May 21, 2006

Super Chicken and the Immigration Battle

Today I came face to face with the immigration controversy. It is difficult to avoid at the Super Chicken.

I was visiting my friend "Sally" in Falls Church, VA today. Upon leaving, I asked whether there was a good place nearby to get a grilled chicken sandwich. She said that there was a Super Chicken nearby. She said she had never been there, but that it had a very good reputation with the local "Latin" clientele. Upon hearing the name of the place, I started laughing. It sounded like a great name for an unlikely superhero. It turns out that Super Chicken was indeed a cartoon superhero in the 1960s and 1970s, and I must have watched it as a kid. So of course I had to go.

Super Chicken is a charusco style place, where dozens of whole chickens are roasted simultaneously on long rotisserie spits, and given a special, possibly Central or South American seasoning. The chickens are deftly chopped into halves and quarters by experts wielding cleavers. They are often served with Spanish rice and yuca or platanos. The clientele of such places in Northern Virginia is largely Hispanic, more specifically, Central American. I have eaten this type of chicken quite a few times, and it's delicious. My good friend "Juan" turned me on to the stuff. He's from Ecuador, and likes to go to El Pollo Rico (translation: The Rich Chicken), which isn't too far from Super Chicken. I am honored to learn about Juan's native language and culture when visiting him and his family.

The signs in the window of Super Chicken were all in Spanish. The men working behind the counter were all Hispanic looking and were speaking Spanish. Ditto for the customers. I was the only Gringo there, and I speak very little Spanish. I felt very out of place, a stranger in my own land. The workers were busy. The chopper was wielding his cleaver deftly. A few parties were in there, chatting to each other. I was ignored, invisible. I guess that's how other minorities must feel sometimes, like the Black guy at the polo club. I waited quite a while.

As I was waiting, I wondered about the people in there. Do they speak English? What was their economic status? Juan's native language is Spanish, and a good amount of Spanish is spoken in his home, but his primary language here is English. He owns a successful business. I'm sure he realizes that, for immigrants to the U.S., the key to success is mastering English. It is the only cultural tie that binds us together in the United States.

I thought about my own ancestors, and the many other ethnic minorites who emigrated here over the last couple of hundred years -- Irish, Italians, Chinese, Eastern European Jews, Germans, and, more recently, Central Americans, South Asians, Koreans, West Africans and numerous others. Upon arriving on our teeming shore, many of them settled together, did business together, opened restaurants featuring their native cuisine, and spoke their native language to each other. Eventually, many of them, like Juan, became successful, in no small part by mastering the English language and opening themselves up to our society. In turn, Americans benefit from exposure to many different native cultures. It's a wonderful process.

For immigrants to the U.S. looking for economic opportunity, therefore, learning English is a common sense choice. Like morality, it cannot be legislated. But that hasn't stopped Congress from trying. A few days ago, in the immigration legislation frenzy, the U.S. Senate voted to make English the national language. It was a meaningless, cheap political stunt. Even Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says the legislation is purely symbolic and will have no effect on current law.

This is why I have been trying to avoid the entire immigration issue. It is clearly being hyped for phony political reasons. I believe that, along with flag burning and gay marriage, the immigration issue is being ginned up by Republicans at this time to accomplish 2 things just months before the mid-term elections: (1) distract from GOP woes such as Iraq, Plame Gate, the Abramoff ethics scandal and illegal NSA wiretapping; and (2) rile up the conservative base so they come out to vote in November.

I would love to say that I achieved a cultural breakthrough, a true American success story of bonding and brotherhood, at the Super Chicken. Alas, this was not meant to be. After not being served, spoken to or acknowledged for some time, I reluctantly left Super Chicken and went to Quizno's. I was served by a big pale White guy while a little Hispanic man was mopping the floor. We were the only 3 people in the place. The two of them were not speaking to each other, and looked as though they have never shared a word or even a glance. I had a bland, disappointing, homogenized, Americanized chicken sandwich. It was called Chicken Milano and was supposedly Italian.

Read more!

May 17, 2006

Man Bites Gator

Have you noticed what passes for news on the cable networks nowadays?
The latest big news story is that a few alligators have attacked humans in Florida. Do you know how many fatal alligator attacks there have been in the U.S. in the decades since records have been kept? 18. That's how many people die every 4 hours or less on the nation's highways, or every 5 hours in the U.S. from gun violence. A few summers ago, the big news story was shark attacks. The coverage was so heavy that one would have thought thousands of sharks were on a human-eating rampage. In fact, the frequency of shark attacks that summer was below average.

In between animal attacks, the cable networks treat us to stories of missing young white women. Natalee Holloway. The Runaway Bride. Chandra Levy. And sometimes there are missing white guys, but nobody remembers their names. There's a honeymooner who went missing from a cruise ship. And some other guy, a college student, currently missing from another cruise ship. Apparently the women get abducted while walking or jogging, but the men disappear off of ships.

