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Fatwah / September 29, 2008
By Eileen Jones

Experimental film called The Debate

Don’t know if you were watching TV last Friday evening, but if you were, you noticed that all the network channels were running this bizarre experimental film called The Debate. It featured a 90-minute stand-off between two men of opposed characteristics—black vs. white, young vs. old, tall vs. short, handsome vs. hideous, and so on. Andy Warhol used to make this kind of film; one of his, called Sleep, is an eight-hour shot of a guy snoozing.

Anyway, Friday’s Warholian exercise seemed to be showing us a sort of ossification process, both men rigidifying before our eyes till only their mouths were moving. This was no doubt meant to be an allegory of our current financial crisis, signifying that, as credit “freezes up,” it paralyzes both Main Street and Wall Street. Main Street is symbolized here by the young black guy, see, because this is clearly a film produced by hardcore lefty-artsy types who are the only people on earth still making or watching experimental cinema, and they want to underscore the nation’s racial diversity. The nasty, tubby white guy represents Wall Street, of course, same as always.

The moving mouths signify how nobody in America ever shuts up.

I can’t imagine who’s the collegiate Darren Aronofsky with the connections to get his student film on the air in prime time, but it sure made for an evening of rotten TV.

Luckily, at the same time, there was an absolute jamboree of ghost shows running on the cable networks. These shows are the perfect antidote to a film like The Debate, because they’re jolly and messy and active, full of extremely interesting human problems (poltergeist in the bathroom, huh?) that are solved by teams of concerned experts. These shows will cheer you right up after a harsh day in the world, where problems are either impossibly difficult (credit default swaps) or depressingly mundane (the cable’s out again), but either way you can’t get anybody to fix them. Problems that do get fixed, finally, entail immense expense and collateral damage, plus the repairman is rude and obtuse. Paranormal investigators, on the other hand, are amazingly kind and helpful: “Got a demon in the garbage disposal? Pastor refuses to help? Well, Lutherans are no good for this stuff anyway, you gotta get a real priest. Tell the kids to quit playing with the Ouija Board, and I’ll be right over with the holy water and Father Mike.” Done and done!

I hear they’re going to run The Debate II, III, and IV in the upcoming weeks, so you might want to look over this handy guide to the best and worst of the cable ghost shows:

Jay & Grant check out the broken ceiling fans

Ghost Hunters – Sci-Fi Channel – RATED DG (Damn Good)
This show satisfies our repairman-longings by starring Grant Wilson and Jay Hawes, Roto-Rooter plumbers by day and paranormal investigators by night, who merely change their industrial van logo, when moonlighting, to read TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society). They generally get a call to go grapple with a supernatural entity just as they’re finishing snaking out a sink, and handle both jobs with such aplomb we know we’re being presented with a powerful collective fantasy—not of ghosts, but of trusty blue-collar handymen who can tackle any household problem.

Grant and Jay deal with each case in the same manner, starting with a reassuring consultation with the home-owner or building manager, who’s often a nervous woman. Then it’s on to working with their crew to set up of a lot of guy-ish equipment all over the place, necessitating urgent unloading of gear and hauling of cable. In the dead of night they generally have phlegmatic confrontations with ghostly phenomena that elicit such manly reactions as “Whoa!” and “Huh,” and occasionally, “That was cool.” After they assess all the techno-gear results, they debunk anything being mistaken for supernatural activity that’s actually the radiator going on. Finally, there’s a reassuring wrap-up session with the (nervous woman) client, explaining that whatever’s in the house is taken care of or is too wussy a ghost to pose any threat whatsoever. They always promise to be instantly available if needed again, and in the van on the ride home, they talk sincerely about the case and the future well-being of the (nervous woman) client.

Best fantasy show ever.

Love hurts

Paranormal State – A & E – RATED DG
A softer approach to home-repair work than the one offered by TAPS, this show stars young Ryan Buell of the Penn State University Paranormal Research Society, who looks like the nicest sophomore on campus, a sort of Bambi-esque Michael Cera type. Ryan feels your pain, which may be superficially caused by the gibbering ghoul in the garage, but is really about the dysfunctional family dynamic in the home, or the psychic guilt caused by the Native American genocide on that very property. By the time Ryan leaves the site with his equally tenderhearted team, not only has the ghost gone to the light, the family’s group-hugging, and trees are being planted to appease the Iroquois warriors buried in the yard.

Chip Coffey, Warrior

Psychic Kids – A & E – RATED DG
Inspired by the popularity of Paranormal State, this “spin-off” stars the same psychic consultant often featured in Paranormal: medium Chip Coffey, an outspoken gay gentleman of mature years with a silver-haired crewcut and single earring stud, who is a kind of lisping warrior for the supernaturally-challenged. Here he fights on behalf of children and teenagers who don’t know what to make of seeing dead Uncle Joe in the back yard barbecuing, and other disturbing phenomena. The kids are brought to a kind of camp-retreat where they bond and learn to wield their psychic talents.

Certain bloggers deplore this show for “exploiting children,” which really makes one wonder yet again: exactly how stupid are some people? The kids, all of them convincing little geeks rejected by their peers for their manifest oddities, never had it so good. This show’s more heartwarming than a shot of Jamesons.

