Legalize Marijuana Already

Aquarian Weekly 6/15/05 REALITY CHECK

LEGALIZE MARIJUANA ALREADY

MarijunaThe day everybody got stoned, it was a Thursday, The sky was blue and the birds sang pretty. Traffic moved really, really, really, really, really slow But no one cared, they had the tunes cranking loud Really, really, really, really, really, really loud. The cops stayed in the donut shop all day No one got shot, no one got robbed, Although eleven million people ended up quitting their jobs. – Dan Bern

I often turn to my good friend Admiral Bernstein in times of sociological or political crisis. He’s like Twain in the wisdom department, except he’s alive and I can have a laugh with him anytime I want. Twain would have seen the need to legalize marijuana in this country, and not because it would boost the economy and mellow everyone the hell out, but because a preponderance of us blow it anyway, and Mrs. Clemens’ baby boy hated denial and hypocrisy. And, most of all, it makes little sense for a society hell-bent on gobbling every pharmaceutical drug known to modern science, guzzle galloons of alcohol daily, and mainline coffee freely and without regret to act all high and mighty about grass.

I know this is the Age of Morality and the Republicans are using God and Family to keep jobs they don’t deserve, but this latest ruling by the Supreme Court that “marijuana may not be distributed to persons who prove a medical necessity for the drug” is patently criminal. Where’s the morality in that? And where are the Tom Delays now that sick people are being denied treatment? Is someone with glaucoma any less inflicted than Terry Schiavo, or is it that the churchgoing Bible freaks are against the evil pot?

I think we know the answer to that one.

It’s selective morality. I ask you: Who decides what treatment is evil?

I’ve recently learned there are morality clauses in some half-dozen states that allow pharmacists to deny women birth control pills based on the personal beliefs of the pharmacist, but that is so far off the charts unconstitutional I will leave it up to comedians and women’s groups to grapple with. I’m on the weed thing right now.

Okay, so Selective Morals goes nicely with our Selective Foreign Policy of whom we choose to free from tyrannical regimes and whose oppressed citizenry of tradable nations we ignore, but it doesn’t wash in the realm of sober reasoning. And this is what we deal with in this space, despite it being ignored in just about every media and press outlet in this country.

Let’s be honest, the stigma of marijuana is deep. It carries with it a demonization that rarely attaches itself to booze or gambling. Why? Detractors argue it is because it’s dangerous and leads to harder drug use. This is a fairy tale. You know why? There is no scientific proof to this argument. And this is the same argument (no scientific proof) that the Supreme Court offers on the issue of medicinal use of the drug.

To wit: “Marijuana has no currently accepted medical use in the case of the Controlled Substances Act, the statute reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception (outside the confines of a government-approved research project).”

Is someone with glaucoma any less inflicted than Terry Schiavo, or is it that the churchgoing Bible freaks are against the evil pot?

This was Justice Clarence Thomas’ statement following the ruling, and it speaks volumes.

Let’s break it down.

It is okay to refuse the prescription of a drug based on little to no scientific proof while simultaneously denying its effectiveness based on the same criteria. How is that possible? And who the hell knows what is good or bad, really? Government agencies? The same government agencies that continuously pass pharmaceutical drugs and then yank them back when dangerous side effects start mounting? The same government agencies that tell us eggs are good, eggs are bad, eggs are good, eggs are bad…what the fuck?

Thomas’ final parenthetical aside is paramount to understanding this discrimination against cannabis – “Outside the confines of government-approved research project.” Do you know what gets the government-approved projects? Big time pharmaceutical concerns that lobby the shit out of congress and share in the grotesque profits of said drugs, that’s who.

Once again, we get moral rhetoric to hide greed. And that’s okay. We readily accept greed. We don’t begrudge anyone making a buck on Fear. It is the pillar of capitalism. But using the same tactic to beat down the competition is suppose to be a form a racketeering and is regulated by free-trade laws, except ganja can’t get the same treatment, because its illegal.

Believe me, if the oil companies could outlaw electricity or the meat companies could outlaw soy products, they sure as hell would. But it’s hard to get Mom and Pop riled up about Veggie burgers. There is no stigma against that. Damn it! But there is one against marijuana, and that’s the hammer used to keep it illegal.

I don’t smoke pot, so personally I couldn’t give half a shit if it were legalized or not. I dig on absinthe, which is rightfully illegal and would likely cripple half the pot smokers in this country. But at least I’m honest enough to admit what is happening to hemp has no basis in fact or merit. It is capricious and arbitrary reasoning, like the morality arguments that support it. Furthermore, if you think about it, there is no basis in reality for moral arguments being included in the law. And don’t give me bullshit about crimes like theft and murder being symptomatic of a moral construct. These acts infringe on civil rights, how exactly does smoking dope to alleviate pain infringe on anyone’s rights?

Okay, so you legalize marijuana and everyone is lazy and forgetful and eats too much junk food, Pink Floyd makes a comeback and people say “man” a lot. So what? Its no worse than assholes dancing around football games in sub-zero weather with their shirt off or college girls whipping off their tops for a video clip or Dick Chaney going on national television and telling everyone the Iraq war would last two weeks.

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Erotic Expo 2005

Aquarian Weekly 5/25/05 REALITY CHECK

PEDDLING MORALITY IN THE DEN OF INIQUITY Why Christian Extremists Get First Class Treatment At A Porn Convention

Tera Patrick“I’m from the Christian Coalition for Decency & Moral Servitude,” I announced with the piggish authority of a professional. The doe-eyed staffer for the 2005 Erotic Expo stood with mouth agape, stunned, but cordial. “Excuse me, sir?” he asked politely, trying hard to feign deafness. I repeated my phony title more forcefully this time; waving at him an old plastic Bill Bradley Campaign credential I had rattling around in my bag. “Uh, um, well, do you have a pass for this event?” he asked, tugging nervously on his nifty yellow uniform. I told him I did not.

“Why do I need a pass, kind sir?” I shouted. “I have a pass from the Lord!”

The lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania, another in a series of renovated ancient accommodations in midtown Manhattan, buzzed all around me. The eager traders of flesh were oblivious to my regal stance. It was painfully evident that smut was being peddled here, and I thought it best to see how strident these Purveyors of Pornography are when faced with a salty Soldier of God.

The illusion was miraculous, seeing how I was dressed in the usual frumpy journalist garb; wrinkled shirt sloppily untucked beneath a ragged blue blazer, coffee-stained jeans and a whirring mini-tape recorder clutched in my right fist, which I used it to shake violently at the press secretary, a handsomely tanned middle-aged man with an unnerving grin.

“I’ve come to record names, addresses and income figures of your merchants of filth!” I told him.

“No one apprised us of your arrival, Mister…?”

“Koczan,” I told him. It was the first name I thought of, and the managing editor of this magazine. Poor soul. He sends me an e-mail every week asking if there is anything he could do, so I figured lending his name to this charade is as good an anything as there is.

After much haggling, dropping a few power names like Ralph Reed, Bill Bennett, Sean Hannity, Larry Flynt, and claiming first class citizenship in the Republican Super Rangers (big cash lobbyists for the Religious Right) I managed to procure a pass.

Once inside, I decided to keep the impersonation on the down low. No sense riling up the festivities with any talk of Jesus or Tom Delay. Wait to spring it on them at the last minute after they give it up.

It was time to extricate myself from the proceedings and not speak a word of this to anyone. Who expected the ghost of Calvin Coolidge to beat in the heart of horny?

