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March 3, 2009 | Comments ()


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Ride Hard, Live Free

From Great Heights (A Weekly Column) / Michael Murray

Film Reviews | March 3, 2009 | Comments ()


Whenever I used to head down to the pub by myself—which was all the time—it was always my custom to bring some form of drinking prop. This started out taking the form of a novel, usually something weighty, perhaps a work by David Foster Wallace. I would then conspicuously wear my taste about town as if it was a designer label, hoping that people thought I was a tortured genius rather than a lonely alcoholic. You know, a complex guy.

However, the truth was that I looked like a pretentious dong, and this became more and more evident as the weeks passed into months, and still, I remained on page 39 of Infinite Jest. Eventually, I just started bringing magazines, starting with Harper’s or the New Yorker, but soon enough giving up all scholarly pretenses and letting my reading material devolve into the appealing kitsch of supermarket tabloids.

Personally, I found that a copy of the Sun, a scratch and win ticket, and three pints of beer to be an absolutely stellar night on the town. The truth is that pretty much everybody is interested in supermarket tabloids. They’re accessible and flashy distillates of pop culture, giving the reader a comforting sense of superiority, and something similar to a sugar high. They’re a blast, tabloids, and they’re more likely to start an engaging conversation in a bar than anything that David Foster Wallace ever wrote.

My favorite of the supermarket tabloids is the Sun, a paper that’s owned by American Media Inc., who count the National Enquirer, Star and Globe amongst their family. However, unlike its brethren, the Sun eschews the celebrity culture of nipple slips and suicide attempts, focusing instead on things like the apocalypse, UFO’s, miracle cures, cute animals and the predictions of Nostradamus. Really, who needs Jennifer Aniston when you have Bigfoot?

The cover of a recent issue of the Sun proclaimed “ALL FINAL PROPHECIES COME TRUE IN MARCH 2009!” Behind these words was an image of Jesus, the flames of conflagration leaping behind him. This made me want to read further.

Inside, past a blurry photograph of a flying saucer, was a two-page spread telling us how to win the lottery. They were generous enough to give us five different systems, each one encouraging our gambling by showing pictures of people just like you and me, celebrating and giving their bosses the finger.

A little bit later, we’ll read about the miracle of the holy lava lamp, in which the image of Baby Jesus appeared to John Smith, who was so blessed by the experience, that soon after, he met a woman and almost got a job. Next we find a piece about a ghost firefighter who saved a family from a fiery death, and then another story about a supernatural diabetes cure.

Interspersed between these stories are the ads, which are also a pageant of the surreal and improbable. If you want a clock with motorcycles rotating around the dial face, reminding you to “Ride Hard, Live Free” then the Sun is there to tell you where to get it. Similarly, if you’ve got a hankering for a pendant with a sad puppy on it, or a creepy Wizard of Oz charm bracelet— complete with winged monkeys, ruby slippers and angry apple tree charms— then the Sun will tell you where you can find it at the outstanding price of $199.00.

And then there are the personal ads, of which 20 percent come from Correctional Institute Inmates:

SWF 49, 5’3, 122 lbs., Dark hair, simple country girl. Want a quiet, easygoing, stable life when I get out. Nothing fancy. No playas.

They never tell you what they’re in for, but you can certainly write to ask.

The Sun appeals to those of us with limited options, be they financial, cultural or otherwise. It assures us that in desperate times, the magical thinking we’ve always devoted ourselves to will prevail, and that a miracle will blossom in our life, and we win the lottery, shake off cancer and find the girl.

The stories are simple and patriotic, with exclamation points jubilantly popping up all over the place. One article told the story of Iran shooting down an angel over Tehran. Incorporating the template of contemporary news journalism, and speaking in its vernacular, we hear that this incident is going to make President Obama’s job more difficult. We also find out that the angel was in contradiction of Islamic dress code, which is why she was shot down. One bullet hit her in the wing, but the second, potentially fatal shot, ricocheted off her halo. Indeed, the presence of an angel is treated as an ordinary, if somewhat rare event, and she, like any of us would have had to, is now undergoing physical and occupational therapy for the prosthetic wing she received.

Some racist caricature of an Iranian spokesperson is created to howl about how the angel had been brain-washed by American operatives and forced to live an impure life of compromise, feeding on a diet of McDonald’s. We’re told that this is not the first time an angel has been shot, but it is the first time that it has caused an international incident. It is also implied that the angel is indeed an American agent, and that God, as always, is on our side.

Obviously, the Sun is not reporting real news. Beneath the masthead within the paper is a disclaimer, telling the audience: “Sun stories seek to entertain and are about the fantastic, bizarre and paranormal. The reader should suspend belief for the sake of enjoyment.”

In its way, it’s a satiric enterprise that prefigured a more highbrow venture like The Onion. The general population is so media savvy that very few people actually invest themselves in mainstream reporting. We recognize it as the business driven marketing it is, and prefer to turn to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert to deconstruct the news, feeling there’s greater truth to that than there is the reconfigured press releases we read in the pages of newspapers. In its slutty, populist manner, the Sun is doing the same thing that Colbert is doing, albeit for a different audience.

Although it’s a crass and inelegant distinction, a blue state sensibility might buy The Onion, while a red state one might turn to a different type of satiric publication, like the Sun. In West Pennsylvania, it’s as culturally acceptable to bury weapons and whiskey in the woods in anticipation of the apocalypse, as it is for city dwellers to buy little, plastic bottles of water. It’s not a matter of intelligence, but a matter of conditioning.

Nobody who’s reading the Sun actually believes the newspaper in the literal sense. But in the abstract, the sensational and exaggerated stories it offers up encourages our faith, assuring us that in the end, somehow, everything is going to work out, and that those mysterious lights up there in the night sky, herald our salvation, and not our doom.

Please watch my video addendum.

Michael Murray is a writer, genius and fantasy baseball force. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto with his lady, where he plays floor hockey on a team named The Jesus Cobras, and is known throughout the league for his courageous shot blocking. If you want to hire him for absolutely anything, you can, but you should know he has very little upper body strength and gets out of breath very easily. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.


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