Archive for the 'Cultural' Category

Page 3 of 8

Upstairs Downstairs


Back in the 1970’s, my mother regularly watched this British television program. It drove me nuts because it was so godawful boring. I mean, if we’re going to watch British TV, why the hell isn’t it Monty Python? I guess Upstairs Downstairs served its purpose: it entertained my mother and scared me off to do more productive childhood activities.

Now that I have assumed the mantle of middle age, I decided to give it a try. After all, it’s kind of like an outdated Downton Abbey shot on cheap video tape, right? And everyone loves Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey is so shiny and new!

All five seasons of Upstairs Downstairs are available on Netflix now, so I dug in. The first few episodes left me flat. Production quality was very poor (the BBC was suffering a crew strike at the time; some episodes were shot in B&W to save money). But I was beginning to understand what the writers were trying to do.

It was actually quite bold. They were framing a drama against the backdrop of much larger national questions and paradoxes of identity. The more I watched (and the more historical research it led me to), the more brilliant it became. By the end of the second season I was enthralled.

I wasn’t alone. Forty years ago, Upstairs Downstairs garnered seven Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. It has been viewed in 70 countries by over a billion people. How the hell did a tame, calm, very formal serial drama about Edwardian life in a London manor house capture the world’s imagination?

You really shouldn’t bang the help.

They did it with brilliant writing, lots of love stories and the inexorable march of history building tension about which the on-screen cast remains chillingly oblivious. I mean, why not hop aboard the Titanic? The bloody thing’s unsinkable, what?

Of course, the primary premise of the program was the strong distinction between the servant class (Downstairs) and the landed aristocracy (Upstairs).

The servant class was a peculiar rank in the British class system. While paid less than the working class, life among the sweeping stairways and colonnaded halls of the bourgeoisie placed the servants above the factory workers. It wasn’t money that determined class; it was placement.

Working as a servant has its privileges.

But perhaps the most resounding class theme in the program is the glass ceiling that kept the landed aristocracy eternally safe from the grubby mitts of the middle class. When a housemaid finds fame as an actress, no quarter is given. In the midst of childbirth, she is swept under the carpet as King Edward himself was dining at the house that night. Can’t have all that “creating new subjects” piffle interrupt a single puff of His Majesty’s cigar, can we?

The merchant class fares no better. They exist only to serve the house with goods and services. Even the ultra-wealthy Armenian magnate who has an eye for the daughter stands no ground. He is, after all, low born. End of discussion.

What’s most astounding is the inability of anyone to shift. It’s not about the money. What the hell is an uneducated servant girl going to do with a sudden windfall? Join the middle class? Is a successful merchant going to welcome an ex-parlourmaid to the family? Not bloody likely.

This may make you feel great antipathy toward the rich Bellamy family, but they are portrayed very carefully. The patriarch is tempered and wise and seems to have everyone’s best interests at heart. The matriarch is calm and elegant and handles the staff with sympathy. When they do show flashes of snobbery they are forgiven in our hearts.

Yet the nagging reality remains: how can they pay their loyal staff a goddamn pittance while living in such luxury? Now you are starting to see some parallels with modern society…

“Good luck, son! Don’t get blown up, what?”

Finally, as World War 1 closes in on the Bellamy family and all of Britain, a parallel series of breakthroughs occur. Young James comes back from the war a changed man. The sparkling playboy has seen enough. Even he – a conservative Tory  – found the war to be stupid, useless and unnecessary. He forsakes all veteran accolades. He is sick of all the bullshit and has finally discovered that life (and death) are not games.

On a macro scale, the shattering of the European monarchical powers opened the floodgates of populist socialism. Revolution consumed Russia while electoral pressure ousted conservative governments. The family patriarch finds himself elevated to Viscount and hurriedly shuffled off to obscurity and powerlessness in the House of Lords.

The servants below, however, will have none of the worker’s rights and strikes. There should be some balance, they reason. There is tradition to uphold. And the masters upstairs have been so kind these many years. No, none of this socialist revolution for them. After all, this is a battle for the working class, and they aren’t the working class!

Two friends say goodbye.

Of course, the program’s real strength isn’t its subtext but its dramatic appeal. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better troupe of actors or more tightly woven scripts. Despite the stifling nature of Victorian mores, the program (and real life) is full of irrepressible joys and tearful losses. The house has its share of surprising deaths whose stark aftermath is handled in the Victorian fashion only by the Scottish butler, a true stoic. The rest of the family and staff soften their upper lips often enough to break your heart.

