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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

American idyll

It’s official. As of sometime last week, I had spent more time reading articles about and watching interviews with cast members of The Matrix Reloaded than I ever will actually watching the movie. Thanks to my mother’s penchant for talk shows, I got to see Keanu and crew do serial interviews with Jay Leno, Regis and Kelly and the gals on The View, as well as a few others I can’t recall. I don’t think they showed up on Dr. Phil, but I’m not 100% sure. Anyway, after watching Dr. Phil, I’m more focused on getting my life together than movies anyway.

Not! The effects of my fortnight of America immersion are already starting to wear off. I’ve stopped worrying about my health (both physical and mental) and even almost stopped caring about people and events that exist only to give me something to care about.

That gets me to the reason that this column is being written and posted so late. In more than three years of doing these weekly spoutings, this is the latest I’ve ever been. Not even major holidays or vacations have made me so late before. You can blame Walt Disney. I spent my usual writing/posting day introducing the Little Munchkin to Disneyland. Instead of bringing her to a real American town, I brought her to “Main Street.” Instead of taking her to the real Grand Canyon, I brought her to a fake one. Instead of bringing her to a real jungle with real animals, I brought her on “The Jungle Cruise.” God forgive me, but she loved it. Just as I did and, if the truth be known, still do. Still, the Magic Kingdom looks very different through a parent’s eyes than through a child’s. I mean, where else can you spend hours standing in a queue in the Southern California heat, waiting for a chance to have your picture taken with someone in a mouse costume? (Yeah, I know, Florida, Paris, etc.)

But the real reason I couldn’t get it together to post this on schedule is mental strain. I was just too worked up and anxious over whether Ruben or Clay was going to win. Now, if you are in America, you almost certainly know what I mean. If you are somewhere else, it is quite possible (but a little less likely) that you have a clue what I mean. I am talking about this American Idol thing. I had heard about American Idol before, but somehow my absences from the country and my beloved, lamented TiVo had spared me the full effect. We arrived at my mother’s house two and a half weeks ago to find her (in spite of the TiVo I had given her) possessed by American Idol the way people in 1950s science fiction movie are taken over by pods from outer space. Like a good mind slave, she was tuning in every one of the broadcasts in her fervent hope that the geeky but earnest Clay would somehow beat the rotund and soulful Ruben in the competition. Never mind that every broadcast (that I saw anyway) was 10% commercials, 80% padding and filler, and maybe 10% competing, ostensible judging and announcements of actual results.

What a stroke of genius this series is. What better way to generate money than to get zillions of people to watch people you never heard of to sing songs that you know well (mainly from the 70s and 80s) over and over? Of course, that could get boring, so a bit of dramatic tension is provided in the form of a panel of judges. This trio’s composition is as calculated as your local Eyewitness News team. Instead of a male and female anchor (Dad and Mom) and the enthusiastic sports guy (the brother) and the wacky weather guy (the loopy uncle), AI has Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul as the indulgent parents and the villainous Simon Cowell, who is the talent search’s equivalent of the TV wrestler in the black mask. This is way better than watching the news or serious drama or reading book.

The formula clearly works. I couldn’t pick up a New York Times or Newsweek without reading articles about the show. Strangers were stopping us on the street in Anaheim to ask us whether we were for Ruben or Clay. Help! Get me back to the west of Ireland!

But the phenomenon of whipping up excitement over moderately talented people competing against each other isn’t particularly new or particularly American. Of course, AI’s predecessors go all the way back to Amateur Hour and Star Search (which has recently been revised and features Arsenio Hall as host). As fate would have it, The Missus and I arrived home just in time to watch the broadcast of the Eurovision contest. This is an annual rite in Europe that has been going on since the 1950s. Its concept is somewhat similar to American Idol, but since it is a single annual broadcast, it has elements of the Oscars and other awards shows as well. Rather than the performers, it is the songs that are in competition. Twenty-six members of the European broadcasting union each present a performance of their nominated song. Mercifully, the whole thing is over in a bit over three hours and most people will only hear most of the songs once in their entire life. The exception to this would be the song from one’s own country. Ireland’s nominee, called “We’ve Got the World” and sung by a boyish and enthusiastic fellow named Mickey Hart, was chosen over a series of many weeks in an Irish television program eerily similar to American Idol, called You’re a Star.

Unlike AI, in the Eurovision contest you do not hear any songs you already know, although many of them will give you a sense of déjà vu since they all sound like popular songs from the 70s or 80s. Since the songs are all fairly standard, I am convinced it is really the performances that European residents vote on. How else to explain the victory of Turkey, whose unmemorable song was sung by a woman who looked like Toni Collette and who, along with her backup dancers, wore revealing belly dancer costumes?

-S.L., 25 May 2003

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