Friday, December 29, 2006

I missed Life Is Beautiful; I'll probably watch The Tiger and the Snow twice to make up for it

Trailers can get in my head in either of two ways. Usually, it's quick and clumsy, by showing me a bunch of cool scenes set to brute force music, as happened with 300, Rocky Balboa, and most comic book movies. Funny thing - when it works that way, I usually get really excited about the trailer, but I often don't get to see the movie. I still haven't seen The Marine, for instance.

The other way it can happen, though, is more viral, and probably more effective in the long run. When there are a few disparate elements and approaches that engage me to the trailer and invite me into the movie, I tend to become fascinated with the idea itself, rather than simply enchanted by the music and the effects. That's how it worked with The Assassination of Jesse James, if you remember, and that's how it's working now, with The Tiger and the Snow.

I didn't see Life is Beautiful, the first movie by Roberto Benigni, who directed this one. I'd like it see it. I've heard it was good. Still, I'm a little skeptical about Nazi death camp films, especially when they're intent on drawing such a contrast between the desolation of the Nazis and the humor used to survive their oppression. I understand why culture, especially high-brow and intellectual culture, is still obsessed with the Holocaust, and I understand why we're still struggling to understand that time period, whether it's in mediated biographies like Maus or in fictional memoirs like Everything Is Illuminated. Even so, it's almost too much to see a dedicated fairy-tale humorist pitted against the concentration camps. That's why I never jumped at the chance to see Life Is Beautiful. There's simply too much weight to the premise of the film.

The Tiger and the Snow slips out from under that weight for a couple reasons, and these are a few among the reasons it caught my attention.

REASON THE FIRST: like Life is Beautiful, this film seems to balance its grave narrative themes (war, death, trauma) against a pervasive sense of levity and humor (strange animals in the streets, a goofy professorly type who consistently acts like a doofus). However, this contrast is much more salient to me, because the heavy themes of the movie are current. We don't have history and a body of scholarly work to distance us from the war in Iraq; it's real, we haven't settled on a way of understanding it, and the attempt to see it through the eyes of a hopeful romantic still seems like a daring experiment.

REASON THE SECOND: It's truly interesting to me that they present us with a genuine, old-world romantic hero. The main character seems to have a habit of translating all his experiences into poetry, and though this may not be to everyone's taste, it's definitely right up my alley. To me, this is one of the noblest heroes of modern cinema, because he lives, breathes, and thinks poetically. Optimism and sympathy are virtues that we take for granted in our protagonists, but for this balding professor-type, those are the only characteristics that mark him as heroic.

REASON THE THIRD: As if all the interesting imagery and emotional juxtaposition wasn't enough, they had to add Tom Waits into the mix. Is there anyone more perfect to fill in an auxiliary role in a movie like this? Tom is known for his unpredictable flirtations with both hopeless romance ("Downtown Train") and with gritty cynicism ("Swordfishtrombones"), and his presence in this film gives us a beautiful gateway into its emotional schizophrenia.

There was no punching or CGI in this trailer, but as I watched it, I discovered things that will make me love the film itself, rather than a few scenes or a key fight sequence. I hope to rewrite this entry in a few months, when I've seen this film; and when I do that, I hope I'll be able to confirm all these affectionate suspicions about this movie: that it's thoughtful, well-rendered, and fully satisfying to my sentimental needs.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Damn you, General Mills, you have taken French Toast Crunch and left me with an empty husk

Remember, a couple years ago, maybe, a beacon of hope showed up among the sugar cereals in the supermarket? It was a red box from General Mills with tiny slices of toast on it, reclining in your spoon, caressing your palate, dissolving in your stomach juices. It tasted like syrup. It didn't have that dusty, lingering sugar that coated Cinnamon Toast Crunch, its predecessor. It was FRENCH TOAST CRUNCH (from the makers of Cinnamon Toast Crunch), and it was SOOOO FREAKING GOOD.

After I devoured a box or two (this was probably back in high school), I stopped seeing French Toast Crunch in the store. I sort of gave up on it... like any number of mass-market masterpieces with limited lifespans (the FOX show Strange Luck is another good example), it sunk into oblivion. There was still Waffle Crisp, which was a reasonable substitute, and I eventually discovered Reese's Crunch, which helped me get over the loss of French Toast Crunch. Still, I never forgot.
Imagine my chagrin when I walked into my local Brooklyn bodega and found a yellow box, clearly a General Mills product, labeled French Toast Crunch this past week! I was SO HAPPY that they had resurrected my lost breakfast love that I didn't even really look closely at the box. I didn't notice the difference until I was home, and even then (much like this blogger), I wouldn't accept the truth. I thought they had screwed up the graphic on the cardboard.

But no. The truth is far worse... this was a French Toast Crunch blasphemy. It was a box, labeled with the name of my old love, containing some kind of crusty stuff that was nearly identical to Cinnamon Toast Crunch, except with little tan swirls. It didn't taste like syrup. It didn't look like toast. It was their extra CTC, repackaged and resold.
Is it better to die an honorable, unprofitable, and permanent death than to be reborn as an imitator? Would you accept a statue with your name at the base, but whose face is that of your friend's little brother who you don't care that much about? Look at these things. French Toast does NOT have sugar and frosty crunchiness on top. French Toast doesn't leave stuff on your fingers if you eat it straight from the box. I have seen the future, and I don't like it.

You may take everything, General Mills, but leave me my memories. I do not think it too much to ask.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Don't forget the Diva: Roberto Alagna walks off stage

Thanks to Roberto Alagna, world-class tenor, for walking off stage during an opera performance, thus turning a cliche back into a tradition.

Here's what I gather from the short BBC News article: Aida, an opera composed by (cospicuously Italian) Guiseppe Verdi, was being performed at La Scala, a world-famous opera house in Milan. I hope I haven't already lost your attention. During Alagna's performance of a song called Celeste Aria, the tough Italian crowd, which contained some pretty damn important people, started booing him. Enraged, Alagna walked off the stage. His duet partner was temporarily screwed; his understudy, Antonello Palombi, had to rush on-stage and continue the performance in his denim-wear.


Now, I don't know much about opera (obviously), but thanks to Wikipedia, I DO know that the word "diva" was originally used for female opera singers. We've been using it for bitchy adult alternative vocalists for so long that we've almost forgotten its origins; the first Urban Dictionary definition is as follows:

"a bitchy woman that must have her way exactly, or no way at all. often rude and belittles people, believes that everyone is beneath her and thinks that she is so much more loved than what she really is. selfish, spoiled, and overly dramatic."

There's also a lot of reference to diva being an over-used industry buzzword, and its association with lonely housewives and gay men. A few of the definitions mention the opera singer origins, but that's probably because those contributors looked at the same Wikipedia article that I did.

Luckily, we have Roberto Alagno to thank for reminding us what "Diva" really means. Sure, it's self-important, but it's a matter of being so irrationally proud of your art that you don't take shit about it. He walks off the stage as if to say, "Sure, diplomats and journalists, we have a deal... if you don't want to hear me sing, I don't want to sing for you. Humph!" When you're singing in an opera, you're licensed to be dramatic, and there's no better way to express yourself than to stomp off the stage.

Compare this to American celebrity freakouts. I'll give you two examples...

1) Michael Richards' situation, with the heckling, was kind of like Alagno's. He wasn't being appreciated, and he objected. Unfortunately, he couldn't manage the demands of his art (i.e. he couldn't "jujitsu" it, laugh it off, or take it lightly). Instead, he fucking FREAKED OUT and went on a racist rant that got his name in a lot more headlines than Roberto Alagno will ever manage.

2) Going back a little more, look at Ashlee Simpson's lip-synch faux pas on Saturday Night Live, October 25, 2004 (sorry about the quality of the clip... this video has mysteriously vanished from the Intertron). It resulted in a reaction that was similar to Alagno's... a miffed exit stage-right... but for what? An embarrassing lip-synch switch-up that revealed the authenticity of Ashlee's vocal talents. Not exactly an expression of pride in her art-form. Pretty sad, walking off because you were caught faking... if the crowd had actually booed her during her song, would she have walked off? Probably not, because her voice would have kept on singing.

So good job, Roberto Alagno... if you're not getting the respect you deserve, get off the stage, and do it proudly and angrily. Thanks for showing us the Diva as an indignant defender of his/her own precious performance... a role that still merits respect.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The context is the key: Michael Richards as a racist asshole

Here was the YouTube what-the-f'ck moment of the season... maybe the year: Kosmo Kramer goes racially ballistic. I'm sure you've all heard about this. I hope you've seen it, too. Actually watching it is a different from the second-hand experience. It's surreal and disturbing, like some sort of celebrity Real World meets Aronofsky shit.

