Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Our Lady of The Price Is Right" by Stephen Provizer

Amidst all the weightiness, a little levity...



Let the Buddhists have their mandalas; give the Muslims Mecca; we have “The Price Is Right.” Five days a week at 11:00 A. M., soaring audio and video levels, howling graphics, and dizzying camera shots herald the appearance of a ministry as fervent as any in the world. The names of the chosen few are called out in demographic perfection-a black or two, Latins, perky coeds, Marine sergeants, and Sun Belt retirees. Exhorted to "Come on Down!" they spring from their seats like human Pop-Tarts and race to take their places at the bidding rostrums. Released from purgatory, they have taken the first step on the path to ultimate redemption in the Showcase Showdown. 



When they have settled in, the name of the All-Powerful One is finally intoned; the stage doors part, the congregation rises, and The People's Priest of High Consumption, Drew Carey, strides on stage, his suit fluttering lightly in the breeze. His closely cropped hair, frumpy looks and horned-rim glasses lend him a benevolent air, yet with the necessary trace of stoic detachment. Carey is the amiable successor to Bob Barker, who began on TV as a cynical, satanic persona on Truth or Consequences and mutated into the white-haired High Priest of the Temple of Conspicuous Consumption. I am touched that the Price is Right has been able to reposition itself demographically from Barker's regal presence to the People's Priest Carey. This transformation marks a minor triumph of one of America's greatest inventions: the reinvention (see Reagan, Nixon, Bush). 

The emotion heightens another notch as ravishing models emerge to serve as Guardian Angels of the Sacred Treasure. Their semi-erotic enthusiasm for the first item-a trash compactor-is so compelling that it seems to lead the first group of bidders astray. People's Priest Carey subtly chastises them for their wayward bidding, and finally a devout Latina shopper triumphs and ascends to the altar. To prove that she is worthy of the Church's redemption, the Heavenly Host demands she recite her catechism: how much is this sunscreenhotsaucemiraclegrowsnugglefabricsoftenervelamint? She displays a woeful ignorance of the sacred pricing structures, but skillfully manipulates one of the Church icons-a golf club-to make a long putt, propitiate the gods, and win a red Subaru. 

Two bidding rituals ensue and it's time for a major Church sacrament: the spinning of the Prayer Wheel. Manipulation of a giant wheel inscribed with numbers will determine which penitent has the best relationship with the Gods of Fate and will thus proceed to the Showcase Showdown. A hyperventilating Black Priestess, a stoic thirtyish male Initiate, and a pert Vestal Virgin in a short white dress all spin, under Carey's supervision. They spin for our sins, but regardless of whether our contestant wins-like the Vestal Virgin-the Host still wants us back; he bellows: "Write for tickets! Join me in Southern California-dream capital! Spiritual locus! In America, we can all have a chance at the Big Wheel!”
Our next devotee arrives wearing a sexy halter-top, and a concupiscent gleam flashes across the brow of People's Priest Carey and is quickly suppressed. The church hierarchy frowns on leering. The Angels roll out a stove for the audience's adoration, along with some sacramental Rice-a-Roni (the Saint Francisco treat). Doris the grandmother bids last and wins. Overwhelmed with The Spirit, she can barely mount the stage and gets lost approaching the host. Alas, Doris loses at "Squeeze Play" and the general morale plummets, but cameras pan the crowd, "Applause" signs flash, and spirits soar once more. No place for depression in The Temple! 

George ascends next. He sports a natty white moustache, white polyester clothes of the retirement sort, and long, roguish sideburns-the "Fallen Rector" look. In order to gain access to the Church treasury, he must acquire giant tablets by correctly bidding and skillfully drop them into a giant maze. But the Devil seems to have his paws on the huge wafers, for they all fall with a thud into worthless slots. The Rector slinks off, hoping for later redemption at the Big Wheel. With no contests left, the cameras pan the losers, forcing them to assume courageous smiles while their paltry consolation prizes come up on the screen: Dessert-of-the-Month-Club memberships, multivitamins, and Fig-Bars with semi-discredited oat bran. We have one more go-around at the Giant Prayer Wheel and Doris triumphs. This means the Matriarch must confront the Vestal Virgin in the culminating ceremony. 
People's Priest Carey now presides over the final and most austere ritual of the service-the Showcase Showdown. The first showcase is wondrous-Lakers season tickets, a computer, and a car. Will a bid of $22,500 get Doris into the Sanctum Sanctorum? The second showcase features the disconnected legs of a model emerging from a huge black bathtub, a bedroom set, and, finally, a houseboat. By the grace of the Television Gods, the more photogenic Vestal Virgin bids closer to the mark and is declared the winner. Canned music swells and, with the bounty of the Church treasury as backdrop, we close out the service with Everyman Carey gazing out over his flock and joking contentedly with the nubile Temple Angels. We viewers must now brace ourselves for a jarring descent from the sacred to the mundane-the midday news. Our only solace lies in knowing that approximately seven hours later we will be able to re-consecrate ourselves by observing the austere rituals involving another Sacred Wheel-this one presided over by the great goddess Vanna White.  


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japan & My Embouchure

There we are, in a nutshell. On a throne, with our feet in a pile of shit.

