Saturday, April 27, 2019


Image result for AVENGERS ENDGAME SUCKSThe fact of the matter is Avengers: Endgame brings the first phase of the Marvel movie saga to a close, all eleven years of overlapping superhero movies in exhausting connected universe. The shared universe is exhausting, yet, but also exhausted, as in tired, used up, of gas, predictable. Though the fanboy in each of us wants superhero movies , as a genre, to remain fresh and diverting and, like The Western or the Horror film, to remain a lively genre for writers and producers to delve into , we have to admit that Marvel products, at the second half of their decade-long run at least, have gone from fresh and spunky and reflecting a lively energy to being a predictable set of plot motions, no less so, say, than later seasons of Law and Order where longtime viewers can literally count the beats of each scene , know what cues will signify a crucial piece of evidence, how long one has to wait for the Surprise Twist. For all the expensive gloss, impressive professionalism, very real sense of humor and a surfeit of superb actors doing outstanding work while wearing spandex costumes, the movies, all 21 of them, including Endgame, seem less and and less engaged with a big story,the unfolding of a saga, the moral dilemmas that arise when good vs evil than they do with becoming more manic, chattier, glibber, frenetic to no real effect; the present movie takes up nearly three hours cramming in as many characters as possible, from all the movies, citing plot points from many films to prove, again, that these stories are connected, and, perhaps reflective of the aforementioned sense of exhaustion that has pervaded many of Marvel's releases in the half-decade, there is much desultory discussion, digressions, and disquisitions among the characters about how tired they are, how disillusioned they are becoming, how hard it all seems. What is left unsaid is how bored the performances seem, bored to the bone. To spirit things along, to pick up the pace, there they expected set pieces and the expected appearance of every MCU hero from the 11 years of movies. This makes me think of nothing less than Fibber McGee's Closet, a closet so far beyond capacity that a chance opening of the door threatens a city-wide catastrophe. There is much, much summing up, explaining, complaining, large chunks of shtick. We are meant to have a teary-eyed farewell to characters we've come to love as this chapter of the Marvel Universe closes and the torch is passed on to the next generation of costumed clods. As such, the manipulation of audience emotion was as ham-handed as the pacing was lead-footed. This three-hour ordeal just made me wish every one oN the screen would die and we could all go home at last. The hard fact is that Avengers Endgame is less entertaining than watching a dog pinch a loaf on your front lawn. It is an awful movie.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The public fool who might flog us next?

It's  a rather too -easy to exaggerate the virtues of a renegade celebrity when they finally pass on and glide into whatever ethereal after-existence one conspires to imagine, citing some usually short-lived early insights into the layers of falseness and bad faith that saps us of our virtues, and turning a blind eye and a deaf ear when our late hypothetical rebel went sour, became hackneyed, had exhausted all freshness of approach. We don't want our iconic iconoclasts to lose their reputation as relevant sayers of truth. The irony, of course, is that our collective mourning and remembrance wraps the departed with the same kind of wrap of cliche and truisms the truth teller sought to dispel; strange, wouldn't it seem, that the efforts of a Twain, a Thompson, a Richard Pryor or a Bill Hicks did nothing really to bring their generations to clarity and purpose, but only gave the old apologies a new coat of paint?

That's the dilemma when one sets themselves up as a speaker of truth to power, as it were; in print one risks the charge of seeming shrill and paranoid, effectively marginalizing any effect one might have had on the discourse,and for the comedian, the risk is that one is charged with the worst crime of all, of not being funny. The late George Carlin, of course, never had a problem of being funny. At various times a social critic, a Menckenesque student of the innate ambiguities of language, a rather superb commentator and satirist specializing in the dialectic of unrealistic expectation meeting concrete and inevitable fact, Carlin caused laughter, nervous coughing, debates, and did, to some extent, provoke discussions after his comedy albums were played or his many HBO specials were finished, disagreements above and beyond the "funny bits" and laugh lines and landing on the subject near to Carlin's lovingly cynical heart, the collective delusions Americans rely on to buffer themselves against the stressed out and crushing banality of their (our) existence. His was the spotlight where Lenny Bruce, Mencken, and Thorsten Veblen shook hands and polished the best insights into hard, fast and lacerating lines, given with delivery could, to steal a line from Norman Mailer, boil the fat from a cab driver's neck.

