Culture, media

Ghostbusters 2016?

In the run-up to the new Ghostbusters movie, much of the marketing had a clear undertone: “Go see this movie so the anti-woman internet trolls won’t win,” it seemed to say. In fact, in an odd parallel with the 2016 presidential campaigns, this message has eclipsed any discussion of the movie’s actual quality.

Lost in the discussion about whether a female-led Ghostbusters franchise reboot can succeed is this: Why is “Ghostbusters” considered a franchise? There was the excellent original movie in 1984 and a cash-grab sequel in 1989. There were tie-ins: the toy-driven kids’ cartoons from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s and the 2009 video game with  a plotline that, on the big screen, could have been the third part of a trilogy. Importantly, most of these center on the same characters as the original movie.

But media coverage of this year’s reboot seems to accept the idea that Ghostbusters is on par with the likes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel’s Cimematic Universe, Superman, and other film properties with long track records of success. That’s just not true. As an example, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters last year, it was the seventh movie in a lineup that enjoyed mixed critical reviews but scored big box office numbers across multiple decades, and – this is important – inspired an expanded universe of new characters. Ditto with recent Star Trek movies, which recast characters while, incredibly, keeping the old ones. And that’s in a universe which has enjoyed multiple successful spinoffs only tangentially related to the adventures depicted in the original televeision series. Again, until last week just about every successful incarnation of the Ghostbusters centered around the same four original characters.

That creates really unreasonable expectations of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters 2016, which flushes the old story completely in a very limited universe where the old story was pretty much the only story.

If the new Ghostbusters see their box office returns dip, don’t blame sexism. Blame Sony Pictures’ green light to build a new house on a pretty shaky foundation.


Politics and Grassroots, Tech, Uncategorized

Trump’s answer on data is actually the right answer

Donald Trump says his Presidential campaign will be about personality, not data:

In his AP interview, Trump discounted the value of data: The “candidate is by far the most important thing,” he said. He said he plans a “limited” use of data in his general election campaign and suggested Obama’s victories — universally viewed by political professionals as groundbreaking in the way data steered the campaign to voters — are misunderstood.

“Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine, and I think the same is true with me,” Trump said, explaining that he will continue to focus on his signature rallies, free television exposure and his personal social media accounts to win voters over.

That’s exactly the wrong answer on an 8:00 a.m. conference call, but it’s exactly the right answer for an interview – which is something many political professionals miss. In the quest to sound smart to industry press, operatives can fall into the trap of talking too much about process. But voters don’t care.

Yes, the data-driven campaigns President Barack Obama ran in 2008 and 2012 were groundbreaking. But people voted for Obama’s message. The data elements helped them vote, but they made the choice, ultimately, based on the message.

In this cycle, polarizing figures with limited crossover appeal lead both major parties. Both presumptive nominees face divisions within their parties. Voter turnout could suffer, which could make the ground game vital. If the race is close, it will likely be the campaign with the better turnout operation that comes out ahead.

But a candidate has three jobs: 1) Ask for votes; 2) Ask for money; 3) Don’t mess up. Chatting about campaign tactics is not on the list.

Maybe Trump has a basement full of nerds chained to computers analyzing data sets to develop the winning turnout plan. Even if he does, it wouldn’t help him to brag about it. Even if the Trump campaign proved to be the most sophisticated data operation in the history of ones and zeros, it would only serve to amplify his message.

Campaign tactics may drive votes, but personality wins voters.

Politics and Grassroots

There probably won’t be an independent Presidential candidate

National Review hopefully touted a poll that showed 21% of the electorate would support a hypothetical third-party candidate.

Not so fast. As grassroots political consultant Chris Younce points out in a recent interview on some crummy little podcast, there are major logistical challenges to a candidate. It’s one reason why efforts to draft an independent ticket have failed so miserably.

But there’s another, bigger reason to take that poll with a grain of salt: There is no such thing as a “generic” independent candidate. As the survey shows, people across the board are dissatisfied with the parties’ nominees.

But each of the 997 survey respondents probably has their own idea of what that independent candidate might look like.

Any ticket that takes votes from Hillary Clinton is probably features a left-leaning candidate and siphons off disenchanted Bernie Sanders voters. Efforts to draft a “#NeverTrump” candidate have largely focused on Republicans who would give conservative base voters a place for this election.

In either case, once the “generic” independent becomes a real independent, those numbers will shift. An independent candidate will start out a lot lower than 21%.

You can’t beat somebody with nobody, and it’s getting to late to find another somebody.

Culture, Funny Stuff

Funny First

“Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away. The first business of a story is to be a good story.” – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis might have been talking about religion, but his words apply to politics, too. Overt politics makes for bad entertainment.

