Saturday, January 30, 2010

Where do I sit?

I find myself in a bit of trouble these days. I can't seem to define myself politically.

I might call myself a "recovering liberal." I recall my Democrat days very vividly. I had the idea that Democrats were nicer because they wanted to help people, while the Republicans struck me as the party of Sink-or-Swim. Yet since then I've found Winston Churchill to be right: "A young man who is not a liberal has no heart, and an old man who is not a conservative has no brains." I've lost my trust in liberal ideology, in the concept of empathy as a means for making government decisions (though not, I should stress, as a means for making personal decisions), in government solutions to social problems, and in "Identity Politics," the idea that belonging to a formerly or even recently disadvantaged political group (women, ethnic minorities, etc.) somehow entitles a person to certain privileges, among them the moral high ground. Actually, I never had much faith in "Identity Politics" at all; rather, I've believed that one's individual character matters far more than what group he or she has been born into -- and this, I once believed, was the liberal outlook. The more I saw the liberals embrace Identity Politics, the less liberal I felt, until at last I abandoned liberalism altogether.

But calling myself a "recovering liberal" doesn't do much good, because that says more about what I don't believe than what I do believe. If I reject liberal policies, does that automatically make me a conservative?

Not necessarily, with so many breeds of conservatives in the political landscape that I'm not even sure what constitutes conservatism. On the one hand, I wrinkle my nose at our hypersexualized popular culture, which seems to laud the physical far above the emotional and spiritual where relationships are concerned; yet I don't see a solution to this problem other than individual common sense and more responsibility and discipline on the part of parents with impressionable children. Censorship, more intervention from the FCC, is not the answer. Likewise, I can't bring myself to care too much whom my neighbor might be sleeping with, or to feel that my own marriage might be threatened by the two men next door. Sexuality is best left up to the ethics and conscience of each individual; it is not the business of government or the Constitution. These ideas put me at odds with a lot of conservatives.

The branch of conservatism that disturbs me most these days is that "populist conservatism" that cloaks itself in Pink Floyd's old mantra, "We don't need no education." Don't read books? Fine! You can still lead the country! You can still offer guidance when it comes to the most complex ideas and problems! I can't buy into that, nor can I see that deliberate illiteracy, the kind of which Mark Twain spoke, could ever be a badge of honor. For my part, I'm not sure I would trust any politician who hasn't read and understood Orwell's "1984." Liberal Barack Obama has probably read it, but hasn't understood it, given his affection for Nanny Government (Big Brother by another name). Conservative Sarah Palin, on the other hand, may not have read it at all. They're two sides of the same bad coin.

Knowledge should be accompanied by understanding, and I can't dispute that many very highly educated people are nonetheless quite foolish. Yet some "populist conservatives" seem to think that education itself makes one foolish, and this is a grave mistake -- the same mistake they make when they decide that because so many artists, actors, and musicians are liberals, then art, theater, and music themselves must be toxic, without value. Goodbye, beautiful baby, this bathwater's too dirty.

So where do I sit? I can't embrace a liberalism that relies on Nanny Government and Identity Politics, but neither can I endorse a conservatism that sneers at art and literature and cries in the voice of The Simpsons' Helen Lovejoy, "Won't someone please think of the children?" And I'm fairly sure I'm not alone. There must be many who find themselves in a kind of political no-man's-land, uncertain of where they belong.

One branch of conservatism seems hospitable to someone like me: the branch that favors personal responsibility over government control, and believes that government should concern itself primarily with national defense. This isn't a particularly "nice" ideology, for it won't protect individuals from the consequences of their own bad choices. But it is, I find, the most closely aligned with common sense. Libertarianism. Faith in the individual will and conscience. Oh, look -- thre's an empty seat.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Five best Muppet Show episodes

Or at any rate, these are the five great ones I happen to think of first.

1. Paul Simon. This episode is full of highlights, among them the Renaissance Festival cover of "Scarborough Fair" ("Get your red-hot parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme!"), Gonzo's efforts at songwriting ("You didn't like the leg-frying motif?"), and best of all, Gonzo's cover of "El Condor Pasa." I tell you, when Gonzo covers a song, it stays covered.

