersection that requires 10 seconds to decipher, both are hard to read. As we view the abbreviated tags of the video cameras, our tendency is to try for some sort of recognition: first, of the site name (good luck on that); and then of the intersection itself, by sight. However, if by chance, you figure out what the image is supposed to represent, you still can’t read the visual relationship of two streets that are familiar to you since there is nothing recognizable. Every street looks the same, all are without identifiable attributes; it can’t be just the camera. These are nightmare images, places without landmarks, or familiarity, or uniqueness. Every angle seems wrong and every place seems eerily dead. It is like some lost footage from The Twilight Zone of an apocalyptic world of nothing but endless paved roads.

Alas, it is sadly accurate. These nowhere zones have become more real to people on a daily basis than the places that they connect. And here they are, aired for our viewing pleasure. In some way, in a better universe, these images would be a wake-up call for putting an end to the madness, the rape of our environment for car-dependence. It would show us the error of our ways: the absurd number of vehicles, the structures required to carry them (and they keep getting larger and larger), the massive traffic jams, intolerable delays (just saw one for 112 minutes!), the ugly factor and the placelessness. This lifestyle not only creates placelessness by having the point be the commute to and fro, undermining a sense of place; but also, creates more empty spaces of roadways that are, as we see on-screen, without place. Watch your traffic channel, it may open your eyes.

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Get With the Program

I know these places, both of them, as well as I know any place I’ve ever been … and, yet, I’ve never been in them. I can tell you, with my eyes closed, where you’ll be if you turn left or right, or where you’ve come from if you’ve come from this direction or that, but I’ve never turned in any direction there, or come from or gone to any place anywhere near them … but, I could draw you a floor plan, or map, and be accurate to within inches. That’s because, although I never dwelled there, never even set foot there, I spent a good deal of my youth and equally misspent early adulthood there, with people I know so well that I can tell you what they’re going to say or do in any situation, even though I have never met them, or stood with them, or talked with them – yet, they have meant as much to me as so many of the people whom I have spent time with, which says something about other people, but more likely about me. And, possibly – likely – you.

Last week, within days of each other, Sam Denoff and Sherwood Schwartz died. They shared so much – both writers-producers, both songwriters, both Jewish guys from Brooklyn, both terrifically successful – yet, it is possible that they never met, not even in the small, incestuous Hollywood community that they both worked in for many years.

Denoff, with partner Bill Persky, and under the aegis of Carl Reiner, wrote “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Schwartz was the guy responsible for (or, is that guilty of) “Gilligan’s Island.”

Almost certainly, neither man ever moved a stick of furniture on any of the sets where their ideas took form (tough unions out there), but it was those ideas, and the words that transmitted them, and the actions and movement that propelled them, that gave those artificial locales – the places I know so well – a real (or mannered simulacrum of) life, and arslocii.

Don’t close your eyes (it’s hard to keep on reading that way) but kind of close them and follow me through the door of 148 Bonnie Meadow Road, New Rochelle, New York. Come on, you know the way: down that single step (watch out for the foot stool!), the bedrooms in the corridor behind you, the living room with its sectional ahead of you, the kitchen with its odd shuttered pass-through just to your left. Merely a stage set – but it is in our brains because Rob and Laura threw their goofy show-off and show-biz-y parties there; Rob told Richie the facts of Rosebud there; walnuts (and Laura) poured out of the closet next to the front door; the Peters, whose baby Richie was definitely not switched at the hospital with, entered laughing there; Rob and Laura manically prepared for childbirth in their separate beds there. So much of that has placeness because of what Sam Denoff put down on paper, and how others interpreted it. Some obituaries for him stated that Bill Persky was the half of the duo who really “got” the Petrie home life and the Petrie’s marital relationship; it was Denoff, a slightly more acerbic wit, who gave us the best of the Alan Brady writers-room office material.

