Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Meditations: Childhood Innocence in the Music Video Era

Christmas is a time to reflect on authenticity and obligation, especially when it comes to issues of maturity and disillusionment. It's an inescapable question... it's safe to say that anyone who knows the experience of the Christian holiday also knows how much it changes when you enter adulthood. Santa Clause leads the way for a loss of innocence, and over the course of a few landmark years, we stop seeing Christmas as a singular, mystical time and start to see it as a confusing mix of familial love and troublesome economic and social obligation. If any of you are like me, you probably spend a large part of the holiday searching within yourself for that excited, innocent child who could just enjoy the bright colors and ritualistic songs, and who could just indulge in attention and wish-fulfillment.

So here I am, looking into pop culture for some statements on the shifting winds of innocence and disillusionment. Interestingly, I've found the most salient themes during my diversion into the world of music video.

Sigur Ros's recent music video for the song Hoppipolla is a great example. Before you even think about the social statement it makes, try just watching it and feeling the spirit of the piece. It's simple and beautiful and thematically cryptic, but it represents something spontaneous and touching. It's a brilliant piece of short-form cinema, crafted around an excellent song.

Like I said, thematically cryptic: one of the beautiful aspects of this video is that it doesn't seem to be purveying a judgment or advocating any reform. If anything, it's an invitation to the viewer to imagine an entire life lived as a child, or at the very least, a final return to the joys of childhood at the twilight of old age.

Thus, there's something in this video calling us out of the severity of middle age, showing us the triumph of experience extracted from the prisons of ambition and self-consciousness. It's even making me ashamed to be writing about it this way... this essay is such a trite rationalization of a video that amounts to a siren's song of spontaneity and humanity. I have to write about the video, when I'd rather be creating it, or (better yet) simply living it.

But it leads me to consider another video that makes a complex statement on maturity and self-seriousness, but from a different direction. Take a look at B.I.G.'s video for Sky's the Limit:

Directed, of course, by the indomitable Spike Jones, it takes a simple casting quirk and turns it into a strange experience with traces of a complex statement on maturity within a music genre. Jonze's deadpan strangeness gives the video a different flavor than the Sigur Ros piece, and (as appropriate to the music) it's a less beautiful and more conflicted piece.

Jonze manages to bring a sense of tension to this video that makes it hard to read as message-bearing communication. We often envision rap as a posturing, inflationary cultural complex, proud but fraught with negativity. Granted, I'm speaking as a pretentious indie kid, the demographic that Jonze's videos normally appeal to, rather than as a street kid, the demographic that Biggie's music targets. Still, the very fact that Jonze directed this video... such a departure from his other source material, like Weezer and Fatboy Slim... opens up this contradiction in the first place.

Sky's the Limit is saying that beneath rap's posturing, there's something childlike. You can read this as a compliment or as a critique... are these children acting out this scenario because hip-hop is playful and spontaneous? This is a natural reading if you consider the tone of the music, which is generally reassuring. After all, [the] Sky is the limit and you know that you can have what you want, be what you want. Then again, if it makes you uncomfortable to see children in big bling, buying entirely into a decadent lifestyle of fast cars and easy women, you might see something different. Maybe the kids represent the immaturity of the rap scene, which (arguably) has spent the last ten years replacing defiance and strength of character with glamour and self-praise.

So is it about finding the past within the present? Or is it about losing the past through a painful process of disillusionment? It's hard to say... and that's what makes it a great video. Spike Jonze knows ambiguity, perhaps more than any other short-form director, and he's fully harnessed it here.

Whether you're grasping at the past or interrogating the present, whether you're searching for the sublime or for the naivety of your youth, this Christmas is probably a time to think about who you were and who you're becoming. These music videos offer one small take on an enormous question that we all have to keep asking... even knowing that we probably won't be finding an answer any time soon.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Music Video: A History of Absolute Essentials

I've been doing a lot of research on music videos lately. It's related to my master's thesis, but not in any direct line of correlated logic. Instead, it's become a little personal mission and obsession, because it's been a fascinating exercise, and because the first thing you have to do, when you're becoming a specialist in something, is to immerse yourself in that thing.

So here's what I've done: I hunted down all the recent(ish) "Top 100 Greatest Music Videos" lists I could find, all from authoritative sources in the video-music industry. I found ones from VH1 (2001), MTV (1999), Slant Magazine (2003), Pitchfork (2006) and Stylus Magazine (2007). I basically recorded every video that appears on any of these lists, and correlated the data about their places on the respective lists. I also gave them all cumulative scores, based on their positions in these lists. It provides a good cross-section of influence, and it has proven a massively interesting exercise.

I'll do a couple posts on my findings, but right now I just wanted to sum up some of the results.

By far the most highly-decorated video is A-Ha's masterpiece Take On Me. It came in within the top 10 videos on three lists (Slant, Stylus, and VH1) and within the top 20 on the fourth (MTV), and it was also recognized by Pitchfork, though Pitchfork didn't give its videos explicit rankings.

Don't tell me this is a surprise. The video was insanely advanced for its day, using the live-action/animation mix, and it combines all the most important aspects of the medium. In a sense, it represents the whole music video medium: it includes a loosely-defined plot, a highly stylized visual environment, and some solid performance footage. It's also a storyline to compete in any forum of short films, although, since it's created through the lens of pop music, it doesn't have the subtlety of the more experimental pieces.

Video number 2: Michael Jackson's Thriller. Also not a surprise... it rivals Take On Me in narrative and performance, and what it lacks in stylization, it makes up for with insane Jackson dance sequences. The walking dead... can you feel it? A world in Jacko's dance trance, unable to stop the rhythm flooding the barricades of our consciousness.

Others among those highly-decorated videos: Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer, The Beastie Boys' Sabotage, REM's Losing My Religion, and Dre's Nuthin' But a G Thang. Before I took VH1's list into account, this last video... a bit of a misogynistic drunken blunder of a clip... was actually number 3 on the list. I guess it had a hell of an influence on the youth of the 90's. Otherwise, it's hella hard to figure out how it would have beaten Pearl Jam's Jeremy.

Most decorated artist? This one wasn't even a contest. Only one person could beat out Michael Jackson (#2) and Bjork (#3) for highest number of awesome videos on countdowns, and this person was Madonna Louise Ciccone Ritchie, the infamous and unbeatable queen of pop for the last thirty years. Never mind that her highest-rated video didn't come in until #11 (Like a Prayer)... she had a total of fifteen videos on the lists, most of them on more than one. Fifteen videos in four lists? Do the math. That's a lot of noteworthy music videos.

It helped that some people (VH1) liked Madonna's older stuff, like Vogue and Material Girl, whereas others (Stylus) liked her newer stuff, like Ray of Light and Frozen. I remember a surprising number of these videos myself, and I can definitely get behind her as the top video-producing musician in the history of the medium. She and her directors are goddamn geniuses.

And highest-rated director? Barron definitely had the highest average score per video (having produced Take On Me and Billie Jean, both in the cumulative top 10), but with his fourteen placements between the four lists, he couldn't possibly beat Spike Jonze, who had thirteen videos in the four lists (22 placements, one top-ten, two more top-twenties). Jonze has directed Sabotage, two award-winning Bjork videos, and two groundbreaking Fatboy Slim videos. His name will be forever inscribed upon the music video universe.

So before I write anything else on music videos, go -- go watch these award-winners, and rediscover the MTV of our collective youth, before reality shows and TRL, when music video was a respectable medium with a forum on broadcast television. I don't miss the early 90's, but there are some things I wouldn't mind making a comeback.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Blade Runner and the Question of Interpretation

Blade Runner is kind of an old movie. I was first released before I was... alive, I guess. Still, to my eyes, it seems like the best of (perhaps better than) contemporary cinema, and it was worth the exorbitant Manhattan prices to see Blade Runner: Final Cut a week or so ago. This is what science fiction should be. No glitzy showdowns or garish interstellar CGI plastic, but well-rendered drama, both emotionally and visually, that acknowledges that as the future arrives, emotions and human vulnerabilities aren't getting simpler... they're getting more complex, right along with the technology that protects us from them.