2. James Coburn. This one features the tough-guy guest star's instantaneous bond with Animal. All Jimmy has to do is show Animal how to break a chair, and he's won a friend for life. In some of the best scenes, he teaches Animal the fine art of meditation. (It doesn't take.) So we get what we really need to make a classic Muppet episode: lots of Animal.

3. Dudley Moore. Now, I do like "Arthur" pretty well, but I still stay this episode is the best thing Moore ever did. To accompany him in his musical numbers, he brings his "Music and Mood Management Apparatus," or "MAMMA," much to the disgust of the band. Again, we get lots of Animal, here functioning as the president of the band's debating society.

4. Peter Sellers. This episode deserves a mention here for one scene only: Kermit's attempt to interview Peter backstage, while the guest is suitably dressed in a Victorian corset and a Viking wig and helmet. He can't be real for Kermit because, as he says, "There is no me; I don't exist... There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed."

5. Harry Belafonte. I have some issues with Belafonte's politics of late, but he's still a fine musician, and his closing number, "Turn the World Around," gets into your head and won't get out. We also get a performance of "Day-O" ineptly stage-managed by Fozzie Bear, Fozzie's attempts at scriptwriting, and Rowlf and Lew Zealand singing "Tea for Two" backwards.

Darn hard to pick just five, but I'll stick with these... at least until my next Muppet-related blog.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Getting our Testaments Mixed Up

I have to confess that I have never felt entirely comfortable with the Old Testament, or with the concept of a God who orders the slaughter of entire nations and sends angels to strike down children as punishment for their parents' sins. I've heard theologians explain that the Old Testament is meant to stand as evidence of God's care for his Chosen People above all else, and read in that light, and as a historial document, it makes sense. But a God who judges by the group rather than by the individual strikes me as every bit as heartless as Zeus or Apollo.

The New Testament, both in the Gospels and the Epistles, presents an entirely different picture of the Christian God. Jesus, God's son, knew and loved and healed and worked with people one-on-one. In story after story, the point is driven home: God knows each of us by name, and each of us has value in His sight. God doesn't damn indiscriminately; rather, He actively seeks us, wanting our faith, our praise, our understanding. I can only think of one instance from the Gospels in which Jesus dealt in Groupthink: when a Canaanite woman asked him to heal her child. He tells her that he has come, first and foremost, to care for the children of Israel (shades of Old Testament sentiment); "it is not right to take the children's food and give it to the dogs" -- pretty harsh words. But when the woman, being willing to humble herself for the sake of the child she loves, points out that even the dogs can claim the crumbs that fall from the Master's table, he "changes his mind." This suggests to me that he was never truly dealing in Groupthink at all, but was trying to gage the woman's faith and love; when she passed the test, he did as she asked. He rewarded her as an individual.

Initially the disciples are told to confine their ministry to "those lost sheep, the children of Israel," but Jesus himself doesn't observe such confines. Who was the first missionary, commanded by Jesus to "go and tell"? The Samaritan woman at the well, hardly a woman of exemplary moral character. Interestingly, his knowledge of her darkest secrets gives her witness special power. Here too, Jesus makes clear that he knows people, and speaks to people, as individuals. It makes perfect sense that when he reappears after his Resurrection, he revokes the confines and commissions his disciples to "teach all nations." It's the logical conclusion of the life he led.

So Christ's sacrifice and the word of the New Testament opens the love of God to all, individually, one at a time, rather than as members of groups. The age of supposed divine Groupthink is over. God does not strike down whole nations or punish children for their parents' sins. (Sadly, children often do suffer as a direct result of their parents' sins, but it's the parents, not God, who should be blamed.) The mercy of the New Testament trumps the terror of the Old.

Wait! Not so fast. Evidently some Christian leaders have greater faith in the Old Testament God than in the New, and who, while claiming to look to the example of Christ, seem to place more stock in the example of Old Testament kings who sent their armies to slaughter the women and children of enemy peoples. "Blessed be he who dashes the heads of thy little ones against the stones."

Pat Robertson claims that the people of Haiti are now suffering the devastation of an earthquake because of a presumed "pact with the Devil" made two hundred years ago. According to his wisdom, infants and children were killed by collapsing buildings because God chose now to punish a sin these young ones never even knew about. The Haitian people aren't simply paying for their parents' or neighbors' crimes. They're paying for their ancestors' crimes. So runs Robertson's thinking, and it smacks loudly and clearly of Old Testament, without the faintest spark of the mercy of Jesus.