It's ridiculous and unpredictable, but believe it or not, things can get weirder. After all, we can just write Michael Richards' outburst off as another insane celebrity, like Tom Cruise the Scientologist, or Mel Gibson the raving weirdo. But a few days later, Richards went on Letterman to apologize, and that's when it gets REALLY hard to process.

The guy on Letterman isn't a PR afficianado, nor a racist creep, nor a short-spoken apologist making a last grasp at credibility. He looks like a man on the verge of a complete breakdown. He absolutely can't explain the person on stage yelling "Nigga" (as it's spelled in the video subtitle)... he doesn't even seem to know who that guy is. Michael Richards claims he's not a racist, and he thanks the country for confronting him... he claims that he has to confront himself (and, to be more specific, to "do personal work")... he says he doesn't even know where that rage came from. He apologizes to people of all races, knowing that he hasn't just offended a few black activists. He's not even sure he should be on Letterman, because he's afraid he won't come across right.

He also says this: "Yeah, I tried to... I tried to do that [diffuse his own remarks by making them outrageous]. You don't have the whole thing there in what they're showing, everyone. I tried to jujitsu that..."

This, my friends, though subtle, is important. I actually tried to find an extended clip, so I could see the part of the routine leading up to the outburst. It's nowhere to be found, and I think it might have an effect on how the situation is interpreted. After all, what we're seeing is overt racism, angry, directed at an uncooperative audience member. It's the kind of violent racism that's been phased almost entirely out of popular culture. But when you take a clip like this out of context, you lose what a friend wisely referred to as "meta-messages."

In light of our culture's approach to racial and identity issues, meta-messages are hard to navigate these days. Dave Chapelle's show was clearly a satire on racial relations, a series of parodic stereotypes offered up by a black man that functioned as a comment on his own culture's self-perception. Compare this with Carlos Mencia, whose humor has taken some flack for being offensive without being funny. Or with South Park's questionable use of stereotypes in character casting. Or to Abercrombie's ill-advised Asian stereotype t-shirts.

Some of these examples make their meta-messages work: Dave Chapelle is clearly using assimilation and self-parody to frame his offensive remarks, and this is an accepted way to drain the power of out a stereotype (just ask the "queer" community). South Park employs a healthy dose of irony... Token's status as "sole black character" is obviously ironic, and it becomes a statement on racial identity when you realize that Token's parents are some of the wealthiest parents in South Park.

Other meta-messages don't work. Mencia tries to frame his offensive remarks in serious treatments of national issues, but he doesn't bring any complexity to the jokes he's making. At best, his rants about national identity are just fluff for his racial stereotypes, and at worst, he actually makes his stereotypes sound sincere and his explanations sound ironic. Not the best idea ever. Abercrombie also failed to make any constructive statement with their racially-motivated humor... with no nod or wink, the race became the punchline, rather than the stupidity of the stereotype, and that's why we call it "racism" rather than "irony."

Michael Richards lost his meta-message, too, and that's the danger of being a comedian in a racially volatile country. Was he building up to his offensive remarks? Maybe, but clearly the crowd got pissed, so they didn't get that, or they didn't care. Maybe he just stepped over a comedic line, to the point where the irony no longer justified the joke.

Or maybe it wasn't a problem with communication... maybe Kramer lost the meta-message in his own head. Maybe that's why he seems so shaken on Letterman, and why he has to confront himself. As a comedian, he's spent years learning to manipulate subtexts and meta-messages, and as an actor, he's spent years creating characters and manufacturing personalities. It seems like, for a moment, he forgot how to frame his thoughts in a protective barrier of self-mockery and sarcasm. Suddenly, the irreverent white boy became a volatile racist, and it scared him as much as it scared us.

"I'm a performer. I push the envelope."

I'm sorry you lost yourself, Michael Richards, but do yourself a favor and get that personal development taken care of.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The subtle art of Witty Kitty Photoshop Captioning in the context of modernist painting

Okay, so this is going to be a journey into one of my darker secrets, but I can't help but post on it. But before that, I want to say sorry I haven't been posting much... school and work are converging in an unholy aggregate to swallow my life till about Christmas. It's okay, I like it that way, but still... doesn't leave much time for free thinking.

So through a site I must confess I visit a lot... CuteOverload... I came upon another site. I won't be visiting it as much, but I've sent it to a LOT of people, and I find myself thinking about it perhaps more than it warrants. It's at, and it has a lot of well-captioned photos of kitties (some with obvious Photoshopping). First, I just liked the funny references and the amazing photos of cats, and I liked picking out my favorites (among them: Superman, Invisible Bike, Hugs Tiem, and I made you a cookie). But after a while, I started making connections.

It was the Aggressive Cat versus Defensive Cat shot that did it. It felt disturbingly familiar, and after a while I started remembering a paper I did in college about an American Realist painting. This painting is by George Bellows. The picture shown here compares the Bellows painting to the cat photo. Marvel at the similarities.

It's not just because it's two cats fighting. On one side, you have the dark kitty, clearly dominating, and on the other side you have the light kitty, looking like it's about to collapse under the pressure. Both images have a lot of movement from aggressive to defensive, and in both cases the aggressive party seems to be overwhelming the defensive one, folding over it from above. They're too similar to ignore.

So after I found that little gem, I went looking for another couple fine-art/cat-art juxtapositions. I only found one more, and I made a juxtaposition of this one, too. It's a comparison of the "Rape is Imminent" photo (which has since been removed, for obvious reasons) with a painting attributed to Goya. This painting isn't universally accepted as genuine, but it's still associated with Goya's body of work. Besides his disturbing images of Saturn and The Colossus, Goya was commissioned to do a lot of portraits of women from court, and this painting is a little bit of a riff on this project.

Okay, so the connection here isn't so remarkable. Still, in both the cat and the Goya, the subdued figure in the background is the decisive feature, reversing the mood of the image. Goya's portrait of two court ladies is initially pleasant and distinguished; the image of the cat is initially cute. In both cases, the repose of the foreground is disrupted by the sinister figure lurking in the background. Why are they there? What are they planning? Why aren't they letting me enjoy the pretty ladies and/or cute kitty?

What does it mean that such remarkable parallels exist between fine art and sugar-coated amusement? Maybe it means the appeal of images is universal, whether they're exalted as fine art or dismissed as tongue-in-cheek irony. Maybe the shape and structure of an effective visual is the same in every case, from masterworks of portraiture to advertising photography to cute kitty snapshots.

Or maybe it doesn't mean anything. Maybe I just like pictures.

Friday, November 03, 2006

An aesthetic reflection prompted by an interactive design by Jonathan Yuen

Jonathan Yuen has created a brilliant online piece. My first reaction is just to appreciate the simplicity and intensity of the images, and to be impressed by their relationships... they have texture and depth, but they're sharp and recognizable. There's a line that connects them, starting as the contour of the bank in the first images and then becoming the silhouette of the ground in the other ones. Each one is accompanied by a few characters, and when they're rolled over, they reveal a statement from the artist. The visuals harness a few essential design skills, including balance, continuity, recognizability, chromatic consistency, and control of the focal point.

When I see a piece of work like this, I start to wonder where the basic substance comes from. Jonathan Yuen describes himself as a "multi-disciplinary designer," and he uses a lot of fiercely controlled techniques... aside from the label itself, this is what could mark this piece as a work of design. Fine art tends to evoke terms like "expression," and in this piece, this is tempered by a suggestion of "communication"... the recognizable figures, the calculated movement and color scheme (red for rollover), and the non-English characters as an enigma for the English-speaking viewer are all devices perfected in the world of marketing and corporate identity.

There's the other side, though. This is a profoundly autonomous piece of work, and the expression, or externalization, of the SELF is a classic fine art endeavor. A close friend once said the following with regard to any act of creation: the product (or productive activity) is art to the degree that it is totally autonomous, and it's design to the degree that it's done for an audience. This is a good starting point for these terms, but this answer is only necessary because we can't seem to get away from the question of art versus design.

Or maybe it's just that I can't get away from it. In any case, whenever I try to bring up the question of "design versus art" (and it's a played-out question, I must admit), I feel like I'm beating a dead horse's decomposing corpse. So why do I feel like it's still unresolved? Maybe it's my innate, futile need for strictly-defined semantic distinctions. Maybe it's self-serving... maybe I'm trying to see "design" as the alien element, so that I can incorporate it into my "art" and see myself as an innovator.

There are a lot of issues here, though. For instance, there's the "self/other" split. Is each individual his own observer, the little man in the back of the brain looking out for its own soul and identity? If so, then all productive activity in the world is essentially art, because in the end, even if it's through other people, each person is only trying to impress herself. The alternative is that we can only see ourselves reflected in others' perceptions of us (a classic psychoanalytical and feminist idea), so we're always creating things for an audience, even if we delude ourselves into thinking we're just doing it from deep in our own souls. If this is true, then according to the above definition, all productive activity is design, even if we try to claim it as pure and independent.