That’s the driving force here: the humanity. While great affairs swirl around the world, their impact is made visceral only when distilled in the context of family and community.

Master and servant, happy as clams.

And here is where I make my final point: in Upstairs Downstairs, the events that befall the classes are ultimately shared among the classes because they are largely thrown together despite the glass ceilings. In modern America, the classes are utterly isolated from each other. The moneyed class no longer sends its sons to war; that agony is left solely to the lower classes. When recession grips the nation, the moneyed class maintains its wealth with ease while the rest of us suffer. When the shit comes down, we don’t console each other or look out for each other. We turn on the TV and fume.

It isn’t Victorian morals that we’ve lost. It’s the technological isolation of our communities that has driven these wedges. We are more likely than the cast of Upstairs Downstairs to suffer in Victorian silence. They had each other, even when the stock market crashed and everything fell apart. One would think that in “class-free” America that we’d be more integrated socially. But we’re not.

At least we still have Leslie Anne Down!

Yes, we still have Leslie Anne Down. For that we should be eternally grateful.




At the Fucking Movies

Enjoying yourselves? Fuckers?

I really love movies. I love ’em so much, I sometimes call them “film”, like a snob.

But I don’t go to the movies anymore. Once in a great while, a friend will cajole me into going, and I’ll go. But inevitably I’ll be distracted and irritated and want to leave, especially if I’m interested in the film. I sometimes think I’m the only person in the theater interested in watching (and hearing) the film.

Let’s recap why going to the movie theater sucks ass:

Mouth-Breathing Idiots

Two classes of these cretins exist: those who blatantly disrupt a film, and those who “whisper” about every event unfolding on the screen.

The former is easily handled: you tell them to shut the fuck up before you and your entire row of people rain blows down upon their heads. This works sometimes; other times it will shut them up for only 10 minutes, whereupon the threats must escalate and the film is now second fiddle to the real action.

The latter is more common. It happens when an idiot family from the idiot part of the county comes to watch a film slightly more complex than “Cars 2”. As the film begins and we see foreshadowing, they immediately begin whispering loudly to each other:

“Didja see that, Elmer? I bet she gonna cause him some troubles!”
“Ya think so? But she’s Cameron goddamn Diaz!”
“Don’t matter none! I can tell she’s gonna be the cause of all this trouble later on!”
“If’n ya really think so! But I’m not so sure about that there fella from the FBI, neither!”
“No! The FBI guy ain’t the killer! He woulda hafta been two places at once doncha think?”

This goes on throughout the entire film. And there is no remedy as the idiots will claim they were being quiet and minding their own business. Your only hope is to move out of earshot or leave and wait for the DVD.

I have beheld the latter type of Mouth-Breathing Idiots so often that I’m actually amazed when they don’t appear next to me.

Crying Babies

Look who's enjoying "Salò, the 120 Days of Sodom"!

This one used to haunt me like a nightmare. In the 1990’s, it got so bad that I bet one of my friends that I’d have a screaming baby next to me, guaranteed. We went to the movie and left early. I was $20 richer.

Some sort of backlash must have occurred because baby meltdowns at the movies are kinda rare nowadays. If you go to a comic book movie or a kids film, you should expect a few snot-nosed brats raising a ruckus. But the onslaught of brats at R-rated films has dropped in recent years.  I’m hoping it’s because dullard breeders were shamed from such behavior. If parents think that’s unfair, they should either drug their brats into a catatonic stupor or try being more thoughtful about their reproductive habits.


No, not masturbation. Most masturbators are quieter than the slack-jawed bovines who down quarts of popcorn and soda or wrestle with a noisy plastic wrapper for 40 fucking minutes. What’s being said in the film? Who knows? All I can hear is crunch-munch-munch-munch, slurpy-derpy-slurp and rustle-ristle-rustle-ristle. I think they said something about needing to escape the office building in order to find the guy who was…oh, I dunno. It’s all just a bunch of noise. Who can hear anything?



And when I’m not losing the plot because of all the noise being made by the perfumed hogs who surround me, I’m being deafened by the Hollywood soundtrack. If a character sets a mug of coffee onto a glass table, it has to land with a loud ker-CHLINK! noise that has been compressed and signal-gained eighteen fucking times before being inserted into the scene.