One would think that times of natural disaster would call for, above all things, the spirit of compassion and grace so marvelously embodied in the person of Jesus. Yet Robertson is more interested in extolling the destructive power of the Old Testament God, and though his heartless words have shocked many, he hasn't gone into his Apology Dance. His example isn't isolated. Other supposedly Christian leaders have espoused Old Testament sentiments in the face of tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, suggesting that New York and New Orleans suffered the same punishment as Sodom and Gomorrah. They haven't bothered to apologize, either.

Why do so many Christian leaders apparently place Joshua's and the Judges' examples ahead of Jesus'? Why do they seem to prefer the divine Slaughter of Cities and Nations to the God of grace and mercy who looks on each individual heart, eschewing collectivism? I will never know the answer. What troubles me most is that these "Old Testament Christians" have the biggest public forums for getting their messages across. When Robertson and his ilk offer up pearls like "Haiti had it coming," the media is all over it. As a result, plenty of people get the idea that they speak for all Christians.

The time has come for Christians to let them know otherwise, in big ways and small. I declare firmly and proudly: Pat Robertson does not speak for me. Nor does he speak for the thousands of us who are keeping the people of Haiti in our prayers.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Tragedy of Low Expectations, Part 3: The Solution

So we can't lay it all on misbehaving celebrities, and we can't foist the blame on popular culture. The true blame for the waning regard for the institution of marriage lies with private citizens who have entered into marriage for foolish reasons, perhaps never intending to take the commitment seriously, and then taken divorce as the easy way out, passing their example on to their children. A gloomy picture, I will admit, but there's good news: if we have to take responsibility for the problem, we don't have to wait around for the government or the entertainment industry to fix things for us. We can be part of the solution.

As I hinted at the end of my previous blog, when it comes to marriages what we need is quality, not quantity. We need more people who, despite the emotional rush that comes with the throes of romantic love, can approach the prospect of marriage with a degree of maturity. In concrete terms, this means asking the right questions.

First, do you like your significant other? Seems like a foolish question, but the sad truth is that many people enjoy hot n' heavy sexual relationships with significant others with whom they have neither tastes nor ideas in common, and for whom they have no real respect -- but the "chemistry" is there, so they believe they're in love, and they think their "chemistry" is a good basis for marriage. Most people who have lived a little while on planet Earth, however, realize that sexual electricity is mercurial. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes it seems completely gone, and then, without warning, it springs back to life. Those who expect their married life to be one long sexual high are doomed to disappointment. So the wise ask themselves, "Do I genuinely like this person? Do I enjoy his/her company outside of the bedroom? Do I like talking with him/her, sharing space with him/her? Do we enjoy some of the same activities? Do we share interests? Are we friends?"

Those who answer "yes" to these questions have a much better chance of making it as a married couple than those proverbial opposites who attract. Those who answer "no" might want to consider that they'd be better off staying single.

Another important question: Does your significant other have healthy relationships with relatives of the opposite sex? Ladies, does your man like and respect his mother, his sister, his female cousins? Gentlemen, does your woman get along well with her father, her brother, her male cousins?

If the answer is "yes," this significant other might be a safe bet for a long-term relationship. This answer reveals that he/she is capable of relating to the opposite gender in ways other than sexual, and so sexuality may not be the sole yardstick by which he/she is prepared to measure you. Further, the person who gets along well with relatives of the opposite gender is more likely to view those of that gender as individuals rather than as an incomprehensible Type; he/she may be less likely to speak of "Men" or "Women" with that obvious capital letter in the voice, as a blanket group who share the same (usually annoying) traits.

But if the answer is "no," run like the proverbial wind. With very few exceptions, a significant other who has no healthy non-sexual relationships with the opposite gender cannot be trusted. He/she is more likely than anyone else to confuse sex with love and to leave friendship and respect out of the equation altogether.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Tragedy of Low Expectations, Part 2

It's easy to blame the growing disregard for commitment on popular culture.