There are a lot of things I could talk about here. There's the differences between this and the previous Blade Runner releases, which are interesting trivia, but well-cataloged over at Wikipedia. There's also the whole bit about the 80's and cyberpunk, Sterling and Dick and Gibson's visions of the future that shuffle and grunt on the opposite end of the narrative spectrum from Star Trek's future utopia. I don't know if I want to tackle that monster, either, though. There's also a disturbing depiction of gender relations, a male-empowerment sex scene that resembles a rape scene remotely enough for casual viewers to pass over, but clearly enough to make me uncomfortable. It's something I've talked about before, though, so I'll hold off on that for now.

Instead, what I want to write about is the complexity of interpretation for a work this complex. I'm a new criticism type, through and through... I've read my share of Derrida, and I've perused Wimsatt and Beardsley... so I usually accept any work of entertainment or narrative media as something I should be picking through, interpreting for myself. I always want to personalize the story, and make it something uniquely my own by working out the connections for myself. I've done it on here a number of times, for James Bond and Unleashed, among many others.

I came to a similar cushy conclusion with regards to Blade Runner. There was something eerie and loaded about the final scene, just before the cut to the credits, and I immediately jumped to a conclusion that made perfect sense to me, even though it wasn't spelled out as such. The connection to an earlier scene, and to a few remarks by Deckard and Rachael, were the dots of meaning that I was able to connect in order to form a full picture.

Imagine my reaction when I discovered that I was "right" (in whatever way that holds). It turns out that Ridley Scott actually admitted, in an interview available on Google, that my conclusion was correct... or at least, it was his intention when he made this cut. This should have been a self-satisfied moment for me, right? I got it right, I caught the hints, I had connected the clues and the killer had just admitted that I was right about him. Neat and tidy, like Sherlock Holmes.

But I was, in fact, rather dismayed at Ridley's confirmation of my theory. Suddenly, there wasn't a real question about it... suddenly, everybody knows where to look, and the work is closed, right after I managed to open it up. Before that time, I was a fan of interpretive openness in my media, but I never thought very hard about it, except through the lens of amateur lit-crit. Suddenly, I had a new angle: an emotional reaction.

When Blade Runner was an open question, it seemed endlessly complex, like so many of the other work I'm such a fan of. This is why I liked Ada, or Ardor, and why I still remember Neon Genesis Evangelion so fondly. Their authors never bothered closing the interpretive code in these works, and openness lends a different scale to it, whether it's literature or art or entertainment. After Blade Runner, I was holding onto my insights like grains of sand I had gathered into my own personal hermeneutic sand castle. I was proud of it, and I was also jealous of it, in a way.

I should explain that last part... jealousy over a clever interpretation is a special vice that I tend to indulge whenever I can. I like having my own personal angle partly because I can explain it whenever my friends are talking about the movie. However, it also appeals because it's unverified, and I can use it to engage people in a conversation about the characters. A half-assed debate on an unconfirmed revelation can make for a lot of discussion and reinterpretation, and a small shadow can reveal serious new depths of a work of art.

There's a lesson for me as an artist, I think. On the simpler side, I'll never walk around explaining my art to people who are wondering about its "true meaning." If there's a true meaning, people can figure it out for themselves. On a deeper level, I'll avoid creating anything with a single, exclusive "meaning." If I can fold some uncertainty into the work when I create it, I won't feel like I'm closing it off too much when I finish it, and/or when people read it and/or ask about it (mental note: you have to have an audience first!)

But this also leaves open a question for the rest of the consumer universe out there (and make no mistake, I'm more of a consumer than a producer myself). Do you prefer your stories and pictures and music to be closed and explained, and to be the product of a clear, well-communicated idea? i.e. as with Ridley Scott, who communicated his idea after the fact? Or do you prefer them to be half-answered, leaving as many questions as "morals" or determinations? To put it another way: if you met the author of your favorite book, and they informed you that all your personal beliefs and reactions to it were "absolutely correct!", would you be happier for it?

I'm curious to know... if anyone, in the history of The InterNet, ever gets to the end of this blog post, please respond, cause I'd love to hear some thoughts.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Speaking for the Millennials: a response to Morley Safer on 60 Minutes

"I promise that I will not judge any person only as a teenager if you will constantly remind yourself that some of my generation judge people by their race, their belief or the color of their skin and that this is no more right than saying all teenagers are drunken dope addicts or glue sniffers."
- Victor Lundberg, An Open Letter to My Teenage Son

Maybe it's absurd of me to get pissed off at something petty and transparent on 60 Minutes, but as I reviewed (and re-watched, and re-reviewed) their recent piece on Millennials, I was as close as I've ever been to damaging something in my apartment. It's not the kind of desperate rage I feel at rapists, or religious extremists, because I can recognize that Safer's ageist type of thinking is petty and has to fade into oblivion with every generation... but I still harbor a deep, mind-bending anger at a ubiquitous cultural myth that I've recognized, and struggled against, as long as I can remember being aware of it.

This myth is the degradation of America's youth.

Millennials on 60 Minutes

Watch the video and try to be convinced (if you're an upper-class 45-year-old, it might not be too hard). Is this message attractive? Does it validate you? Does it give you more fodder for disapproval, distrust, and cataclysmic discontent at the failures of your successors? The message is painfully clear, fueled by the insecurities of a disappearing generation, and it's vividly, comically transparent.

Here's what they offer to convince you: a series of remarks from consultants, most of whom have business or politics backgrounds, and all of whom offer unsubstantiated anecdotal evidence. Some stock video of kids with "the technology" or at "the computer." A long, rambling narrative by Mr. Morley Safer, inundated with disparaging phrases, and a self-help-book-selling IDIOT as the spokesperson for a generation that probably bought about five copies of his literature.

This is going to be a long post, so be patient with me. I'll go through these one at a time.

Mr. Safer characterizes the current generation's ethos as one of whimsical, childish laziness. If you've been living in the vicinity of planet Earth, you've probably heard that refrain before... teenagers in the 80's were apathetic losers, young people in the 60's were spoiled deviants, and youth in the 20's were hedonistic and self-absorbed. Some of you "doting parents" heard about the Roaring Twenties, didn't you?

Of course, Mr. Morley's monologue isn't exactly a balanced portrayal of an emergent consciousness. I think he starts off trying to be a little more subtle, with jabs like "their priorities are simple: they come first" (a thesis offered, with virtually no credible evidence whatsoever, by Jean M. Twenge, PhD in her book Generation Me'). As the report goes on, his shots get cheaper, as he calls all young people "the teenage babysitting pool" and refers to them offhandedly as "narcissistic praise-hounds."

As a side-note, this includes me... he indicts people born between 1980 and 1995. Thus, I feel my anger is slightly more validated.

Morley's guests have a similar tone to his: Marian Salzman, whose position as an ad-exec from Walter J. Thompson apparently qualifies her as a generational guru, says you "have to talk to them like a therapist on TV" (hmmm... apparently Ms. Salzman doesn't understand the problems that require a therapist in the real world). I didn't catch the information on Marian's vast personal experience with young professionals, or her personal success stories in regards to working with them, so she strikes me as representative of the segment's general tone.

In fact, all the guests sound the same, and they all echo Morley's disembodied monologue. Jeffrey Zaslow pointedly blames Mr. Rogers for his bad national parenting habits. A white house chef turned self-help consultant calls this generation a "perfect storm" of unpreparedness (seems a bit of a discontinuous metaphor to me).

Cherry-picking of guests allows Mr. Safer some more support: Jason Dorsey, a baby-faced author whose book on professionalism is apparent being read by people... somewhere... comes across as a smooth-lobed middle schooler who simply repeats, in a slightly higher register, all the complaints of the elders, and acts like he's being optimistic. I can tell you with complete sincerity that a 20-something who has published a self-help book is not representative of a "generation," and he comes across as a complete asshole (albiet a different kind of asshole from the gems of adulthood who represent the baby boomers).

There's a reason these segments, and the books they echo, depend so heavily on anecdotes and decontextualized comedy... they don't have any worthwhile evidence on their side. Now, I don't usually make demands for empirical proof, but it's a demand I'm willing to make in the face of absurd, antagonistic generalizations.

If you want facts... you know, those relics of modern rationalism... consider YouthFacts.org. Their devastating critique of Generation Me includes some lovely statistical gems. Youth have no work-ethic? Since 1974, the students who planned to work off-campus to finance their college educations has risen by 5% (almost 10% among females). Alcohol consumption among students has dropped as much as 15%. Twice as many females (by percentage) plan to attain PhDs or similar professional degrees. They're self-centered? Felony arrests among young people, aged 10-17, have dropped by 56% since 1974, and community and volunteer work has risen by 14% since 1975/76.