There's one more thing I want to throw out: maybe the competition paradigm in Western society has made it impossible to resolve the art vs. design dichotomy that seems to affect us creative types. We can focus on the individual's agency (self, "art") or we can focus on our relationship to the people around us (the market, the audience), but we think in capitalist terms, like "fair competition," "economic survival of the fittest," and "productivity as value." This puts a wall between the individual and the outside world that the individual agent simply can't break through. Capitalism has precluded us from seeing "for ourselves" and "for our audience" as the same thing.

If anybody seems close, though, it's Jonathan Yuen. His piece is straightforward, expressive, and communicative. It combines palatability, the strength of tradional design, with richness, one of the things that makes art so important to so many people. It's an aesthetically-crafted package of self-expression, a very personal space for the author, fashioned in a way that welcomes me into it. I like this kind of art.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Michael J. Fox : seems real enough to me

So in this commercial, a political ad for Claire McCaskill, Michael J. Fox demonstrates the symptoms of Parkinson's disease while he advocates for embryonic stem cell research, or at least for politicians who favor it. It's started a lot of debate, and I'm going to throw in my media-critical two cents. If you're looking for my answer to whether Fox was "faking," you're not going to get it. I think it's a stupid question to be asking. I'll get to that part later.

A lot of the controversy here comes from Rush Limbaugh, who claimed that Michael J. Fox was either faking his symptoms or hadn't taken his medicine. That's made the video the #1 video on the Internet over the past couple days, and a lot of moderates who remember Fox from Spin City (or even Family Ties, for you old timers) have seen what he looks like at the later stages of the disease. Every so often, we have to thank misguided idiots for bringing our attention to interesting issues.

Now that this is THE Internet meme of the day, we've got a counter-ad from the opponents of the Missouri bill and of the politicians who support it. Again, it's a bad reaction that will probably just discredit the people who aired it. The production value is pitiful, like it was shot by an intern with his dad's camcorder, and the faces they recruited are unrecognizable, at least to me. They're also sensationalist and unsympathetic.

This sort of exemplifies the reactionary mode of the conservative world, though. These guys aren't good on the defensive... Rush makes blowhard comments to misdirect people from the actual political issue, and the Life Communications Fund mobilizes an embarrassing video, complete with unsympathetic actors and one-dimensional sensationalism. This is why I can't understand the success of the conservative clique these days... I can't empathize with them, and I can't seem to get a direct answer out of them on any of the important issues. At least this one guy is an exception, and the Life Communications Fund should probably hire him to produce their next campaign ad.

Seriously, though, I can get on board with Fox for a simple reason. I mean, the fact that he's a celebrity should turn me off, and I don't really care about what's-her-name, or the state constitution of Missouri, so why do I care? I've seen the public lives of superstars, and a lot of them are idiots.

Here's the thing, though... they're rarely vulnerable on screen. Fox is in an unpretentious office, talking directly to the camera, forthright about his opinion and how much it means to him, and he's showing me what his disease has done to his life. Whether Michael J. Fox was "faking" isn't a question that merits a comment, because whether Rush wants to acknowledge his status as a human being or not, he has Parkinsons. These are real symptoms for thousands of patients in the world, and Fox is one of them. He's letting us into a part of his life that's difficult, and being a public personality only makes it harder when you acually get around to laying yourself bare.

"But he's an actor, that's his job." No, you're an idiot. An actor plays characters. Fox is only representing himself, talking to us directly, and he puts that final personal note on the commercial by saying "Americans like me." This isn't a persona... it's a guy making his needs and his vulnerabilities clear. When you open yourself up to a ravenous public like Fox has, things will stick, and there will be people like Rush Limbaugh to make sure you don't get off easy. Michael J. Fox, a childhood star, lurching under the weight of a disease, was strikingly authentic, because making a personal burden public isn't a cheap way to get attention. Fox is offering something that people should see, and because they recognize him, maybe a few more people will notice.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Open Season: Boog the soldier, Boog the firstborn son

So I saw this animated flick, Open Season, and it was pretty enjoyable... late at night, lightweight after a long work day, I think Martin Lawrence as the voice of a codependent bear was pretty much what I needed. Unfortunately, I got around to doing that thing I do, where I think about the movie and the implicit themes and come up with a few pages of garbage to post on my blog. This time I managed to wait a few weeks before posting, but ultimately I just can't help myself, you know?

Here's a little warning... this isn't written in the feel-good spirit of the movie. It ends up with a little more liberal cynicism than I'm comfortable with. Still, it's what I started writing, and you get to see where I ended up.

Open Season paints a pretty idyllic world for these animals, not only in the kindness they're shown, but also in the respect. I'm talking here about the two primary human-animal relationships that shaped the movie... Boog the Bear and his handler, Giselle, and Boog the Bear and his foe, Shaw.

First, let's talk about Boog and Shaw. Shaw is the ruthless, brainless hunter of the film, sort of like Gaston vis a vis North Dakota. In the course of the film, as the animals start to team up and rally their latent super-intelligence against the hunters, Shaw gets markedly militant and paranoid about them, treating the forest as if it's a battleground where he's the general. The thing is, that's not what really happens with hunters. The game isn't an enemy, it's not an equal, and hunting has NOTHING to do with combat or confrontation. Hunting is more like a target practice scavenger hunt, where each guy is hunting for the biggest moving object to shoot, photograph, and strap to a hood.

If Open Season is going to compare hunting to a war, they're not acknowledging some essential characteristics... your army is entirely made up of snipers, their army doesn't have guns, and only one side is aware that the fray has been joined. That's why I say this film is "idyllic in terms of respect"... because the respect portrayed is the glorious kind that you feel in war, and hunting isn't like that. It's more like... I don't know, shopping, maybe. Yeah, shopping for the biggest dear, and snatching it out of the case before anybody else does. I bet the hunters among us will LOVE that shopping analogy.

So if "hunter as soldier of the forest" is a bit of an exaggeration, what do we say about Giselle's role? She's clearly taking on the role of the mother, encouraging her child's interests, trying to nurture him into adulthood, and communicating with him about when he wants a snack. Again, as much as I hate to say it, this is a bit of an exaggeration. We don't treat animals like furry little people. We don't ask them when they'd want to eat (I don't want to picture what would happen if I gave my dog control over his eating habits). We don't moralize to them or fret about their upbringing. There's always an exchange going on that isn't going on with kids... I feed you and pet you as long as you keep me company and amuse me. He's a dumb dog. Doesn't even sit. But isn't he fucking cute?

So an analogy: "hunting : war :: pet-keeping : motherhood." Relationships of submission and endearment hyperbolized into relationships of confrontation and love.

So when we watch Open Season, are we seeing the world as animals would have it be, if they could talk to us and tell us how they'd like to be treated? "If you're going to shoot me, do it face to face!" says the buck. "Don't just pet me, put some stock in my emotional well-being," says Spot.

Or maybe these are the things we tell ourselves to make our alienation from the non-human world more palatable. Now that we've commodified the outdoors, all we can do is pretend we're approaching it like an enemy. Now that we've domesticated the animals we live with, the only way to bring them closer is by calling them our children, as if it's us giving them the world, and not the other way around.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Good call, Dove

Dove's released this here video, which shows the dizzying process that a normal person undergoes to become a billboard spectacle. It's a pretty cool video for a pretty amazing campaign... not directed at an issue that too far away to comprehend, like world hunger, or too abstract to really care about, like globalization. This is a campaign that's directed at the everyday lives of men and women, who pass from mass media experiences to lives in the home and the office, carrying around the baggage of confused standards and unrealistic self-images. We all do it, people... men and women... and Dove's right. It's stupid.

I think, at ten years old, a lot of us males generated a sort of ideal fantasy woman who we imagined seducing us as we got more comfortable with masturbation. TMI? Too bad. She looked a lot like the women in fashion magazines and hair product commercials, and she was an internal experience that the advertising world has spent years manipulating and trying to capture. Girl X, the unrealizable perfect woman, stands as a theoretical limit for a scale of beauty that we all carry around with us, men and women alike, and it's perpetuated by the old boys of fashion and advertising, who still think their popularity depends on approaching this limit as closely as possible.

Here's my abstract representation of the scale, as we tend to culturally understand it. Don't read too much into this... it's subconscious, and a lot of us spend tons of time trying to fight it, but it's still a ubiquitous cultural model that infects our thinking.

And I've noticed something strange. Almost every woman I've ever been intimate with, whether sexually or emotionally, from the shy to the sexually-secure, sees herself as part of the "Normal" section of the scale, but every one sees herself as being at the bottom of that section... like, right where "average" turns into "mediocre."