Here, too, take a stroll (perhaps bursting in, without knocking, with the soon-to-be-insulted, “yu-u-ch”-responding Mel Cooley): there, the couch; here, the upright piano; the desk and typewriter … but, here, too – and mostly – Buddy shooting off one-liners and zingers like a pitching machine; Sally polishing jokes, and opening up, self-deprecatingly, about her single life; Rob, trying to hold the madhouse together to get that week’s script finished on time, looking normal but being acceptably mad himself. In addition to providing us with one of TV’s first non-hospital, non-courtroom, non-police station, non-saloon or -wagon train workplaces, Denoff et al gave us sort of real people actually doing sort of real work in it, and giving young generations an image of what an ideal collaborative and fun workplace can be (thus, ruining millions of young lives when their expectations were shattered when they entered the reality of really real workplaces), and, similarly, what a  collaborative and fun marriage looks like (with similar real-world disappointments). Denoff helped create an iconic place and ideal work (and home) situation that we could aspire to. It was a hopeful, Kennedy-era place where even the jerks were lovable because they were vulnerable and vainly silly. The Petrie home, the Brady office – they were places we not only wanted to be in, we were in them. We just didn’t have any lines.

Sherwood Schwartz did not deal in such a smart product, but it was calculatedly so and, amazingly, no less iconic. Say the words “a three-hour tour” (and, of course, say them twice) and, inevitably, the person you have said the phrase to will sing it back to you, suddenly acquiring the mock solemnity that signaled the foreshadowing of the shipwreck of S.S. Minnow on the apparently unmapped, off-any-radar island upon which Li’l Buddy, the Skipper, millionaires Thurston B. and Lovey Howell (don’t ask why they were taking a cheap boat excursion in the first place), Ginger, Mary Ann and the Professor would be constrained to in their ridiculous and often surreal escape attempts and equally pea-brained stabs at creating a functional society comprised of boneheads (but enough about current politics). Completely artificial-looking and soundstage-bound though it was, we know that place too well for our own self-respect. Half-close your eyes again: there’s the beach area where cockamamie rescue plans failed time and again, the living areas with their thatched roofs and hammocks, the Professor’s lab-hut – ah, yes, there they are, stuck in your brain cells like gravel lodged in tire treads, with no one or nothing but age and death to remove them.

As we wrote last time, what creates placeness is that intersection of the alluring and irresistible force and that ineffable thing we call chemistry, added to empathy and a kind of hard-wired recognition that borders on precognition. The genius of Sam Denoff and Sherwood Schwartz was knowing and writing about exactly where that intersection can be found: where people we know and like and understand come together to be with us in a way that is safe and comforting  and knowing and knowable, true without being in any way real – in a family unit, nuclear or extended, in an archetypal setting, to create a placeness that is somehow little short of home. 

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Talent and Dancers and Bears, Oh My!

Six years ago I got hooked on a television show. I am not that fond of TV; occasionally, PBS has something worth stopping what you’re doing to watch – mainly because you can come away having learned more than you knew, and that is what makes life interesting. Reality shows, on the other hand, tend to have an opposite effect: they make you stupider because, typically, they just appeal to the base emotions, never the mind or senses. Considering the popularity of such programs, people must crave the kind of stimulation where you don’t have to meet it halfway, way more than they do the intellectual kind. I have no problem with a balance of both types – although being smarter never hurt anyone – but there is a definite bias or imbalance on broadcast television for the easier passive “entertainment” which is spoon-fed and predigested, as from a parental bird. The best situation is when you get a combination of insight and emotional involvement. Arslocii.

Having said that, I am not going to opine about the meaninglessness of all TV programing. My point is to show a distinction between two shows that people often confuse, and to explain the large gap: the difference between the throw-away drivel of Dancing with the Stars (the stars to me, by the way, being the professional dancers on the show, not the has-beens or wannabes they are partnered with) versus a real dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that some of the contestants on the latter end up as pros on the former – an interesting distinction between the two (if you think about it). Apparently, since DWTS is the more popular show, the audience generally would prefer to watch dancing bears paired with scantily-clothed professionals turning themselves inside-out to accommodate their inept partners than they would to watch young people who actually can dance, growing and changing into professionals before our eyes. Yes, the two have a similar format. However, SYTYCD has a visibly lighter budget to work with, but – surprise! – it makes up for it in spades by having real, heartfelt talent to share with us, and often great dancing.