If them young whippersnappers are quitting their jobs at your office, it might be because your ideas, marketing plans, priorities, and economic potential are all crumbling before their eyes.

A continued close reading of these remarks reveals something beyond the thoughtful observation and insightful analysis of the wiser generation. It reveals (actually, it doesn't even take that much close reading) the voice of the status quo, embedded but terrified for its own safety.

In between taking snipes at the "Millenials," Morley practically offers himself and his generation up as the entrenched institution. Apparently, the things the baby boomers hold dear are "giving orders" and "your starched white shirt and tie." Madame Salzman is disappointed that we aren't willing to "live and breathe the company" (how that ever became a virtue in the first place is beyond me). Morley also seems disgruntled that "friends and family are the new priority."

This makes for interesting reflection: was my generation's moment of failure the same moment that it chose "friends and family" over "living and breathing the company"? And does this, somehow, make us narcissistic and self-centered? This seems like a bit of a rhetorical discontinuity to my admittedly youthful brain.

This confusing backlash against young people, my friends, represents a state of fear. "Where did this fantasy come from?" ... "No more 'Pay your dues, just like I did' " ... these are the words of a generation that's used to a very strict power structure -- something developed in the 70's and 80's -- where they were at the top of a simple patriarchal heirarchy, and they're seeing it fall apart. They see a workforce that's increasingly intense and specialized, that can "multitask" and whose technology is "almost an extension of their bodies" (ooh! Somebody read the back cover of Understanding Media!) They realize they have to negotiate with us, rather than simply barking orders, and they react by calling us spoiled and self-centered.

I guess, after all this writing, I no longer feel the need to be angry... I feel rather an inevitable pity for the frustration of a generation in its twilight, and I think maybe I should go try to shake a corporate executive's hand and tell them it's been great working with them. It's time to indulge these corporatists with the reward they've come to deserve: the kind of affirmation you'd offer a discouraged child.

Sorry for the rant. Next time: Blade Runner.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

WGA topical ramblings

Warning: this may be more inane and rambling than my usual razor-sharp critical tongue. If you want something more focused, read the forthcoming piece about Blade Runner.

I'm definitely not qualified to talk about the current state of television. I hardly watch an hour of TV a week... occasionally I catch Scrubs, or a show on the Food Network, usually over someone else's shoulder. Somehow, some cryptic convergence of factors has destroyed my interest in boobtubery, which has been replaced by books, movies, and the Internet in my life.

Still, it's interesting to see an uprising and a debate about productivity in the entertainment industry. Strikes are so closely associated with the great days of blue-collar labor that it's confusing, and almost blasphemous, to see the concept make the postmodern transition into the world of "cultural production." The monetary elite in this country used to care about revenue from products... cars, infrastructure, etc. Now, they care about broadcastable, promotable content... something only seasoned dialogue writers can provide.

So: time to rethink cultural production? For a long time, I had trouble dealing with the idea that the vast majority of costs and payments in this country are for things that aren't physical, and that are infinitely reproducible. A computer program developed by Adobe, or a song written by Radiohead, or a digital photograph from the archives of Sebastio Salgado... those things require the creative effort to be put forth once, and from that point on, they can propagate infinitely at no further cost -- and if somebody is paying for each copy, they can generate infinite revenue. They don't require materials, or even labor, to keep making money for the people controlling them.

I think corporations, asserting endless control over things like songs and scripts, are acting on the old-fashioned paradigm. The fact that the distributor is recouping all the capital suggests that it's the distributor who's paying for the materials, when in fact there are no more materials. It's the creative locus of the work itself that is generating the revenue, so by rights, the majority of the capital should be distributed to the creative producer -- the writer, the artist, the band. Corporations are using their status as middle-men and distributors to hijack all the capital being circulated in this country.

Whether this analysis is accurate or painfully biased, it still seems like the same issue: the issue of revenue being siphoned away from producers and into the hands of bureaucrats. I'm unforgivably compelled by the instinctive belief that there are more executives, accountants, and business majors in this country than the infrastructure really requires, especially in the age of individual empowerment and immediate communication.

So I say, yay to the writers' guild, just like I said yay to the MTA workers a few years ago. I'd suggest going a step further, too... if you're in a stalemate too long, start publishing your writing via alternate sources. Show that, if it's not worth the network's attention, it's definitely going to be worth somebody else's.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Anton Corbijn's Control: portrait of a monster

I saw the film Control, by Anton Corbijn, a couple weeks ago. I enjoyed it, if only because I like watching moving images and being immersed in the great media spectacle. I'd recommend it to anyone who's in the mood for a troubling, introspective drama that pulls you into an artist's personal web of tragedy. I know, this doesn't sell very well on paper.

Still, if you're like me and welcome the chance to think a lot about a movie and a public persona, you'll probably find Control worth the watch. It brings up an old question that I find myself recycling every so often: how do I react to narratives wherein the protagonist is really a deplorable bastard? Are they 1) personally enriching and/or educational? or 2) even enjoyable? and if the answer to (2) is "Yes," is it an enjoyment I should be indulging in, or is it just the kind of pathetic voyeurism we get from watching a train wreck or a celebrity breakdown?

Quick backstory: Control is about Ian Curtis, the front-man to the goth/punk band Joy Division. Joy has earned a special place in music history, being the hybrid seed of a whole underground movement. They're the type of band that has resonated through the critical and historical consciousness of pop music, even though they've never surfaced in mainstream memory. They were categorically narcissistic and depressed, but they managed to avoid being a cliche because they were so damn sincere. This was no Brand New self-pity... this was genuinely troubled, sincere disaffected personal turmoil, born out for the eye of a thousand teenage fans.

Part of the reason for this sincerity, and for the fame that attended it, was that Curtis was such a pitiful case. His voice, and his songwriting, are the assets that carried the band to greatness. He was one of the rare people who is vulnerable to crushing emotional pain, and who knows how to express it intelligently and sensitively. The pressure of young marriage, fast fame, and medical issues were the engine behind his voice, but they were also the catalysts for his depression and suicide.

(spoiler warning... arg, too late.)

Unfortunately, he was also a dick. If Sam Riley's portrayal is to be believed, Curtis lived at an unfortunate crossroad between cynicism and sensitivity. He was chronically insecure, and yet he was thirsty to prove himself, so he ended up emotionally numb and vulnerable to self-indulgence. The film doesn't skimp on this point, either. Throughout Control, there seems to be a shadow across the characters and their city (dying industrial Manchester), and the discerning audience might realize that this pall is emanating from Ian Curtis himself, who seems to poison the lives and interactions of his friends and family.

So in a sad, vaguely sympathetic, but also frustrating journey, we see Curtis overflow and collapse. Have we learned anything from him? Have we enjoyed his downfall? Why the fuck did we see this movie?

As always, there's enlightenment to be found in any honest portrayal of a foreign psyche and experience. Even Curtis's flaws are part of the world we live in, and we may recognize some of them in ourselves... the dangerous human impulses of hubris and narcissism may be repressed, but there's a trace of them in each of us. This is a film that sheds some light on them in order that we may face them.

In this sense, Corbijn's Ian Curtis reminds me of John Gardner's Grendel. Grendel was a protagonist of sorts... the reader is placed behind his eyes and forced to see his flawed reasoning and his failure. However, in John Gardner's (totally amazing) novel, Grendel is also a monster through and through, willingly blind to the world so that he can feel justified in ravaging it. As an audience, we're supposed to be along for the ride, and we're supposed to give Grendel some face time for a while, but (as Gardner himself has pointed out) we're ultimately supposed to hate him and reject his nihilism in favor of the awesome humanistic strength of Beowulf.

With Curtis, we're not given this kind of alternative. There's no Eddie Vedder (or whoever) to stand up and be the success that Curtis couldn't become. Still, Ian Curtis's role in Control is directly analogous to Grendel's role in Grendel. As a sophisticated viewer, you can stick with Curtis and feel a sense of tragedy for his misfortunes, not because you like or respect him, but simply because he's human, and because ever human being is in danger of losing control. We're free to be angry at Curtis's abuse of his wife, family, friendships, and of his own talent, but perhaps Corbijn has allowed us to ride the line between rejection and sympathy, so that we can arrive at the end of Control and feel the tragedy of a life that could never find its own rhythm.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Cool Shit Alert: The Cadbury Gorilla

I really like this commercial: Gorilla Feels the Groove. I haven't written about a meme in a while, and this advert gives me a good feeling, so I think I can find an excuse to write about it.