And it's not because I tend to like women with low self-esteem. This is also true of female friends who were smart and aggressive, and who are more than capable of well-informed reflection. Somehow, by taking away our control of our criteria for attractiveness, the media has caused a universal self-image pandemic. Every woman looks around her and sees the world teeming with girls who are prettier than she is. Maybe it's the ubiquitous "neurotic mom" syndrome... that's another trend I've noticed. All moms inadvertently transmit their habitual neuroses to their daughters in their earliest years.

At any rate, women have to realize something about the people who fantasize about them (I include in this category straight men, gay women, and all varieties of bisexual). First, we've given up on... no, in fact, we've literally lost interest in Girl X. We've realized she's as flat as the billboards she adorns, and if she were real, and we were dating her, she would probably ditch us to go to the gym and the tanning salon. We don't think about her when we masturbate any more. We think about our girlfriends and strangers we saw on the subway, because Girl X got REALLY BORING.

Second, even though we tend to see this scale as universal, it takes on a unique hue in every person's head. There are no identical scales of attractiveness... one gentleman prefers women in size 11 to 15, another likes girls with really strong cheekbones, a girl likes women with big thighs that taper down to small feet. A few select people, like Miss Amp, understand this, and she says it with a lot more attitude than I can muster.

Any self-respecting girl can, and WILL, find somebody who places them toward the "very attractive" end of the spectrum, and who will be overjoyed to date them, especially when they find out about the awesome personality that goes with that great body.

I don't know who I've really been writing this to, so I'll assume it's to everybody. Here goes...

GUYS: Don't be ashamed to like whatever it is you like in a woman. If you really like skinny girls with bags under their eyes, then go to the fucking Calvin Klein studio. But if you're like me, and you find a girl attractive because she's got fucking brilliant curves and a warm smile, then make it clear to everyone around you. Idle man-talk is standing squarely in the way of anybody having any perspective, because in idle man-talk, everyone is supposed to agree that the skinny chick with blonde hair is totally bangin'. More often than not, it's a goddamn lie that only one in twenty of us actually believe.

GIRLS: I know it's hard, but don't get suckered into this body-image shit. Whether something is listed as being "healthy" or not, whether it's talking about "self-image" or not, if it's telling you to lose weight or smooth out your skin tone, ignore it. When you look at other women, try to look directly in their eyes before you decide that they're too chubby, or overdressed, or boring-looking. We need to extract "health" and "self-esteem" from "looking your best" and "fitting" into anything, because we're at a point in history where improving your looks is directly at odds with improving your emotional health. There is no open space between indifference and neurosis... when you force your belt one hole tighter, the judgement train has already left the station.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

300 Trailer and Acts of Rage

There's this trailer I just discovered on it's for a movie called 300, based on Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name about the Battle of Thermopylae. It looks REALLY pretty, with a piercing, metallic color scheme, gratuitious use of slow motion, and some fantastic cinematography. It's also obviously a violent movie. The media critic in me wants to reprimand this, but at the same time, the consumer in me is mad excited to watch it all go down.

Don't mistake... the trailer makes this film look ruthless. Looking through Frank Miller's comic, it seems that King Leonidas is a stone-cold warrior king. In the film, he seems to be seething with proud rage, and Gerard Butler's hard-edged delivery makes me really happy. So what makes this violence seem distinctive, different from all that cops-and-robbers shit in Scorcese's new film, different from the uninhibited vigilanteism of Boondock Saints, a thing unto itself?

Well, let's look at the dialouge. The trailer is short, so I can transcribe it all.


Persian ambassador: "Be afraid. Sparta will burn to the ground. ... (King Leonidas draws sword) This is blasphemy. This is madness!"
King Leonidas: "Madness... THIS IS SPARTA! (kicks him into a well)"

Persian lord: "The thousand nations of the Persian Empire descend upon you. Our arrows will blot out the sun."
Spartan soldier: "Then we will fight in the shade."


King Leonidas: "Before this battle is over, the world will know that few stood against many."

That's all of it... beautiful, emotional, hyper-dramatic little snippets of rage and defiance that boil through this little preview video and make me DESPERATE to watch the film. But there's something interesting about this dialouge that you won't see in transcriptions from other action films. Where are the references to honor? Truth? Heroism? Legacy? Even freedom?

This is about rage and violence of a primal civilization that wrote the book on explosive emotionality. There's no moralization... no couching this battle in terms of the greater good, or the sovereignty of free people against tyrants. That's how it's different, at least as I read this trailer, and I hope the film itself doesn't disappoint. This isn't about the "democratic world" against the "axis of evil." It's about a small city-state that had so much rage and such a sense of self that a tiny band of warriors would stand alone to defend it with no hope of coming out alive.

Is that bad? We're suddenly tolerant of pure, unabashed violence that doesn't seem to have a point... kind of like GTA, right? Where's the value in that? But honestly, there is value in facing that primal instinct every so often, watching it divorced from all the bullshit justification and pretensions to "civilized war." This movie is a hyperkinetic fantasy, and I can enjoy this world because it's an idealized hell that I would never want to live in. And in the meantime, the masturbatory propaganda of world governments looks like a crock in comparison. We're fighting a war for humanitarianism? You're promising a better life to the country we're tearing apart?

As twisted as it may be, that rhetoric sounds more unbalanced than a Spartan king screaming for blood in the face of an unbeatable enemy. At least one resonates, if only romantically and emotionally... the bullshit cries of Iraqi freedom, echoing from the pedestals of the wealthy and evangelical?

So my violent side will go watch a movie next year. I keep it so well under wraps, at least I can give it that one gift.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Queen David versus tokenism, the bane of good intentions

A comment on a news story... perhaps more elaborate than some of the other 36 comments on the site, most of which read like this: "It's ridiculous." "No, it's not. Go David!" "No, it's ludicrous." "No, it's fine. Go David!"

So this gay teenage boy, David, auditioned for the role of Carnival Queen in the town of Axbridge, UK. In the headline, they call him "the only gay in the village," as if "gay" is a noun. Maybe it is in the UK. Anyway, they didn't feel comfortable giving him the actual title, so they created an "Alternative fete queen" title for him and let him ride in the parade in a lilac dress and tiara.

I certainly don't have a problem with a boy getting the title of "Queen" in a carnival parade. I also don't really have a problem with them creating a new category for him... if they want to respect the tradition of having a female "queen" but they still want to give the boy a chance, then it makes sense to put him up on his own float, so he can contribute something to the event.

What I have a problem with is the tone of the news story. Listen to this stupid statement by Robin Goodfellow, one of the committee members who helped make the decision:

"We had to decide which would offend people least - including the boy or leaving him out.

"It was felt we couldn't eliminate him just because he was male. This was the best solution on the day.

"Some people might be offended but we would rather be inclusive than exclusive. It's hard enough to get people involved as it is."

I won't blame this on the town, because it could equally well be a result of bad news reporting, but this is the kind of remark that fucks up the whole thing. Feel free to elect a boy queen, or "alternative queen," but don't defend the decision on the basis of "inclusion" and "not offending people." That's exactly how stigmas get attached to rising movements... it's a sad display of tokenism, and should be kept out of the decision-making process.

If you're going to make a boy the Carnival Queen, judge him on real criteria... criteria that make sense for a Carnival parade. Does he show good character? Is he enthusiastic and charismatic? Does he do the community a service by representing it at a local event?

If he does all these things, then a few locals throwing eggs won't bother him, and the world will revolve a little smoother and more tolerantly. But if he's chosen so people aren't offended, as a sacrifice on the altar of tolerance and tokenism, then those insults and bad vibes will wreck the occasion, and the positive spirit of a small town's progressive decision.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Unleashed: Jet Li on memory, agency, and aggression

Saw Jet Li’s Unleashed not too long ago, and it was a surprising departure from what I expect of a kung-fu movietruffle. Sure, it had the stylized karate, with lots of jump cuts and acrobatics and people dressed like characters from The Matrix, but those things were just specks of glitter on a much bigger canvas. This might have been Jet Li’s real acting debut, as he portrayed a well-developed character with a convincingly child-like, pathological naivety. So here I am, claiming that there was something insightful in this movie… what was it?

The central theme (as I see it) in Unleashed hinges on Jet Li’s character. He’s a bit bipolar… through the course of the film, we see two different incarnations of “Danny,” one in the care of Bart and one in the care of Sam. There are four primary associations that constitute the gap between violent Danny and non-violent Danny, and I’ve already given one of them away.

1) Violence: With Bart, Danny is raised to be violent. He’s manipulated into being a thug, and when he’s “unleashed,” he acts out an enigmatic rage on his adversaries. This contrasts starkly with reformed Danny, in the care of Sam, whose most important mission is to renounce his violence. Not only does he refuse to exact violence on his new caretakers… when he changes into “reformed Danny,” he refuses to enact violence on ANYONE, including the man who forced him to live by its law.