We also have the Duke Lacrosse scandal, where a woman alleges that she was attacked by members of the Duke lacrosse team at a party. Certainly, that's a story on the Duke campus, and the surrounding community, where the prosecutor involved is running for re-election. But why is it a major story on national cable networks?

Then of course, there are the celebrity stories. TomKat. Jennifer & Brad. Bennifer. Britney and her baby in the car. Michael Jackson and the Neverland Ranch.

This trend is not new. It precisely follows the growth of the 24-hour cable "news" networks. In fact, one of the first local "man bites dog" stories cablecast around the nation was that of Baby Jessica. Those old enough and with good memories may recall that, in October 1987, 18 month old Jessica McClure fell down a well in Texas. During the 58-hour vigil until she was rescued, a number of reporters descended on the scene. CNN, which, until the first Gulf War several years later, was still a fledgling network, capitalized on the situation, and its own 24-hour capability, by providing wall-to-wall coverage. According to some reports, Baby Jessica became the second most-watched television "news" coverage of all time, behind that other important news event, the death of Princess Diana. No doubt O.J. Simpson's Ford Bronco escapade is up there in the top 5. With its coverage of Baby Jessica, CNN's ratings surpassed that of the broadcast networks for the first time. This paved the way for the multitude of 24-hour cable "news" networks that have launched since that time.

Someone needs to explain why this programming is "news." I consider it pure entertainment. The simple answer may be that the cable networks have 24 hours to fill, and there isn't that much real news going on all the time. This is especially true in the summer, when Congress and the President are taking the longest of their many long vacations, and thus there are little or no legislative and policy matters being generated. Of course, there are issues that could and should be covered, but rarely are. For example, prior to the violent, made-for-tv destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, when is the last time we saw substantial cable news network coverage of poverty anywhere in America? Moreover, if one views the BBC or other international news networks, there are numerous other news stories going on around the world, in places such as Africa, Asia and even Europe. The issues range from military conflicts and famines to planetary issues such as overpopulation and global warming. However, the U.S. cable news networks seem to minimize coverage or even ignore them. Some U.S. cable network executives say that Americans don't care about many of these issues, and cannot even point to many of the involved places on a map. But of course, that's a chicken-and-egg question. If the networks did the hard work of providing important news topics in an educational and entertaining way, instead of taking the easy path of airing alligator attacks and car chases, then maybe we would be interested in these news stories, and hungry for more.

But I can't help wondering whether there is something else a bit more calculated at work here. Are the shark and gator attack stories designed to elicit any different response than the movie "Jaws"? Are the missing women stories intended to cause us to react any differently than, say, the movie "The Vanishing" (guy's wife goes missing at truck stop), "Mad Max" (guy's wife and daughter terrorized by gang of outlaws) or any other movies of the women-in-peril genre, which goes all the way back to D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" and the later "Perils of Pauline" serials? Is coverage of car chases on cable "news" channels designed to provide more to the audience than the excitement of an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie?

Psychological experts say that, when we're in a heightened emotional state, we form a strong neurological association to any stimulus occurring at the same time. Like, for instance, a tv commercial.

For producers and advertisers, therefore, these stories might make for good tv, in the sense that they appeal to our emotions and may cause us to buy products that appear on the commercials between the programming. They might be tremendously entertaining and enjoyable to watch, after a brain-mumbing day at work. But shouldn't this programming be labeled "entertainment" and aired on the networks' entertainment channels? If the national cable news networks cannot fill 24 hours a day with real news pertinent to their nationwide audience, perhaps they should pare down their hours of operation, or call themselves news-and-entertainment networks, split their schedules, and label and treat their programming accordingly.

Read more!

May 12, 2006

48 Hour Film Project

Below is a link to the film, "Brushed Aside," which I co-wrote, and was unexpectedly drafted to act in, for the 48 Hour Film Project in DC last weekend.

The Project is a contest in which teams must write and produce a film within 48 hours. Each team is assigned a genre (sci-fi, romance, etc.) on Friday night, and by Sunday night, the film must be turned in. Each film must contain a particular character, prop and line of dialogue. This year, those elements were: Tim or Tina Tate, gay glass sculptor extraordinaire; a fire extinguisher; and the line "This is absolutely the last time."

Our team, Poolside Productions, was fortunate to pick mockumentary for our genre. It seemed to match our sensibilities. While Jessica, our producer and Theresa, our director, traveled to the downtown meeting place to pick the genre, several of us gathered at the nearby Chinatown Starbucks and waited. Then the call came in from them, saying that we had a mockumentary to make. We galvanized into action.