One can maintain, no doubt, that Carlin was straining in the last ten years or so, that he was too acerbic at last, too acidic and joyless with the sharp stick he jabbed into the side of the obese culture he was attracted to as much as repulsed by. Perhaps; what I remember is that Carlin was a consistent cynic ever since he dropped his TV-friendly routines and brought some measure of refreshing independence to the shows on which he was a guest. Yes, I know, his criticism, his act, his jibes, his jeremiads were all an act, right. Yes, but that didn't make him a phony, and one had to admire Carlin's skill at remaining effective entertaining for all the corrosive views he brought to the table. In a time when many a showbiz contrarian is soon revealed as disposable and ill-fitted for a long career, Carlin remembered what he was, at the bottom, he remembered what made his skewed disposition marketable; he was an entertainer, a comedian. He could make you laugh, and that is a gift we see too little in our lives.

Carlin's routines became more cynical and coarser as he got older, and that isn't surprising; that he abandoned the search for a definitive punchline to make all his grousing and cynicism palatable came, in fact, as a relief. One would have cringed if he maintained the zonked out Everyman that was his trademark. I'd agree with you that he pretty much ran his course by the time the 2000s started, and he couldn't gain a vantage point  in a post-9/11 world; the worst had already happened and now the seer had nothing to do once the greed, avarice, stupidity, and meanness of Western Civilization was wounded in the most horrible way. He seemed reduced to saying "I told you so". I don't think anyone has the "post-9-11" vantage yet. Bill Maher is the closest I can think of, since his anger goes the deepest of his generation and is the best articulated of the bunch. He is certainly the best on the subjects of contention he chooses to debate;if he doesn't do the research himself, he at least reads the research his staff presents him He is the cross between Twain and Mencken and has an undying, unflagging hatred of the stupidity of those in power regardless of their ostensible political philosophy and the harm they create blindly pushing their expedient ends. What separates him from the routine nihilist is his belief in social justice and an open society; this marks him differently than, say, Larry Miller, a comedian I enjoyed until I heard him on Maher's show basically declare that the terrorists are coming back to kill us again and that we'd better be prepared to kill them first. Maher, in terms of the new realism, has a harder road as a comedian; to express cynicism and outrage while being in favor of something. He certainly knows that being a critic without an articulable alternative to the way things are is as inauthentic as a blues album by a boy band. He has the political intelligence another Miller, the word drunk sarcasm specialist  Dennis,wishes he had.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019


The 1960s and 1970s were tumultuous decades of struggle for many who were seeking civil rights and privileges outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Our great country, though historically better than most other nations in making certain that the status of full-fledged citizens is unmembered, has too often fallen woefully short in protecting the rights of people of color and of women. Despite the assurances made by the Founding Fathers that have been embedded into law, racism, and discrimination persisted; it was merely a matter of time before those feeling the brunt of inequality would speak up, act up, organize and demand the rights promised them.
The history of the last half of the 20th century in America was a complex narrative of struggle, protests, boycotts, marches, a demand by black and brown people, women, and gay and lesbian communities for a better deal, the freedom to be Americans, full empowered in the pursuit of happiness. It was a heady time indeed, passions inflamed, minds focused on the prize. There were marches, chants, raised fists, speeches, confrontations with bosses and police and politicians, and, as we remember, there was music. Music was a means to sooth the savage beast, as an old and brittle adage has it, but the song, the passion, of carrying a message that is melodic, poetic, and unforgettable when the marches were over, and everyone went home. Songs spoke more profoundly to the deeper part of ourselves than rally speeches ever could. We had our troubadours who inspired the protesters, the marchers, the young and old people fighting for a better life, people such as Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Buffy Saint Marie. Their melodies and tales of injustice and the undying dream of freedom for all were inspirations to the activists that is much discussed, appreciated, celebrated.
In San Diego, the principal struggle I happen to recollect was the Chicano civil rights struggle, and a recent documentary, Singing Our Way to Freedom, written and directed by Paul Espinosa, offers an overdue and fascinating appreciation of the late activist, musician, and songwriter Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez. It also provides a history of the fight of Chicano rights in the area.
Sanchez was born to Mexican-American parents in Blythe, California. Taught to sing traditional Mexican songs by his mother and uncles who played guitar, he became involved in the struggle for civil rights after working for several years alongside his father as an agricultural worker. As he gained more experience and became more confident in his musical ability, Sanchez began composing his own songs in the styles learned with subject matter that often dealt with bicultural identity and the socio-economic reality of being Mexican-American. The documentary highlights his beginnings as a laborer and his growing involvement with the Chicano civil rights movement in San Diego County. In a wealth of intriguing and historic footage, Singing Our Way to Freedom shows the beloved Chunky at the demonstrations in the farm fields, at the rallies, in the parks and during the marches, playing and singing the message of freedom for the cause of creating social change, and overcoming the prejudice and racism that bedeviled the world. The power of his message and his willingness to commit to the struggle for the Mexican-American community that he soon became the favorite musician of Caesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers. He was a student activist while at San Diego State University where he became involved with his community’s demand that an area of public, located under a series of freeway overpasses, be made into Chicano Park. As the film outlines, pressure brought about by community activism was such that the city agreed to dedicate the land as a park. Later, though, the city reneged on its assurances and announced that it would proceed with building a police substation in the area instead. 
A sense of betrayal was to be expected, and a focused fury from the community, demanding that the city of San Diego honor its promise to turn the land into a park, resulted in plans for the substation being dropped and Chicano Park becoming an actuality, a thriving community space. From this emerged an endearing and enduring anthem composed by Chunky, the “Chicano Park Samba.” His presence in the movement grew national in scope, his biography notes, recording with folk singer/activist Joan Baez on her first Spanish language album. Soon he formed a band, Los Alacranes Mojados (“The Wetback Scorpions”), which became a ubiquitous presence in the effort to spread the message of freedom and the need for equal rights, appearing at rallies, prisons, wedding celebrations, and schools. 
The film amply demonstrates a performer of wit, subtlety, and a sense of irony, down on the cover of Los Alacranes Madodos’ debut album, featuring a potent photograph of the band members climbing over the border fence, sneaking into the land of their origin and cultural pride, a symbol of a community striving to create a space for themselves. Commentators in the film discuss at some length a larger issue than rights and freedoms for a Mexican-American community, that of making a space in the American dream where a bicultural people could belong. “Pocho,” a song by Sanchez, has the master musician dolefully explaining the psychic plight of Mexican-Americans who felt they were not wanted by either Mexico or America.
One of the ideas that courses through Singing Our Way to Freedom is the ability of music and the musicians who write and perform the songs to infuse audiences with a passion that makes one want to work for a better existence, to inspire the many to exceed their expectations in the quest for justice and equal rights as American citizens. 