Ker-FLAAMM!! Buh-ZZZHINGGG! Ka-WOOM...WOom...woom...

And if the action really heats up? You’ll need ear plugs to shield you from the head-splitting noises generated by another idiotic car chase or Michael Bay explosion. At these moments, even the popcorn munchers are drowned out. And everything that happens MUST have an accompanying low-frequency rumble to make your groin vibrate. If there is no low rumbling noise, then the movie must be boring and we should all just listen to the popcorn munchers.


My ass hurts. Ass. Hurts.

As a person with chronic back pain, I have to take into account how much money in medical bills I’ll have to pay after sitting in a tired, scummy, beaten-up old movie theater seat for the 30 minutes of commercials, 20 minutes of previews and 2 hours of film I must endure.

I can’t hit the “pause” button and stretch my legs. I am a prisoner here. I must listen to the munchers, endure the ker-FLOOM noises and wriggle in my seat as my ass screams for mercy. Why did I come here again?


I paid $11.00 to watch this?

You have two options once you’ve committed to go to the movie theater:
1. Go in early, get a good seat and endure 20 minutes of television commercials.
2. Go late, get a lousy seat, miss the commercials and watch 20 minutes of previews.

There is no other option. Despite the fact you’ve paid a premium for a seat, burned gasoline to get there, endured a long line to buy a ticket and plumped down next to some popcorn-munching behemoth who smells like a Malaysian garbage dump, you STILL have to endure commercial advertising. Why? BECAUSE HOLLYWOOD SAYS SO.


Finally, there’s the content. I’m like anybody else. I enjoy watching spectacles on the big screen. At this point, that’s only reason I’d ever attend a public screening. If a movie intends to intrigue me intellectually, it can’t do so in a movie theater. May as well go straight to DVD (which is what most foreign films and independent films do anyway).

"It's Jim Carrey in...whatever. You'll pay to go see it. Fuck you."

I have no idea how mainstream America continues to line up for Jim Carrey comedies and stupid revenge films and all the “two women struggling against all odds in a world they didn’t make” movies. Somehow, these films make bank at the box office. I’d sooner shoot myself in the face than sit through that crap, but I guess that’s why the movie theaters are what they are: halls of consumption for the lumpenproletariat.

Will people eventually flee the blockbuster theater experience for the more civilized art house scene? I doubt it, and that’s a good thing.









The Case for Virginia

Here’s the challenge: if someone has never been to America and doesn’t have the time to see every corner of our vast country, which one state would you recommend they visit to get the most rounded appreciation of what America is all about?

Which single US state offers a sincere glimpse into the American way of life with lots of cool, interesting things to see and do?

Difficulty: California is too big too see in less than two weeks.

"Thus Always Unto Tyrants". It's so welcoming!

I’ve given this a lot of thought and the answer is Virginia.

Right now, most of my American readers are screaming. They have another state in mind. Probably California. But they are wrong. If you have never been to America and you want to know what “average” America is like while still enjoying some recreational fun, Virginia is the best choice.

Here comes the Case for Virginia!

(note: I’ve only been there twice and I am not employed by the Virginia Tourism Board)


How many Monticellos does your area have? Hmm?

European skeptics like to sniff at America because we are ‘inauthentic’ and have no history worth mentioning. These snobs have never been to Virginia!

Virginia was founded 400 years ago. It isn’t as storied as Rome, but Virginia is no Silicon Valley, either. It’s old. From Pocohontas and Capt. John Smith to Washington and Jefferson, Virginia is a microcosm of early American history.

In fact, Virginia is so fucking historical that there’s too much of it to outline here. Tourists will be tripping over colonial mansions and Civil War battlefields until they finally land in Colonial Williamsburg.

Williamsburg may be a tad schmaltzy, but it’s far less offensive than those bell-ringing turds in livery who stand outside European museums. Take THAT, you snooty French academics!

If you have any interest at all in American history, Virginia is practically the goddamn epicenter of it all. You just can’t miss.


Virginia Beach doesn't suck!

Millions of Brits flock to Florida every year to escape the grey and loll in the sun. Once their discount airfare gets them there, the poor saps pay a premium for the privilege.

