Monday, September 18, 2017

BOOKS: RICHARD NIXON The Life

He was not a crook!
The story of Tricky Dick is still the most intriguing political saga of our time
By Don Stradley


Richard Nixon shouldn't appeal to me - rotten things happened under his watch, the war in Vietnam dragged out for at least four years while he fiddled and diddled, and by most accounts he was a neurotic, petty politician with enough chips on his shoulder to fill a Las Vegas casino - but he does. It's partly because of the image he had in old newspaper cartoons; the five o'clock shadow, the slope of his posture, the sneaky reputation, and the legend that he spent his final days in the White House on his knees praying with Henry Kissinger. He'd started out as a commie basher and spy smasher, but he ended up as Washington's prince of darkness, as if  so many years playing on the country's paranoia had turned him more paranoid than anybody. In John A. Farrell's Richard Nixon, The Life, we get a thoughtful, realistic rendering of a complex character. It's a weighty book, 558 pages of reading, but it's a fine, full-blooded account of a man who, like Vincent Van Gogh or Edgar Alan Poe, wore the anguish of his calling. Nixon wore it on his face and in his bones.

Late in the book, we're given a quote by Kissinger: "It was hard to avoid the impression that Nixon, who thrived on crises, also craved disasters." A recurring theme in this insightful biography is that Nixon courted controversy, and gambled on himself to overcome his own self laid booby traps. As one insider put it, Nixon was like any gambler, and "the thrill was in those few breathtaking moments when the dice were in the air." The observations, plucked from decades of Nixon-based literature, add up to Nixon being diabolically smart, surprisingly progressive in many ways,  but always digging holes for himself,  partly because he firmly believed he was too intelligent, too tough, to fail. He swung hard, for the fences every time. "A man who has never lost himself in a cause bigger than himself has missed out on one of life's mountaintop experiences," Nixon said. "Only in losing himself does he find himself."

What exactly did he find? And did he like what he saw? "It's a piece of cake until you get to the top," he once said of a political career. Then, in words that may as well be describing a man with a gambling addiction, Nixon added, "you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance." He was the wiliest of political animals, a diabolical thinker who was always two or three moves ahead of everyone, yet what should have been a great presidency was derailed by a quick series of stupid mistakes and bad choices.

The key scenes and characters play out like parts of a crazy, kitschy, American opera: there's Pat Nixon, the long suffering wife; Alger Hiss; Joe McCarthy; Checkers the dog; Eisenhower, the mentor and ball buster; John Kennedy, a friend, then a foe; the '68 comeback; thousands of burned and butchered bodies strewn across the jungles of Vietnam; Nixon in China; Nixon in Russia; the hiring of Hunt and Liddy, the "sycophants and klutzes" brought into the White House to run Nixon's black ops; and the disastrous coverup of the Watergate break in, a stunt no worse than what we've seen since from other presidents, but because Nixon had broken so many backs on the way up, he was too unlikable to get away with it. Nixon wanted to be a giant, and he very nearly was one. And he did it during one of the most turbulent eras in our history, navigating some incredibly bumpy terrain, while secretly despising the political life, the smiling and the handshakes and the phony dinners and soirees, and people like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, panned succinctly by Farrell as "a Kennedy coat holder." 

Farrell doesn't gloss over Nixon's cold-blooded style, for if  Nixon was a brilliant politician who could survey any  scene and understand what was needed to get votes, he was also a ruthless mauler of any perceived enemy. There's a jaw dropping opening scene where a 33-year-old Nixon, fresh out of the U.S. Navy, is asked by a Whittier California group to run for Congress. He immediately suggests that spies be sent to his opponent's camp. With his first political breaths, he'd revealed himself to be a willingly dirty player, and set the course for one of the most controversial political legacies in history, one that Farrell has set down with fairness, compassion, and style. 

Still, it's Nixon who has the best lines, like when he tells  H.R. Haldeman, "If I'm assassinated, I want you to have them play 'Dante's Inferno,' and have Lawrence Welk produce it." 

That's my Nixon; hellfire and waltzes. 




Monday, September 4, 2017

SING MIRANDA! SING!


Haters Back Off!, soon entering its second season on Netflix, is many things - a slapstick commentary on YouTube performers, a satire of modern youth's infatuation with celebrity, a send up of show business in general, a cocktail for the social media generation where Facebook is the drug of choice,  and YouTube  its Woodstock - but the message at its center wasn't  apparent until the final episode of its first season. I'd enjoyed it all well enough - I love  Miranda Sings (Colleen Ballinger), an untalented kid who believes she's a star. I love how she sings in a voice that sounds like Steve Urkel doing Billie Holiday, and schemes with her Uncle Jim (the incomparable Steve Little) to ride her unpopular YouTube videos to glory - but was caught off guard by the show's surprisingly serious finale. One of Miranda's videos, you see, finally goes viral, but her family, worn down by her selfishness, has vanished. She's left alone to ponder her new internet popularity. It was sad. I can't recall a bleaker ending to a comedy series.