“I’m from Maxim,” I told the marketing spokesman for Epic Adult World, a chunky mustached fellow named Scott, who perked up when he thought his musings on the fastest growing industry in the United States, which, by the way, earns billions of dollars a year with 98.9% American sweat and tears, would appear in the nation’s hottest magazine. “We toil for the most domestically solvent industry in this country,” Scott beamed. “There’s no outsourcing in porn.”

He was a proud American, and it was hard to lie to him, or at least perpetuate the second lie, the one about me representing Maxim, an odd choice, especially since my letter-bomb mishap of 2002 has made it nearly impossible for me to sell them anything. So I went back to the first lie.

“You’re from a Christian Organization?” Scott laughed, and then promptly called over a spokesman for E & A Video Magazine, who reminded me that in the last decade alone the number of adult production companies, actors, agencies, and distributors has quadrupled. This includes the obligatory influx of enthusiastic money minds like accountants and investors. “In 1990, for instance, porn companies and studios in California’s San Fernando Valley (known among the insiders as Porn Valley, USA) has gone from dozens to hundreds,” the grayish pipe smoking friendly explained. “You’re talking about entire towns being kept in the black by the production and sale of video sex acts.”

Knowing I was opposed to their line of work seemed to delight these guys. It was as if I tapped into why so many young men claim to be Bible Thumpers. Free access to porn, I surmised, an enviable coup for any growing American deviant to say the least.

I was about to sermonize on eternal damnation when a young gentleman representing Eighty-East Entertainment, a major online shipping porn service from right here in Wyckoff, NJ provided me hardcore (pun intended) profit numbers set in graph form. The image was staggering. Since 1998, there appeared not one ripple in the graph line. It rode unimpeded up and to the right, the kind of gaudy illustration of profit margins that would keep Donald Trump hard for weeks.

Staring at the graph I was reminded of an old Chrysler axiom coined by Lee Iacocca before he had his third nervous breakdown and rammed a steam ship with his yacht while screaming incoherently about Karl Marx: Money Talks/God Walks.

That’s when my buddies over at Genesis magazine, (a periodical I freelanced for when they actually had articles) started parading over porn stars for a chat. Scantly clad women from bright-eyed mid-twenties to hard-bitten thirties; enhanced, slender, bold as sailors, and richer than Jay-Lo. Nearly every one of the half dozen I spoke with either own production companies, modeling agencies, marketing firms or act as spokespersons and CEOs for full-scale pay web sites, which actually make money – not like some financial sinkhole like Amazon. These women with interesting stage monikers like Tera Patrick, Taylor Wane, Olivia O’Lovely, among others have homes on both coasts, high-rise offices and actually own their likenesses, something I’m sure Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson don’t.

Oh, and by the way, they’re all Christians. So I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was an imposter and I couldn’t give half a fart what they did for cash, as long as it was fairly legal and didn’t involve me having to sell shoes.

It was time to extricate myself from the proceedings and not speak a word of this to anyone. Who expected the ghost of Calvin Coolidge to beat in the heart of horny?

“Once you do a film, there’s no going back,” remarked Patrick, a tall brunette with the kind of eyes that tell tales. She is reportedly one of the biggies, second only to the legendary Jenna Jameson in transcending the T & A crowd. She makes a handful of videos a year, or at least enough to stockpile a backlog to vend well into her early retirement.

She’s not yet 30.

I’m 42 and impersonating a Christian activist at a NYC porn expo for a thousand word column.

We had a laugh about that and I went home, cranked this out, and went about checking out the two hundred penis enhancement ads in my e-mail box.

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Lay Off The Catholics

Aquarian Weekly 4/20/05 REALITY CHECK

LAY OFF THE CATHOLICS

Pope John Paul IIMy favorite thing about this 24-hour harangue of televised and radio-addled news commentary and coverage is the hyping and lauding over an event until the marrow is sucked dry and then we’re left with the inevitable backlash. We’re experiencing this now with the passing of Pope John Paul II. I’m pretty sure the funeral is finally over. I could be wrong. It might still be going. Like Reagan’s interminable send off these things seem to take on a life of their own like David Blaine living in a box for weeks.

But assuming they finally buried the Pope, after weeks and reams of praise and plaudits and tributes, we get the “The Pope Was A Misogynist!” “The Pope Turned A Blind Eye to Aids In Africa!” “The Catholic Church Is Atavistic Voodoo!” The Catholic Hierarchy Excuses And Harbors Known Pedophiles!” All predictable, and, I might add, asinine. Not nearly as asinine as claiming the Pope or Ronald Reagan’s lunatic arms race or kids holding hands in a quilt or some such bullshit ended communism in eastern Europe.

All together now…

COMMUNISM IMPLODED BECAUSE THERE IS NO MONEY IN IT.

I have written that in this space more times than the “F” word, and man, that ain’t a little.

You see what people don’t get is that religion, specifically organized religion, and in the case of the Vatican, a major league powerful, billion-dollar world altering religion has to have strict – balls to the wall – dogma to exist. Some of it acts as a sound guideline. Some of it stinks with antiquity. Some of it is wacky. Some of it borders on sacred. The Catholics are silly with this stuff. Believe me, I was one. But it is not for us to deride. It is their deal, and the Pope, although this one was quite the traveler and commentator on world events and as progressive as Popes go, was the infallible mouthpiece for the church’s dogma.

I dug this Pope, for the most part. His written apology stuck in Jerusalem’s Western Wall for eons of anti-Semitic actions, murders, and other mayhem at the hands of the Roman Catholic charges is one of the most humbly sympathetic and mind-altering gestures performed by any human in the 20th century. And when he was shot by that crazy Turk, and then healed up and came back and hugged him. That was downright Jesus stuff. Not the Jesus Christ Jesus, but you know, the Jewish ascetic from Nazareth. Forget it.

Anyway, as far as Popes go, this one was brilliant, charismatic, and widely influential. But he’s the friggin’ Pope. The Catholic Church is NEVER going to allow women priests or advocate birth control or lean a little on the abortion issue, or sell their own priesthood – the backbone of the religion – down the river for a few deviant scum. It’s like the mafia or the NYPD. They take care of their own.

You don’t like it, don’t join, or get out! Suck it up! It’s a religion.

I don’t like to see a cardinal who shielded known pedophiles preside over a tribute mass for the Pope anymore than I like to see a murderer like Ted Kennedy as an acting senator or ex-cons like Ollie North hosting debate shows on cable. But, hey, it’s their gig. I wash my hands of it, and whatever they want to do is fine with me.

This tidbit of angst came up last year when I got a ton of mail telling me I was being flippant about this gay Episcopal bishop issue. Remember that craziness? So I repeat: you want to be gay, use condoms, be a woman with equal rights to perform ceremonies, or get a pound of flesh for people diddling your kids, then go somewhere else. You’re not Catholic then. Find a new thing. People do it all the time. There are tons of faiths out there, and mostly, they’re pretty much the same crap.

This is not like politics where you can have a pro-choice Republican or a pro-war Democrat. It’s not likely they’ll be invited to the monthly weenie roast, but why not? It’s fun, keeps the democracy thing on its toes. But this just in: Catholicism is a theocracy.

When I read or hear these outcries against certain religious tenets I cannot help but consider the source for the 9/11 disaster. It was the failure of this country’s leaders to see the lunacy of fundamentalism, in this case Islamic. This is not unlike the voting public failing to see that their president is a religious fanatic – if he really believes this nonsense, of which I’m not totally convinced. But let’s just say George W. Bush really believes Jesus Christ told him that God wants us to free Iraq. I’m pretty sure he’s said this in major magazines, but maybe I was drunk. What now, tootie?

