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Survival 

Or not: Death and nonviolence on PBS — plus, a very purple Hendrix

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000
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A friend asked me to tape the final night of Survivor for him because he was going to a ball game and his wife couldn’t work out how to set the VCR. I probably wouldn‘t have watched it otherwise, if only to prove to myself that my life was made of more substantial stuff. And indeed that night, having left a videotape taping, I went out to dinner and did not rush back but ordered dessert, a very good Napoleon I ate slowly and with great relish. (You wouldn’t ordinarily put relish on a Napoleon, I know, and I wouldn‘t do it again.) I did watch the tape when I got back, I admit, but only -- I swear -- from a sense of professional responsibility: The series had become, as every last American knows, a genuine big deal, riding out its 13-week run on the cover of Newsweek, and, as the Nielsen people later extrapolated, more than 50 million of you were making it your night’s work to see who took home the booty.

(The correct answer is, of course, CBS.)

Though the superabundant media coverage of said series may be seen as mainly a matter of giving the people what they have already demonstrated they want, the reporting has (hilariously, distressingly) tended to take Survivor as seriously as it seemed to take itself, regarding the show as ”news“ -- as a genuine current affair, though of course it was only current in TV time, having in reality played out before the first episode aired -- or as an indication of Where We Are Now (let a hundred Think Pieces bloom). Though frankly I am more interested in what it means that so few of us can work our VCRs.

I would like to believe that Survivor‘s success means nothing at all. I do not wish to make it important (but I am not much for spectator sports in general, nor their metaphorical exegesis). And if it does stand for something bigger than itself -- a game show decorated with what seem to me insulting misappropriations of Pacific Island culture -- it is, I fear, something bad. An intelligent and politically aware person of my acquaintance defended the show to me as a ”guilty pleasure,“ but just because something is pleasurable doesn’t mean it‘s good -- or good for you, which is why Betty Ford created rehab. Notwithstanding its bogus patina of mythology and meaning -- ”Character is character,“ host Jeff Probst ponderously observed during the finale -- Survivor was basically, as penultimate survivor Kelly later noted, ”a mean game,“ designed to bring out the worst in its players and, by extension, its audience. (In voting against Kelly, ante-antepenultimate survivor Susan had declared, ”If I ever pass you along in life again and you are laying [sic] there dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water. I would let the vultures take you and do whatever they want with you, with no ill regret.“ Cute!) If the series formed a metaphor for anything at all, it was for office politics -- which is perhaps what made it such essential ”water-cooler television,“ and in light of which it only makes sense that Richard the corporate trainer, or the ”gay corporate trainer“ as he was invariably called, carried the day. Though this was largely accounted ”an upset“ -- he was thought too unlikable to win -- he was nevertheless praised for his forthright self-interest and lack of interest in anything but ”playing the game,“ which is to say, winning it. Hey, you know where they say nice guys finish. Welcome to what matters. Pardon me if I find it all a little depressing. Obviously I am no fun at all.

The ”Final Four“ survivors, you probably would like to know, are scheduled to be on Hollywood Squares the week of September 25. Let them have their moment: In the end neither a million dollars nor the ”new Pontiac Aztek“ Probst was paid to endlessly mention during the finale will get them out of this world alive. Death -- there’s a lot of it going around, and with the boom babies reaching endgame there‘s about to be a whole lot more. In anticipation of this, World’s OldestStraightest Hippie Bill Moyers, the Lewis & Clark of spiritual passage, brings us On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying. Though Moyers‘ tack is essentially proactive -- positing the possibility of going not only gentle but genteel into that good night -- the series implies, when it does not assert, that such an end is presently the exception, and that, on the whole, death as currently practiced in our great nation only adds insult to injury. Unless you are so rich as to afford good terminal care, or poor enough to be given it, or -- my personal preference -- lucky enough to pop straight off from a massive coronary, you are better off dead than dying.

That is not, however, why Bill has asked us here. A man who has plumbed the depths of Star Wars, Moyers is sensitive to alternative modalities and inner transformation -- his past projects include Facing Evil With Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth With Bill Moyers, The Power of the Word With Bill Moyers, A Gathering of Men With Bill Moyers and Robert Bly, Your Mythic Journey With Sam Keen and Bill Moyers, Spirit and Nature With Bill Moyers, Circle of Recovery With Bill Moyers and Healing and the Mind With Bill Moyers -- and this latest series, which comes in four parts, is primarily concerned with dignified leave-taking, the hospice movement, and ”palliative“ care, which seeks not to cure but only to manage what one might call the quality of death. It is a strange and exhausting show, full of real people who really die (though discreetly off-camera), and should you tune in, which I don’t necessarily recommend, you will not escape it dry-eyed.

You may well shed a tear or two, for other but not wholly unrelated reasons, over A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, which concerns the ways in which the downtrodden masses have, through coordinated noncooperation, harried their oppressors, toppled tyrants, secured denied rights. Directed by Steve York, the film itself (three hours split over two nights) extracts six episodes -- Gandhi against the British, the American civil rights movement, Danish resistance to the Nazi occupation, the fall of apartheid, the Gdansk shipyard strike, the overthrow of Pinochet -- from a more comprehensive ”companion book“ of the same name, and is smartly made but nothing fancy; its effect is all in the subject itself. The accounts are streamlined and simplified -- none of these movements were without (sometimes violent) internal dissension, largely unreported here -- but do stir the blood. The archival footage is splendid; Ben Kingsley, who isn‘t Gandhi but played him in the movies, narrates well.

Finally, I cannot refrain from warning you against -- or alerting you to, depending on your taste for ironic amusement -- Hendrix, a biopic of the funky psychedelic rock god. Some pains have been taken to replicate the clothes he wore and the overall choreography of his appearances at Monterey and Woodstock, though it might have been better if newcomer Wood Harris looked like he had the slightest idea of how to play the guitar, and if the soundtrack had included some of Jimi’s own songs -- lacking permission from the estate, it‘s all covers, ”Hey Joe“ and ”Wild Thing“ and ”The Star-Spangled Banner,“ badly reproduced. Lacking ”Purple Haze“ or ”Voodoo Child,“ the subject’s authentic star power or a script that makes something substantial out of his life‘s real themes, the film is just big hair and groovy threads and bump and grind. There are some naked girls, though.

Executive producer and former concert promoter Ron Terry is the project’s official Friend of Jimi, and his younger self is of course represented here, hipping Hendrix to FM radio and saving his career. Vivica A. Fox and Dorian Harewood briefly appear, I would hope to their chagrin. Only Billy Zane, as an evil business manager, carries any weight; he‘s a caricature for sure, but as solid a cartoon as Wood’s earnest Jimi is tracing-paper thin. This is the worst film of its kind I have ever seen, and I have seen The Benny Goodman Story. People, please: no more biopics. No more Survivors. It‘s time to let reality be.

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