Party Like It's 1969
The weekend past brought some 800 members of the so-called "alternative media" to Phoenix for the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. New Times was the host, and the Arizona Biltmore teemed with mostly white, increasingly hoary and paunchy denizens of what once was considered the radical press. There are seminars and parties and a croquet tournament and parties and even a basketball game -- played outdoors at 6 p.m.; EMTs stood by.
A gathering of this many people -- let alone freaks -- is always a recipe for mishap. During the 1999 confab in Memphis, one conventioneer strayed from the pack long enough to wind up in the trunk of a car. He lived to tell about it.
This year's near catastrophe involved a certain NT scribe/musician who thought it would be apropos to relieve himself in the canal that fronts the Biltmore. Okay. It was Brian Smith. Of course, he wound up in the canal and had to be extracted by a couple of heroic colleagues. He didn't lose his life, but he did lose a shirt that had been given to him by Keith Richards.
The conference attracted such luminaries/panelists/speakers as skin purveyor Larry Flynt; Linda Tripp confidante/handler Lucianne Goldberg; Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America; California affirmative action conqueror Ward Connerly; California bilingual education basher Ron Unz; California rouser of rabble Tom Hayden; Texas author/songwriter Kinky Friedman; Valley boy and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane. And the Flash, of course, whose overflow lecture was titled "Hey, People, How About Trying to Be Interesting?"
In Like Flynt
Wheeled to center stage at the AAN First Amendment Luncheon by a beefy bodyguard, Hustler magazine publisher and AAN keynote speaker Larry Flynt had a reptilian presence. He has a thick neck, lazy eyes, downturned mouth and guttural voice. If only he had a slave girl on a chain (something he could surely arrange), he'd be a dead ringer for Jabba the Hutt."There's nothing of literary merit that qualifies me to be speaking with you," Flynt began. "But I've got enough on-the-job training."
His on-the-job training includes years of expensive courtroom First Amendment showdowns, an assassination attempt that left him paralyzed below the waist, and a 1998 offer of $1 million to anybody who could produce evidence that a Get-Clinton Republican had had an adulterous affair.
"We pay a price for everything, and the price we pay to live in a free society is toleration. . . . Freedom of speech is not freedom for the thought we love, it's freedom for the thought we hate the most -- journalists must remember this if they want to remain true to their profession," Flynt lectured. "Freedom is not lost in one fell swoop, it's lost one movie at a time, one magazine at a time, one newspaper at a time."
Flynt had several inspiring, if suspiciously familiar, one-liners such as these. A few were even aimed at the alternative press ("The New York Times and Washington Post don't need First Amendment protection; they're not going to offend anybody but a political hack"). Nearly everything Flynt said, in fact, was undeniably righteous -- and that was part of the problem. The Flash likes agitators to actually agitate, not kiss up to ultra-right-wing Goldberg by telling her, "I admire the way you express yourself."
Not that Goldberg's question for Flynt during the Q&A session was anything but the softest of pitches (Was Flynt ever going to publish any revelations about Democrats?). But her question was, the Flash regrets to say, tougher than anything thrown at the publisher by the roomful of supposed carnivorous muckrakers.
Flynt's courtroom battles were no small feat and set crucial precedents, but only in 20/2000 hindsight can anybody honestly believe they were fought for the Good of All Press rather than for the benefit of Larry Flynt. Likewise his efforts to turn the tables on hypocritical Republicans was an example of daring guerrilla politics, but there's a wide gulf between muckraking a pol's background and purchasing evidence to force a congressman's resignation.
Flynt's lone attempt at offense was a couple of sexist jokes. Noting that most of his opponents have been "religious conservatives and radical feminists," he opined that the latter's only success was in "organizing ugly women to march in the streets." That one got a lot of laughter and a single loud hiss.
Reporters gave Flynt a standing ovation. Then they amassed at the front of the stage to have their picture taken with the man. The journalists grinned, all Flynt-stoned, like 18-year-olds ready to spread for their first centerfold.
Violins on TV?
The panel of living caricatures assembled for a "Media Violence" discussion looked and acted like perfect stereotypes for their given professions: University of Oklahoma law professor Kevin Saunders, beefy and studiously bearded.
Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti, Hollywood-short with Mafioso eyebrows.
Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, too thin and creepily handsome, like a refugee from a Coen Brothers film.
Anti-violence crusader Jack Thompson, instantly identifiable as an attorney with his gray glasses, narrow nose and mirthless hyphen of a mouth.
The fantastic four almost immediately dug into each other over whether Hollywood and the video-game industry were responsible for turning Little Johnny into Little Johnny Hinckley.
"I'm the example of why we're having this discussion," McFarlane announced at the offset, somewhat proudly, and argued: "I cannot, as a creative person, sit in my room and ponder what some psycho is going to get out of my work."
Thompson, who's sued the makers of the video game Doom and the film The Basketball Diaries on behalf of parents of murdered Kentucky teens, countered that a "market solution" must keep potentially damaging material from children, lest the entertainment media face government controls.
"I don't want the government to do anything about this. I don't want the government to overreact," he warned. "The problem isn't what you do wrong [as parents]; the problem is what other parents do wrong."
Valenti, the most sharp-tongued of the group with a pocketful of rehearsed zingers, responded: "I've listened to you [Thompson] patiently, and a little bit annoyingly -- I wish I was as sure of one thing as you are of everything."
"You don't know me," the lawyer sulked.
In defense of the film industry, Valenti cited a recent New York Times investigative series which concluded that mental illness and lack of psychological treatment, not popular media, are to blame for rampage killings such as Columbine. "Throughout history," he lectured, "whenever a tyrant appears, he always arrives as your protector."
Saunders summarized the panel's single point of agreement: "We need to be relatively restrictive about what children should see, while keeping a robust First Amendment for adults."
It was a weak conclusion, mainly because the panel's points and arguments had all been conventional -- all practiced volleys against familiar serves.
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The one true stumper came from a listener who called Valenti disingenuous for saying there's no link between popular entertainment and violent behavior when, right here in the Valley, suburban teens are holding Fight Club-style brawls.
After initially doubting the veracity of the claim, Valenti used a standard last-resort disclaimer ("I don't believe I have a right to tell anybody what kind of movie to make") followed by a joking reference to Fight Club being a loser at the box office.
Valenti earlier made a similar comment dismissing the influence of The Basketball Diaries. Both times he got a snicker from the audience. Valenti's dismissal of less-than-successful films was quite telling -- a product's content is unimportant if it doesn't make money.
Valenti would doubtless argue that a film's profit is a measure of public exposure, and that failure teaches a lesson to filmmakers who glorify violence. But violence sells more often than not, and Valenti's singular focus on the box office grosses, rather than film content, is typical of the Hollywood mindset that results in both excessively violent movies and excessively vapid ones.