American entertainment Tag

The Children’s Hour

Hollywood morality

Why O why would anyone, under any imaginable set of circumstances, ever look to anyone in Hollywood for moral guidance? The disease of the cult of celebrity is now so pervasive and runs so deep that we’re coming to rely on show-biz types not only for governance but increasingly, it seems, for instruction on how to live our lives.


That, to repeat a refrain from my last piece, is madness. (Both this screed and the “Canary” are far more deeply intertwined than it might at first seem.)


We’re talking about entertainers here, for Chrissakespeople paid stupid sums of money to remain children, and just a generation or so removed from circus geeks.


And that goes right to heart of the matterand the problem: Only a culture desperate to stay in a state of arrested development would ever come to rely so heavily on people who know so little about what it means to have a meaningful individual and social existence.

Hollywood morality

Hasn’t anybody read Pinocchio? No, that’s rightwe only know the Disney version, and don’t know that in the original book the puppet, tired of being asked to try to separate right from wrong, quickly dispatches his cricket conscience by smashing him against the wall like a, well, bug. 


That character in that book, at this moment, is us.


We’re settling for sham forms of morality and government, andlet’s be really honestculture too. Everything seems safer and cleaner when you can hold the world at arm’s length, when you can indulge in a steady diet of atrocities without consequence, when you can damn others wantonly, without evidence or deliberation, from an unearned and simplistic sense of absolute certainty.


That kind of behavior can’t hold in any realistic version of reality. But, on the other hand, it’s the coin of the realmthe raison d’êtreof movies, TV, and just about any other form of entertainment. There are a few exceptions, of course (fewer every day), but mainly these diversions exist to make life seem simpler and easier than it is by using cartoon heroes to clean up all messes (like Mommy putting the toys back in the crib), which, through identification, gives us an unrealistic and dangerous sense of control.


But trying to point any of this out is increasingly like trying to yell into the wind. The camps in these various actions are so deeply entrenched in their positions, so unwilling to see anything except in their own versions of black and white, that they’re completely blind to the fact that they’re all being played like fiddles.


But this is what happens when you forget that Hollywood is just an illusion, created to amuse you, and start to take its grease-paint, pasteboard, digital world for real.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Case of the Dead Canary

The Case of the Dead Canary

This started out as a stab at writing a “Best of ’17” list. But when I looked back on the year just past, I’ll be damned if I could pull anything from the wreckage that could really be considered exceptional. And the explanation wasn’t hard to find.


Culturally, socially, the land is barren. We’ve so abused the soil for so long that it can no longer sustain new growth.


To shift metaphors, the original title for this was going to be, “What Are the Coal Miners Going to Do When All the Canaries Are Gone?” Because, let’s be honest: Those hyper-alert little birds essential to our survival are pretty much extinct.


Forty years of relentless bludgeoning by pretty much every aspect of the culture has beaten a necessary sensitivity out of us, not only ensuring every new round of entertainment, political bread & circuses, and even simple social interaction will be more brutal than the last, but making us more and more addicted, and subservient, to the forces leading the assault. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s become impossible to be subjected to American culture on a regular basis and still retain the ability to accurately judge its consequences and its worth.


And with the loss of sensitivity has come the loss of other essential qualities like subtlety, nuance, and restraint. Everyone can see the horrific divisions, the rending of the social fabric, that’s played out over the past couple of years, and they all have a vague sense of how bad things have become. But, trained—the phrase used to be “brain-washed”—to believe every situation is a form of conflict, of warfare, to think in terms of Us against Them, they seem incapable of acknowledging what their own actions have done to contribute to this unprecedented catastrophe—and that’s not just out of a convenient myopia. A lot of people—probably most—have just plain lost the ability to adequately assess the situation, let alone figure out a non-(self-)destructive way to address it.

The Case of the Dead Canary

Our entertainment—which sometimes mirrors the cultural landscape, but more often than not helps mold it—shares a lot of the blame. No society has ever been so completely immersed in—and swamped by—its diversions. No entertainment has ever demanded such a complete level of absorption. And no entertainment has ever before become, on a mass level, a form of addiction.


There are so many ways to approach this, but let’s try this one on for size: Western entertainment (which has pretty much become all entertainment) is becoming indistinguishable from being hooked up to a pervasive all-day, every-day shock generator. As each new round of movies, shows, games, music, etc. etc. etc. further blunts our nerve endings, it becomes necessary to up the jolts the next time around for us to feel anything at all.