I would say, gratefully, that I am happy for all shows that promote dance. But, sadly, if SYTYCD is the minor leagues to DWTS’ majors … well, then, the world is more topsy-turvy than originally thought. If the hugely talented dancers moving into the professional world are rewarded with having to make a living by dancing with the stiff in Weekend at Bernie’s, then what is all the training and effort for? Seemingly anything that draws crowds and advertising dollars is a career in TV-land. Every time I have seen parts of DWTS, what I have seen is a group of pole-dancers, because the useless celebrity partners are, basically, poles on which the real dancers cavort in their semi-nudity. Perhaps that is the appeal. Yes, these pros are athletes, but there is no there there. What do you root for? That one “personality” is not as bad as another “personality”? That the contestants can make it through a routine without embarrassing him/herself? Is the point that they can take these skills to the next wedding or bar mitzvah? In the real dance competition – that is, in SYTYCD – you actually root for the best of the best rather than the best of the worst. Maybe I am old fashioned but that’s what I thought competition meant.

Okay, I am willing to imagine that maybe the accessibility of DWTS will get people – many more people – interested in dance just because, apparently, any dolt can do it. But viewers are watching contestants who can’t straighten a limb or a back, who have frozen faces that are counting steps and presenting a thrust-out hip as “dancing,” as if they were in a grade-school recital performing with their teacher (which, by the way, they are).

If you want to see real dance, magic even, try the Pas de Deux performed on SYTYCD by Katee and Will – a ballet/modern dance, thoughtful yet emotional, choreographed by Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden. Exuberant and beautiful don’t even begin to describe the complete control and rag doll-like movements of the piece.

Or, Katee again, this time with Twitch, in a bizarre dance with a door – intense, real and scary – set to Duffy’s “Mercy.” The choreography is by Emmy-winning Mia Michaels, who has done the most edgy pieces on the show, not to mention Michaels’ “Hometown Glory” piece, danced by Katee (okay, I am a fan) and Joshua, a kind of new take on Appalachian Spring, and full of yearning and searching. And prior to that was Michaels’ The Bench (“Calling You”) done by Heidi and Travis, which included a flower and a park bench as props for a contemporary reminder of love and loss, as well as flawless lyrical movements. The Table Dance (“Sweet Dreams”), choreographed by Mandy Moore and performed by Sabra and Neil as competitors using an office table as their arena, was extremely fluid, antagonistic, clever and athletic. Then there was Allison and Alex dancing a Sonja Tayeh piece, set to Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which had elegance combined with Tayeh’s signature jerky moves and so much emotion and communication that the judges ended up teary and speechless. As Nigel Lythgoe (SYTYCD producer and judge) said after that dance, ”Sometimes we concentrate on the architecture of dance … the structure of dance, and we forget about the poetry of dance …. And tonight you have shown that you can have that structure and that beautiful artistry melded together and put into a performance that was utterly fantastic.” There it is: arslocii.

Aside from the “competition,” I know that these shows are about entertainment. Am I unusual in thinking that real talent – not just trial and error – equals entertainment? Understanding that people need to learn how to dance, my problem is not about them trying but rather that they are attempting to learn it on-air. It used to be that to get on-air you had to have accomplished a skill already before displaying it. That is the expectation I have – not the desire to make fun of or identify in some way with the ineptitude of the limelight-seekers learning new tricks on our time; rather, what I want is to be swept away by the magic in the confluence of a dancer’s ability, agility, emoting, and as the vessel for expression utilizing their finely tuned instrument in a meaningful moment or series of moments. In other words, art. Art, not practice or pretense. Placeness. Art is what SYTYCD delivers. Not every second of every broadcast – no human can do that. But it happens – it can happen. As in life, it is what you hope for: those moments. In the case of the dancing bears, since they don’t have the necessary equipment, these moments do not, cannot occur; the performers are merely lumbering objects in something resembling motion, flailing before our eyes.

For some arslocii nourishment instead of empty calories, try So You Think You Can Dance. It starts auditions for season 8 tomorrow night. There’s a difference right there – auditions. Like real dancers.