First of all, why am I so attracted to it? It's the simplicity -- the gorilla's nonverbal acting, an expressed and gestured emotion, with a perfectly appropriate Phil Collins song. There's something profoundly sincere about the drumming and the monkeyface, looking toward the sky, and I think the fact that it's a gorilla makes it more austere somehow, and more authentic.

Cadbury beats Apple, in my opinion... as far as feeling the pure joy, vicariously making love to the music, Gorilla affects me more than the rockin' silhouettes, who look like they're having fun, but may be a little too awkward, or choreographed. It might be because the silhouettes seem to be dancing for, and/or addressing, the camera, whereas Gorilla seems to be alone in a studio, complete at peace with his Genesis. If that was a human making that enchanted face, I don't think I'd buy it.

Of course, you might take a second and look for meaning, thereby delaying the inevitable happiness that the commercial can bring. Make no mistake... the search for some sort of pun is futile. The commercial is a non-sequiter.

But you need to get past that to see why it's so damn successful. The point of a commercial is to induce an effect in the viewer, to take over a piece of mental space, and the Gorilla kicks some serious ass in that regard. First, you have to catch the audience's attention, like the Apple commercial does with bright colors. The extreme close-up of a Gorilla face does the trick, in my opinion, through a combination of fascination and confusion.

The commercial never explains the gorilla, but before we get so confused that we're bored, it moves on to the second effect: inducing a mental state. When you make the connection between the blissful, distracted expression and the ghostly soundtrack, you start to get it. When the bass kicks and the gorilla fully surrenders to the beat, you fall in with him. A few riffs later, you're in love with the song, and with the gorilla, and you're either laughing in amusement or tapping in empathy. Once you get the second effect, the carefully-crafted cerebral response, you get the product shot. There doesn't need to be an explicit connection. They just need to be correlated.

It's not manipulation, necessarily. If you're not making claims about the product, you certainly can't be lying. If you can craft such a simple image of pure joy, you've probably experienced it, and you probably know its nuances, and you probably want to bring it to your audience. This is my universalist optimism about good advertising... consumers are so savvy these days that the only way to seem sincere is to be sincere.

So I'm going to stake my faith in the idea that the director of this commercial doesn't give a shit whether I buy Cadbury chocolate. I think he was just using that forum as an excuse to bring the joy of music to his Gorilla, and through his Gorilla, to me.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Southland Tales: Bring It, Richard Kelly

Now here's an upcoming release that looks interesting: Southland Tales. It's a surreal-looking film directed by Richard Kelly, director of nineties teenager cult flick Donnie Darko. That connection would have been enough to attract my attention, but there's more to this movie that makes it interesting. Let's take a look.

Before my fanboyism sets in, I can tell you: the (various) premises of the movie are worth checking out. From my understanding, it follows at least three people -- an amnesiac action movie star, an enterprising porn actress, and a paranoid cop -- through various narratives and adventures. It hints at its own complications: I can speculate that the action movie star gets his true identity mixed up with the identity of a part he's supposed to be acting (a la The Long Kiss Goodnight, which was, by the way, an amazing movie). I can also sense, from the trailer's apocalyptic opening, that the cop's insight into a global conspiracy walks the line between absurd paranoid fantasy and terrifying truth.

These are interesting ideas individually. They're not brand new, but they're also not beaten into the ground yet, and if they're woven skillfully, they could make a truly bold narrative structure.

Appealing to my unique preferences, though, are the personalities that are showcased in this avant-garde movie. It stars The Rock and Seann William Scott, and the last movie they did together (The Rundown) was not only one of my favorite movies EVER, but it was also the coolest movie the Rock has done, in my overstimulated opinion. If they still have that original chemistry, they could bring something intense and appealing to this movie, which is in danger of being slightly pretentious (The Fountain syndrome, maybe).

The Rock needs a movie like this right now. He has an amazing screen presence... he's part of a new generation of action stars who can be inspiring in a choreographed action scene, on par with the Schwarzeneggers and the Stallones, and at the same time, he can muster up some class that the previous generation never managed. He's on par with Vin Diesel and Jason Statham in that regard, and it's tragic that right now, he's in danger of following the former into oblivion. Movies like The Game Plan spell the beginning of the end of a blossoming action career.

Hopefully a movie like Southland Tales will help pull it out of the crapper. Hopefully enough people notice it. Hopefully Dwayne Johnson is able to fulfill his muscley promise.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The spectrum of an idea, from the RIAA to Radiohead and Lawrence Lessig

In recent days, two things have happened simultaneously, and they represent two important, but ambiguous, developments in a struggle that has been on the radar for quite a while. This is the battle for music distribution, fought between an enterprising public and a defensive, conservative media industry.

First of all, the first RIAA lawsuit to come to trial has been decided, in a far-reaching event that proves that our legal system has no scruples about deciding against individuals in favor of megacorporations. The defendant in question was fined $9,250 per song, for each of 24 songs she made available online that the record companies focused on. For those whose Windows calculators aren't handy, that's $222,000 she has to pay for allowing other people to download things from her computer.

The absurd verdict isn't actually justified by any real-world logic, and all that's left to explain it is the RIAA's emphasis on her as an example. I can't imagine a court that would allow this to happen, nor a legal precedent that would accommodate it. It's the newest in a series of verdicts symptomatic of a neurotic, punitive society, so scared of crime and disorder that it imposes sanctions far exceeding what's called for by the situation in question. Another recent example resulted in a national controversy that's still striking some racial nerves in the CNS of this country.

The other thing I was talking about... the converging happenstance that complicates a simple statement on corporate stupidity... is Radiohead's startling, progressive decision to publish their own new album, coming on September 10, and to offer it for whatever price the buyer wants to pay. This is a powerful statement in opposition to the music industry, showing the world that the corporate machine is no longer the only way to distribute music.

Here we have an obstacle, and we have an answer. When the RIAA and the constipated corporate assholes of America try to strangle the emergent technology that offers a new promise to their medium, they will be met: they will find themselves faced with artists and individuals with an active conscience, a critical consciousness, and the power to wiggle out of a crushing grip.

In my opinion, Radiohead is taking the first step in a journey we all have to undergo. My personal and philosophical arguments with the RIAA have compounded so much that I'm not interested in any form of compliance any longer, whether it's financial, legal, or journalistic. It's time for listeners to strangle those old channels and flood the new ones. When they demand $222,000 from Jammie Thomas, who makes $36,000 a year, to make an example out of a rather trivial offense, the record companies show themselves incapable of reason, and they lose all rights to compromise.

I'm never buying music from an RIAA-based label again. If I want to listen to new music from somebody worth listening to, and they happen to have RIAA distribution, I'll find a friend who has the CD and I'll borrow it. Meanwhile, I'll make a point of purchasing any good music that's being offered independently, or through an alternative label, or via nontraditional distribution scheme.

If anybody else wants to do the same, here are some sites to inspire you and get you moving.

For fighting the powers that be:
Boycott RIAA makes the case against the RIAA
RIAA Watch will tell you if your new CD is sponsoring intellectual terrorism

For getting non-RIAA music:
Radiohead is offering the new album, independent of the system.
Magnatune has some good bands, all licensed for easy distribution

For understanding creative freedom:
Lawrence Lessig is one of the masterminds of the Creative Commons

Free, legal raw material for use in your own work:
The Film Archive has free movie clips whose copyright terms have expired
StockXchange has hundreds of free stock photographs
Flickr supports Creative Commons and reasonable rights for use of images

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dove Onslaught and the Cold War of Culture

Dove's released a new video, OnSlaught, following the success of their PSA "Evolution" last year. I'm a big fan of the campaign... it's emblematic of a new sensibility developing in corporations, who are trying to create productive relationships with their clientelle, instead of just repeating taglines and saturating media with their logo. Those who want to destroy capitalism will still object, seeing this as another method of appropriation. Those who would rather meet the market half-way... people like me... should see this for what it is: a step forward for the culture, wherein the interests of the company, the consumer, and the society are becoming more intertwined and symbiotic.