2) Slavery: With Bart, Danny is a pawn. He’s violent, and he’s used for the purpose of violence… he’s conditioned in a very Pavlovian sense (always with the canine references), and this conditioning is used for the objectives of Bart. With Sam and Victoria, Danny is given the tools and the power to be an active agent, and he’s allowed to make his own choices. There’s an absolutely key scene in this regard: Sam gives Danny the money from his first job, and when Danny asks what to do with it, Sam tells him he can do whatever he wants with it. This discovery seems convincingly shocking to Danny, who is making his transition out of a pathologically submissive role.

3) Culture: With Bart, Danny is a product of contemporary British/American crime culture. The bars where he fights are full of slinky women and people decked out in high fashion, and everybody’s wearing an insane double-breasted leisure suit. Sam reintroduces Danny to classical Western culture, which, it turns out, is part of Danny’s personal history. Piano virtuosity is one of the hallmarks of the classical European tradition, and Danny’s non-violent identity revolves entirely around the piano. In Bart’s dungeon, there’s a ruined piano… a revealing metaphor for the humanity of which Danny has been deprived.

4) Memory: This is probably the most important link in this chain of associations. Bart systematically denies Danny any access to his past, distorting his memories of his mother and lying to him about his upbringing. As I noted above, Danny is boiling with undirected rage, and as long as we don’t know about Danny’s past, we don’t realize that all this violence is probably related to that fundamental event, the murder of his mother… the scene where Danny first appears violent, and that Danny seems to be acting out over and over under Bart’s influence. Only reformed, autonomous, classical, nonviolent Danny can retrieve his history, and he can only fully integrate into society by doing so.

This movie can be read as a defense of 19th century philosophical positions. One of the foremost themes in German idealism, Hegelianism, Marxism, and later social theory is the importance of history, and the construction of an identity through a consciousness of that history. History and memory, duty as the essential moral criterion, and development of rationality and consciousness through cultural progress… in the course of Unleashed, Danny goes through his own renaissance and becomes a true enlightenment European.

So what does this have to do with American foreign policy?

WOAH! Didn’t expect that one, did you? Well, I’ll tell you how I made that jump: I recently read a selection of writing by Edward Said wherein he compared American and French (a.k.a. continental European) coverage of an uprising in the Middle East. He talked about the reductivism of the New York Times, which (according to Said) treated Islamic fundamentalism as though it was an isolated crisis. The Times, and other newspapers like it, refused to acknowledge the political and religious history of Islam, or the history of Middle Eastern interaction with the United States. He compared this with Le Monde, the French newspaper, which ran detailed reporting on Islamic culture, incorporating expertise on the Arabic language and the political history the contributed to the upheaval in Iran.

Said’s point here is that the Times is serving an American agenda of aggression, so it can’t acknowledge the history or bring to bear a complete perspective on Islamic culture. To rephrase: America has to forget the past, deny the roots of its relationships, and fixate on the current “crisis” to maintain its aggression. We’ve come a long way from our rationalist enlightenment roots, where we saw our ideals as a product of our cultural history.

Anyway, I’m kind of digressing. The point is less about the United States and more about the movie. Splitting things into two categories (classical vs. contemporary, violent vs. nonviolent, master vs. slave, memory vs. amnesia) isn’t always a good idea (as per, for instance, Derrida). Even so, there’s something well-constructed and intelligible about the model that Unleashed offers.

And Jet Li kicks Jason Statham’s ass. What more could you want?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Semantics, Politics, and video games: Nintendo versus the world

In the spirit of mass market analysis, today's rant is going to be about the semantics of persuasion... in this case, I'm going to consider spin-doctoring in the marketplace. The free-market competition is for dominance in video game console sales, and the competitors are the X-Box 360, the Playstation 3, and the Nintendo Wii.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to lump the X-Box and the PS3 into the same category. These are the old-guard game systems, competing on the basis of classic qualifications like franchise acquisition and processor speed. The Wii represents a different paradigm entirely, and at the moment, it seems to be shaping the debate over the next generation of consoles. Where the X-Box and the PS3 are in a race for power, the Wii is struggling to innovate... where the old-guards are selling their new processors, the Wii is selling its concept.

The unconventional Wii controller is at the nexus of this debate, and its success depends on whether it's cast as an innovation or as a novelty. This is a marketing game, and it's become a critical issue on gaming message boards. The old-guards claim that the gaming experience hasn't changed, and that it's based on good games, not on a gimmicky control scheme. Nintendo wants to prove that even in a die-hard realm like the gaming experience, the hegemony can be overthrown.

Thus, the primary semantic issue: novelty versus innovation. Novelties are attention-getting but transient, where innovations are ideas that produce lasting effects in their markets.

Most old-guard loyalists (read: fanboys) claim that a system withough an armor-piercing processor simply isn't "new generation," and their reliance on this term is telling: these gamers' criteria for games is established by the history of gaming, from the 8-bit Ataris to the dual-core 3.2 GHz PS3 powerhouse. These gamers expect an upgrade in graphics, speed, and dynamic simulation with every new system, and this means Nintendo has failed, because it's not building on the tradition of its supposed predecessors.

Nintendo isn't so concerned with the "generation" of this system, and in a sense, Nintendo has taken on the task of subverting this linear paradigm. Its new system was originally called the "Revolution," and this is another revealing semantic choice. "Next Generation" is progressive... "Revolution" is Marxist. Where Sony and Microsoft are competing to dominate an established field, Nintendo is attempting to redefine it entirely. Revolution is a risky business, but for the dedicated developers at Nintendo, it's the only way to overthrow the corporate video game hegemony.

I seem to be creating a political metaphor here, and I'm going to recognize it and dispense with it before it gets out of hand. The twentieth-century political environment was split into Communism (defined by socialism, revolution, and the enforcement of "equality") versus free capitalist democracy (defined by traditional individualism, competition, and the securing of "freedom"), and these two seemed irresolvable at times. Even so, they were united by a grand design, the ultimate struggle for social harmony and human happiness. Sometimes the only way to get perspective is to look at the total field, the ultimate domain that ties you and your opponent to the same end-goal.

What I'm trying to say is that all this stuff... innovation, progress, next-generation, and revolution... are taking place within a certain domain, and despite the fuzzy focus of the new marketing push, this is a total field that can't be bought, redefined, or subverted. This total environment is defined by the consumers themselves, the gamers, and its central term isn't "graphics," "development," "innovation," "market share," or "novelty"... its central term is gameplay, and it's something the three competitors have to keep sight of if they're going to win, or even survive, the next skirmish in video game politics.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The 5-year anniversary: five responses

I found five media responses to September 11th. Here's what I think of them. If you see this as the malinformed opinion of a gushy blogger grad student with too much free time, then feel free to dismiss it. If you're capable of seeing it as a social, communicative, and aesthetic critique, feel free to respond to it, or just to give it a quick glance to see if it resonates with you.


"Since the horror of Nine-Eleven, we have learned a great deal about the enemy. We have learned that they are evil and kill without mercy – but not without purpose. We have learned that they form a global network of extremists who are driven by a perverted vision of Islam – a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance, and despises all dissent."

"We saw what a handful of our enemies can do with box-cutters and plane tickets. We hear their threats to launch even more terrible attacks on our people. And we know that if they were able to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, they would use them against us."

"... the war is not over – and it will not be over until either we or the extremists emerge victorious."

Bush's words are so transparent they're invisible. He goes through a predictable series of steps: he engages the susceptible listener with empowering words, and within a few paragraphs, he turns his focus to the emnity that he's spent the last five years constructing. He makes a sharp, over-dramatic generalization about "the enemy" and he links them to the Islamic faith, and he injects a few words of alarmism and political self-aggrandization. If any single theme can be drawn from this monolouge, apart from the simplistic anxiety-mongering, it's that since September 11, America is defined by its enemy.


"I'm thinking right at this minute that the twin towers used to be right behind me for the longest time, and I'm also thinking about how when they came down, this chapel where George Washington prayed was spared..."

Giuliani is the quintessential New Yorker, so he has the right to be sentimental. Unfortunately, mass media sentimentalism, broadcast over a major news network, is bound to distance us all from the event. Some of us don't have nostalgia, and don't want it... we want to move forward and find solutions. Others of us remember the event sentimentally, but when we're confronted with an onslaught of pre-packaged tragedy, appropriating and reselling our emotional response, we're forced to turn off our receptors and live in the silence of our apartments. Finally, the third group of us feels the weight of emotional memory, and Giuliani's sentimentalism is satisfying, but then we become vulnerable to the vast baggage of political rhetoric, advertising, and partisan manipulation that inevitably comes with any mass media package. Rudy should be sad and meditative. He should also keep all those things closer to himself, so we can keep them personal too. (see: entry #5)

LIBERAL BACKLASH - Keith Olbermann, live on MSNBC

"Who has left this hole in the ground?
We have not forgotten, Mr. President.
You have.
May this country forgive you."