It’s a lesson America’s political conservatives certainly ought to have learned by now. Right-leaning would-be entertainers have spent years trying to counter the left’s dominance of the culture with movies that clumsily and unsubtly push conservative ideas. There’s a considerable list of failures. The awful 2011 film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged bludgeoned audiences with bad acting, forced dialogue, and an anti-government message. In 2008, David Zucker’s An American Carol pushed unabashed patriotism with poor satire and awkward slapstick. Fox News tried to counter the Daily Show’s bias with “The Half Hour News Hour” in 2007 – a Weekend Update-wannabe whose laugh track was the only way viewers would know where the jokes were. There are numerous enough examples to prove that artists who focus on political messages first and their art second will lose their audiences.

That lesson applies on the left, too.

Will Farrell caught heat recently after media reports linked him to the title role in a project titled Reagan. The satirical comedy reportedly revolved around staff members coaxing the former President through his second White House term through the fog of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dementia is comedy gold, right?

Enough people thought otherwise – including Reagan’s family – that Farrell backed out of the project not 48 hours after those reports hit the mainstream news.

Unfortunately, the screenplay’s apparent goals went beyond making a political satire. Positioning Reagan – still the champion of so many on the center-right – as a witless buffoon comments negatively not only on conservatism, but Alzheimer’s as well. The would-be filmmakers (including Farrell, screenwriter Mike Rosolio and others attached to the project) seem to have allowed politics to cloud their judgment when considering what audiences would laugh at. Blinded by ideology, they lost sight of comedy.

It’s too bad, because there’s a nugget of value in that plot. Imagine this alternative: A party leader, so desperate to win some race (maybe state legislator or even Congress) hatches a plan. He recruits an aging, politically uninvolved former actor, who doesn’t watch much TV or pay attention to social media, into appearing in a “movie” about running for Congress. Except, the actor isn’t filming a movie, he’s filming commercials, and participating in actual debates rather than staged scenes. Now imagine Farrell, playing a comically demanding prima donna actor past his prime, as the hapless, unwitting candidate. (Maybe Steve Carell could play the unscrupulous party leader.)

In this version, the objects of satire are party leaders political image-makers. The film doesn’t target anyone else suffering from Alzheimer’s, or cast the voters and supporters of any particular side as easy dupes. It wouldn’t have the major buzz that controversial subject matter attracts, but with smart, witty writing and a tight plot, it could achieve the type of cult-hit status that films like Dave or Thank You for Smoking have enjoyed in political circles.

The film was early in its development. Perhaps, had news of the project not been so widely reported, smarter minds would have revised the concept as the script went through re-writes. More likely, the production would have suffered the same insular groupthink that made it acceptable to use dementia for laughs because of the patient’s political party. The most probable result would have been a disastrous finished film that inadvertently spent two hours making fun of people stricken with Alzheimer’s.

Audiences don’t want movies that sacrifice a story in pursuit of political points. Farrell, Rosolio, and company should be happy they learned this lesson before they sank any more time and money into a sure box office bomb.

Culture, Uncategorized

That mad world of blood, death, and fire

Each March, someone on Facebook posts a video of Liam Clancy singing “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” for St. Patrick’s Day. The song’s protagonist is an Australian World War I soldier and its writer is Scottish-born, but Irish singers seem to do it the most justice. Written in 1971, you’d be excused for categorizing it with the anti-war songs of its era. But give it a listen after you’ve spent about 24 total hours listening to Dan Carlin talk about World War I, or read any of the grisly accounts from the era, and the song takes on a much different tone.

World War I was called “The War to End All Wars” because of the near-universal realization that modern warfare sucks. As the song alludes, killing technology has been getting much more efficient in the past century and a half, and WWI was the first chance to observe that trend.

Since World War I, most long-term conflicts have had some sort of moral reasoning. World War II fought Adolph Hitler’s plan for world domination; the Cold War fought the Soviet plan for World world domination; the War on Terror fights jihadis who use radicalized Islam to justify their plan for world domination, and so forth. World War I was, in many ways, a local territorial war that expanded because of alliances and agreements among great powers. For example, if France and Russia didn’t have an “I Got Your Back If You Got Mine” treaty, Germany might not have invaded France – heck, maybe Great Britain wouldn’t have been in the war at all.

When you think about how much of that war was triggered by paper and handshakes, and then read or listen to how ill-prepared the military leaders and troops were for the shift from horses and swords to tanks and machine guns, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” becomes that much more more sad.

Science and Religion

Pray for the terrorists, too

(This one gets a little Churchy, so be forewarned.)

News from Yemen suggests that an Indian priest, captured in a terrorist raid on a retirement home, may be crucified today, on Good Friday.

There are plenty of “ifs” to doubt the situation’s veracity. No terrorist group has taken credit for the attack, and there are conflicting reports about whether the missing priest’s abductors have or have not made contact with his former order.

But terrorist violence remains an unquestionable reality, whether in Yemen or Brussels. Nailing a church leader to a cross, while symbolic, would sadly be but the latest in a chain of bombings and beheadings – another gruesome act meant to inflict a painful death on the victim and crippling fear upon the living.