Early on, though, the funny stuff came fast and hard. There were moments that rivaled the best of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Napoleon Dynamite. Among the bits that stood out: Uncle Jim's monologue about bread in episode six; Miranda, with top hat and cane,  performing "All That Jazz" in a sex club; Miranda's fear that she was being stalked by an internet fiend ("I need a panic room and a body double!"); and the recurring scenes where Miranda meets Patrick, the young ice cream salesman next door, for her daily popsicle. She stands with him in the front yard of her shabby suburban home, slurping at her gigantic frozen treat, staring out over the horizon, dreaming her YouTube dreams. The boy's unrequited love, and Miranda's self-absorption, manages to be both funny and poignant - elevated in no small manner by Amotz Plessner's beautiful score, and Michael Balfry's cinematography - much more so than any of the recent rubbish pedaled by Hollywood or basic cable. In fact, one could take the front yard image of Miranda and Patrick and sell it as a seedy American Gothic for the digital age. 

It's also a traditional romantic tale, with a subplot that goes back to the Bronte sisters.   Ignoring the  boy who loves her - she likes him but he's not famous enough  - Miranda prefers a toothy blond goof who sings at her local church. She even attempts to join the choir to be near this angelic stud, only to be bounced out after her first rehearsal. Miranda's vulnerability is at least part of what makes the series work.  "What's so funny about someone loving me?" she says in a stirring climactic scene. Still, it's odd that the show ended on such a down note, as if Theodore Dreiser had sneaked into the writer's room and jiggered the plot to bring this ruthlessly driven character crashing to earth. Oddly, had Netflix not asked for a second series of episodes, our last image of Miranda would've been quite melancholy. (But wait...was that the ice cream guy's bell we heard just as it ended?) 

Ballinger, an attractive 30-year-old blessed with a comic's rubbery face  - her oversized mouth recalls 1930s comic Joe E. Brown - has spent many years honing the Miranda character on YouTube. Over the course of 1,000 or so videos, she has endowed Miranda with a strange accent ("Stawp it! Are you keeding?") an inflated ego, and bitterness about everything, from her annoying mother to the haters on YouTube. She'll also take baths in jelly, belch and fart loudly, complain about her Christmas presents, and give comically bad singing and dancing tutorials. Most compelling for me is that she always frowns just before she signs off, as if her life is actually miserable, her only respite coming from a brief interlude with her friends in YouTube land. (In one video, a friend sneaks into her house and sees Miranda alone in her room playing with a Jack in the box. Miranda's weirdness is toned down for Haters Back Off!, where she's less of a disturbed woman-child and more of a traditional television character.)

Miranda is not without antecedents. In some of her grimaces, one can see Lily Tomlin's old characters from Laugh-In, while Miranda's herky jerky movements remind me of Gilda Radner. Even the Miranda accent has an echo of 80's comic Judy Tenuda. The performer who really comes to mind, though, is vintage Carol Burnett. Not only is there a slight facial  resemblance, but like Burnett, Ballinger can sing, act, and do the slapstick. She is that rarity in comedy, a three tool player: she can look funny, sound funny, and move funny.

Where Miranda is entirely unique is in Ballinger's use of  YouTube, paring her comedy down into small, easily digestible tidbits. She plays with the medium the way Ernie Kovaks  played with television in its early days. One of my favorites is Miranda's attempt at a new dance craze called "Juju on that Beat!" At a mere 90 seconds, it is the perfect rendition of a clumsy girl who thinks she can dance just because she saw someone do the moves on television. There's also one where Miranda simply eats a bowl of Cap 'n Crunch. I could go on for hours about that one, but I won't. Then there was her reading of Donald Trump tweets in the Miranda voice, pointing out that our current president is not much different than temperamental, delusional Miranda.

With several videos posted each week, a book, and concert tours that have taken her around the world, plus the Netflix show, Ballinger must be the hardest working person on YouTube. The effort has resulted in the Miranda channel grabbing more than 8-million subscribers. To give you some perspective,  SNL's YouTube channel has only half that number. Granted, there are many YouTube channels with higher numbers, but Ballinger/Miranda does it without major network backing, without a hit single. Unlike other YouTube performers who are content to act goofy, she created a fully realized fictional character, and a labyrinthine backstory of creepy uncles and gay boyfriends and enough personal tics - she loves meat and crunchy things, loves Jesus, believes in Santa Claus, but hates animals, porn, and balloons - to fill a Sears catalog. She's a small phenomenon in our midst, as the endless BMW and AllState ads on her channel attest. (Though how many of her followers, generally kids, are in the market for a new BMW?)