Olbermann's words are ballsy. Such confrontational overtones are rare in popular media (see John Stewart as the notable exception), and it's almost unheard of in a major news outlet. As always in media studies, it's important to consider the relationship between for(u)m and content, so we find ourselves at an impasse: how appropriate is it to use the 5th anniversary of September 11th as a political battlefield?

Maybe it's disrespectful. This kind of political rant may come across as opportunistic and soapboxy when it coincides with the anniversary of a national holiday. It seems almost trite, and as such, it may also discredit the very valid points that Olbermann is bringing up. And creditability aside, is a day of rememberance the right day to lash out?

Or maybe, on this day when we commemorate America, Olbermann is the very image of an American voice. Once we give him credit for being right, then the pieces of his monolouge start falling into place... being outspoken is the first form of Americanism. Olbermann is offering his strong political opinion as a tribute to an important historical event, like calling out an opponent on his own appropriated, but still disputed, territory.

I reserve final judgement on this one.

META-CRITIQUE - Benefit of the Doubt

These guys are smart... in light of a great tragedy, it's always a good idea to step back and account for the general outlook. Benefit of the Doubt shows that the media is the psychological vector for the culture, and that through it, a pathological complex like American terrorism PTSD can unfold for an uncannily long time. The only disadvantage of Jesse's acute coverage is that he occasionally embarks on bizarre self-referential tangents.


Ze Frank is probably one of the subtlest guys distributing digital media right now. That's not necessarily saying much, but in Ze's case, there's a mastery of form and message that you just don't get anywhere else. His video is irreverent, in a sense... there's a sort of avoidance in the long sequence of shots of the Brooklyn promenade, where you look across the river at Lower Manhattan. His song isn't somber, but it's sprinkled with relevant thoughts, distantly-connected meditations put to a funky beat and a repetitive chorus. In a sense, the pedestrian music video seem like Ze is making the event insubstantial and impersonal.

Then you realize what he's saying, and what he's up against... his thoughts follow their own form because he's not interested in manipulating rhetoric, or manufacturing sentimentality, or voicing opposition, or in critical analysis... he just wants to return to the situation with perspective.

Then you watch one of his last few videos and realize that this is the same walk he took on September 11th, 2001... and you discover that this is truly personal for him. You just have to dig a little to find that he's constructed that personal meaning from fragments of history and reflection. Whether we like it or not, it's what we're all going to have to do in the end.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Idlewild and Remix Narrative

Up until about ten minutes ago, I would have given a thoroughly mixed review of Idlewild. I came out of the movie satisfied with the excitement and the style, but a little skeptical about the narrative, whose first hour seemed a broken record of drama film clichés. But if there’s anything film studies has taught me, it’s that thinking about a movie can improve the overall experience, and that a film becomes a lot better when its themes have been identified, even retrospectively.

Idlewild featured the acting debuts of Outkast (“Andre 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton), and it was the first big-screen endeavor of Outkast’s music video director, Bryan Barber. I was initially attracted to the movie because I love the word “Idlewild”… it’s a pair of syllables that affects my brain like a code word. The word “idle” suggests a sort of compulsive laziness and libertarian apathy, and the addition of the word “wild” makes me think of a maritime anti-hero whose fury is spontaneous, unreasonable, but perfectly appropriate to the way he lives his life. I also happen to love the band Idlewild, a Scottish rock outfit.

I also liked the stylistic decisions embodied in this movie, which were apparent in the trailer. I love the rogue spirit of hip-hop (especially when it subverts the urban thug paradigm), I appreciate the class and hustle of the prohibition-era underground, and I fully support their synthesis. Idlewild didn’t let me down… the crackling big-band aesthetic and the halting improvisation of vinyl found a compelling common ground, securing my admiration of Idlewild’s fresh-faced director.

Unfortunately, where Idlewild’s aesthetic was well-executed, its narrative was a little green around the ears. The conclusion worked fairly well, first in the speakeasy and then in the darkness of Percival’s living room, but the road was paved with tired filmic clichés that became comical at times. There was a slow-motion walk through the rain (a la The Shawshank Redemption, The Matrix), a bullet-stopping bible (a la Disney’s Three Musketeers), a timid performer empowered by the gaze of her True Love (a la Save the Last Dance), booze transported in a coffin (a la Some Like It Hot), and all sorts of smaller-scale film tropes. Every scene seemed to be a music video, building up to its own short-term conclusion.

So I liked the synthetic, derivative style of this film, but I was skeptical about the artificial, derivative plot. I’ve only just come to realize that this is a double-standard. If I’m content with music that samples and shuffles and remixes the climaxes of classic tunes, and I can accept the same aesthetic in Idlewild’s stylistic choices, then why am I so hesitant about accepting a patchwork plot of film trivia? Honestly, I kind of enjoy going back through this movie and figuring out why each narrative moment seems familiar.

Turns out I was looking for a film in a pure pastiche… a remix movie, plastered together from a series of tried-and-true ideas, musical, aesthetic, and narrative. Barber dropped the Shakespeare (slightly misquoted) in between beats of magical negro and Harold and Maude, stitching together a sharp-edged answer to Moulin Rouge’s ballad sentimentality. When I think too hard, I come to the erroneous conclusion that I dislike derivative media. Isn’t that ridiculous?

Friday, September 08, 2006

More Tomato Nation: Insights into Dorkiness

Okay, now I've started reading Tomato Nation, and I'm finding more to comment on. Having just recently disagreed with Sarah's review of Grizzly Man, I now find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with her account of dorkiness, and I'd like to throw in my however-many cents about it.

Here's where she hits the nail on the flat fucking head, articulated so perfectly that I'm probably naive to think I have anything more to say: "'s that idea of looking to that thing, that signifier, to let you belong because that thing belongs to you, horses, baseball, Broadway, Harry Potter, Risk, loving it as though it will love you back, without apologizing for it or winking at anyone who might be watching you."

I'm going to repeat that, just so everyone gets it: true nerdhood is about loving something you do so unabashadly that it can't possibly make you cool. "Cool" is always about image and perspective, and it requires constant mediation to make sure you distinguish yourself without actually annoying or alienating the majority of your audience. Nerds can't be this kind of cool. They don't even HAVE a fucking audience. They can't be ironic, because irony is a way of talking about something in a way that distances you from it. Sarah is absolutely spot-on correct... nerdiness is about your attitude toward the things you're enthusiastic about.

Two people in my academic career have exemplified nerdiness to me, in all its sublime excitement.

One was a middle-school teacher I worked with in my extracurricular activities. He busted his ass to teach seventh-graders, those kids who refuse to think about anything but establishing superficial social lives, about the importance and excitement of poetry. He told me I would like Jorge Luis Borges' cerebral fiction, because The Library of Babel and The Garden of Forking Paths are simply sick-ass awesome stories, and when I read Borges a couple years later, I found he was absolutely right. The same thing happened with the rock-and-roll zombie flick he recommended to me, Wild Zero. Oh, and he LOVES drunken trivia, and he kept score for his team pretty strictly.

The other was a college professor who I never worked with very closely, but who exemplified the kind of passion you need to be a bona-fide nerd. He was an IR professor, and he presented a series of screenings and critical discussions of Star Wars: Episodes IV to VI. At the end of these discussions, he said something that's been with me ever since: "Next semester, I'll do these discussions of the Matrix movies, and not only will I show you that they aren't as bad as you think... I'll also convince you that they actually got BETTER, one after another." In a world that's obsessed with disparaging the second two Matrix movies, that's a ballsy statement.

Honestly, I think these professors might like this very blog, because it's my expression of enthusiasm about the movies and Internet memes that I love. The Rundown, Pirates of the Carribean, Wikipedia, and Cyberpunk... if you really want to know, this blog is a window into my soul. I'm glad someone like Sarah managed to put that into such clear terms for me.

A response to Tomato Nation on the topic of The Grizzly Man

Here are two things I like:

1) Tomato Nation (and generally, bloggers who write involved commentary, rather than just blurbs and offhand references to online curiousa)

2) Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man

So I'm a little thrown off by Sarah's commentary on the film. She and I agree on all the particular points of character... we both see Treadwell as a madman, we both find ourselves slightly off the sympathy track, and we both laughed occasionally. Yet, we manage to disagree on the effectiveness of the movie as a whole. I loved Grizzly Man. She seems... mad at it, for some reason.