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My Mother the TV Set

Knowing that it is a strange comparative, between a mother and a television set, there are parallels that cannot go unnoticed. My mother was a modern woman, modern for her thinking more often than her actions, however always open to new ideas and even technologies. She balanced on a beam somewhere in a limbo of mid-generations, teetering between the gravitational pull of her encouraging offspring and her pooh-poohing spouse, constantly in danger of giving too much weight to one or the other. Unlike so many of her peers, she found meaningful uses for vcrs, cordless phones, computers, and larger and larger tv screens – adopting some of these items before her own children did.

One of these modern conveniences appeared soon after my father’s death: a 1993, large-screen (41”), rear-projection television, Sony model KP-41EXR96. In her mind this was the best investment she ever made, and she knew full well that my father would never have allowed such an extravagance. One might argue that it was a necessity of sorts because her eyesight had worsened with age, but she loved movies, and the idea of watching them at home on what was then the largest piece of real estate available to the home-viewer was just the ticket, as well as the price of admission.

Some of us worried that it was an addiction, in a sense. She positioned chairs in front of it, then later beds – her TV room started to resemble an opium den. Any visitors would be lured to the big screen, first, as a kind of demonstration of its beauty, then to watch with her (again) the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. It is incalculable how many times she viewed that movie; alone, with others, maybe again in her dreams. If there had been other cult followers with her, they would have recited the dialogue in unison as a mantra. That TV delivered to her the romantic illusion that she so craved, over and over, and in nearly life-size scale. Not far behind, both of her children, individually, purchased their own rear-projection big screens. To one of us, she would claim that the other one’s selection never lived up to her own; in a kind of Goldilocks moment, she would compare the size or clarity, and the others would fail in every measure. She loved her set.

After her debilitating stroke, life-changing therapy and relocation, I think that one of her major concerns was reuniting with her TV. Along with other belongings, we moved its then eight-year-old hulking carcass nearly six hundred miles, placing it as her hearth in her new smaller living room, and building the room around it. We offered to replace it with a newer, lighter and even bigger set, but she was a one-set woman. In some way the set must have represented many things: a link with her more normal past self; a lingering thumbed-nose to my father; a retained sense of having found the right one – the superior-to-all-others TV, still, at eight years old; and a comfortable and friendly face in her new environment.

The TV set outlived her, and we were faced with what to do with it. At one point, it developed a high-pitched buzz, but otherwise it worked. We had it fixed and took it to our home, along with other belongings of hers – after all, she loved it so. It wasn’t so much that we wanted it as that we felt we had to keep her memory alive with it, it had been such a cherished object. It weighed a ton, and it was so large that most of our rooms couldn’t accommodate it, but it ended up in our bedroom – and it gives one pause to think that either it had developed a mind of its own or she had willed it to be so.

It has been eight years since her death and, now, in the past several months, there are death rattles in the set. First, there was a strange color separation, giving me acid flashbacks, in which every image had an aura – every person, every chair, every single thing in the picture oddly illuminated in tripartite rainbow array. I continued to watch it, learning how to read it, refracted. I think it was challenging me in some way. It made me think of my mother’s stroke and how her “set” was having the same misfiring of its own wiring, sending the wrong signals. And just as suddenly as that affectation appeared, it disappeared, some sort of self-healing of its internal parts. The high-pitched buzz returned, then left as well. Was my mom trying to communicate to me through this contraption?

About the time when we said, well, it’s finally over and we will find a place to recycle it, the picture improved – possibly to a clarity it never before had attained. Why would we consider pulling the plug? But now, as the thing heats up, there is a new kind of light show in which the screen goes black and three wavy lines, red, blue, green, snake around the empty picture field. It reminds us of an EKG for an alien species, and we are waiting for it to flatline. Sometimes during these episodes, almost like seizures, the TV set turns itself off. We wait a few minutes and turn it back on and it has a good picture. Its remote control no longer controls the power in either direction but it still has a working volume and mute. My mom would be tickled about that, since she used both with a vengeance.

So we wait and hope, in a way as with my mother. We can’t end the relationship, so we wait for it to happen naturally. Who knows: Maybe my mom’s spirit is somewhere in that TV set. Maybe she is controlling the volume and picture. I hope so.

 

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