You see, we are so anesthetized to the rhythmic din of faith as mania we hardly notice when people leaping around in burkas in the middle of nowhere leads to crashing planes into our buildings. But it’s real. And that’s when things must be debated or, in some sober cases, bombed into oblivion. With the Catholics, it’s basically; they don’t go in for the gay/condom/woman deacon thing. And, really, who believes young boys claiming they’ve been violated?

I blame the Pope for none of it, especially John Paul II. He was The Man. Jeez, he had the two names that reek of Christianity – St. John, the guy responsible for all those signs at football games, and St. Paul, the guy responsible, let’s face it, for the football games. The Pope represented the dogma to the end. He did his job, for which you cannot make the same assessment on about two-thirds of this abysmal government of ours.

You don’t like it, don’t join, or get out! Suck it up! It’s a religion. How would Major League Baseball like it if the commissioner one day decided that everyone should use tennis rackets and head directly to third base upon hitting safely? Or how do think the NRA would react if the new director made some kind of statement to the effect of “Guns are bad” on national television tomorrow? Hey, how about if the immigration department just let thousands of illegal aliens march over the border daily and the federal government granted them driver’s licenses? Yeah, how’d you…

Oh, right.

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Hunter Stockton Thompson 1937-2005

Aquarian Weekly 3/2/05 REALITY CHECK

HUNTER STOCKTON THOMPSON 1937-2005

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. ThompsonHunter Thompson is to me what Jesus Christ is to Born Again Christians. Period. Whether you go for that kind of thing or not, I think you get what I mean: Before him, darkness, afterwards, everything. Salvation. Enlightenment. Resurrection. If you think the comparison mad or inappropriate, perhaps try on John Lennon’s quote about Elvis Presley – “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Maybe those are not fitting enough analogies, but it’s the best I can come up with minutes after hearing of Thompson’s death, a suicide, like Hemingway, his hero – alone, at home, dead. Thompson once wrote about Hemingway’s fatal gun wound, brutally eloquent and without regret, like everything he would ever write. No compromise. No wavering.

“That power of conviction is a hard thing for a writer to sustain,” he wrote of Hemingway’s suicide in the spring of 1964 for the National Observer. “And especially so when he becomes conscious of it.”

My worship of Thompson’s work, and the man himself, dedicated to living the soul of his craft, wasn’t a gradual awakening for me. It was sudden, like a rubber mallet to the temple. No, it was more like a blow to the solar plexus. Remember when you were clocked so hard as a kid your lungs would cease to function for what seemed like an eternity? They used to call it “losing your wind.” Yeah, from the first line of the first piece I read by Hunter S. Thompson, I lost my wind.

Nothing was ever the same for me. Career, books, journalism; I owe a great deal of it to Hunter Thompson.

I have read better books by more accomplished authors, studied the work of finer satirists or social and political commentators, and followed the careers of more influential journalists. But not one of them, none had the concussive impact, the bone jarring, blood-rising, skin-tingling assault of the worst of Thompson’s work for me.

If you do not know of it, then you have missed out. Just know that authors inspire young writers, but scribes like Thompson, Twain or Mencken do not inspire, they abduct. Taken hostage, bound and gagged and beaten mercilessly from the first sentence. It is violent and disturbing, like all of life’s greatest gifts, not unlike an actual birth, with pain and screaming and blood everywhere.

Freedom. Danger. Humor. Anger. Honesty. Spite. Abuse. Fun.

Words as weapons; torrid, irrational, explicit, the literary equivalent of the frantic grappling of a drowning man. When nothing else can capture what kind of bizarre existence we endure, there are always the words. Strangling perception. Furious and unyielding. Funny as hell. Serious as a cardiac.

This kind of emotional sucker-punch will get you moving in the direction of your muse. Yes it will. You will write, motherfucker. You will not shy from the gory details, and you will not let the phony bastards have the last word. Not when the words can flow like a viscous, pounding flood; a storm of words lunging from the page. I didn’t read Hunter Thompson. I felt Hunter Thompson. I did not guess. I knew, intrinsically, like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. Thrown to the ground from my steed. And when I got up, I could not help but write.

If you have the slightest tinge in your constitution to write, really write, without the net – to stand in the fire and take the ammo, tear out pieces of your id and juggle your ego, take strides on the wild and peer unblinking into the abyss, then you know about Hunter Thompson.

I knew about Twain and Mencken before Hunter Thompson. I knew about Kerouac and Kesey and Vonnegut. I stood in awe. I enjoyed. But when I read Thompson, I wrote.

If you have the slightest tinge in your constitution to write, really write, without the net – to stand in the fire and take the ammo, tear out pieces of your id and juggle your ego, take strides on the wild and peer unblinking into the abyss, then you know about Hunter Thompson. You know about the writer, because the real writer does not claim, he testifies, he does not loiter, he arrives, he does not parry, he plunges.

Praise the Lord.

Unfortunately or fortunately for Hunter Thompson, he plied his trade in the age of celebrated stupidity. By which I mean the age of non-readers, non-thinkers, voyeurs and reactors. I believe Thompson called it a Generation of Swine. Ironically, these are the same people who worshipped him as an icon of the drug culture, of the violence and despondence that comes from ignorance. They know him best for the beast and the clown that beats in the heart of the maverick. And he wore the cloak of outlaw well. He lived the art, as I mentioned above; the man as the craft. Not a fabricated, distilled version of the artist, and brethren to his poetic and musical partner in crime, Bob Dylan.

Another pretty fair satirist, Oscar Wilde once mused, “I use my talent for my work. I save my genius for my life.”

How do you explain Thompson’s finest work, his most historically revolutionary art, having been published in a rock n’ roll pop culture magazine? Long after Thompson had begun to invent things like “new journalism” and the word he coined that now appears in Webster’s and the modern encyclopedia, Gonzo, Rolling Stone magazine acted as the launching pad for one of the most prolific periods of journalistic fiction in modern times. Hunter Thompson as his generation’s acrobat.

That is where Thompson set his bazookas on politics. He survived Chicago in ’68, Saigon in the last days, hit the road with the McGovern ’72 campaign, ravaged Watergate and Nixon, and beyond. Way beyond; “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” beyond. It was the book that cemented him as the 20th century Dante. “Pay the ticket, take the ride,” he wrote. Stare into the face of madness, bad craziness, regret and fury; that is what he came for, and now he goes back from wherever these brilliant creatures come from.

And I will miss him and pang at the thought that he will no longer write. Forget the booze and the drugs and the bombs and the sex and the rest. There will be no more missives from Hunter S. Thompson. I will miss his infrequent and badly handled visits to New York. I will miss my stolen chats with him, the contents and subjects of which I will take to the grave. I will miss the way he raised his eyebrows when he was thinking and that mischievous chuckle into his armpit whenever he was sure there would be trouble.

His friend and colleague, British artist, Ralph Steadman once wrote of Thompson, “He raged against the coming of the light, rather than the dying of the light.”

But I think the Good Doctor of Journalism said it best: “There is not much mental distance between a feeling of having been screwed and the ethic of total retaliation, or at least the kind of random revenge that comes with outraging the public decency.”

Amen.