I can still remember a moviegoing season when every time I went to the theater I had to put up with a trailer for "Road Trip." The film's basic premise is this: a college boy has loveless sex with a vulnerable girl; he's so proud of the deed that he videotapes it; the tape gets mailed accidentally to his girlfriend at a college across the country; he and his friends must race to retrieve the tape before it falls into her hands. We're supposed to root for them, but every time I saw the trailer, all I could think was, "If he never meant to be faithful to his girlfriend once they went to separate colleges, why didn't he just break up with her?" But then, commitment is not meant to be taken seriously in the world of "Road Trip," where one of the friends will tell a plus-size gal that he loves her just so he can claim her tiger-skin underwear as a trophy. Follow your Lower Halves, boys and girls.

It's not just "Road Trip," or even movies like it. Think for a moment of your favorite TV shows. Try to think of at least five shows in which an important character is happily, or at least stably, married.

Tough, isn't it? Yet single and divorced characters abound. If we had only television as our basis for judgment, we'd believe that in the U.S. population, married people are a distinct minority.

Oscar Wilde points out that those who say art imitates life are wrong; it is, in fact, life that imitates art. So it's easy to throw stones at popular culture and its highly questionable depictions of love, sex, and marriage. Too easy.

Pop culture may influence our choices, but it does not determine them. As I said in Part 1, and firmly believe, at the end of the day we are responsible for the choices we make. We can try to get rid of God's pesky gift of free will, but we'll fail. Our excuses are a sham. If we want to look for people to blame for the apparent disregard for monogamy and commitment, the cornerstone of the marriage vows, we may have to look in the mirror.

I once had a conversation with a young man who firmly believed that divorce was a natural progression from marriage. If you get married, you would inevitably get divorced; it was only a question of when. Such was his theory. I know where it came from: the example of his father, who had divorced his mother and soon divorced his stepmother, trading old spouse for new (and younger) every few years. In an easy-divorce culture, this example is not isolated.

A great part of a generation of young people has grown to adulthood without ever having seen a happily or stably married couple. Is it any wonder that they have more faith in divorce than in marriage?

Sure, we could blame pop culture. but we'd only be casting onto someone else the responsibility for fixing the problem.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Tragedy of Low Expectations, Part 1

Question of the day: Why does a man like Tiger Woods, who is clearly incapable of keeping a vow to be faithful to one woman only, ever get married at all?

Just in case you're thinking, "Oh, no, not another blog about Tiger Woods": substitute "David Letterman" for "Tiger Woods," and the question retains its relevance. Since promises of fidelity mean nothing to them, why do such men marry? (And, for that matter, why do such women marry? Female habitual cheaters, as incapable of monogamy as Woods or Letterman, do exist, but we tend to forget that because their stories don't make the news quite as often.)

I have yet to hear an answer to that question that I can live with. One lady very close to me explained, "They want children." Though I have an abundance of respect for this lady, I have a hard time swallowing this. When do men like Woods and Letterman have time to act as fathers? How many hours a day do they spend with their children? It can't be very many, because a promiscuous, bed-as-many-partners-as-you-can lifestyle is pretty time-consuming, even aside from all the hours consumed by golfing and late night talk show hosting. If having children means anything to people like this, it's as status and entitlement, not as the opportunity for a loving relationship. And if we may judge by their actions, "setting a good example" is the last thing on their minds. Heaven save us from fathers (and mothers) like this.

I can understand the dilemma of a bed-hopping politician. Politicians are always expected to marry; only one bachelor, James Buchanan, has ever been elected to the highest office of the land. For some reason, we don't vote for single guys or gals. This doesn't make much sense to me, but as long as voters throw their support towards the married rather than the single, politicians are going to seek trophy spouses to enhance their careers.

But professional athletes and entertainers? Will singleness compromise THEIR careers? It seems to me that we don't really care about the married lives of our actors, singers, talk show hosts, and athletes until something goes wrong; then, it's all we can talk about. We don't admire a home-run king more or less because of his marital status. Therefore, it can't possibly hurt him to stay single if he has a problem with monogamy. I am not the least bit interested in the number of sexual conquests that single men or women rack up. If they eventually find their hedonistic lifestyle empty, or if the revolving bedroom door really does make them happy, that's their business, between them and their own friends and family and whatever God they choose to worship.

