Tuesday, August 18, 2009

America Has Talent?

Tonight I was walking across East 60th street, weaving my way through the usual evening crowd of well-dressed young teens and tourists flocking every available stoop and railing, waiting impatiently for their chance to sample the Serendipity version of dessert heaven. There is a party atmosphere— it is summer holiday; the night air is clear and breezy-- many hold balloons and brightly colored bags of sweets from Dylan’s.

On the south side of 60th Street it is trash pickup night; debris and unwanted furnishings from summer renovations and tenant changes line the curb in irregular clumps like a tiny shantytown. A pair of homeless men have parked their carts and assess the merchandise; tonight the sidewalk displays an especially rich inventory. One of them is seated on a small sofa and trying on pair after pair of athletic footwear someone has discarded. He walks, tests the fit. Sits down again, and suddenly one of the shoes is hurling and spiraling through the air, down 60th street, clear across to the East side of Second Avenue where cars are entering the 59th Street bridge. Wow, I think. What an arm. What an NFL quarterback super-bowl-worthy pass. Incredible. The power, the perfect arc, the speed. The talent.

Okay, you do the math, follow the dots back to his past, his ‘hood. The wealth of athletic talent in the average underprivileged New York City neighborhood. The courts of Coney Island…the Rucker tournament players who make many college basketball stars look like amateurs, but who end up on unemployment lines, using anything to dull the ache of unfulfilled promise.

Then there’s the music. Some of these people hum with more grit and soul than the average MTV star or American Idol winner. How about that girl on ‘Prep’ who has her own $6 million apartment on Park Ave. and a vocal coach who is paid by the hour more than a weekly minimum wage salary so this brat can imitate other pop stars and appear to have talent? Okay, we the disgruntled and educated tell ourselves… it’s all marketing anyway. The toxic world of New York which used to nurture ideas and individuality. We have the cult of competitive narcissism and celebrity… like one enormous cultural hot-dog eating contest… while the rest of the world is starving and suffering.

Of course, there is no scarcity of talent. They are everywhere.. the invisible readers of obscure books, the writers of unpublished decent poetry, the sketchers on the subway who occasionally visit free Chelsea galleries and go home and tear their hair out. I even concede there is much talent among the hugely successful. I am an admirer of the acting ability of Meryl Streep. The popularity of her current box-office feat baffles me. I grew up watching Julia Child on channel 13 when I was home with measles or chicken pox in those innocent pre-innoculation days and was too sick to change channels. Even then I thought she was in drag. The person. She was weird and awkward and discombobulated and not quite credible, to me. She didn’t make me want to cook the way Graham Kerr did. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Comics used to imitate her. And there are plenty of taped shows available. We didn’t need the movie. I don’t get it. Now I do. She was kind of the first 'indie' chef. Is the film some reminder that celebrity chefs, who now have $2000 haircuts and celebrity spouses, used to be unattractive? We have several versions of Top Chef, we have 24-hour food channels. Chefs are the new rockstars. Nora Ephron has plenty of money. She could feed everyone in the Congo with a year’s worth of Sleepless in Seattle and Harry and Sally reruns. She has celebrity friends. Can’t she come up with something new?

Okay. I didn’t see it. I don’t want to see Meryl Streep like a human muppet doing an expensive imitation. Julia Child was already a kind of dysfunctional muppet. She might be a symbol that America had some talent among the understyled and unfashionable. She was smart and was a real person… she wasn’t auditioned and created by media spinners and picked for photogenic charisma. She was the essence of what used to be channel 13… the Mr. Wizard of cookery.

These days on PBS we get some babe begging for money while Wayne Dyer and other useless cultish quacks prattle and prance across the screen giving us advice about how to cure ADHD and sexless marriages. These people are stupid, narcissistic and misleading. They are also very rich. They are marketing experts. Is PBS that desperate? Do the Ziffs and the Bronfmans blindly give money? Don’t they have a programming opinion? Bring back the Mostly Mozart, Upstairs-Downstairs, the real Julia Child cooking… Marie Antoinette… Mary Queen of Scots… okay. The POVs, the films… even an occasional Charlie Rose… most of it is okay… but these telethons? Please. And leave out the Hollywood versions… actors playing Jackie Kennedy and Andy Warhol and Julia Child who are well-documented on film. What are they trying to do to the small piece of reality we all carry with us? We are confused enough. Somewhere America Has Talent but it is not on TV. Maybe on youtube but the cult of narcissism and compulsive media documenting has made the ‘needle in a haystack’ metaphor a gross understatement. Ditto the plea ‘someone take out the trash’.

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