This new Dove video is interesting to me, as a media student. Intentional or not, the ad references one of the most famous PSA's in history, the "Daisy Girl" ad created by Tony Schwartz in 1964. Schwartz has discussed his own inspiration in creating the ad, saying that it isn't designed to tell the public what to buy, so much as to activate the latent emotions they already have. In that way, Daisy Girl differs significantly from previous "sales pitch" and newsreel ads. Instead of pitching adjusted informational content, Schwartz creates a visual and audio environment that elicits an emotional response and taps an audiences anxieties and preconceptions.

Some people call this fearmongering, or propaganda... I see it as a new respect for evocation and the psychology of politics. Daisy Girl was an audacious PSA that addressed peace and militarism as resonant concerns for voters during the Cold War, and it made an abstract statement that spoke to the specific fears of the public. If corporations have harnessed this method to misrepresent products and play on anxieties and stereotypes, I don't think it's Mr. Schwartz's fault.

Onslaught, I feel, renews Schwartz's productive use of mass media. On the most superficial level, we're shown an intimate portrait of a child, and then our gaze is reversed and cast upon the dangers that confront her. There's no mention, textually or audibly, of sex, objectification, or feminism, but with the juxtaposition Dove presents, viewers realize that they know this imagery is dangerous and offensive. Try to explain it and you get lost in the words. Show it, out of context, in a river of sensory overload, and we're forced to confront it and deal with our own innate response.

And when these things converge -- the abstract, oblique theories (feminism, psychoanalysis, media critique) and the gut reactions (the intuitive revulsion and anxiety that Dove elicits) -- when these yield the same result, I'm disposed to believe it: that the beauty industry, with its fashion and cosmetic culture, is an ideological payload being dropped that needs to be diffused and neutralized.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Petraeus or Betray Us? A Subtle and Compelling Question

Lordy, I've done so much STUFF since I last wrote in here. I've seen four movies in theaters, started two novels, started and finished a graphic novel, and I've started writing some criticism for PopPolitics. The four movies were 3:10 to Yuma, King of Kong, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Eastern Promises. The novel I'm focused on is Spook Country, by William Gibson, and I'm looking forward to the train ride tomorrow morning, when I'll be reading it again. The graphic novel was The Nightly News, which was intense and comes recommended.

Sometime during this whirlwind of consumption, something political came to my attention: MoveOn.org ran a muckraking ad about General Patraeus, the commander of the Iraqi freedom defense military security awesome force (IFDMSAF). The ad makes a clever pun ("Patraeus or Betray Us?") to hook readers and put knots in conservative jock-straps, and then it basically argues that Patraeus is misrepresenting the facts to keep the IFDMSAF in Iraq.

Obviously, there's been an overwhelming media response, including the requisite posturing by editorial columnists and tweaking out by bloggers. I'm about a week late, but I think I should add my own pinch of salt to this heaping portion of mystery meat.

Here's the deal: the ad was aggressive, a very visible expenditure of the vast resources MoveOn has accumulated. Maybe it got into some peoples' heads. Maybe it just provided an easy target for conservative nay-sayers to take shots at. But seriously, "Betray Us"? What a juicy prompt for a slathering partisan frenzy of affirmation and condemnation. It takes a real message - the question about honesty and misplaced loyalty - and turns it into a bloody battle over propriety and respect, which are sort of the little bags of candy that manipulative people use to keep us distracted while the big people play.

All they had to do was put some more effort into the initial presentation. It's possible to get people engaged in a question without bludgeoning them with a rhetorical golf club. Get people interested BEFORE you make them angry... pull them into the facts before they have a chance to flatly reject your politics.

I think, in service of this goal, MoveOn needs to recruit some people from AdBusters. These guys are as radical and confrontation as you can get, but they always know how to frame an idea in a way that makes it striking and unfamiliar. I mean, AdBusters is pretty much pinned as a leftist radical organization, but if you decontextualize their work, you can see that it's interesting and intense before it's partisan. Unfortunately, their primary forum is a niche magazine that sells for impractical amounts of money.

AdBusters could frame an ad in such a way that it got attention, though, and they could definitely use their 1337 design sk1llz to drag some conservative cheerleaders into a serious, thoughtful argument. AdBusters knows how to disguise their arguments until it's just the right time for them to come out... MoveOn could use a lesson in that regard. In return, MoveOn could contribute their massive piles of Internet-generated wealth to distributing AdBusters' radical but carefully-articulated ideas, injected into the brains of the masses like heroin being forced on a helpless child by an insane homeless person.

The networkers, the designers, and the public, hungry for brain-food... sounds like a ménage à trois made in heaven, my friends. It's time to get on top of this.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Metroid, Feminism, and a Bunch of Other Stuff

As promised, I'm going to continue with the "Feminintendo" train of thought and talk a little about Metroid. As I discussed this idea with some friends, one of them brought up a good comparison to a certain series of movies, which I'll get to in a second. First off, though, why does Metroid warrant a little criticism?

Metroid is arguably one of, if not THE first video game to enact progressive gender politics. Samus Aran is an amazing character, the type almost unheard of in ANY media, much less in video games, which (according to my best buddy Roger Ebert) are deeply inferior to film. Samus, the main character of Metroid, a bounty hunter hired by the Galactic Federation, started the series as a rare example of a female without even a trace of femininity. In fact, the 80's Nintendo player didn't know Samus was a female until they beat the original Metroid.

Sean Bouchard points this out in his article "Beyond Good and Evil as a cultural critique," and he takes some issue with it:
"Although Metroid can be viewed as a cultural critique in that it puts a woman in a role typically reserved exclusively for men (indeed, in its day it was hailed as a great step forward), it does Samus a disservice by stripping her of all feminine characteristics. The message, in fact, is not that women can be as strong and powerful as men, but that in order to be strong or powerful a woman must become like a man."
I understand the postmodern feminism perspective here, I really do, but let's give some credit. Metroid was working within a subculture of violence and hero worship, the interactive equivalent to classic sci-fi, and first and foremost, Samus managed to do something critical: she represented the player (presumably a male, based on the demographic) through a whole game, and then pulled an acute identity reversal on them, right at the end. There were probably some kids out there who gained a new respect for the role of gender in their fantasy world, whether consciously or not. And by-and-by, I'd LOVE to see a fantasy or sci-fi novel that placed a female in a male role in such an uncompromising manner as Samus. The supposedly infantile video game industry took a shot at this gender hurdle when sci-fi writing was still in the throes of machismo cyberpunk plotting.

So Samus turned the gamer's ideas of the male hero upside-down by taking on a fully masculine role. Still, she couldn't escape the gender issues that tend to come as a subtext to storytelling. Even in the original game, Samus was pitted against "Mother Brain," a bizarre alien enemy that, for some reason, was gendered as a female. In a way, it seems that the whole game was a play of gender reversals... girl-on-girl action, 100%.

Since then, Samus has continued to be the badass we need to defend us against Metroids, but motherhood issues keep following her around. [METROID spoiler warning] In Metroid II, released for old-school Game Boy, Samus destroys the entire species of Metroids, except for one egg, which she witnesses hatching. The newborn Metroid assumes Samus is its mother and helps her escape the dying planet; this Metroid reappears in Super Metroid, the next installment of the series, and continues treating Samus as a parent. [end spoiler] Samus herself never buys in or relinquishes her bounty hunter role, but the Metroid's attachment reminds us that even a genderless warrior can be called upon to fill a nurturing role.

The original Metroid was released in August 1986, just a month after another media phenomenon hit the United States. This phenomenon was Aliens, sequel to the 1979 feature Alien, and according to some sources, this original movie provided Metroid with some of its inspiration. That point aside, there are some undeniable parallels between Ripley and Samus, in particular their shared Female Warrior archetype. Ripley, like Samus, is removed from her gender characteristics, so much that she seems strangely genderless; in Aliens, Ripley, like Samus, is confronting a terrifying counterpart to the Mother figure, the Alien Queen. Eventually, in Alien 3, Ripley reaches the same point that Samus reached in Super Metroid: she is the tentative mother figure to the alien itself, the eternal enemy.

Alien: Resurrection was so weird and discontinuous that I don't really want to discuss it here, but yes, it definitely deals with some motherhood issues. I'll say it again: issues.

I think, based on some of these observations, we can make some connections between Nintendo's characters and feminism at large. We discussed Zelda in the previous post, pointing out that she retains her femininity and "wisdom"-bearing role, even as she becomes a stronger, more confrontational character. In this role, she is the Feminine Mystique, the woman struggling to negotiate power while respecting her feminine identity. In Zelda, femaleness is interrogated and politicized, but it remains feminine at the core.