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Michael Jackson Is In Deep Shit

Aquarian Weekly 2/16/05 REALITY CHECK

MICHAEL JACKSON IS IN DEEP SHIT

The Jacko ShowPretty soon Michael Jackson will go on trial for molesting a prepubescent cancer survivor.

I think I need to write that again, because for reasons best left to sociologists or the producers of Entertainment Tonight, I’ve been seeing a great deal of undo attention paid to his fashion choices on the way to the courthouse, his entourage, the whole umbrella waving thing and the occasional babbling nonsense from a family member.

Let it sink in: Pretty soon Michael Jackson will go on trial for molesting a prepubescent cancer survivor.

In all due respect to those of you that complain of the coarse “gutter” language displayed weekly in this space; that is some serious shit.

And if you even remotely read this column, you know well that for the very first time (drum roll please) I believe a major league celebrity is actually going to see time.

So if you care about such things, I’d alert those people who managed to interpret the O.J. Simpson verdict as some kind of culture victory, because this generation’s Fatty Arbuckle isn’t just hitting the gold record wall, he’s fixing for an orange jump suit.

Don’t get me wrong; there is still a sinisterly cynical part of me that fully expects there to be some kind of pay off scenario.

But so far, unlike the last time (as if there being a last time is anything less than unconscionable) there is a motivated witness and no sign of a civil suit. These people, the kid and the guardian, are serious, and that is bad news for the King of Pop.

But for those still holding out hope that this is all about greed, celebrity bashing, or let’s pick on the easy mark with the mannequin face and the Howard Hughes existence, the facts of the claim seem somewhat hazy. Specifically the gray area between a confused and embarrassed child unwilling to come forth that had to be coerced by adults and the ensuing imagined revisionist cries for help to expunge any blame or embarrassment. Kids do this all the time, regardless of the gravity of the event.

To wit: A few years ago the kid (and by kid I’m stretching it, because at 12 years old myself, or anyone I grew up with would have found it laughably ridiculous to end up being seduced by a 45 year old weirdo with cotton candy and merry-go-rounds) was seen across the globe in a highly publicized British documentary putting his little head on Michael Jackson’s shoulder as the singer effused gleefully his joy and inalienable right to sleep in the same bed as visiting young boys. From there the poor kid was understandably abused by his friends, given the third degree by mom and sent to counseling where he began spinning explicit stories of inappropriate behavior and blatant sexual encounters.

Once the councilor alerted the authorities light bulbs went on.

This is a classic example of wrong time, wrong place, wrong defendant.

Jackson has a past with the LAPD. They were railroaded in 1993 when a second accuser bailed and the remaining alleged victim reportedly took $20 million to make the case go away. Now with the latest allegations, there would be a hue and cry. “What the hell are you people doing about that crazy middle-aged man running around a private compound with little children, many of them unsupervised and ending up in residence?”

For those not buying the paranoid mania defense, there is also the handy; if Jackson had a sexual proclivity toward young boys he would have been more careful about hiding it. Instead, almost immediately after the ’93 case was settled he was back in the public eye romping about with children and inviting scores of prepubescent boys by for sleepovers and whisking their star-crossed parents to Vegas or around the world in his private jet. There were never any of the usual fronts, unless you count the overtly business-arranged marriage and child rearing that is far too bizarre to sanely extrapolate here.

But forgiving Michael Jackson for a robbed childhood splashed upon the public, repeated beatings by his father, and the heaps of mental abuse a child must endure when being whisked around the world and sharing hotel rooms with older, sexually-charged brothers is one thing. Letting him walk on what could be the ugly results of these abuses by abusing (in one form or another) other children is an entirely different animal.

Hey, I think anyone paying attention realizes that for whatever reason Michael Jackson, through his art, his lifestyle, his physical manipulation, his strangely affected public image has been crying out for help. He is a victim in too many instances to cite, but this should not get him off this time.

Neither will the fame nor the money that has sheltered him for decades. And it’s not only paybacks for Jackson. This is a far different culture than when the O.J. Simpson Trial became the Great American Circus. There is a serious lockdown on social mores today. The Republican/Conservative government take-over, the FCC threats of imposed decency (spear-headed in an ironic twist by Michael’s sister Janet’s Super Bowl incident), explosion of hard-line religious fanaticism, and a 9/11 backlash that has given the FBI free range to spy, confiscate and infiltrate anyone anywhere. Not to mention the comeuppance for a long nasty history of Los Angeles Police Department screw-ups.

And we are talking about a prepubescent cancer survivor here.

This is a classic example of wrong time, wrong place, wrong defendant.

Michael Jackson is America’s celebrity experiment. Some kind of preternatural Skinner Box child, who grew up in a fishbowl with no boundaries and sense of self beyond what the Billboard charts indicated. He is a mess. And that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t get the rest of us messy. And this case is messy. Very messy.

If he is guilty, he goes to prison. Case closed.

If he is not, and this is merely a way we can regurgitate our cultural mistakes, exorcise our age of celebrity worship/assassination by making Michael Jackson a pariah because he cannot relate to anyone over the age of 13, or, god forbid, a woman, that we need him chained in the attic like our own Motown Boo Radley, then we wear his shame.

Either way Michael Jackson is in deep shit.

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“Planet Simpson” Review

Aquarian Weekly 12/29/04 REALITY CHECK

DANGEROUS ART NETWORKED DAILY
In Praise of The Simpsons & An Engaging New Book That Hits The Mark

The Simpsons“And so it has gone for the Great American Joke, from Mark Twain to H.L. Mencken to Lenny Bruce to National Lampoon. If you look closely at a recent map of the United States of America and find a chasm where the Great American Joke lives – scenic, satirical Hypocritical Gap – there you find Springfield, U.S.A.” – Chris Turner from “Planet Simpson”

For 16 seasons The Simpsons; the sharpest, most biting satire ever unleashed outside the underground and splashed onto the global mainstream, has managed to affect the cultural landscape while simultaneously ripping its fabric to hilarious shreds. It is the most subversive kind of art, sprung from the very medium it attacks, gaining the popularity and relevance of an international icon, while also being its most uncompromising critic. For a mere TV show, a cartoon one at that, it is unique in its construct, dissemination, and finally its vast and varied audience, which include poet laureates to head’s of state, rock stars, and scores of professors from the loftiest heights of academia. So now finally we have a study of its brilliance and influence worthy of the subject. It is a 400-plus page tribute, dissection, and investigation entitled “Planet Simpson – How A Cartoon Masterpiece Defined A Generation” by Canadian journalist and pop culture essayist, Chris Turner.

Someone had to do it, and for all true fans of what could be deemed (as many critique circles already have) the best show in television history, it would appear the right man for the job did.

“When many critics or fans discuss they’re favorite rock band or filmmaker, they’re convinced that whatever is happening within that phenomenon will change everything,” Turner told me in our discussion earlier this month. “But there are so few cases when that is actually the case. The Simpsons are one of those.”

From The Simpsons’ heralded and over hyped infancy to its Golden Age of the early to mid-90s’, which Turner calls “an awesome achievement in pop art”, all the way through its incredible level of consistency in writing, voice-acting, production, and direction, “Planet Simpson” expertly reviews and defines the longest running prime time television comedy by leaving no philosophical or cultural query unturned. Turner’s astoundingly encyclopedic research on the hundreds of episodes and thousands of key moments pleases the discerning fan while also deftly presenting the show’s highlights for the novice. The best compliment for any book of this ambition would be that it serves as a practical explanation for why we all love The Simpsons as much as we do, and “Planet Simpson” does this in spades.