But when married people behave in this way, it merits attention. Because the institution of marriage is in trouble, and the threat isn't coming from where we think. Many right-wing Christians would like to persuade us that the real danger lies in allowing gay people to marry. Wrong. The real danger comes from people who get married without the slightest intention, or perhaps capability, of keeping their vows. The example of Ellen DeGeneres is not a threat to marriage. The example of David Letterman is.

The worst thing I heard during the Bill Clinton scandal did not come from any politician. It came during a man-on-the-street interview, in which an average citizen remarked that what Clinton did was "no big deal" because "that's just what men do" -- as if the mere fact of being male renders an individual incapable of exercising self-control and discipline where sex is concerned. That may wash in an old Robin Williams comedy routine, but in point of fact, we are responsible for our behavior, sexually and otherwise. We can't hide behind such feeble excuses as "my gender made me do it."

The trouble is, excuses are the order of the day. They're the means by which we let ourselves off the proverbial hook. We don't have to make the effort to conduct our lives with honor and integrity if we know in advance that we will fail. Here we find the real poison that's afflicting the institution of marriage: low expectations -- of ourselves, of our spouses, of the world around us.

Low expectations compromise our closest relationships on so many levels that I can't list them all in a single blog -- hence the "Part 1" in my title. But every time a person, famous or otherwise, makes a vow to love, honor, cherish and remain faithful without any real understanding of that vow or intention of keeping it, that person is one more drop in the stormy ocean of low expectations. That ocean is already far too full.

So if you love a multiple-partner lifestyle, just stay single. If every bed-hopper did the same, true, we'd see fewer marriages, but what we're aiming for here is quality, not quantity.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hopes for a new year

I don't have a hard, fast list of specific resolutions as I look ahead to a new year and a new decade (just a couple of big, overarching ones). I do, however, have some hopes.

1. I hope that another year will come and go without a terrorist incident, a school shooting, or an attention-getting "missing child" story that ends with the discovery of a body.

2. I hope that "Toy Story 3" will be as smart, funny, and downright enjoyable as the first two films were (and also that Mrs. Potato Head won't have too many lines).

3. I hope that this year we will hear considerably fewer stories about athletes, politicians, and other high-profile figures cheating on their spouses. (Coming soon in this blog: why do men and women incapable of fidelity bother to get married in the first place?)

4. I hope that Season 4 of "The Muppet Show" will be released on DVD in the early part of this year, not the later part. I also hope that it will be complete, without those horrendous edits imposed by copywright issues that marred Season 1. (You can't really enjoy the Vincent Price episode without his closing cover of "You've Got a Friend." You just can't.)

5. I hope that I will teach my students lessons of real value.

6. I hope that I will be able to mold my good but overlong draft of a novel into a publishable shape and finally see my fiction in print.

7. I hope that the 2010 Winter Olympics will bring moments of excitement, pride, beauty, and sportsmanship at its finest.

8. I hope "Chuck" and "24" will have good seasons and that "Fringe" and "FlashForward" will finish strong.

9. I hope that the movie-studio powers-that-be will take pity on us classic movie fans and give "The African Queen" a decent DVD release at last. (I also hope the person who borrowed my imported copy and never returned it has an occasional pang of conscience when he sees it on his shelf.)

10. I hope our nation will be blessed with honor, strength, courage, and peace.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

More 'toon talk: three fine animated features you might have missed

In my last blog I praised the art of animation in the abstract; now it's time to get particular, and speak a word or two about a trio of features that don't get the attention (I feel) they deserve.

1. "The Iron Giant." I have to start with this one, because I still find myself getting irritated when I recall how badly this lovely film bombed at the box office, largely because Warner Bros., once King of the Animated Short Subject, couldn't think how to market it. Some viewers with a lamentable tendency to see everything in a political light might dismiss this movie as an anti-firearms tirade. Admittedly, if you want to see it in that light, you certainly can. But as a coming-of-age story, it's involving and touching. It echoes "E.T." yet goes that famous film one better by including sharp satire on the 1950s Cold War climate; its villainous McCarthyite government agent is a figure of fun rather than fear (larger forces supply the fear). Now, the film does have one weakness, for me -- the same one, in fact, that I found in "E.T." -- in that the young hero's mother, the only significant femal character, is a bland, passive nonentity, kept out of the action for 90% of the film, completely susceptible to Mr. McCarthyite's lines (no brain trust, she), and incapable of making any meaningful contribution. It doesn't help that she's voiced by Jennifer Aniston, whom I dislike. But in the end, this weakness pales into insignificance beside the intriguing figure of the title character. Vin Diesel does his best work here.