Here are her complaints, as far as I can sort them out:

1) "The man died, and his girlfriend died, and for their families and their friends, of course it's a genuine loss and I'm not trying to make light of that fact. But as awful as a bear attack is in practice, in theory, 'getting eaten by a bear'…sounds funny. "

2) "It's probably considered in poor taste even to hint that Treadwell 'asked for' that grisly end (no pun intended), but I think we have to acknowledge that, in a way, he did -- he behaved recklessly, he refused to get that the bears didn't love him back, he didn't take precautions, and if you go out into the Alaskan wilderness ... and you follow the bears around and fuck with them, sooner or later your number is going to come up."

I think, to Sarah's credit, that the central anger she is expressing is at the character (the actual person) of Treadwell. She spends a lot of her essay repeating, over and over, one of the central themes of the movie, that you can't just join nature and discover some sort of primordial harmony. Treadwell's life is obviously a testament to that, and it's one of the clearest messages in Herzog's documentary.

Sarah's anger at Treadwell doesn't interest me much. I know I'm never going into the woods to poke bears in the ass with sticks, so I see no real reason to be mad at him. If anything, I respect his dedication, I pity his self-inflicted downfall, and I raise my eyebrows at his sheer lunacy. In a way, I'm not interested in Sarah's condemnation because it flattens out an on-screen personality that Herzog really managed to fill out with some depth. A lot of idealism requires a certain naivety and a certain idiocy, and Treadwell's obsessive pathology makes him funny (as Sarah points out), but it also makes him sad, disturbing, and unpredictable.

However, Sarah isn't just mad at Treadwell. She also seems ambiently mad at Herzog, who she implicitly accuses of over-sentimentalizing an absurd life and a violent death. This is where I think Sarah falters in her interpretation, moving from disapproval of Treadwell to disapproval of his portrayal. By over-emphasizing Treadwell's naivety in her review, Sarah seems to suggest that Herzog was totally ignorant of it in his film, and this simply wasn't true.

When she's introducing the movie, Sarah says, "And then I may have chuckled a little. And this is the issue, with the movie and with Timothy Treadwell and with his demise." If Sarah thinks she's the only person who laughed at Treadwell's bizarre antics, then she's wrong. And if she thinks Herzog didn't shake his head in incredulous disbelief at Treadwell's behavior, then she underestimates his capacity to understand his own material. Herzog is placing his sympathy within a context of the character's comical ignorance, and by rejecting Treadwell's emotional presence on the basis of his personal flaws, Sarah spends her review stripping away the extra dimension that Herzog worked so hard to add to Treadwell's demise.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Through the Heart (Steve Irwin and Elliott Smith)

Steve Irwin died on September 4th, victim of a stingray barb through the heart. I wasn't one of the Crocodile Hunter's most devoted followers, but I class him in a group of people who have my respect, simply on the basis of their single-mindedness... with people like Bob Ross and Al Sharpton. He's one of a few strange public personalities, breaks in the mass-produced static of mediated culture, whose sheer force of identity and personality elevate them above the cesspool of the entertainment industry.

Irwin's death makes me think of another recently-deceased entertainer, who I would also place in the above category. This is Elliott Smith, who I associate with Irwin because he died in a similar way: pierced through the heart at the height of his career in a movingly tragic and surreally fitting spasm of mortality. Both Smith and Irwin died in the throes of their own passion, and the cardiac trauma seems almost a badge of their parallel tragedies.

Even as I write this, I ask myself: how can I talk about these deaths as though they have some sublime meaning? Is it possible for any death to be "fitting"? Is it deeply cynical to make such a tenuous connection between two unrelated entertainers, a connection based on the similar circumstances of their deaths? Am I being profoundly trite by making such a big deal out of "death by pierced heart"?

I hope not... what really characterizes these two, and ultimately connects them, was their passion and single-minded devotion to a way of life. Their deaths were the culmination of their lives, and these two individuals spent their prime years creating new meaning and diffusing ideas into the slipstream. I suppose it's only natural that I try, however artificially, to attach a meaning to Irwin's death in the fevers of nature, and to Elliott Smith's death in the tremors of his own epic emotional swings.

I feel almost overwhelmed by cliche at this point, so I'm going to draw this meditation to a close. I'll just throw my last thought out there: an individual can face death as the final spark in a long chain of circumstance, or they can face it as a part of a life fully-lived, built around a broadly-constructed personal experience of the world. Steve Irwin managed the latter, and when my time comes, I hope I'll do the same.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Next Wave (Julia Stiles on the digital revolution)

This video showed up recently on YouTube, and it's pretty brilliant. The 12-year old Julia Stiles as a hacker prodigy, covering the digital underground for the school paper in Ghostwriter. .. forget Marshall McLuhan and Neo. This is the Internet messiah that we all overlooked.

(in case you can't understand the multi-jigawatt decibel oscillations of this Internet hyperstream, scroll down... I've done the best I can to make a transcript, and I put it at the end of this entry.)

Anyone remember 1993? Some bloggers probably don't, and even for me it's hardly more than a pair of tail-lights in the fog of memory. It was two years before Hackers, and the infamous Time Cyberporn article, both of which brought a seedy infamy to the circonicum tubes of the Interweb. It was before iPods and the Star Wars Kid and All Your Base, before wiki and blogs and Penny Arcade, before anyone had heard of the RIAA or thought of free Internet music, before CSS and Flash and VRML (okay, so that one never caught on).

Yes, sir, 1993 was the springtime of contemporary culture. The Internet was still a seedling, and do you remember how much hope we had for it? It was going to revolutionize our culture, create a new era of communication and literacy, and break down barriers of age, ethnicity, and ideology. The Internet was an atom bomb whose fuse had just been lit, and we were all right there with Julia Stiles, listening for the majesty of the blast.

The Internet delivered on some of its promises, and it stalled out on others. Is media more democratic? Absolutely, and the phenomenon is only increasing. Is the whole world wired up and spinning in a state of digitally-mediated peace? No, not exactly... like every utopian technology, the Internet was appropriated by the wealthy and privileged, and it hasn't managed to break down that division quite yet. Even so, our lives are vastly richer, and we're vastly more intelligent as a culture, as a result of the Internet.

Even so, it seems harder to commit to the digital age now than it was to be excited for it back at the beginning. The flowering of digital technology has gone hand in hand with a growth of cynicism, the natural by-product of a culture that's suddenly exposed to all its own highs and lows. Images like this "Special Olympics" announcement, and the coining of terms like Godwin's Law (that people just have to bring up Hitler every time they have a fucking debate) are indications of our distrust of Internet discussion. Bloggers spend a lot of time disparaging each other, like in this blogger's post, where he bitches about MySpace users while profoundly misinterpreting Ze Frank's brilliant (and truly optimistic) post on democratization of design. As the Internet's become part of our daily experience, we've also come up with an array of words for our digital pet peeves: spam, trolls, pop-ups, flame wars, and noobs.

Where did our excitement go? Is disenchantment a necessary by-product of experience? Did the Internet live up to our expectations, and if not, where did it fail, and where did WE fail? Is cyberspace still a frontier, or is it a cultural junkyard, like every frontier we try to colonize?

I'm not immune to Internet cynicism... I shake my head in dismay when people disrupt Wikipedia articles, and I'm thoroughly tired of reading arguments where people exaggerate my arguments so far out of proportion that they can compare me to Hitler. But every so often, I feel overcome with appreciation for the digital revolution that's connected me with a world beyond little suburbia. Bloggers like Ze Frank and William Gibson and Lawrence Lessig bring it out, and at those moments, I can relate to that young Julia Stiles, an explorer on a frontier that's still unconquered territory.

If I was that twelve-year old talking to Julia Stiles, you know what I'd say to her?

"Yeah, I've read Neuromancer. Twice."

And then, just before I fainted from the pressure of talking to a pretty girl, I'd manage to get one more thing out. I'd say, "Yeah, Julia, you're right. This is the place where I can say whatever I want, and be judged on my words, not on my wrinkled shirt. As long as we put our faith in those console cowboys... as long as we keep believing in cyberspace, and investing our time and energy into making it more intelligent... then we can also have faith that it'll change the world throughout, and far beyond, our own meager lifetimes."

*swoon* *faint* *Nurse's office*

[transcript of dialouge from YouTube video]

"Do you know anything about hackers? Have you jammed with the console cowboys in cyberspace?"


"Ever read Neuromancer?"


"Ever experienced the New Wave? Next Wave? Green wave? Or cyberpunk? I didn't think so. I'll handle the hacker stories."

"Yeah, I think you should. Where'd you learn about all this hacker stuff?"

[pointing to the computer] "In there. It's a world where you're judged by what you say and think... not by what you look like. A world where curiousity and imagination is a power. [pause to return to real life] We need that paper here, people! Work with me! Work with me!"