“Unlike many other television shows that have limits to its relevance, it seems The Simpsons holds up to this kind of obsession,” Turner reflects. “I never get the feeling from the big-time fans that they’re using the show to escape the realities of the world around them, just the opposite. The Simpsons actually tends to bring you closer to reality in a lot of ways.”

Turner’s Simpsons is a juggernaut of pop iconoclasm wrapped in the astute blade of cutting humor hitting so resolutely close to the bone its existence is nearly a wonderful mirage. The author states emphatically, “You almost felt in the early seasons that The Simpsons was too good, too smart, and too biting that it would be taken off the air. It didn’t belong somehow.”

It is the most subversive kind of art, sprung from the very medium it attacks, gaining the popularity and relevance of an international icon, while also being its most uncompromising critic.

“Planet Simpson” begins by laying out the groundwork for what Turner dubs “The Simpsonian Humor Principle”, which is somewhat based on the satirist/comedian Lenny Bruce’s “What Should be…” vs. “What is…” riffs; the false assumption that it’s human nature to base our judgments of the world at large on “what should be” like God, country, principle, morality, and open, selfless dedication to each other and our environment, an almost superman vision of society. The “What is…” is the actual maddening complexity of human nature filled with greed, insolence, power-struggle, jealousy and pettiness. According to Bruce, and the best The Simpsons have to offer, by ignoring the imperfections and fears of our world and replacing them with rose-colored fallacies we create the framework for disappointment and disillusionment.

“There is only what is,” scoffed Bruce in 1964. “The what-should-be never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is only what is.”

From here “Planet Simpson” takes off in several provocative directions, highlighted by Turner’s strong grasp of the socio-political landscape of the world that The Simpsons draw material from weekly. Whether it is a study of the consumerism lunacy of 90s’ America, the power of corporate tentacles throughout the civilized world, or our silly obsession with celebrity, Turner tells us where and how and why The Simpsons seem to have it nailed and consistently get away with pushing an envelope other art forms wish they could touch.

Turner agrees with Simpsons’ creators like Matt Groening and Sam Simon who have stated that because of the two-dimensional façade of a cartoon, much more is accepted and allows for the writers a greater palate with less limitations.

“The example I often use for this is where Homer is giving Bart advice on how to deal with women and ends up getting inexplicably drunk during it,” Turner cites. “He comes to no conclusion, blathering incoherently. Whereas the normal sitcom dad might have some bland, formulaic advice, we get poor frustrated Homer getting inebriated.”

The book cleverly breaks down The Simpsons’ family members into defining chapters, encapsulating their individual and collective luster and why they have resonated under the satirical umbrella of “what is” so effectively for so long: Homer; goofy, lovable father or gluttonous, consumer-addled hedonist? Bart; misguided imp or rebellious punk icon? Lisa; smart, compassionate voice of reason or pompous intellectual finger-pointer? Marge; the show’s patient moral center or enabling nag-victim? Each character is studied for its reflection of human nature and how their image has represented us hilariously and so vividly without apology for the show’s incredible run.

Then, of course, there is Springfield, U.S.A. and its inhabitants, which run the gamut of society’s ills and thrills from politics in the overtly slimy Mayor Quimby; “I propose that I use what’s, uh, left of the town treasury to move to a more prosperous town and run for mayor. And, uh, once elected, I will send for the rest of you” to organized religion in the blatantly judgmental Reverend Lovejoy; “And as we pass the collection plate, please give as if the person next to you was watching” to corrupt attorneys in the dangerously inept Lionel Hutz; “Mr. Simpson, this is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film, ‘The Never-Ending Story'” to our mediocre crop of educators in the overwhelmed Principle Skinner, “God bless the man who invented permission slips”.

The Simpsons uses its medium as well as any art uses its medium,” Turner told me in closing. “Over the past half-century high art has been all about transcending its medium, playing with pop icons and commenting on society at large, from Andy Warhol on down, and The Simpsons does that as well or better than all of them. Without hyperbole, I believe it is to television, a powerful 20th century art form, what theater was to Shakespeare during his time.”

Amen.

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Sarah Jones is The Real Deal

Aquarian Weekly 6/23/04 REALITY CHECK

THE BIG, BAD VOICES OF SARAH JONES

“We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.”

– Abigail Adams

“I have a dream of a new American language.” – Dan Bern

Sarah JonesSarah Jones is the perfect physical satirist, a walking, talking vessel of effusive commentary, using every inch of her body, every tone of her cadence, every syllable of her language, and every move of her appendages to skewer our most taboo subjects. Her form, her face, her very spirit are the tools of her compelling prose and poetry. The medium is indeed the message for Jones, the shake of a hand, the twitch of an eye, the subtly of her focus gracefully befitting her considerable imagination. Yet the afterglow of her message also resonates like a piercing megaphone; an enviable virtuosity of several crafts that turns Jones’ one woman show, “Bridge & Tunnel” – currently playing at the cozy Bleecker Street Theater – into a symphonic masterpiece.

The show is framed beautifully as a fictional poetry group comprised of the most diverse cultural amalgam possible, allowing the pliable Jones to unload a cadre of New York’s most potent characters from the painfully amiable Pakistani host of “I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.T.O.O.” to its vibrantly portrayed contributors including a loquacious Vietnamese slam-champ, an elderly yenta, a coldly pedantic Australian nihilist, a nostalgically melancholic Mexican paraplegic, et al. Through them Jones hits every note in the range of human emotion without a hint of maudlin shtick.

First and foremost, Sarah Jones is an exceptional wordsmith. Each character in “Bridge & Tunnel” brims with the narrative structure of a sharply manicured short story or a well-crafted essay. Their monologues, initially seeming almost incoherent, begin to slowly take cogent shape, leading us on a journey, some uncomfortable, others heart-warming, but every one recognizably haunting. As a playwright, not just a scribbler creating a vehicle for her immense thespian talents, Jones displays the type of rare promise in “Bridge & Tunnel” which launches a future prominent voice in modern American theater, one not seen in nearly half a century.

As a playwright, not just a scribbler creating a vehicle for her immense thespian talents, Jones displays the type of rare promise in “Bridge & Tunnel” which launches a future prominent voice in modern American theater, one not seen in nearly half a century.

Jones has been fittingly compared to Lenny Bruce, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg and Richard Pryor in her ability to entertain and provoke, educate and vilify, but after witnessing nearly two hours of 14 characters from every angle of the American social lexicon one denotes more than a hint of Twain or Voltaire.

But unlike many of the underground artsy projects found in the bowels of Greenwich Village, “Bridge & Tunnel” does not pound home metaphor and imagery with the indelicacy of a sledgehammer. Instead Jones’ work, and the provocative presentation of it, sneaks and peeks, draws you into disturbing portraits, peculiar viewpoints, and endearing insights. Sometimes these themes and emotions come together simultaneously, culling various responses from an audience unsure whether to laugh or cry.

Assuredly, during the late-spring Saturday afternoon matinee I attended, there was plenty of cheering. However, it was hard to tell if it was delight or the usual aplomb afforded the “new big thing”. Since its launch earlier this year, “Bridge & Tunnel” has had quite a run and Jones is hot now, and getting hotter. The show and her one-woman, all-encompassing contribution to it has received rave reviews and earned a full segment on the CBS Sunday Morning show. That’s about when I started paying attention to Jones’ work, after several repeated e-mails and calls from colleagues.