In a phone interview, the film’s writer-producer and director Paul Espinosa speaks on the need for music to make the message personal.
“Music is so important to social movements. We’re very aware of that because of the African-American civil rights movement. The songs were central to keeping people engaged, motivated, and inspired. During awful times when people were beaten and oppressed, music has been an important element in inspiring our hearts and our souls to keep going in the face of adversity.”

Espinosa is a veteran producer for PBS whose past films have earned a total of eight Emmy awards (The Lemon Grove Incident…and the earth did not swallow themThe Hunt for Pancho VillaThe U.S.-Mexican War). A Ph.D. in anthropology and a professor emeritus at the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, Espinosa developed an interest in creating documentaries concentrating on the US/Mexican border. Espinosa has an ongoing interest in bringing a scholar’s eye to making films about border and immigration issues. At one point he ventured to Hollywood to learn what he could about film production, a quest that landed him behind the scenes on the set of a hit CBS drama.
There was some urgency to making Singing Our Way to Freedom for the filmmaker, who clearly felt the clock was running out. Espinosa wanted to capture Chunky’s story in the singer-songwriter’s own words. Sanchez passed away October 28, 2016, but not before Espinosa recorded a series of long conversations with him, much of which is used in the documentary.
“I’ve known Chunky since I came to San Diego in the late ’70s and I’ve been involved with producing work on the Latino community and on the U.S. Mexico border region during the really bad times in the late ’70s, early ’80s. I was connected to PBS for a while early in my career but all of the work I’ve done has been basically exploring the border region and the Latino community in one way or another over a long period of time. I’ve known Chunky for more than 40 years and our lives crisscrossed for many years. I would meet him at many political rallies and demonstrations. He was in two of my early films. One was a film called the Lemon Grove Incident. He scored music for that film. And he scored the music for another even earlier film called The Trail North. Both films dealt with the Mexican-American community here in San Diego. And I felt that I wanted to have some music that reflected the culture. And so, he did that.”

What comes out of Espinosa’s gathering of archival material and interviews is a warm and fascinating portrait of an important artist/activist who was, until now, a largely unsung presence during an important part of San Diego history. Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez comes across as warm, funny, talented, and committed to a cause greater than himself. Singing Our Way to Freedom that can inspire us to keep our eyes on the prize.

Reprinted from the San Diego Troubadour with kind permission.