Monday, February 06, 2017


Milton Jones and his Helicopter

I’m about halfway through the Netflix “original” series billed as “reality” which is code for “conforms to your expectations.”  It’s called “Keeping Up with the Joneses”.  (There’s another more conventional spy thriller film with the same name.)

Even back in the Sixties when from some points of view I was living a romantic life against a huge panorama of awe-inspiring scenery (the Blackfeet Reservation next to Glacier Park), doing impossible things like helping to round up buffalo and pouring bronze in a homemade foundry, I knew that a little editing and a bit of myth-making would help draw in the customers and tourists.  I knew that the “reality” shows about wild animals were often filmed with tame hand-raised captives within a compound and the story lines came from editing together unrelated shots.  (Bob made his portrait of “Bart the Bear” who acts in so many films after I was gone.) There’s always a little frame of phoniness around what happened.  We watched ourselves.

Now I watch “Keeping Up with the Jones” with skeptical pleasure, feeling a little sheepish.  It is an Australian version of a Western, more Montana than Montana, with the same flim-flam dimension.  Milton Jones is an intense version of a genetically English male who built the empires.  His “thing” is helicopters so the real heart of the series is those machines, part of the industrial technology that makes the Coolibah ranch a possibility, along with the cyber-communication, and the equivalent of an English estate population, though we never see their cottages and families.  Like television police procedurals, we get the impression that only the immediate family and a few helpers run the place.

Milton, charmingly echoed by four-year-old “Little Milton”, is very much The Man, something like Bob Scriver or Harry Jackson — since my references in those days were cowboy sculptors.  Passion, focus, stocky strength, competence, physical vitality — hard to resist.  And no sexy by-play on their part.  They kiss horses, don’t they?  No one in this “reality” is fat, stupid, or crippled.  The tragedy is aging and the constant threat of dying by misadventure.  

But the fabulous mystical landscape of Australia, the combustible continent where fire must often be suppressed, and the sheer excitement of flying innocently without predator drones that kill families (Don’t they?) keeps us from scoffing too much.  But then those killjoys, law enforcement, show up.  Still, Milton Jones quickly chooses the lesser of two evils:  revealing that some of the family-risking crimes were simply staged for the camera.  A continuing thread on the show is lying and keeping secrets in order to game people — just jokes, sometimes a little cruel.  They love to tease the cook.

This newspaper story lays out the charges and how Milton slipped past them.  No worries.  Those handsome men with brilliant grins were always in control.  Who can resist them?  Not me.  Milton’s real business is helicopter tourism, which is big in the American spectacular parks like the Grand Canyon, but has its dark side, harassing animals and upsetting the other tourists.  That only adds a little more spice to a generation that insists on being extreme.

Another dimension is a Puritanical insistence on absolute truth.  Is Milton hoaxing the public?  Isn’t he just a family version of Crocodile Dundee?  These are rumblings like the deep throat noises of the duct-taped croc being delivered to a croc farm.  Is a croc in a muddy enclosure with a thronging mass of reptiles really a croc, or is it a “crock”?  As we learn to see everything as a web of relationships in ecological context, doubts arise.  But not everyone is able to make the shift to such abstractions.  They just see that horrible horny killer and want to touch its snout.  Safely.

This series is a celebration of “exceptionalism” — very much the idea that white people are superior, entitled, controlling, and profitable.  A conviction on the part of many Americans as well as Aussies.  The shift of mind referenced in the previous paragraph brings up an alternative set of questions, like the omission here of all things indigenous except harmless rock paintings.  We glimpse those dark people here and there, but so far as I’ve watched  (Series 1, Episode 11) none has been elevated to a character with a story.

The white (before sunburn), stocky, squinting, broad-shouldered men like Milton come right out of the “Game of Thrones” war-winnowing over religion and boundaries on a confined island.  They survived the Borderlands.  They evaded the fate of Braveheart.  The “Abos” of Australia were shaped by ingenuity, family-solidarity, the harsh discipline of an unforgiving land, and a mystical connection to survival that hints other dimensions of reality.  Without modern technology Milton Jones would not be rich; being wealthy is what makes his life possible.  He’s not ostentatious — there is no casino gilt furniture or iceberg chandeliers.  His house is practical and comfortable with vast cool floors and the usual Aussie wraparound porch.  His wealth is cattle.  (You won’t learn much about cows on this show.)  He wears shorts, shirt-out over a generous belly, and a battered hat.  He loves to fish.

I see all this but I also feel the pull.  I would like to have this man’s arm around me.  It would feel safe in a kind of child’s way.  I had an uncle who was very much like Milton, though the family ranch (Hatfield Brothers) was Oregon sheep.  I can’t remember ever touching him at all.  His wife was my favorite aunt, pretty and competent like the women at Coolibah and an expert at delivering lambs.  I remember voices.  My uncle mostly bellowed and his daughters and I hustled around to obey.

My own father was absent traveling and sometimes -- when present -- an illusion.  Outside the nuclear family, his identity as a genial parlor magician or a stable pillar of responsibility, were accepted, but after his concussion changed him, his children were eager to escape him.  His siblings were gentle respectable people.  My mother was the only church-goer in that generation.  There was not much secret violence but many strategic gaps, like those in Milton Jones’ “reality” show.    We were comfortable and it was wise not to ask too many questions.  How do you ask about something undefined?

Each of my brothers joined the Marines on high school graduation.  One loved it, but not enough to stay.  He was an MP during the Los Angeles riots and admitted it was terrifying.  The other one was assigned to a ship that was simply sentinel off SE Asia, and became a chess expert.  After that, neither seemed to really grip life.  Each came to visit in Browning but was put off by Bob’s Milton Jones aspect.  They felt dominated and resented it.  When my mother came to visit, she recognized the style and enjoyed it.  All very Jane Austen stuff.

So I wryly watch “Keeping Up with the Joneses” and wonder when the helicopter blades will knock someone’s head off.  (It’s happened on television shows before.)  In that morbid fascination, mixed with political disapproval and raw enjoyment of grandeur and skill,  I’m the product of a colonial story that is far from finished, but easily criticized.

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