At 29-years old, Jones is already a performance artist of impeccable comedic and dramatic timing and an actor of considerable range with a voice of social eloquence. Many far more equipped to comment on the genre brand her a “can’t-miss” talent bound for film and celebrity. But for me, there is something deeper here than just a rising star; for starters a strong African-American woman’s voice, smart and fair in its observations. Both overtly political and wholly human, “Bridge & Tunnel” does not speak blithely for a cause beyond compassion and humor. It is merely an extension of its author, brash, yet enticing, hard, yet endearing. This is why Sarah Jones is unique in this splash world of hyperbolic nonsense.

This is why I believe she will be a significant generational siren, a cool customer in polarized political times amidst an increasingly mounting nation of divergent cultures.

Sitting through “Bridge & Tunnel” and its obvious messages of tolerance and understanding beyond just race, but gender, generation, ideology, religious and social custom, I was seduced by the distinct idea that I was not merely watching a consummate professional spark through sleek numbers and dead-on characterizations, which they most certainly are, but witnessing the maturation of a deft author more than capable of drawing true emotions with her words, not stabbing you with calculated tear-inducing, contemplative tricks.

In other words, Sarah Jones is the real deal. “Bridge & Tunnel” is reflective of that. Everyone should see it, if for nothing else, but to get a rare glimpse of the power of the written word exposed to the elements of pure expression.

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“Breakfast With Hunter” Review

Aquarian Weekly 4/7/04 REALITY CHECK

GONZO GOES TO THE MOVIES In Praise of “Breakfast With Hunter”

Hunter S. ThompsonOn the eve of a celebration for his greatest literary achievement thrown by the glitz of New York’s publishing elite, the infamous outlaw journalist shuffles into the enormous Manhattan offices of the once hippy magazine turned multi-million dollar periodical empire, partly on the back of his work. Gripping a bouquet of freshly picked flowers in one hand and his obligatory glass of Chivas Regal and ice rattling in the other, he passes several large board rooms and fancy offices, mumbling despondently to himself about “a fucking rat’s maze”. Followed nervously by a young assistant he decides, with a fair amount of impish glee, to grab an absently placed fire extinguisher from the corner of the hallway and brandish it menacingly at a secretary. Blasting her with it, he proceeds, chuckling madly, into the publishing mogul’s office and covers it, and the nattily attired mogul with the misty foam.

“You bastard!” the mogul screams, leaping up from his seat, phone in hand. “It’s not too late to cancel this party. You’re banned! You’re banned!”

The outlaw scribe is none other than the venerable, Doctor Hunter Stockton Thompson, Father of Gonzo Journalism, (bastard offspring of the once lofty, “New Journalism”), and his victim is Rolling Stone magazine’s founder, Jan Wenner. The year is 1996, the 25th anniversary of Thompson’s groundbreaking “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” and the scene appears in living color in a compelling documentary just out on DVD aptly entitled, “Breakfast with Hunter”.

Although the scenario is all-too-familiar to fans of the author for whom lifestyle has sometimes unfairly dwarfed his revolutionary literary efforts, it is not nearly the bulk of 55 year-old filmmaker Wayne Ewing’s engaging cinéma vérité. In fact, for the first time what I consider to be the finest living American writer alongside Kurt Vonnegut is portrayed with due respect and enviable insight, a serious portrait dedicated to the very inspiration of Thompson’s best work, his own extremely fascinating life.

A telling quote by Thompson in the film speaks to the delicate balance of the madness in his method. When confronted with his inclusion in a study entitled, “The Enigma of Personality” which refers to the author as “a modern eccentric” and diagnoses his odd behavior as “obsessive compulsive”, Hunter muses, “Well when William Faulkner spoke of the will to write, he said ‘a writer will walk over his grandmother to get the book finished.’ So welcome to the club, Bubba.”

Ewing’s dead aim was to be fair to the delicate balance without exploiting it, and “Breakfast With Hunter” proves to be right on target.

“In a way it is difficult to be true and honest to Hunter,” Ewing told me recently during a lengthy phone conversation from his home in Aspen. “How do you define your audience right away when there are a certain number of people out there who are looking for the cliché, the cartoon character that has nothing to do with Hunter?

“Hunter is obviously a very interesting personality, but he is primarily a writer and a great figure in American literature,” Ewing continues. “My intent with the project was to present a homage to that and not the usual stuff.”

The “usual stuff” being the stream of legend and folklore surrounding Thompson’s exploits over decades of hard-living and wild abandon, erratically covered in three unofficial biographies, two feature films, various news clips, articles, and, admittedly, volumes of the man’s own work. However, beneath all the hyperbole attached to Hunter’s high life there is a raucous plethora of damn good writing. To its infinite credit, “Breakfast with Hunter” captures the very essence of the soul who achieved it.

Ewing, a longtime documentary filmmaker, whose credits include films for PBS’ “Frontline”, NBC television’s “Gangs, Cops, & Drugs” hosted by Tom Brokaw and an impressive list of self-produced features, spent the last 15 years with Thompson on and off; traveling alongside him, helping to edit manuscripts, and generally hanging around the author’s purported fortified compound called Owl Farm. Gaining Thompson’s confidence, a difficult endeavor since the Doctor is normally cantankerous with outsiders he doesn’t trust implicitly – and by cantankerous one could mean being fired at with an array of highly dangerous firearms or sent packing on the other end of a swift kick to the rear – Ewing received unprecedented access to his subject’s life both public and private.

Few subjects as mercurial and mysterious, not to mention as important to the landscape of American literary subculture, have ever been covered so completely and directly.

“In a sense, I became an instrument for this great ongoing experiment in Gonzo journalism Hunter started over thirty years ago, and was able to do what he has always wanted to do,” notes Ewing. “Hunter describes Gonzo as ‘a reporter with the eye and mind of a camera’ and he has been literally obsessed with documenting what is going on around him.”

The results are stunning. Ewing is right beside Hunter as he makes public appearances, takes television interviews, hangs in hotels with actors’ Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, hobnobs with fellow authors like the late, great George Plimpton and friend, P.J. O’Rourke, and verbally spars with doomed original director of “Fear & Loathing”, Alex Cox over what Thompson perceives will “turn one of the best thing I’ve ever written into a fucking cartoon joke”. The episode ends with a furious Thompson throwing them out of his house. In each case the footage is unerringly, but grippingly too close for comfort.

“It’s earning your stripes with Hunter,” Ewing points out. “It takes a long time to earn the kind of trust I needed to complete a film like this. So for every night I filmed, there might be 15 that I wouldn’t, when I would just work on books with him or hang out or watch ball games.”

It would seem Thompson finally wanted to get the story straight.

“Sure there would be a few times when he didn’t feel like doing anything,” recalls Ewing. “But more so, he would get upset with me because I wasn’t filming. I seemed to get him going in terms of getting ideas and writing, the idea that something important is happening right then.”

Few subjects as mercurial and mysterious, not to mention as important to the landscape of American literary subculture, have ever been covered so completely and directly. Ewing even manages to trump his hero and inspiration, D.A. Pennebaker, whose signature masterpiece, “Don’t Look Back” about a young Bob Dylan touring Britain in the mid-60s’ still fails to completely unveil the Dylan myth. You get the feeling throughout that Dylan is playing a part, rarely letting his guard down, even during more intimate moments. No such problem with “Breakfast with Hunter”.