[end transcript]

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Newspaper critics: The Journey to Irrelevance

Pop Politics recently posted a shot blurb on the obsolescence of movie critics, mainly referencing an L.A. Times article, found here. The decreasing relevance of newspaper critics may be shocking to some people, especially those used to traditional journalism for their cultural commentary, but to this blog editor, this phenomenon is almost too obvious to warrant mention.

Luckily, both the original essay and PopPolitics' commentary elaborate on this phenomenon enough that they prompt a response. The Times' reaction to this "news" is cynically traditional, in my decidedly neophilic opinion. This is the assumption that we're seeing the downfall of meaningful cinema, and I think critics who subscribe to it are the ones going out of date the fastest. Just look at this L.A. Times paragraph:

"But today we're in an era in which shared enthusiasm matters more than analysis, stylistic cool trumps emotional substance. The world has changed. The vanguard filmmakers of the '60s — the era that spawned our last great generation of critics — were Godard, Kubrick and Antonioni, filmmakers under the spell of the intellectual fervor sparked by existentialism and Marxism. The filmmakers with a youth-culture following today, be it Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, are largely ideology free, masters of detachment and stylistic homage. Like their audience, they prefer irony to Big Ideas."

This is an unfair appraisal at best, and a spot of messy old-world elitism at worst. Modern cinema is a massive, highly-varied mediasphere with every kind of innovator... from political risk-takers like Michael Moore and Hany Abu-Assad, to passionate storytellers like Jeunet and Aronofsky, to industry personalities like Charlie Kaufman, there's a demonstrable "vanguard" of thoughtful filmmakers at work in the industry.

The fact that these innovators aren't the highest-grossing filmmakers? Irrelevant. In 1968, when Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, it didn't even make it to the top ten... Planet of the Apes, Rosemary's Baby, and The Odd Couple all beat it out. And do you really think Antonioni's Blowup made it into any top-tens in 1966? Yeah right. The huge junkyard of consumable media is very different from the parched desert of high-art film, and this is how it's always been.

So critics have the choice: on one hand, they could offer their services to the artists, using traditional aesthetic and analytical criteria to isolate the movies that should become genuine classics. On the other hand, they could inhabit the vast world of mass media. That means sorting out and fully understanding the everyday media world of sensory stimulation, rampant reference, and compulsive marketing. It gets messy. I know from experience.

This dilemma is more salient today because the newspaper is losing its mass credibility. Once upon a time, the critics and the newspapers were the only source of authority anyone could depend on, so they had an unrivaled voice of praise or condemnation. Now word of mouth is just so damn available... you can find a massive sampling of opinions, leveled from every preferential and movie-going perspective, and you don't have to depend on the words of a few sanctioned individuals to be your sole source of feedback. At the same time, as the corporate media machine is being lambasted by every political persuasion, the credibility of newspapers is understandably declining. We don't trust reviewers any more than we trust the press corps these days.

So there's a double effect going on: critics are losing popular relevance, and more and more, they're seeing themselves as the sole defenders of artistic integrity. By both their own power and by the sheer volume of modern mass media, critics are being forced deeper and deeper into "traditional cimena" land. The words of L.A. Times critics Kenneth Turan (as reported by L.A. Times writer Patrick Goldstein) are exemplary:

"I'm sorry, but we're not supposed to be applause meters," says Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan. "If you wanted to go to a restaurant for a special occasion and someone said, 'Why not go to McDonald's? More people go there than any other place.' Would that really be enough to convince you?"

And if that wasn't harsh enough, check out this elitist drivel, also reported (not sanctioned) by Goldstein:

Reviewing a collection of critical essays by the long-time Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins, Time film critic Richard Schickel contrasted Giddins' work with "history-free and sensibility-deprived" bloggers who regularly "blurb the latest Hollywood effulgence."

Kenneth is right... he, and his fellow reviewers, have an obligation to offer a better perspective than the brute-force box office numbers. But there's a subtext that may or may not be applicable: Turan and Schnickel might also be revealing their unwillingness to see cinema as entertainment. That's how you go from that desert of the avante-garde to the landscape of the popular, and that's how you anticipate, and influence, an ADHD-ridden public. You look at the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of a film that make it entertaining.

Everyone who faces a new set of conditions has a choice: change or become outdated. I'm not saying critics should sanction stupid movies, but they have to account for a few new variables in order to stay relevant, and to influence the movie-going public (i.e. in order to do their jobs).

First, they have to expand their reach beyond newspapers, because newspapers are losing credibility... whether they can swim or not, they have to get the fuck off the sinking ship.

Second, if they want to become cultural forces instead of empty voices drifting into the shadows, they have to account for entertainment value and marketing focus. If Kubrick and Antonioni are your standard, you won't be able to tell people what they're going to like.

I'm not saying the film critic has to become a mass media adolescent, but like any character facing a critical juncture, he's going to have to make a choice.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Off the music video main drag (OkGo and Gnarles Barkley offer alternatives)

The music video is a universally abused form... directors throw visual gimmicks, old tropes, and intense special effects together and shake them, and if they have enough studio backing, they throw the resulting masturbatory vomit onto MTV, where that sort of thing belongs. The ubiquitous tendency of music videos to supernova has overshadowed a little-known fact: music videos can be beautiful and delicate, just like any other developed art form. It's left up to a few thoughtful bands, like Gnarles Barkley and OkGo, to keep proving this by offering alternatives to the overwhelming onslaught of hyperproduced MTV tripe.

Barkley's video, Crazy, and OkGo's music video for Here We Go Again are very different, but I contend that they're both aiming at the same target. By way of very different paths, both videos are stepping off the freight train of music video excess and showcasing a sort of visual minimalism, mobilizing simplicity, symmetry, and continuity to emphasize the strengths of the respective songs.

I mentioned the sweeping differences between these two videos, and I'll examine them from that direction first. The primary difference is production value... Crazy's brilliant, elaborate Rorschach inkblots must have taken hundreds of hours (at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars) to tweak and rotoscope on a high-end graphics machine. This kind of work is painfully detailed and time-consuming... I've tried it. I could hardly make the computer spell my damn name. Whatever the time investment, this production value adds up to a smooth, meditative visual effect with a subliminal edge, something that unfolds the same way Cee-Lo's voice unfolds from Danger Mouse's bassy beats.

OkGo's production value, on the other hand, is basement-dwelling. It looks like the guys spent a few hours messing around with treadmills and a video camera, and that their bizarre, choreographed stroke of genius was the child of their meagerly-funded free time. Note the contrast in the music, and how it reflects in the contrast in production quality... Gnarles Barkley's music is smooth and polished, so the video is the result of a marathon of tinkering and beautification, whereas OkGo's music is freewheeling and spontaneous, so the video is a back-room jaunt of power-pop tomfoolery. In both cases, though, the effect of the minimalism is to distill the essential effect from the visuals so the music is complimented on the most effective level.

Consider some simple similarities, though... both videos are one long cut, with no breaks or interruptions in the cinematic rhythm. Compare that to videos like The Perfect Drug, which jump around madly with no apparent regard for continuity. In the Barkley and the OkGo videos, the image stands on its own, and its pace is enough to keep the watcher's attenion for the whole song. Reznor's video depends entirely on the novelty of each separate image, because no matter how gorgeous your set, you can only watch Trent stand on a statue of a hand for so long.

Another similarity is each video's dependence on symmetry. This one is pretty incidental, but it makes the experience of a video seem more careful, more calculated, and more focused. The unflinching, uncomplicated camera action, designed to emphasize the visual effect of gorgeous symmetrical images, is a welcome change from the flying camera monkey paradigm that we get in videos like Creed's Matrix-obsessed Higher.

Finally (the points are getting less and less interesting) there's the simple fact of sytlistic cohesion in my featured videos. OkGo: one long low-budget camera shot of guys jumping around on treadmills. Gnarles: nothing but shifting monochromatic shapes, drifting in and out according to a surreally intuitive visual logic. These days everybody wants to mix CGI and animation and live shots, which is awesome, sure, like, totally, but it exposes a serious conceptual deficiency in music videos like Freak On a Leash. Korn uses a ton of styles and cinematic gimmicks because they're incapable of developing a visual idea to the point where it makes the overstimulated fans happy.

Now, don't get me wrong... I need my share of aesthetic excess. After all, I'm the guy whose favorite movies include The Rundown and Wild Zero (haven't seen that one? You HAVE to check it out). Still, I want my experience of music to penetrate deeper than my experience of bad film, and music video effects extravaganzas usually make me want to get up and get another soda.

I'm profoundly relieved that there are still innovators, thinking through their aesthetic approaches, making my music video consumption just a little more satisfying.