The majority of her admirers are girls in the 12-16 age range.  They attend her concerts wearing lipstick to match Miranda's, so to Ballinger it must look like she's playing to hundreds of little clown mouths. Her "Mirfandas" love her in a way they can't love a regular industry star. For one thing, Miranda mingles with her followers, engaging in marathon hugging and autograph sessions. She'll even ask for their phone numbers so she can prank call them. Part of the allure, I'm guessing, is that Ballinger has her own YouTube channel separate from Miranda's - two, in fact, one called PsychoSoprano, and another called Colleen Vlogs - plus her own busy social media accounts. The little girls love knowing that gawky Miranda grew up to be a beautiful young woman with a Netflix deal. If Miranda taps into the slouching brat living in all girls, Colleen Ballinger is their hope for the future.

Ballinger, when she's not being Miranda, is a standard YouTuber. She strums her ukulele, talks about her cat, shares some personal anecdotes, and like Miranda, belches like a walrus. Ballinger is a generous sort, often taking part in "collabs" with her family. (It seems the entire Ballinger clan, for better or worse, have jumped on the YouTube bandwagon.) As is the case in the  YouTube universe, Ballinger/Miranda will also collab with other YouTubers, mostly shrill young men. These collabs are can be breathtakingly funny, or just plain stupid. Sometimes I wish she'd do fewer videos and make them count, rather than hit us so often. Then again, part of the fun of YouTube is that it's a free for all, largely improvised. The bits of gold that turn up, like Miranda trying to do a yoga challenge, or using a magic 8-ball to see if her boyfriends really love her, make it worthwhile to sift through the less inspired junk.

For the uninitiated, YouTube performers are a distinct lot. They're largely from the generation that grew up on boy bands, Spongebob, the Olsen twins, and The Bachelor. Hence, their own output is predictably silly and lightweight. They're essentially children's entertainers, a few notches below the dross you'd find on the Disney channel. There's a dash of the old "Let's see how many goldfish I can swallow" mentality of the 1920s, and a lot of what used to be called "camp humor." Much of it is awful. Yet, the YouTubers know their audience, and they are relentless self-promoters. Since kids are always looking for something to call their own, they embrace these YouTubers. Here's hoping the tykes will eventually outgrow them and find harder stuff, they way kids once outgrew the Archies in favor of Led Zeppelin.

In some of Ballinger's current videos, the creator of Miranda has looked and sounded weary. Overseeing the second season of Haters Back Off! has been a chore. Shooting in Vancouver keeps her away from her family. She doesn't know what her little "Mirfanadas" want now. In August she had something like a nervous  breakdown after a scary cab ride. Though Ballinger tries to remain chipper, the impression she gives is of a frazzled, overworked woman being pulled in too many directions. It seems that any kind of fame, including the flimsy, fleeting kind found on YouTube, comes with a certain amount of weight. 

The whole idea of YouTube "stardom" didn't exist 20 years ago, and Ballinger's genius as Miranda is in satirizing those wannabes who think YouTube is the new version of Schwab's on Sunset Boulevard. Still, there's a fear that unless you constantly feed the beast, it'll turn on you. Even a rare talent like Ballinger is yoked to the demands of her niche, where even the best become like caged chickens clucking for pellets, or parrots who have been taught to say, "Like and subscribe."

As I watched Ballinger's latest, I started thinking about all of those tiny red mouths in the audience of Miranda's concerts, imagining them as poisonous suckers, latching onto this poor young woman, taking as much they give. I felt bad. Then I clicked around Ballinger's channel and found a heartbreaking clip from last year where she talks about her divorce. I wasn't sure what to make of her candidness. She suffers from the same generational tic that has driven hundreds (thousands?) of people to expose their personal lives on YouTube, all in hopes of making money. 

After being introduced to Miranda on Haters Back Off!, I took a crash course in her and her YouTube peers. The effect was insidious. Within weeks my head was polluted with jingles and catch phrases and weird voices. It's a bit like having "Pop Goes the Weasel" stuck in your mind, nonstop. It's peculiar, and I'm not sure who is more bizarre - the people inside the YouTube fishbowl, or the ones on the outside looking in. How many performers and viewers are allowing their engagement with YouTubers to take the place of real relationships? I watch YouTube on a giant Roku TV, so Ballinger's enormous, root-beer colored eyes bear down on me with a kind of unintended intimacy. As the tears rolled down her face in the divorce video, I was tempted to hand her a tissue.

Frantically, I turned to Miranda's channel to see what she was up to. There she was, in her red-lipped splendor, demonstrating cat toys and fidget spinners. All was right in the world. For now.


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Haters back Off! returns to Netflix Oct 20. In the meantime, you can watch the first season.

Miranda begins touring soon, hitting Sweden, Norway, and the United Kingdom for starters.