Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tequila Sunrise

Tequila Sunrise. Photo by Lynt. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
This is a peripatetic and unfocused blog on various bits of interest appearing on my television, not the least is an engaging little tequila ad for José Cuervo, which seems to take place aboard the Rolling Stones' jet.

Early in the Rolling Stones' 1972 tour of North America (behind the album Exile on Main Street) they played a few gigs in San Francisco, and one evening they threw a private party at the Trident, a restaurant and bar, in Sausalito. Supposedly during the evening the bartender invented the Tequila Sunrise, to which the Stones took a liking and ordered a bottle of tequila so they could mix their own. Tequila—with its reputed psychedelic properties (scientists deny it; aficionados insist on it), its ties to Mexico, and its simple origins in the juice of the blue agave cactus—earned the nod of herbalist hippies in the San Francisco. The mixture of tequila, orange juice, and a splash of grenadine for that sunrise effect.

Jose Cuervo, with the creative assistance of McCann New York, has a cool commercial on television. The interior is a jet, and the camera, to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You," follows a cute waitress as she serves various cocktails made from José Cuervo Tequila to all the beautiful people—all of them plausibly rock and rollers and/or hangers on, including a South Indian man in a turban (and to be fair, it's not clear that he's drinking alcohol: his glass is shaped differently)—composing the passengers aboard this high-flying jet.

My favorite part, since I once was a journalist, is at 0:20 where the journalist is talking into his miniature tape recorder and interviewing someone who is probably supposed to be one of the world's original blues artists.

The commercial has taken some heat for some historical innacuracies and anacronisms. For example, the short film is purportedly about the 1972 tour, but it uses as its soundtrack a song that didn't come out until 1978, etc. Douglas Quenqua, the journalist who compiled the complaints, engages in some amazing pedantic self-exposure and totally misses the point. The commercial is not a documentary that attempts to establish a wall of historicity for its viewers. The commercial is a brief fantasia—and most biopics, whether sixty seconds or two hours long, are fantasias—that teleports the fan to an exciting moment in rock history aboard a tour plane with the world's greatest rock and roll band and a thirst for some José Cuervo. It does that job beautifully. If I want facts, I'll go read a biography.

* * *

The Guardian newspaper (UK) interviewed Ed Snowden on why he should be granted a presidential pardon by Obama—presidents often do grant pardons during their sitting duck phases, and nobody deserves a pardon like Snowden, who revealed to the US citizenry that they were being illegally surveiled by the intelligence community. Snowden also mentioned how the presidential campaign—manifest in both its candidates—is talking about how many people the US can kill when it should be talking about how many friends it can make.

* * *
I did not watch a lot of shows like The Jeffersons or any of the other sitcoms that attempted to deracinate black people in order to make them acceptable and non-threatening to a majority white audience. "Look, they're just like us!" Partly I didn't watch these because they came out in the time I wasn't watching television of any sort. I sold my television and made it a point to go to the movies four or five time a week.

The noble intention, to take white people beyond their racist misperceptions, gets totally negated by portraying black people in terms of network standards, which reductively express characters in terms of sitcom formulae and reduce any potentially controversial ideas into pablum. The supposedly black characters were such lies that black people were deracinated, dehumanized, and dyn-o-mited into non-offensive pablum by television, and a kind of Stepford, Wife, & Son emerged from the ghetto, toeing the line of etiquette, unarmed, and eager to abide with the white man on his terms.

While I wasn't watching television, I was watching movies, so I couldn't miss Sidney Poitier, who had inherited Gary Cooper's moral compass, and who was so charming that feeling anything less than pure adulation for the man in whose mouth butter wouldn't melt amounts to Hollywood heresy. Though Poitier's movies made possible those first awkward steps of television into integration, he too was deracinated and non-threatening to white people.

Hattie McDaniel, the first black person to win an Oscar,
with Olivia de Havilland.
Non-threatening blacks began with Gone with the Wind, which seriously glosses over slavery, but at least it stepped away from Hollywood's earlier racial extremism in which blacks were too stupid to be anything other than tragically comic figures. Hattie McDaniel's Mammy won her an Academy Award for best supporting actress, but then there was a twenty-year gap before Poitier showed up.

To his credit, Poitier could deliver powerful tongue lashings to the racists that crossed his path in films like In the Heat of the Night or To Sir, with Love. The most effective films were the most understated as far as countering the prevailing racism of the audience. In these films the protagonists' spiritual or literal blindness to Poitier's blackness damns the prejudice of the sighted. In A Patch of Blue (1965), Selina (Elizabeth Hartman), a white teenager, and Gordon (Sidney Poitier) fall in love against a backdrop of the militantly segregated South and the rising Civil Rights movement. And in Lilies of the Field (1963), a group of Central European nuns who have somehow wound up in the middle of the Arizona desert—both their cultural isolation and their religiosity provide roots for their lack of prejudice—are convinced that Homer Smith (Poitier) has been sent by God himself to build their new chapel. Poitier deserves the Presdential Medal of Freedom awarded him by Barack Obana in 2009 as well as the 2016 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Fellowship for outstanding lifetime achievement in film. 

Some of the cast from FX's new Atlanta.
Although I might appear to be confusing the actor with the sum of his parts, Poitier is made of strong, saintly sinew. But great as he is, he is not the black every man, which we still have not seen on television until now. Even when I saw the previews for FX's new series, Atlanta, the difference was immediately obvious: here was a program in which black people were not:
  • acting in a way to conform to the sitcom genre;
  • acting in a way not to offend network standards;
  • acting in a way calculated not to scare off the sponsors;
  • acting in a way calculated not to scare off the white audience.
And I thought, "Oh my god! We've finally followed the black rabbit down the hole."
Last night was only the second episode—Atlanta is on FX on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern Time (US). Here are fathers who, out of hard love for their sons or perhaps just protecting their too-thin wallets, won't let their own sons into the house because "they can't afford to." Here are black men who try to stay out of trouble but starve because they get only shit jobs. Here are black men who answer their doors with guns and clean their pistols together without apologizing to anyone. Here are black women who take care of their children and their grandchildren, but who don't hesitate to throw the errant father out the door. In its two episodes the show hasn't specifically addressed the devolution of the black family into the baby mama and freewheeling father system yet, but this system is already evident. The show is darkly humorous, emotionally powerful, and the closest that television has ever come to having a show about real credible black people .

* * *

I started with a sunrise, so perhaps it's appropriate to end with a sunset, but this is a tough one. Netflix's new 24-minute documentary, Extremis, examines the hard realities of the families of three patients attached to breathing machines in an intensive care unit. The patients do not have living wills, so the decision of what to do falls to the families, who of course agonize over decisions they don't want to make. In some cases the emotional process is compounded by denial of the profound reality. Obviously this is a hard film to watch—I've just been through an emotional blender—but it's important to face all truth wherever I can find it, and this short film is a hard diamond of reality. As the physician points out, much of the agony endured by the families could have been prevented if only the patients had left living wills that would have resolved the dilemmas. By the time someone reaches the ICU in this condition, he or she is not cognizant enough to make a decision.

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