Samus Aran is different. Samus has kept the sex, but she's discarded the gender... a female who isn't feminine, even as she's chased around by specters of motherhood. In terms of feminist theory, she's the Cyborg Manifesto, the tract by Donna Haraway that advocates for the complete collapse and reconstruction of gender identity. The femininity that remains in play with Zelda is rendered meaningless in Samus, because she chooses to take on a man's role... and if her technology allows her to do that, what it is that makes it a man's role any more? In Samus's world, and perhaps in our own future, masculinity and femininity are mixed in such a stew that it doesn't make much sense to set them apart any more.

There are levels of meaning to video games that belie the youth and charisma of the medium, and they make it a prospect for a new great social forum. By bringing these issues to light, I work toward the critical goal of justifying twelve straight hours on my goddamn couch.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Zelda as Feminist Icon

I'm trying to finish up Twilight Princess so I can get more involved in Bioshock and, eventually, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. My gaming list is starting to look like my reading list. Both Zelda and Bioshock have gotten me thinking, though... transhumanism, referentiality, world-building, storytelling, the aesthetic possibilities of the medium. And just as Bioshock is going a long way towards proving the versatility and intelligence of the medium, Zelda has made its own contributions to culture, too.

Though the series' protagonist is really Link, the brave young fool you tend to control, the series gravitates around Zelda, the princess who's always the motivating factor, a critical element behind the scenes of the game. The disconnected continuity of the series has given her the opportunity to play a lot of roles... after all, every Hyrule is essentially a different universe, built on different rules and assumptions than the previous incarnations, but they all deal with three iconic characters--Zelda, Link, and Ganon--representing three fundamental forces--wisdom, courage, and power--the three parts of the triforce. Each Hyrule, and each great adventure, is a reincarnation of these themes, instantiated in these characters.

Link and Ganon have become more complex over the course of the series, but their roles haven't changed on an essential level. Link has always been a warrior-adventurer, representing the possibilities of the growth of spirit, struggling to resolve Hyrule's troubles and liberating its constituent kingdoms in the process. Ganon has always been the destructive element, breaking down the balance in the kingdom and precipitating its fall into chaos. Link versus Gannon, the eternal struggle, with Zelda always lingering, doing... what... ?

Well, in the beginning of the series, Zelda is a fairy-tale figure, usually a victim or a captive of Ganon. Her soul is the soul of Hyrule, and when Link saves Zelda, he is also saving Hyrule from collapse and ruin. In Zelda II, you start the game in a mythical castle chamber with Zelda behind you, sleeping the slumber of death. In Zelda: A Link to the Past, the Super Nintendo entry into the series, Zelda is a guide and an icon, but she still requires the rescue of the hero. Wisdom (in this case, a feminine attribute, represented by Zelda) may be the key to control of the kingdom, but the struggle to win it (her) is still between the aggressors, the forces of noble Courage and destructive Power.

It's a powerful metaphor, and it will undergo some serious reconstruction.

Zelda's true feminist evolution occurs in Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This game, the N64 entry in the series, is still considered one of the greatest in the Zelda cycle, and one of the greatest adventure video games. Aside from the transition into 3D, Zelda performs her own form of transcendence: she becomes an ally of Link's, a warrior instead of a victim or a prize, a champion of her kingdom. She appears as what appears to be a ninja, though she acts as more of a spiritualist; her guidance and the power implied by her abilities and her secrecy signal a profound change in her character.

Since Ocarina, Zelda's role has been permanently changed. In Windwaker, the Zelda game for the GameCube, Zelda appears [censored censored spoilers censored]. In Twilight Princess, she is a sage trapped in Hyrule Castle, a force that antagonist Zant keeps imprisoned in order to control Hyrule; you respond to her call, and in a series of critical cut-scenes, she proves that only her power can keep Link safe on his quest.

Zelda's new status as a potent ally changes the nature of the Triforce metaphor, as well... it becomes a metaphor for control and autonomy, with Power as the unstable attractor and Wisdom and Courage working together as its counterpoint. The metaphor rings true: great power in the hands of an authority is dangerous and unstable, and without reason and virtue binding it, it tends to spiral out of control.

Consider that through all this, Zelda keeps a gender identity. She's consistently the only non-violent aspect of the triforce, and even at her most powerful, she keeps sort of a "Queen Mother" role as protector of her kingdom. Through her, Nintendo has been exploring the level of power they can attribute to their feminine archetype: how is she as a child? Can she be a violent character? How does it play out when her character becomes the rescuer, rather than the victim? Whether this is for better or for worse... whether Zelda is an emblem or a stereotype... isn't for me to decide right now. But she's still representing a feminine force.

This is worth contrasting with Samus's role in Metroid, which more or less turns masculinity and femininity inside-out. I think Samus may become the subject of another blog post coming in the near future.

At any rate, I'm eager to see where Zelda goes, as a character and as a series, and Jesus, I need to finish Twilight Princess. Argorok, here I come.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hipsters II: Operation NewYorki Freedom

Okay, so having articulated a theory on the non-presence of the hipster, I had to go back and tackle the Time Out article written with the hipster as its target. I don't feel the need to argue with it point-for-point, of course... the thing is more of a literary rant, rather than any kind of scholarship or journalism. Still, in terms of cultural mindsets, rants are some of the most illuminating documents available. This is especially true when they're published in high-profile rags associated with my very own city.

The very nature of the Time Out article is our first clue into the pathology of the hipster. Time Out is declaring a "War on the Hipster," and it goes on to describe the hipster in detail, and to create an interesting taxonomy: the Sweet and the Vicious. This seems to correspond to two commonly-cited hipster characteristics. The Sweet is the effeminate, academic, fumbling hipster who wears the "nerd" badge, however ironically. In The Sweet, Irony manifests as self-deprecation and self-consciousness. The Vicious is the snarky, rude hipster for whom rebellion and irony collide and create a raw, rather unpalatable postmodern salad.

This typology, painted in broad strokes, cradled in a long rhetorical passage filled with references that are supposed to prompt an eye-roll, doesn't really illuminate the character of the hipster. Christian Lorentzen points at a bank of fog and tells us to disapprove of it, even as he gives us a positive portrayal of certain jazz musicians and local personalities as the true representatives of "New York Cool." In this way, he establishes what amounts to an imaginary "other" a la Simeone de Beauvoir. Discrediting the imaginary hipster is a roundabout device for reaffirming Lorentzen's own credibility, and the credibility of the readers who rabidly agree with him. "The War on Hipsters."

Sounds to me like a pop-cultural War on Terrorism. Where are they? We must squash them, but where do we find them? How do we tell them apart from our noble brothers and sisters?

This second part becomes especially difficult when you read the meta-language of Lorentzen's article. He cites more names, bands, bars, and references than I could possibly come up with. Take his first paragraph:

"Has the hipster killed cool in New York? Did it die the day Wes Anderson proved too precious for his own good, or was it when Chloë Sevigny fellated Vincent Gallo onscreen? Did it vanish along with Kokie’s, International Bar and Tonic? Or when McSweeney’s moved shop to San Francisco and Bright Eyes signed a lease on the Lower East Side? Was it possible to be a hipster once a band that played Northsix one night was heard the next day on NPR’s Weekend Edition? Did it hurt to have American Apparel marketing soft-porn style to young bankers? Was something lost the day Ecstasy made the cover of the Times Magazine? Or was it the day Bloomberg banned smoking in bars? And how many times an hour could one check e-mail and still have an honest, or even ironic, claim on being cool?"

For a man who condemns the hipster, he certainly seems conscious of their cultural habits and obsessions. Is he a hipster field-anthropologist? Does he venture into the trees with the hipster, grooming it under its porkpie and eating the ironic bugs he discovers? Nay, indeed. Christian is up on the scene in New York, and he seems to appeal to a strikingly similar demographic. Jesus Christ, just look: his article is illustrated with a retro shirt that says "The Hipster Must Die." There's no escaping the tropes.

And this is the other indication that the hipster is a bugaboo par excellance. When people create adversaries to condemn, they're often modeling them after themselves. The psychological term is projection, I think. Most people who condemn hipsters are, in fact, doing so because it's a rather hip thing to do right now. The most culturally-elite are inventing a group of people who are even more culturally elite, and they're making that invented group an enemy.