Administering jolts has become entertainment’s reason to be—and thus our addiction. Last year’s offerings can’t create the same high they used to, so we need a bigger fix to feel the same elation. But there’s little rational about the experience—edification is just a pretext. This goes right to the primal brain, which is quickly and massively becoming the thing that’s driving the society.


Every form of entertainment, whether experienced in a theater with an oversized screen, omnidirectional audio assault, and rolling, jolting seats or on a cellphone through earbuds, is becoming a theme-park ride. We’re drawn and held by the shocks—whether it’s subwoofer-friendly explosions, graphic imagery, relentless conflict, or fetishized portrayals of the unsavory and depraved.

The Case of the Dead Canary

You can’t indulge in dark and edgy and not expect it to keep getting darker and edgier until you’re completely immersed, and lost, in the void. But what does that say about the audience en masse, or the decisions of the individual?


Some part of us knows this whole way of twisting the world is inherently degrading, but we ignore that because we constantly need a new fix. And, like with a drug addiction, it’s a habit that’s instilled when we’re still in our formative years, before we’re capable of mature judgment—and will eventually ensure we can’t make any mature decisions at all.


And it has the same addictive effect as porn. But since we haven’t yet found a way to take porn completely mainstream, we cultivate and indulge in other forms of obscenity instead.


And that helps to explain our pervasive masochism, our obsession with experiencing pain, thinking it will make us stronger when it actually just makes us deader, our obsession with self mutilation and with being punished, which leads us to subconsciously do things that actually work against our own best interests, which then allow us to indulge in the ultimate masochistic battle cry of “Victim!”


To quote Howard Beale (sort of), this is madness.

The Case of the Dead Canary

But these aren’t just isolated incidents, or even a still-emerging threat—this is our world, a malady whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere. And we really seem to like it that way.


So, what about the poor canaries? The current solution would be to tell them to toughen up—but that, of course, is absurd. A calloused canary is useless, would be just another desensitized and alienated planetary citizen.


Canaries are still essential to our survival, to helping us distinguish reality from illusion in the murk of the cave, and yet we’re gleefully stamping them out in a kind of mass crush video. As much as we might like to think so, we haven’t evolved beyond them—if anything, we seem to devolving in direct proportion to our so-called development. And no one can claim to be fully alive if they’ve lost the ability to feel a whole range of experience, if all they can feel anymore is whatever new forms of brutality the overlords, eager to mold raging but ultimately impotent consumers, deem necessary to feed them.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Death & Rebirth (Maybe) of American Entertainment

Death of American Entertainment

The evidence couldn’t be more obvious that it’s time to storm the entertainment Bastille and create some new ways to be engaged and amused.


The movies have been an exhausted form since the late ‘70s—we now get off not on watching movies but movies about movies, the kind of mental masturbation that’s the working definition of the Wasteland. TV has always been a wasteland, and only gets worse as it dresses itself up in cinematic trappings and indulges in more & more depraved behavior. And we’re now a few generations in to endless legions desensitized by “cartoon” violence and shooter games.


Every current form of mass entertainment pisses on subtleties, on any kind of discerning approach, instead producing bigger & bigger adrenalin jolts and ultimately encouraging us to do nothing but wallow in the mud. It’s like we’re all taking the Milgram Experiment, and failing miserably. It’s like we’re devolving.


People have had good—as in “life & death”—reasons lately to bemoan the state of the culture and wonder how things got so bad. But they seem oblivious to the entertainment choices they make every day that reinforce our blind rush to the bottom.


But there are some promising signs of new mass entertainment out there, forms that aren’t as smartass and soulless, that subordinate all the tech that can create a false sheen of competence and instead let you connect directly with the individuals and groups doing their damnedest to create things that feel true instead of just slick. Most of it derives in some way from street theater and has echoes of minstrels and vaudeville. It doesn’t just mimic the past but feeds from it—something that hasn’t happened in a long, long time.


In my previous post, I talked about the avoidable and kind of wrenching disaster of the Kickstarter/Netflix MST3K reboot but pointed out that from that wreckage emerged some encouraging glimpses of a brighter entertainment future. Next time, I’ll go into specifics.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound &
Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.