In the wrong line of work

Most Haunted – Travel Channel – RATED FA (Fucking Awful)
A hugely popular show from the UK that’s broken out like a rash in America, this one’s a mystery, all right. Its paranormal investigators are a bunch of twittering hysterics—the men marginally more shrieky than the women—who flee in terror from all evidence of the very phenomena they’ve come to investigate. This is vaguely amusing the first time you see it. Oh I get it, you say to yourself, this is a kind of Ghost and Mr. Chicken comedy-type thing. The problem is, whereas Don Knotts as Mr. Chicken was funny as hell and so endearing you could almost like humanity again, the Most Haunted team is made up of irritating gits with no redeeming comic timing whatsoever. Particularly horrible are Yvette Fielding, the shrill blonde who takes care of the hosting duties, and Derek Acorah, the outspoken gay medium with an earring stud and a silver-haired crewcut who’s apparently the obnoxious Brit cousin of Chip Coffey. When things get a little slow, Derek often does a hammy job of pretending to be possessed, which is deeply embarrassing.

Around the sixth time you watch the whole investigative team run down a dark hall screaming because one of them thought they heard a noise, you begin to wonder what other ghost shows are on.

Who is this guy?

Weird Travels – Travel Channel – RATED NTDB (Not Too Damn Bad)
This one doesn’t have any repair-people, just a kind of tour guide, a Mysterious Traveler in a brown leather jacket who introduces and closes each show. Terribly cast, this Traveler is a generic Hollywood actor—looks sorta like the late Robert Urich—who deals in the mouldy puns that are the curse of some of these shows, encouraging you to “keep your spirits up” and that sort of thing. Otherwise, it’s straightforward ghost tours: Gettysburg, New Orleans, the Myrtles Plantation, the Hotel Coranado, all the usual spots. You get some pretty good ghosts stories sometimes, if you can put up with what is essentially tourist-board advertising, now that everybody loves ghosts and wants to see them in their natural habitat, along with celebrities in Hollywood and Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.

Mark & Mark tour their homeland

Weird U.S. – History Channel – RATED NTDB
This show is adapted from noble source material. The whole Weird U.S. multimedia fiefdom originated from a crude, print-smeared magazine called Weird New Jersey that used to come out once a month if you could get your hands on a copy. Decades ago, two New Jersey guys, Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran, started driving around their home state reporting on all the weirdness, which covered everything from abandoned midget villages to sightings of the legendary state beast, the Jersey Devil, plus lots of ghost stories mixed in. Everywhere they went in New Jersey, locals told them additional stories that had to be investigated as well, which eventually took them out of state on an endless quest for weirdness all over America.

Weird U.S. stars Mark & Mark, of course, who have something of the Grant and Jay quality of stolid working-class guyness, though they’re operating as guides rather than repairmen. If the show can’t really match the fascination of the old Weird New Jersey magazine—well, that was lost long ago, in Mark & Mark’s success. The books they’ve put out are delightful to read, but the clean, non-smudgy print, the nice layout, the clear photos and illustrations, can’t approach the illicit underground thrill of the crappy magazine that purported to tell us all about Satan’s Sewer Pipe in Hackensack, NJ, or whatever grody little supernatural site they’d dug up that month.

What will make a white family walk away from real estate?

A Haunting – Discovery Channel – RATED FG (Fucking Great)
This show is an exercise in pure formalism that one doesn’t often see. Every week there’s another purportedly true-life version of the old haunted-house tale: family moves into new house, gradually discovers all the creaks and taps aren’t just their imagination, start trying to get help from friends/extended family/church leaders, finally find a priest or psychic willing to help, and so on.

But this show calls attention to the sameness of the story until the repetition takes on its own spookiness. For example, the production team shoots many episodes in exactly the same location, the same house interior redressed to look like a different house. The upstairs hallway, repainted a new color for each episode, generally serves as the site for the climactic appearance of a full-body apparition, so each time you see it again you think, “Holy shit, there’s the hallway…!” After awhile you don’t need to see a ghost anymore, just the hall.

The actors are mainly re-enactors, playing the parts of the people who supposedly had the eerie experiences in the first place, while the people themselves narrate. This gets confusing when certain favorite actors/re-enactors get recast, and show up in another episode in different hair and make-up. The terrified suburban mom in one show is the super-competent psychic in the next. Of course, you could argue that this isn’t formalistic reflexivity, it’s TV shot on the cheap, but I say, if it turns out great, same diff.

Very scary, this show, when it’s working. The original “episodes” were two feature-length specials, A Haunting in Connecticut and A Haunting in Georgia, that were so frightening and popular, the Discovery Channel reran them about five thousand times each. Finally they realized there was a TV series to be gotten out of endless tales of white families who move into haunted houses and refuse to move out again though harried by the legions of Hell. And from then on it’s been an orgy of the greatest hits of haunted house stories all paraded through again and again: the ghost pushing open the closet door, the one standing at the end of the bed, the one glaring in from outside the window at night, the one who shows up in the photograph, the one who croaks, “Get out!”

The best part of such ghosts is, they’re never benign, they’re only rarely on a quest for justice or a proper burial. In A Haunting, ghosts show up to make living people feel bad, to terrorize them and force them out. It’s straight psychological warfare—till they start throwing furniture and pushing people downstairs. Though the emphasis here isn’t on the repair teams riding to the rescue, anti-human campaigns waged by ghosts have their own cheering effect, especially when The Debate is the only other thing on TV.

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