Lorentzen mentions the term "narcissism"... the hipster's unreserved love for itself, to the point where it interferes with its life and relationships. He fails to bridge the jump between hipsters as a clique and the general culture that's so quick to blame them. In this case, narcissism has reversed into its compliment, which hipster-haters everywhere are turning into an art form: self-hatred.

That's it for my discussion of this topic... the cultural implications and psychological elements are widespread and worth observing under glass, but I can't fix it by blogging about it. I just have to let it run its course.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Free Culture: Lessig and Frozen Yogurt

It's hard to find an authentic example of irony in pseudoironic postmodern culture, but this might be it. The other day, I was on the train when I saw a familiar type treatment on the back of a newspaper (and in this case, by type treatment, I mean both the words themselves and the way in which they were designed). It said "Free Culture," which is the name of a book I really liked by Lawrence Lessig.

The book is about creating a free environment for art and innovation, and it sketches a very convincing argument about the dangers of runaway copyright law. It's a refreshingly non-partisan take on the subject, and the discussion is rooted heavily in the realm of fact, history, and measured argument. Lessig argues that within any media environment, innovation has to feed off itself, and if intellectual property laws are too strictly enforced, the society will become closed and stagnant, and growth will be discouraged.

It was a great book, but I never expected to see it in a full-page ad on a daily newspaper. I took a closer look to figure out what was going on. Turns out it was an ad for Bloomingdales' free carrot frozen yogurt giveaway. The arrangement of the text isn't quite the same (the ad headline is on two lines), but both are in all caps, and they're in a similar, highly geometrical, sans-serif font. More importantly, it's the SAME PHRASE.

My intention here is not to cry plagiarism. Jesus, plagiarism wouldn't even make sense... there's no way for Bloomingdales to profit off a reference to Lessig's book. Outside the academic/economist/technologist circle, this book isn't exactly a world-renown piece of literature, and I doubt it's a demographic that Boomingdales is targeting right now. Oddly, the ad heading doesn't make a whole lot of sense on its own. "Free Culture" is a little too awkward a phrase to be useful if it's only being taken totally literally. So whether or not you assume their innocence, the advertisement doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense.

My assumption is that some designer saw Lessig's book on a shelf, or had read it a while ago, and they had the phrase "Free Culture" lingering in their head. I've seen it happen... a designer, writer, artist, marketer, etc. assumes they're pulling a line from their imagination, but they're actually peeling it directly from something they've seen or read recently. I've done it myself, in fact.

Of course, there's the irony that a phrase got pulled directly from a book whose mission is to allow appropriation to happen. It's a little fragment of postmodern poetry.

But there's also the little bit of insight here: Bloomingdales has proven Lessig's point, that media feeds on itself, and it only works because there's a rich, sometimes overwhelming space to draw from. Who know... maybe Lessig has helped Bloomingdales to sell some frozen yogurt? If so, I'd like to think he approves.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Invisible Hipster: my futile search for a scapegoat

I've had a theory for a while, and it's generally unpopular... I'm almost the only one who holds it. Of course, popularity is not correlated with validity AT ALL (sometimes quite the opposite), but still, if you advance an unpopular theory, you should be sure you have something compelling to offer the opposition. So this is the first time this one's coming out.

This theory has to do with the general angst and disapproval of "hipsters" in popular culture. It's pretty ubiquitous at this point... "Fuckin' hipsters" is an alarm sounded all over New York, the Lower East Side, and (I assume) everywhere else. It's a stigma that can be applied to neighborhoods (Williamsburg), beers (PBR), articles of clothing (pork pies), filmmakers (Wes Anderson), musicians (Connor Oberst), and people (that dude who lives in the apartment above you). They get so much bad press, you'd they were EVERYWHERE, a plague of locusts on our Manhattan avenues. There are some powerful voices attacking the Hipster... Nothing Nice to Say, a generally amazing punk comic, has run a number of strips whose target was the Minneapolis hipster. More notably, Time Out New York just ran an article called "The Hipster Must Die."

But where are they? I can't fucking find them. I occasionally see a dude in a fedora, or a girl in eccentric post-hippie attire, or someone drinking a PBR, but none of them seem like the shallow bad-faith revolutionaries that are such a bugaboo of modern media. For a while, I figured they were specifically a plague on the streets of Willyburg and Minneapolis, and that I wasn't seeing them because I just wasn't in the right place.

But then, one day, someone called ME a hipster. Normally, I'd have just laughed and said, "Oh yeah, you bastard? YOU'RE the hipster, I'm just a kid who lives in Brooklyn" (kind of like in an article in The Onion). But instead I made the mistake of looking at my own life and tastes and noticing that I share a range of attributes with the stereotype. I genuinely like Wes Anderson, and I like bullshitting about Postmodern film. I have a philosophy degree. I like Bright Eyes. I used to be a punk, and now I listen to The Postal Service and Ted Leo (among many other things). Despite the reassurances of my friends ("hipsters are out there, but you're totally not a hipster!") I started to dwell on it: what's a hipster? Did I have the necessary or sufficient characteristics? Who is it I'm supposed to be differentiating myself from?

Hence my theory arose: there's no such thing as a "hipster." The hipster is an assemblage of half-hearted characterizations, designed as a sort of cultural "folk devil." These are characteristics that are benign, taken individually. Drink PBR? What's the problem? Listen to indie rock, talk about the politics of the bands? You may be a music snob, but who cares? Live in Williamsburg? Sure, it's a growing neighborhood. If you're a friend of mine, you can fit three, four, five of these characteristics and not be a hipster, cause it's all in good faith. But if I don't like you, and you exhibit even ONE of these qualifications, you're a damn hipster. I hate you people.

This "cultural folk devil" concept (which I am currently coining as a variation of the classic "folk devil") is actually fairly common. There are always large groups who have been stigmatized and blamed for culture's problems, from Jews to Teenagers to Fags. These days, this kind of stigmatization has gone from "evil" to "annoying"... we tend to label concepts as stupid, bothersome, played-out, and obnoxious. Admittedly, it's a step up, but it's still a bad social habit. Some of the cultural folk devils stigmatized in recent times have been "sXe (straight-edge)," "emo," "postmodernism," and "chavs." It's up for debate whether each of these deserves its widespread ire. However, all of these ideas and subcultures have at least existed on some level.

I repeat: the hipster doesn't exist. It's an imaginary scapegoat, a convenient target for our disapproval and ridicule. I know this because I've looked for a definition that was worthy of my own distrust, and I've found nothing of the kind. It's sort of a cultural stereotype, so my main avenue has been asking friends, but none of them seemed to have a good definition for me. Finally, looking for something comprehensive, if not exactly "precise," I consulted Wikipedia. Even if it's rarely well-written or accurate, it's at least a good representation of generally-held cultural beliefs on certain topics.

The article on hipster is here.

As you can see, there's NOTHING to go on. There's a vague mention of PBR, and a reference to metrosexuality, but there's really nothing else to reference.

Okay, wait, there's one thing... irony. And in a way, that redeems the definition. If a hipster is someone who adopts an aesthetic with no intention of buying into it or taking it seriously, then I can understand some of the pan-cultural ire they earn. Maybe that's what everybody is talking about? Williamsburg is a neighborhood where people tend to be ironic? PBR is an insincere choice for a favorite beer? Wes Anderson is an ironic filmmaker?

The definition has slipped through our fingers, folks. Even if Wes Anderson is ironic, or people tend to like Wolfmother just for the novelty value of self-deprecation, there's no worthy link between the far-flung accusations and the core complaint. Irony is too hard to pin down, and it's been used effectively in too much art, literature, and music for it to really make sense at the center of a stereotype. So we pile on these auxiliary characteristics, and build ourselves a specter that amounts to nothing.

If you want to make a stand against a culture of irony and excessive bad taste, then assert your own good taste. Become a fashion designer, play the ukulele, write for BlogCritics. Make a positive statement about what's awesome, whether you're speaking with your tongue in your cheek (hipster-style) or you're buying into it 100% (traditional nerd style). It's a worthy cause. Stop distracting yourself with random catharsis, dumped on a scapegoat represented by a term you can sling, but can't really define. No sterotype apparitions need to die for culture to be reborn. We just have to fucking DO IT.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Stardust and Beowulf: Gaiman infiltrates Hollywood

What happens when two fads converge on Hollywood and form an unholy union? What sort of devilry is spawned, and is it bliss, or is it a crime against the universe? I think there's a test case running right now, and I've damn excited to see where it goes.