We had secured the old abandoned National Park Seminary at Forest Glen in Maryland for a location. This is an atmospheric, creepy place containing numerous buildings of different types, including Spanish style mission buildings; an Italian villa; and a Chinese pagoda, as well as statues that seem to speak. Someone came up with the idea of using the location to portray an artists' colony for the mockumentary, housing Tim/Tina Tate and others. Then Susan, our resident actress, started ad-libbing a hilarious "nosy neighbor" part, complete with Brockton, MA accent, and "Brushed Aside" was born.

Sarah, my co-writer, and I headed to my apartment and, armed with Chinese food, we watched the first 15 minutes of "This Is Spinal Tap" for inspiration. Within 4 or 5 hours, we had come up with the Camp Kilgore Weapons Testing Site and Artists' Colony, funded jointly by the Dept. of Defense and the National Endowment for the Arts. We had Lilian Crumble, President of the Peske Foundation, explaining that the Cold War Brushes and Bombs program that funded the artists was being deleted, and therefore, the Foundation was sponsoring the Adopt an Artist program. The documentary's producer/interviewer, Constance Crabbe, was to face a difficult and sometimes reclusive bunch, including glass sculptor Tim Tate, who insists on being called Tiinaa, neighbor Ginny Gorgonzola, and a mime, Phillipe Phondue, who will not break character for an interview.

Saturday's filming included many unpredictable moments, which, along with technical matters, ultimately determined what ended up in the film. We were deluged by a pollen storm at Forest Glen, causing our camerawoman/editor, Melanie, and others to gag at inconvenient times. Ellen, who played Lilian, had never acted before, and was a bit uncomfortable. My only instruction to her was to "think Lillith from 'Frasier.'" She nailed the part, and ended up with plenty of screen time.

The scene between Constance and the uncooperative mime Phillipe was shot in one take in just a few minutes, but in my mind was one of the funniest scenes of the film.

On the set, I was told that I looked like a cameraman, so I was asked to play the cameraman in the documentary within our movie. I was not sure if this was a compliment, since I was wearing my regular clothes. I hung headphones and a camera wire around my neck, and clipped my cell phone and 2 walkie-talkies to the pockets of my cargo shorts. Now I felt like a real cameraman, that is, the exaggerated mockumentary kind. I asked for quick instructions on how to hold the camera and remove it from its tripod. Then I improvised a few scenes with Amy, who was playing Contance. Apparently our scenes looked natural enough to make it into the final version of the film.

Last Tuesday, the film was screened at the American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. The whole thing was surreal. Members of each team showed up, some in costume pertaining to their films. Our team was armed with paint brushes. In the theater lobby, I was interviewed by a 48 Hour Film Project camera crew. Or was it a team filming a mockumentary of the screening? Within minutes, the interviews appeared on the big screen inside. Our team grabbed at least half a row in the boisterous theater, which resembled a 1980s screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the 8th Street Playhouse in New York City.

We nervously sat through about half a dozen other films before ours appeared. I had not yet seen the final product. When our opening credits appeared, my teammates and I cheered and waved our paint brushes. It was pretty jolting to see a close-up of my face on the giant screen during a scene where I pretended to be talking into both the cell phone and a walkie-talkie at the same time. But I settled down and enjoyed the 7 minute flick. The crowd seemed to like it as well, laughing in the spots where we had intended them to laugh. Being a DC crowd, they laughed loudly at the line about the joint DOD/NEA funding.

It was an exciting, addicting and really fun experience that I hope to repeat very soon. This is absolutely not the last time.

You can view the film here:

Read more!

May 02, 2006

Plame Game Update

Today it was reported that Valerie Plame Wilson was not only an undercover CIA operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction, but an undercover CIA operative specializing in WMD in Iran. Thus, the blowing of her cover by White House officials, including Karl Rove and Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, in order to discredit her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, when Wilson reported that the Bush Administration's claims about Saddam Hussein seeking uranium from Niger were false, which resulted in Plame's resignation from the CIA, has hurt U.S. intelligence efforts regarding Iran's nuclear program. We all know that this is hardly a good time for that to happen.

At best, this is a case of gross negligence by Bush Administration officials, who were obsessed with winning a political argument and selling a war in Iraq by cherry-picking intelligence, ignoring reports that ran counter to their arguments, and attacking officials who disagreed with their message without regard to the consequences. The irony is that these officials sacrificed intelligence necessary to confront a real danger in Iran in order to sell a fake war against Iraq. At worst, one needs to ask whether the Administration officials checked, and thus knew, that Valerie Wilson was a WMD specialist in Iran, and that disclosing her identity would cause her to have to leve her post, resulting in a setback regarding our WMD knowledge about Iran. Remember that, when it came to Iraq, the lack of better knowledge of WMD made it easier for Bush to invade.

Read more!