2. "Whisper of the Heart." This one comes from Studio Ghibli, Japan's equivalent of the Walt Disney Studio (back when said studio knew what it was doing, at least), and is written, though not directed, by the masterful Hayao Miyazaki. That alone should be enough to persuade anime fans to check out this thoughtful love story, surprisingly mature, especially considering that its two central characters are middle-schoolers. All of us who can remember our first loves can identify with them. This film offers an antidote to the drivel of "Twilight," in which a distressingly bland "heroine" allows her bloodsucker stalker to subsume her will in his and do all her thinking for her: the two sweethearts in this film don't lose themselves in each other, but rather find themselves. Admiring the talent of the boy she's come to love, the heroine, Shizuku, decides that she too should find something extraordinary in herself. Rather than setting aside her ambitions, she lays claim to them. She's the anti-Bella Swan, and female animation fans should get to know her. (Warning: please watch this film in its original Japanese! The subtitles are worth it, trust me. I've seen both dubbed and subtitled versions, and the dialogue in the latter is much more meaningful and beautiful.)

3. "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut." Both my previous recommendations are good entertainment for families as well as adult animation fans, but here's one that was never, never, NEVER intended for children. What's it about? Well, a group of crusading soccer moms get the idea that a pair of foul-mouthed Canadian comedians are responsible for all of America's ills, and push the U.S. to the brink of war with its northern neighbor. Who can stop them? "La Resistance," of course, led by a pack of elementary-schoolers! This film leaves no sacred cow unslaughtered; viewers who can accept this, and can learn to revel in the slaughter, should find it hilarious from start to finish. "SP: BL&U" also has a bonus my two previous recommendations lack: it's a musical, and I love musicals. But this musical, as it happens, satirizes musicals. The opening number, "Mountain Town," lampoons the standard-issue (for the '90s) Disney musical opening number; later, we get a sugary ballad in which the Prince of Darkness sings of his longing to leave his hellish home and see the world above. (I warned you: no sacred cow unslaughtered.) Other musical highlights include "It's Easy, M'Kay," "I'm Super," and a number with a title too profane for me to mention here. (You'll know it when you see it.)

If you're an animation lover and you haven't seen these, check them out, in no particular order.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Why I love cartoons

America has a problem that other filmmaking nations of the world don't seem to share. That problem is the notion that animated features and shorts should be considered primarily entertainment for children.

Because of this notion, many adult fans of animation like myself are made to think we're "overgrown children" who should be ashamed of our affection for the likes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Dumbo. I've even heard fellow adult animation fans tell stories of getting nasty looks from parents when they go to see a matinee of an animated film, because those parents think they must be weirdos at best, pedophiles at worst. (If you're an adult fan of animation and want to avoid this, go to late-night showings. Obviously the theater owners don't think animation appeals only to children, or they wouldn't offer late-night showtimes for animated features.) Our love for cartoons gets criticized and questioned to the point where we sometimes won't admit it until we meet another adult with a Bugs Bunny pin or a Donald Duck watch, and then we heave a great sigh of relief and dive into happy conversation with our fellow "weirdo."

All ye who love cartoons, be not ashamed. Be proud. Every cinema year brings with it a lot of lousy cartoons whose writers and artists probably buy that "cartoons-are-for-kids" lie. But a well-done animated feature is perhaps the purest form of cinema, accomplishing what movies were always meant for. Movies, ladies and gentlemen, were never intended to express Life As It Is. At their best, they offer a glimpse of Life As It Could Be, whether that vision of possibility is comforting or terrifying. (The best cartoons show us both; witness how "Fantasia" moves from the charming mushroom dance in the "Nutcracker" sequence to the horrific nightmare-visions of "Night on Bald Mountain.") Cartoons are the art of possibility, with everything from the facial expressions of the characters to the hills and valleys they navigate springing from the minds of the artist.