Despite the fact that Thompson’s dozen or so books and hundreds of articles have been as much an influence on my professional endeavors as anyone, it was easy to love Ewing’s film for its honesty. Having spoken with Hunter on several occasions as not only a reader and a fellow journalist, wherein the length and breath of the legend roared, but a published author, wherein a more serious encounter ensued, it was a pleasure to see both sides portrayed in such close detail.

Highlights of “Breakfast with Hunter” include a running storyline throughout of Thompson defending himself against what he feels is a bogus DUI charge, wherein the evidence reveals the arresting officer lied under oath, a disturbingly heart-warming discussion between the author and his esteemed partner in artistic Gonzo rendering, Ralph Steadman, an insightful tribute written and read by Thompson’s son, Juan, and one dramatically framed scene in which Hunter reads a prescient excerpt from what I deem his journalistic tour de force, “Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72”.

Ewing reflects, “So often for a documentary filmmaker, the real magic comes out of the moments when you didn’t do anything to plan it.”

A long time in coming, “Breakfast with Hunter” is a fitting tribute to the rarest of magical visions, the manifestation of a fertile mind and a wild heart framed for posterity.

For more on the film visit: Breakfast With Hunter

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Truth Behind Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” Review

Aquarian Weekly 3/3/04 REALITY CHECK

A DEBATE OF “PASSION” PART II
Art Imitates Religion

Movie PosterMel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is not a film about Jesus. It is also not a film about history or figures that move through history affecting humanity and the events of history. It is a film about Christianity. More to the point, it is a clumsily packaged Hollywood depiction of 1,500 years of Catholicism. It is religious propaganda. And I do not use the term pejoratively. Every piece of art with a point of view is more or less propaganda, but let’s call a spade a spade: If Gibson, a devout traditionalist Catholic, set forth to espouse his faith and depict the center of his own passion; mission accomplished. But this movie, like Christianity, has nothing to do with any Jesus of Nazareth.

Let me put it this way; “Passion” is not unlike Oliver Stone’s “JFK”. Not too much JFK in there, unless we see his head coming apart on his wife’s lap. No PT-109, no Harvard, no senator, no president, or Bay of Pigs, or Cuban Missile Crisis or Marilyn Monroe. His head coming apart. Over and over and over. “JFK” is about assassination theories. “Passion” is about the Christian obsession with sacrificial blood ritual.

Watching this film took me back to the days of sitting in church as a kid and expecting to see or hear anything about Jesus underneath all the ritualistic dogma. It’s damned frustrating, and hard to argue that the context of which has inspired horror shows like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. But it also doesn’t mean it cannot be revisited as art either. Although, for me, it would have been more compelling had it not been more of the same damn thing.

Beyond the ultra-Hollywood violence – jacked up a notch for the video game generation – we get the usual stuff here. Christ dying for our sins. He comes. He dies. End of story. No back-story. No politics. No spirituality. No philosophy. No revolution. No mission. No life affirming usably enlightened theories about embracing empathy and discovering divinity. Suffering. Death. Good drama. Big box office, but no Jesus.

Once again, we get lifeless puppet characters playing their parts in a suicide pact with God, sufficiently answering the question, “Who killed Jesus Christ?” Because when viewed through the lens of Biblical faith – replete with the Lord killing innocents all over the place – and all the evidence in Gibson’s film, the verdict is clear: God killed Christ. Or, more to the point of Gibson’s way of thinking, we forced God to kill him. Kind of like the Jewish authorities forcing Pontius Pilate to kill Christ.

(place plaintive sigh here)

Admittedly, the thing is aptly named. After all it is “The Passion of the Christ”, although I would have preferred, “Jesus Gets it for Opening His Big Mouth”, or “This is What Happens When One Love’s One’s Enemies”.

I didn’t think it was possible, but Mel Gibson actually succeeds in portraying a completely empty depiction of Jesus Christ.

But it’s hard to argue that the very essence of the gospel’s enlightened Nazarene, a charismatic healer exalted by an inspiring philosophy leading a penetratingly gorgeous spiritual movement is sucked right out. In its stead we have a pawn for sadomasochistic mayhem; what I like to call the Euro-Christ. But even two millennium of Christian rhetoric has yet to erase the impact of the historical Yeshua of Nazareth, from the Council of Nicea to “Godspell”. Yet this movie manages to do it. I didn’t think it was possible, but Mel Gibson actually succeeds in portraying a completely empty depiction of Jesus Christ.

Not that actor, James Caviezel doesn’t capture the Catholic Christ pretty well; a vessel for torture and death set up as humanity’s sacrificial lamb by the sadistic Lord God of the Israelites. He portrays a great punching dummy and the make-up people did a bang-up job. Lots of pain, but again, no Jesus. Lots of blood and suffering and reams of Catechism, but no Jesus.

So, in a sense, “Passion” is the perfect Christian art, an animated version of Renaissance paintings, (Gibson claims he endeavored to recreate Caravaggio’s gruesome images) but not particularly good art at that; effective, in that it has caused a stir like most viable art, but poor in the literal sense. The way smearing a painting of the Virgin Mary in elephant dung is a sensationalistic artistic statement, but as a gripping, meaningful rendering, it’s lousy.

As a movie, “Passion” is bad. The acting is predictably stiff, the set-design sub par for a Biblical epic, the music surprisingly non-descript and the directing ham-fisted. I usually don’t like religiously themed films, but most give me at least a moment of chills or reflection, an uplifting of heart or a distinct feeling of something. This thing drones from the opening frame and settles into two-dimensional drudgery.

However, I cannot engage in hypocritical blather about “too much violence” here. You want to concentrate compulsively on first century Roman scourging and crucifixion as a means for redemption, fine; but its not going to be pretty. This kind of thing went on all the time in first century Jerusalem. Hundreds upon thousands slaughtered by Roman governors. Take a trip to Golgotha now and see if you don’t feel it. Not unlike, I’m sure, sitting in Auschwitz or Dachau today.

But I would forget theological debate and historical content when judging “Passion”. It is poor storytelling packaged as a religious tool. Period. This might be great for some, namely fanatical Christians, but as forceful narrative, it is disappointing. And it is certainly no “true depiction” of historical events in any way, shape or form. Gibson picks and chooses his gospel versions like mad scientist forcing a solution. He might have been better off from a theological stand-point to stick with, say, the Gospel of John, which dominates most of the storyline, instead of jumping all over the Biblical map to suit an agenda. Although, once again, a good framework for religious theory, but hardly accurate.

When I heard about this project some two years ago, I was finishing up the manuscript to my last book, a story based on my trip to Israel in search of the historical Jesus. I was excited about the prospect of hearing the gospel characters speak in their original dialect, and the promised “realistic depiction” of the ordinarily sanitized crucifixion scenes of earlier Hollywood efforts. But even I was left feeling I’d just seen the last ten minutes of “Scarface” for two hours.

Finally, Gibson nor the actors, or anyone connected to the making of this thing should feel badly. Based on concepts like “Jesus Christ was born to suffer and die for the sins of humankind” and “in suffering there is cleansing” all the participants can be nothing if not merely chess pieces in a fixed game. And that is how the characters in this film go about their business, like marionettes marching in step to a mystical slaying.

(place despondent wail here)

It is my fault for expecting to see anything else. The film’s popularity (beyond pure curiosity and pack mentality) speaks to the human condition to be drawn to signature moments that usurp the entirety of an event, or to miss it completely.

We read about a warrior for peace slain in his prime and choose to remember him with a gory effigy of torture and death.