Obviously, we pray for the victims, their families, and their friends, who have watched their very realities torn to pieces. We can’t imagine their burden, we can only hope it gets lighter with time.

But with each attack, I feel some pity for the terrorists, too. The rumor of a crucifixion of a leader on Good Friday offers a chance for perspective.

As He was being lead to His execution, Jesus Christ interceded on behalf of the very people about to nail Him to the cross. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” He implored. We are taught that sin is borne of ignorance, of turning a blind eye to God, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The men who drove the nails through Jesus were doing as they were told from the only authority they knew. It isn’t hard to imagine them as philosophical ancestors of today’s suicide bombers, so ready to commit grisly acts based on the promises of trusted elders.

Eventually, those elders go away, though. And that’s when terrorists will stand face-to-face with a very uncomfortable reality.

Have you ever said something hurtful to someone and regretted it? Perhaps, in a moment of weakness and thoughtlessness you pierced someone with an insult. Later, when your wits returned and you thought about it, you put yourself in the other person’s shoes. That’s when you realized the pain you caused. Once you knew just what you did, you hurt, too.

But what if the sin is much more grievous? What if, instead of a cutting remark, you robbed people of lives and comfort? What if you not only committed horrific acts of violence, but took pleasure in doing so?

During a discussion about penance and forgiveness, a priest told me once told me, “God makes a play for every soul.” When someone acknowledges and apologizes for his or her sins, and is willing to make amends, God forgives. But, very importantly, that process begins with an acknowledgement of sin.

That means there may come, for all of us, a moment of clarity. Each of us will have a moment when we understand the sins we have committed and the pain we have caused.

Now, imagine a dead terrorist who meets his Maker. Imagine him looking back on his life and the pain he has inflicted. Imagine the regret as he recalls how happily he instilled fear and how gleefully he made widows, widowers, and orphans.

Imagine his soul’s pain at that moment, when he realizes just how wrong he was.

When you get past the chocolate bunnies and dyed eggs, resurrection and redemption is what Easter is all about. Saul of Tarsus, whose acts against Christians made him the 33 A.D. version of a terrorist, saw a vision of Jesus and became (after suffering a very symbolic three days of temporary blindness) a devout Christian we know today as St. Paul.

Maybe it won’t be too late for our hypothetical dead terrorist. Maybe he will have his moment of clarity, suffer his punishment, and bear the pain which he has inflicted on others. And, when purified, maybe he will be welcomed into Heaven alongside his forgiving victims.

I’d like to think so. In fact, I’ll be praying for it.

Culture, media, Politics and Grassroots

Obama doesn’t have to go to Nancy Reagan’s funeral, but I wish he would

Vice Presidents are supposed to be U.S. Government’s designated funeral attendee. There’s no reason President Obama should feel obligated spend his time there. The demands that he drop everything to pay respects to Nancy Reagan, and before that Justice Antonin Scalia, are shrill and senseless. They delegitimize the numerous valid criticisms of the President.

With all that said, don’t you wish he had gone?

After winning the 2008 campaign with soaring rhetoric of ushering in a new era of cooperation in Washington, Obama promptly reminded Congressional Republicans, “I won” when they expressed concern over his policies. His reelection was far from a rousing national endorsement; his campaign’s groundbreaking GOTV efforts squeezed every ounce of support from an electorate with mixed feelings.

This is the current President, but it could just as easily have been our former President. The left despised George W. Bush just as the right despises Obama, and W similarly squeaked through a close reelection relying on base voters. The man who claimed he was “a uniter, not a divider” saw a more fractured Washington in his rear view mirror when he left office than the one he had found eight years prior.

It adds up to 16 years of acidic national politics, and the choices for 2016 don’t appear likely to end the cycle.

With his days in the White House slipping into history, a warm gesture by the President to the other side would offer some glimpse of the idealistic young Senator we got to know in 2008 – and, perhaps, bandage some of the wounds. Scalia was beloved by thinking conservatives; Reagan was the First Lady to the man who, as more time passes, may prove to be the last pinnacle of post-World War II Republican Party success. Showing up at these funerals would have symbolized more than condolences; it would clearly tell the other side, “Hey, nothing personal and no hard feelings.” President Obama probably didn’t understand the significance of these two figures to his opponents across the aisle; otherwise he might have rethought his schedule.

(From a calculating, partisan perspective, it would also give the digital cheerleaders and opinion leaders within his base some motivation. “Look how magnanimous our Dear Leader is,” they could crow on Twitter.)

With eight years of sins on his record and almost two decades of political acrimony as a backdrop, surely these overtures would be rejected by some and ignored by still more. That doesn’t make them any less right. Eight years later, it would be nice for the President to go the extra mile and stand up for real change – especially because he doesn’t have to.