Adults may love cartoons for a variety of reasons. I can only give my own.

1) The best cartoons offer a sense of wonder. The curtain goes up on a landscape of dreams, whether those dreams be bright or dark. When a movie, even a very good movie, has a contemporary, realistic setting, I see little point in seeing it in the theater, because such a movie works just as well on DVD, in one's own house, where one is surrounded by all the appurtenances of modern life. Cartoons, however, should ideally be seen first at the movie theater, where the Real World goes dark and patrons can immerse themselves completely in the otherworld on the screen.

2) The best cartoons combine intelligence and sentiment. Too many of today's live-action films ask their audiences to check either their brains or their hearts at the door; they're either sugary-sappy or corrosively cynical, with little room for anything in between. But a well-made animated film can be sweet AND smart, and critics (who usually favor the corrosively cynical) will praise it.

3) The best cartoons are made to appeal to a general audience -- not just children, not just adults, not just men or women or teenagers or any other "niche audience." Any thoughtful moviegoer, regardless of age or gender, can identify with a well-told story and the dilemmas of well-thought-out characters, such as we see in the likes of "The Incredibles," "WALL-E" or "Up." (Coming soon on this blog: "Why I love Pixar.") The characters don't have to look like us or talk like us or share our particular background; we relate to them because they speak to needs deep within us -- the need for love and companionship and community, the need for self-actualization and accomplishment, the need to stand for something, and, of course, the need to laugh at ourselves.

I'm not saying that live-action films can't give us these things, too. Some do, though many don't choose to. But with all that cartoons have to offer, it's ridiculous to dismiss them all out of hand as "juvenile entertainment." Granted, bad cartoons don't have much to say to anyone except the youngest of moviegoers (chronologically, mentally, or both). But good cartoons -- from the classic Warner Brothers shorts to the offerings of Pixar -- have plenty to say to everyone.

In his introduction to one of the best reference books on the Warners cartoons, no less a figure than Ray Bradbury notes that his friends know better than to telephone him when "The Bugs Bunny Show" is airing. (This, alas, reflects a time when those wonderful shorts aired regularly on TV.)
I'll let Mr. Bradbury have the last word.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Red Nanny State, Blue Nanny State

WARNING: Libertarian perspective ahead

Many liberals and a dismaying number of conservatives cherish deep affection for Nanny Government. They differ only in what they think her purpose is. For liberals, it's Nanny Government's job to make life fair. For conservatives, it's her job to make us good.

Liberal Nanny Government wants us to worry about what our neighbor eats (trans fats are eeeeeevil!) and what car our neighbor drives (watch out for that carbon print!). Conservative Nanny Government, on the other hand, thinks we should be deeply concerned about whom our neighbors might be sleeping with (because their sex lives might jeopardize our own marriage!). The sensible middle course -- that each individual should do his or her best to live a life of honor and joy, self-control and creativity, discipline and courage, and should not obsess unduly about what his or her neighbors eat or drive or whom they sleep with -- is lost on Nanny Government and those who worship her.

Because Nanny Government knows what's best for us. She's not out to hurt anyone, Heaven forbid. She only wants to see that every citizen gets an equal share of our nation's prosperity (the liberal side), or that our precious children are protected or at least warned against the evils of books like "Harry Potter" and movies like "Avatar" (the conservative side). She's doing what she does for your own good, because that whole "making your own decisions" thing? It's so overrated and only stresses you out. Turn it all over to someone else. Big Brother loves you.

But speaking for myself, I rather like the whole "making my own decisions" thing. I like the idea that I might be trusted to avoid trans fats without having Nanny Government ban them, and to do sufficient research to make a sensible car purchase. I don't trust Nanny Government to plan my menus, and I don't trust her to serve as my marriage counselor.

It isn't the government's job to make life fair, or to make us good. It's the government's job to safeguard the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the right to choose whether or not to buy a candy bar from a vending machine at school. The government has a duty to see that U.S. citizens never have to live under oppressive Sharia law, and that no autocrat will ever attempt to smother me in a burka. That's the business they need to be about -- now!

Happy New Year to all.