Part I : Film Art, Anti-Semitism, and Gospel Lore

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Truth Behind Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” Pt. I

Aquarian Weekly 2/25/04 REALITY CHECK

A DEBATE OF “PASSION” PART I
Film Art, Anti-Semitism and Gospel Lore

Salvador Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross Editor’s Note: The following is part one of a two-part series on the social impact of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ”, the charges of anti-Semitism therein, and its New Testament sources, while the second segment will concentrate on the film after the author attends a screening this week.

Once again, Jesus of Nazareth, the peasant artisan from ancient Palestine turned social and spiritual radical, turned miraculous healer, turned martyred rebel, and finally turned religious icon gets dragged from the altar and into the news with the release of “The Passion of the Christ”, a Mel Gibson-produced-directed epic. The film is getting free publicity because of its alleged “controversial” depiction of the arrest, trial and subsequent murder of the impoverished first-century Jewish radical cum messiah. Controversial because of what some deem its subliminal, others its overt anti-Semitic stance. But how much of it is warranted?

To merely make art about religious subject matter is to seduce controversy. This is fact. From DaVinci to Scorsese, the list is long, and the results similar: furor.

Having released my own “controversial” book, “Trailing Jesus” (Published 11/02) I understand all too well the impossibility of escaping belief systems based on cultural traditions, familial binds and unyielding devotion. This is true of any faith in any era, and for some this is good. But just as true is espousing one true faith in a world of several – in this case three mega-popular monotheistic faiths – managing to propagate an ignominious history of bating, bashing and violence between them.

I may have humbly sparked much of my own engaging discussion under the radar this past year, but Gibson, super-celebrity, comes to the party with some baggage.

Gibson, an Oscar-winning filmmaker in his own right, is a self-proclaimed Traditionalist Catholic, an ultra-conservative sect of a multi-billion dollar industry that harkens its tenets back to the Middle Ages. His asides about being moved by God to produce what he deems is the definitive artistic expression of The Passion of Christ not withstanding, Gibson’s vociferously opinionated father has gained him a mound of negative publicity. Hutton Gibson is an oft-quoted lunatic bigot with virulent stances on everything from Holocaust denial to Pope smearing.

This explosive combination of religious fanaticism and noisy prejudice has caused raucous mouthpieces for the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to charge the explicit violence in Gibson’s film – the protagonist being beaten to a bloody pulp and executed replete with cheering on by the predominantly Jewish populace of the period and orchestrated by its leadership – to be a form of rampant Jew-bashing during a time ripe with anti-Semitic rumblings in Eastern Europe and the whole of the vastly radical Islamic world.

I dare you to try and figure a convicted soul whose core philosophy is “love your enemy”, gets murdered by those enemies, ends up being worshipped by the descendents of said enemies, and come out without controversy.

On the surface it looks like more religious kooks using preconceptions to attack the work, not unlike the tumult over 1988 Martin Scorsese mediocre film version of Nikos Kazantzakis’ brilliant novel, “The Last Temptation of Christ”, wherein the fictitious depiction of Jesus is seen making babies with Mary Magdalene. Back then Christian protestors were having fits over the irreverence given to their Lord, wherein now they laud what many critics have described as “gruesome” scenes of the Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. (Even the Pope has checked in with a thumb’s up). But the subtext of the ADL’s argument is well founded, because in a way Gibson had no choice in creating an anti-Semitic depiction of this story no matter what his belief or background.

For almost 2000 years, at least roughly 1700 years since the Roman Empire gave Christianity its stamp of approval, the hazily constructed events leading up to and surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth has given the perpetuators of genocide a nicely formed excuse: The Jews, leadership and populace, killed Jesus. The Romans were in charge and could have done something if not so utterly duped by those evils plotters, but dropped the ball. Until the last half-century or so this nonsense was not officially denounced by major sects of Christianity, and in some circles exists today – leading to some of the most heinous crimes rendered by humankind

But, again, how much of it origins ring true?

Let’s step back for a moment and massage the parameters of the volatile climate that inexorably follows the legacy of this Jesus of Nazareth wherever it has tread for the past two thousand years.

Here’s what we know of what modern Biblical scholars are willing to accept as history from the Jesus story:

A peasant artisan (most likely a mason) named Yeshua or Yeshu (Hebrew moniker meaning salvation) from the rebelliously volatile region of the Galilee in the Roman province of Judea gained the fanatical allegiance of mostly vagabonds, miscreants and the terminally infirmed with a mystical healing power and an engaging philosophy that grew to dangerous numbers around the thirtieth year of the first century. He was by all accounts a Jew, and knew well his culture’s customs and beliefs. During the Passover holiday of that spring, he stomped into the crowded corridors of King Herod’s Holy Temple in the hub of ancient Jerusalem, challenged the religious political order, pronounced himself some sort of omniscient authority and wrecked the place. Religious leaders at the time, the Sanhedrin, a corrupted and fractured congress of Jewish cultural affairs, and the Roman power-base, Pontius Pilate, the murderous prefect of Judea felt this behavior inexcusable in the wildly incendiary ambiance of a culture celebrating its independence from Egyptian slavery while under the oppressive yoke of a ruling empire.

As a result, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified – a popular mode of execution the bloodthirsty Romans borrowed from the equally insidious Assyrians – by order of the state. The fact is the Jewish culture of antiquity had no evidence of using crucifixion as a means of any kind of punishment. They were partial to stoning.

So Jesus is dead, and thirty years pass with much rumor and innuendo – both glowingly positive and horribly pejorative – between warring Jewish faiths: one that believed somehow that the slain Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah of scripture, and the other that wished to wait a little longer for something more tangible. In other words, sans a couple of gentiles and Samaritans, the whole philosophical battle was between Jews: those who didn’t deem Jesus the Anointed One or Christ, and those who did.

Later in the century and beyond, four sources of the life, teachings, doings and death of Jesus of Nazareth emerged as pillars of what was then the burgeoning Christian faith. Dubbed gospels from the Greek (the language in which they were written) meaning “good news”, they were sonnets, frameworks, and commentary directed toward ancient communities about the meaning of religious oppression and political ruin. Mark (read some forty years after the death of Jesus), Matthew and Luke (read some fifty or sixty years later) and John (over a century later) are in essence arguments between ancient Jewish sects about the priority of the Christ. But when added to the Bible, fused with the global power structure of Rome and worshipped as the immutable Word of God they are something else.

Here Jesus Christ becomes the sacrificial lamb of the world, borrowed from the ancient practice of sacrificing innocent farm animals as an elixir to societal and familial sin. His cause is just, his death and purported resurrection seals the deal. Those who come aboard gain the fruits of the sacrifice. The rest are doomed.

The irony of Gibson’s ambitious undertaking and the IDL’s protest is laughable in its wake, and its time someone copped to it. If Jesus of Nazareth were alive today he would likely march into the Vatican scream and yell, trash the place and, speaking for the source of the universe, call the Pope a fraud. He wouldn’t be executed for that today, but I’m sure the penalty, cheered on by Catholics, would not be pleasant.

Because you see it’s difficult pinning this story down neatly, and impossible to encapsulate 2000 years of insanity and misrepresentation in 1,300 words or a two-hour film. But simply, having based an organized religious system on a man who despised the whole idea is nuts, dangerous and downright confusing to us, and will be for some time to come.

Hey, I dare you to try and figure a convicted soul whose core philosophy is “love your enemy”, gets murdered by those enemies, ends up being worshipped by the descendents of said enemies, and come out without controversy.

NEXT WEEK: FRAMING THE GIBSON FILM IN THIS MESS

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