The vistas of unremitting destruction shake me to the core and my dreams are taken up with loved ones rushing away from white clouds of poison. Amid this miasma of empathy mixed with paranoia, the act of blowing the trumpet is completely self-indulgent and also necessary.

I brew and stew about catastrophes, but obsess about my embouchure. It's escapist, but imperative. It's not art "in the face of something" (You'd know that if you heard me). It's simply one other act of attempted self-definition which, in the face of crises around the world, is simply narcissism writ small.

Jazz and humor still remain central, but the gravity of recent days weighs upon us all, as well it should.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Collective bargaining: Threat or Menace? by Steve Provizer

You know the story: A guy is crawling on the ground looking for something under a lamp post. His friend comes up and says "Oh, is that where you dropped your wallet?" The guy replies," No, I dropped it over there, but this is where the light is."

So, America has dropped its wallet and instead of going off and finding some new source of light (solar-powered? cheap flashlight made in China? "alternative" media?) we are trying to find it under a lamp post that was bought and paid for by some very wealthy and powerful people. 

We actually have the choice to look elsewhere for our wallets (or for what you might call a reasonable explanation for our increasing impoverishment), but people seem to keep getting sucked into that highly controlled "staying-on-message" pool of light. What the hell is happening here?

Are we so much under the sway of the Myth Of Infinite Mobility that we continue to identify with the barons who are picking our pockets- the "winners" in our culture, the fulfillers of the myth? 

Have we come to a point that we believe so little in the intrinsic nobility of service to the community that the only people whose efforts we will support are those seeking a tax break so they can open a hog farm in a "right-to-work" state?

Does the Myth of the Rugged Individual hold sway to a degree that we have completely lost the sense of "there but for the grace of god go I?" and therefore hold no group responsibility for the fates of those whom fate did not bless?


Follow your dreams? OK, no problem, but please remember that our fates are intertwined. 

Also remember that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're not being followed.



Friday, March 4, 2011

"Ma Nuit En Enfer. Or, A Night at the Movies" by Steve Provizer

Hollywood movies suck. Not only that, going to a multiplex theatre is one of the most dispiriting, depressing and irritating experiences imaginable. Yet, it's one to which Americans are sado-masochistically drawn by the millions. It's especially piquant to plunge in just after you've seen the Oscars; like turning over a beautiful moss-covered log in the forest and having your hand covered with slimy larvae.

I had submitted to watching the Oscars only because I actually know a couple who made a movie that was nominated for best picture. I was curious to see someone of my ilk trying to pass in that glorious parade of narcissism, so I gritted my teeth and abided the endless car ads, the gruesome display of self-love and the singular lack of humor that marked the broadcast. A person's gotta ask: Does each winner really love his or her family that much? (actually, one noticed that it was only the men who gushed about that, not the women) And you know what else? Bob Hope was always stiff as a board. Finding 5 bits from him that were funny must have taken the editors half a day.

Right after that cavalcade of bonhomie, circumstances compelled me to transport my daughter to a multi-theatre gigaplex located in downtown Boston. The trip was necessary because video she'd submitted of herself singing one of Justin Bieber's  songs was chosen to get screen time in the "director's cut" (watch out Fellini) of his movie. It was about 2 seconds worth, as it turned out, but kudos to her. It was certainly Papabear's responsibility to get her there so she could strap herself in with the 3D glasses and bask.

I decided that the easiest thing would be to confer with my wife and find another movie that played at about the same time. It seemed a better alternative than drinking over-priced beer in the Theatre District for two and a half hours. Not the first time I've been wrong.

Walking in from the sidewalk, I knew immediately that we were in for an aesthetic treat. The interior of the place was right out of Albert Speers by way of Frederick's of Hollywood. The designers had managed to evoke mall anomie and blend it with the cheezy theatricality of Grauman's Chinese Theatre; all of it burnished with the accumulated grime of thousands of buckets of spilled popcorn smothered in "butter product."


Entering the theatre to see "True Grit" was like stumbling into a Mythbusters episode investigating how many decibels of sound it takes to induce diarrhea. We were forced to submit to half an hour of commercials and coming attractions-each of these pitched to 15 year old meth freaks. Bad in themselves, played at the volume level they were, they became instruments of torture. I'd paid Eleven and a half bucks to get the fillings shaken out of my teeth and have such of my hearing apparatus still remaining reduced to a distant tinnitus-tinged memory. 


I'll spare you a digest of the plot of True Grit. Initially, the experience was fairly pleasant, although the film's score was annoyingly Ken Burns-ish. However, as it went on, the characters more and more devolved into mere examples-albeit pristine examples-of "types." And, after the third bludgeoning, I asked myself how was it that crude, dismemberment/viscera-saturated violence had become so much the norm that it didn't even bear mentioning in film reviews?

While we're at it, someone tell me how many teachers can be paid union dues for the cost of one movie  ($300 million for "Avatar") and at what point filling out questionnaires at the end of a movie became electrodes strapped to your head.

No, my friend, the next time the latest "big" filmic release arises as a topic of conversation, you will find me curled up behind the couch with headphones on my head, a Rumpole in one hand and a Chateau Thames Embankment in the other.