Not so in Virginia. Virginia Beach is reasonably priced and offers a less crushing experience. You’ll see plenty of hot bikini chicks as well as plenty of scary fat people, which is why you came to America in the first place.

Most importantly, Virginia Beach attracts middle-of-the-road American visitors. You won’t meet too many snotty rich people; nor will you have to abide a bunch of ghetto trash. Instead, you will come belly-to-belly with middle class America.

If you have kids with you, Busch Gardens and King’s Dominion should replace your Disney desires without robbing you blind. There’s a couple of big zoos and enough water parks to float your trunks for weeks.

For adult fun, Virginia is for Lovers. It’s true. I know because I once banged a chick from Virginia. And man, she was HOT. If you visit Virginia from overseas, use your sultry accent to score a Virginian. You wont regret it.


It ain't much, but it's all-American.

No. Virginia is not renown for the arts. But it is the home of GWAR, so that’s gotta count for something.

Yet Virginia is a diverse place. Despite its slave-holding past, about 20% of the population is black, 10% is Latino and the rest are white or various shades of world workers in the industrial northern part of the state. What this means is the outsider will meet a wide array of people.

You won’t like them all. Some of them are jerks. But most of them are nice and actually do believe in exuding some form of southern hospitality. This is where the visitor will really learn something about America. That’s what defines us: ethnicities all jammed together and trying their hardest to get along despite the evolutionary call of the tribe.

We have no Tito or Stalin to force us to live together. Instead, America (and Virginia) tends to unify under Christianity. You’d be a fool to visit Virginia and not check out some churches and even some public church events.

They will likely freak you out. Some churches are…charismatic. But even an old atheist like me knows that life in the South (and most of America) is defined by its churches. In Virginia, it is the neighborly call of Christ that binds them. It shapes the one cultural aspect they all share. Sniff all you like, but if you want to understand America you better learn to understand her strange affinity for this wacky religion.


Are you kidding me?

What Virginia lacks in high culture it makes up for in varied, beautiful landscapes. Bring your camera because in this one state you will be framing misty mountains covered in greens and yellows, lonely roads winding through ancient farms, mighty estuaries racing into the Atlantic, waves crashing on sandy shores and Neoclassical buildings rising up against the azure sky.

Yes, Arizona has deserts and Maine has craggy shores and Texas has endless brush and Colorado has majestic peaks and California has big trees. But Virginia has almost all of that stuff and it’s all within a few hours’ drive. Virginia wins again!

And then there’s DC…

Washington DC

Giant-ass domed buildings? Yeah, we got that shit.

As you head north, you leave behind the mountains and farms and enter something truly American: enormous suburban developments, godawful strip-malls and gigantic glass-and-steel office towers. This is the epicenter of the might that is the government of the United States. Defense contractors, lobbying organizations and massive federal agencies ingest and disgorge hundreds of thousands of busy bees every day. It’s a madhouse. Drive carefully.

Just beyond is the nation’s capital. Enjoy the irony of the grinding poverty in her ghettos. Shake your head at the ostentatious displays in our inauthentic public spaces. Marvel at the galaxy of junk in the Smithsonian and gawp in disbelief at the massive jets suspended inside the aerospace museum.

You want world-class museums? Yeah. We got that shit.

DC is worth a visit, but it’s not more American than Virginia. Seriously.

It’s the People, Stupid

Happy Virginians at the recent presidential inauguration

I’ve been lucky to meet average folks in Europe and Japan. I’m an average guy, too. Weird, but average. And meeting my fellow average people gives me a much greater sense of a nation’s culture than meeting its service workers or representatives or immigrants.

When foreigners visit America, I’d like them to see cool stuff and have a good time and meet average Americans. They’re not the salt of the Earth. They’re not particularly noble or bright. They aren’t even very pretty.  But they are the genuine article. They are the are the distilled remains of our history and they are the real faces and real voices that betray all that Hollywood crap you watch on your satellite dish.

These people are hard to find in New York, Florida and LA. There’s plenty of them in the Midwest, but Virginia has more to offer than Iowa does. Sorry, Iowa.

Truth be told, I don’t personally give a rip about Virginia. But if some accountant from Ghana told me he wanted to see America but only had two weeks and no desire for long journeys, I wouldn’t hesitate.

Virginia, man. It’s America in a bottle.

You Virginians can now tell me how right I am; the rest of you can tell me how wrong I am.