The test subjects?

First, a recent preoccupation with comic book movies, leading from the first X-Men and Spiderman movies, through Sin City and Hellboy (the comic book heavyweights) to The Fantastic Four, The Punisher, two adjacent Hulk movies, 300, some more existential entries like A History of Violence, and various millions of secondary adaptations.

Second, a sudden interest in adaptations of traditional fantasy novels, starting with Lord of the Rings and continuing ad nauseam: Eragon (not a personal favorite), Narnia, The Golden Compass (forthcoming), Troy, and the whole massive run of Harry Potter adaptations. Some of these adaptations are impressive; some are inexcusable. I won't spend too much time passing judgment on them.

At last united, in the glorious manifestation of... what what? Neil Gaiman becoming a Hollywood personality.

He wasn't entirely off the radar before his recent Hollywood offerings... Gaiman was behind Mirrormask, which I have yet to see, and he was instrumental in creating one of the most well-endowed mythological anime films ever to hit the big screen. However, it's Stardust and Beowulf that will prove Gaiman's worth on the big screen. The first was just recently released... the second is lingering on deck, with trailers sneaking into public consciousness.

Gaiman is a brilliant storyteller, worthy of his fans' reverence. He's a novelist who has made his name in graphic novels. He did honor to the role of the traditional novelist in American Gods, Anansi Boys, and Neverwhere, and he gained his renown with Sandman, a graphic novel cycle that proved the medium could be beautiful and epic. Stardust was a novel that was published in an illustrated edition... almost a graphic novel, but not quite. It provided a space for the collision of the graphic novel and the traditional fantasy story, and now, it's provided a space for the collision of popular fantasy and comic book movies.

As such, I'm surprised at how little press the movie got, and I'm thoroughly impressed with how well-done it was. There's always a lingering fear about adaptations... will it honor the original, or will it take a good seed and bear an ugly, mushy, decrepit harvest of fruit? Here, I'm going to articulate a mini-review of Stardust, just as a way of backing up my opinion that the movie was worthy of the storyteller's name.

Stardust isn't an epic of war and romance... it had no pretension to being another Lord of the Rings or Matrix. It has less in common with high fantasy than it does with the fairy tale -- a focus on characters playing out personal adventures within a larger speculative and moral space. The film continued in this tradition, which was so immanent in the novel. The dialogue was smart, but not cumbersome, and no over-the-top drama was forced upon the story to make it marketable. Even the high-minded themes... fratricide in pursuit of kingship, the struggle to fit a role where you don't feel at home... were rendered personal and sympathetic. Thus, the actual fantasy drama, with its requisite love, evil, and violence, was palatable, even as a normal-length movie.

Thus, a successful experiment. Neil Gaiman wins round one.

The next round is going to be Beowulf, for which Gaiman wrote the screenplay, and it'll be more tricky. The story of Beowulf is difficult to adapt, because it's such an historical landmark in literature. It's a tale rooted in poetic language and a lost culture, so the acceptance rate for a visualization is going to be low. Both Beowulf and Grendel are such icons that any depiction of them may strike an audience as anti-climactic.

I was thoroughly skeptical when I saw the trailer, but I've gained some enthusiasm. I think that casting Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother is an excellent decision, and it shows Gaiman's skill in handling heavy material. He uses his power as a storyteller, and he refashions a few specific ideas in order to make it his own, turning Grendel's mother temporarily from a rampaging beast into a beautiful temptress. This is something that Peter Jackson never really did with Lord of the Rings -- his Lord of the Rings was obsessively oriented around reproducing Tolkien's vision as faithfully as possible. He did an amazing job. I think the story of Beowulf is so big, however, that Gaiman can never hope to do what Jackson did with Middle-Earth. Instead, he has to do what he's already started to do: he has to personalize the story, and in a sense, distance himself from it.

Despite my best intentions, I am in fact looking forward to Beowulf. Gaiman is a powerful force, a champion of literature in both its historical and its emergent incarnations. He's already proven that his storytelling skills work across media... now I want to see what he can do with Beowulf, an almost impossible adaptation.

By the way, for the other brilliant reconstruction of the Beowulf myth, read Gardner's Grendel. It's quite an experience.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Simpsons Movie: a film and a history

The Simpsons Movie was worth my time and money, and I recommend you all see it... you can find all that stuff in my review of the film over on BlogCritics. Here on Benefit Of The Doubt, I'm going to give you a little more developed, less opinionated view of the film, and how it relates to what has become a legacy of FOX and Matt Groening.

I loved the movie, and I have to say, it wasn't because it was ground-breaking. That's a positive spin on a hard truth, which is sort of what this blog is about: looking at media artifacts in terms of what they did well, and what they claim to do. The Simpsons Movie never really claimed to be revolutionary, and thankfully so; if anything, it came across as reminiscence, albeit some of the most entertaining reminiscence this cycle.

If you thought too hard, you might have been a little annoyed by some of the derivation the movie leaned on. In particular, none of the conflicts were anything new... Marge has spent a number of episodes resolving her issues with her marriage to Homer (like 7F20 and 7G11), and Bart has spent a number of episodes struggling against Homer's bad parenting (like 9F12). Lisa's unlikely romance was taken from a cluster of episodes, as well, down to the fact that her potential boyfriend has a cool UK accent (as per episode 2F15).

Whether or not to expect a fresh plot is up to the viewer, and for most, the recycling game won't wreck the film. Those who are looking for some emotional satisfaction will find a dramatic rise and fall in the movie, even if it's on a track they've traveled before. These conflicts are just the first of a few ways in which The Simpsons Movie was a retrospective on the series.

The second, and most salient, form of nostalgia inherent in The Simpsons Movie was the range of humor the writers tapped. There are fundamentally different styles of humor characteristic of every Simpsons era... the first season was rude slapstick and awkward anecdotes, mostly in the context of the characters' everyday lives as a one-dimensional dysfunctional family. The heyday of the Simpsons, seasons two or three through eight or nine, were centered around constant clever lines, observations, and breakdowns in expectation, delivered with perfect pacing. These episodes were the marathon of characterization that have delivered a fully-formed family and community to the viewers. After these golden years, the Simpsons began slipping into ridiculous antics and non-sequitors, only a few of which still had the wit of the earlier stretch.

The Simpsons Movie managed to tap almost every style of humor described above, and it made them all work in their unique ways. From goofy politics (a depiction of a new President, or the gay cops a la episode 4F11) to absurd, repetitive slapstick (the familiar Wrecking Ball scene) to brilliant revelations of character and relationship (virtually every line written for Grandpa and Mr. Burns), we can find examples of humor from every age of our favorite animated series. As I mentioned in my review, this kind of reference wasn't a drawback or an annoyance... it was a prompt to set our minds wandering over a whole history of awesome Simpsons memories.

There's one other element to the intense "nostalgia factor" engendered by The Simpsons Movie. This film, at the tail end of this franchise, generated some of the more interesting promotion I've seen in recent years, and definitely some of the most ubiquitous. From the 7-Elevens recreated as Kwik-E-Marts to the site Simpsonize Me to the endless barrage of commercials, billboards, and images on television, it seems we've been flooded with images of Groening's brainchild baby. You might see this as tragically obnoxious, an insult to the series. But (with Dom's help, I must admit) I've gotten past this.

After all, there was once a time when The Simpsons had to be on EVERYTHING, from t-shirts to cereal boxes to candy bars. Viewers probably remember this time well, and without a hint of disapproval. After all, we thought those shirts were FUNNY, dammit. But nature took its course: along with the decline in viewership, there was a steady decline in ubiquitous merchandising in recent years. If you were a fan of the show, I don't think you rejoiced to see it all disappear... you may have even started to miss it. And now, the movie has brought back that shameless saturation of Simpsons stuff. This is what it was like in '96... everywhere you looked, that recognizable family of silhouettes. It makes me proud to remember the good ol' days.

And that recollection is what makes The Simpsons Movie so strong... it's a window into a beautiful history of smart humor and adventurous writing, a tribute to a permanent fixture in American consciousness. As a retrospective, a mirror and a map of the series and its philosophy, this movie is a resounding success. In a way, it makes me want to get back into the series.

And in a way, I guess, it makes me want the series to end.