Friday, June 22, 2007

Celebrity Women: Helplessness in a Jar

Via PopPolitics, I discovered a fascinating look at images of beauty and weakness. It's written by Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth. The basic idea is that our current celebrity trash culture is obsessing with women who are helpless and falling apart, like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, rather than paying any attention to the many women who are successful in their personal and professional lives. Wolf points out that this is part of a historical mass-media trend... depicting and idolizing the frail, wilting women who vindicate the men who get to handle them "delicately."

This is an important cultural trend to note, and I'm not going to argue that it's outright inaccurate. We DO see a lot of fucked-up women on screen, and a lot of them come complete with a "perfect life" celebrity archetype: Paris the spoiled playgirl, Britney the suddenly-successful teenager falling prey to the world of stardom. I DO wish we'd see more powerful women in entertainment media, praised and exalted for their strength and femininity.

However, Wolf forgets some important nuances that differentiate the classical "fragile beauty" ideal from the real-world sensibilities she's critiquing. We see Britney and Paris and Anna Nicole very differently than we see Marilyn, or than 19th century artists saw their figures. Back then, it was a privilege for women to be frail, and a mark of status for a man to protect someone sickly and helpless. They were genuine glass trophies, good for fretting, gossiping, and watching over the household.

Today there's a different spirit in the postmodern air. Nowadays, instead of idolizing the culture of helplessness, we shake our heads at it to distance ourselves from it. Anna Nicole wasn't beautiful because she was nuts... she was a comedy act. She was the big Other, the person we watched voyeuristically to escape from our own perfectly reasonable lives. Okay, so it's not portraying women in a good light, per se... but I think at least we're conscious of the excessiveness, the exceptional nature of these absurd celebrity specimens.

And it's not just women who inspire this kind of voyeurism, either. We put the same bubble of amusement around Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Ozzy Osbourne, and more recently David Hasselhoff... we love them, but mostly because they're comically surreal, and because our lives look nothing like theirs. Further, there have, in fact, been reality television shows where dozens of humorously-demeanored men had to crawl all over one another for the favor of the female character. You've seen I Love New York... don't try to deny it. The bottom line: I don't know if we can expect a realistic, intelligent portrayal of a female OR of a male on mainstream television.

If you really want to get a look at the social outlook on women, look at the actual social world, where outlooks are played out. Dating habits have very little relationship to these cultural obsessions with mania and frailty. In the world of everyday romance, women aren't held on pedestals because they're a burden, or because they need to be protected. We call that "high maintenance," and the vast majority of us look down on it. The same goes for men... Tom Cruise may be a heart-throb for a lot of women, but that fan club has gotten MUCH smaller since he started preaching the Word of Hubbard, and I don't think many women are saying, "He's been so HOT since he went crazy!" Normal men (and women) would have the same problem: crazy, unbalanced, and mania-prone aren't compliments.

But still, we can appreciate the occasional celebrity public humiliation and self-destruction, because they're behind glass (i.e. a television screen). They're the spastic, convulsing rejects of our collective self-image. Amusing specimens. Don't give them too much more credit than that.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Street Fighter II is still King

My roommate just drew my attention to this remarkably simple video, featuring a fully stationary female guitarist rocking a song from one of my favorite games of all time, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior:

She's pretty awesome. This is what glam-riff guitar rock was made for, and she does it right... standing still, not giving us anything but that gorgeous post-disco soundtrack riff from the American Military Base in all our 14-year-old imaginations. At that age, I could beat my Super Nintendo version with Guile, Chun-Li, Ryu, Ken, and Blanka, and along with a couple other exceptional games, it was one of the only ones I could play over and over and over again. SF II deserves every homage made for it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sir Patrick Moore presents: The Ancient History of Social Standards

There are so many funny ways for politics and pop culture to intersect. Benefit of the Doubt makes an essential assumption that a lot of them are good... whether it's literature referenced in movies, or memes with powerful aesthetic concerns, or theorists who celebrate the growth of popular culture, we can all find the positive momentum in entertainment media, as long as we're willing to look.

But every so often, we find an exception. Enter Sir Patrick Moore, 84-year old British TV host of The Sky at Night, which I'm not ashamed to say I've never even heard of. Apparently he's got a lot of pop culture clout in pop science and science-fiction communities. However he got that capital, built up over a long career in television, he just spent a bunch of it... more, in fact, than he ever built up, at least with this viewer.

Sir Patrick Moore has decreed (yes, I'll just come out and say it) that women have made television suck. WOAH! With both Hollywood and academia wholeheartedly supporting progressive causes, I don't think any of us expected to see a pop intellectual regurgitate such an outdated conservative viewpoint! He said some lovely stuff, like:

"The trouble is the BBC now is run by women and it shows soap operas, cooking, quizzes, kitchen-sink plays. You wouldn't have had that in the golden days."


"I used to watch Doctor Who and Star Trek, but they went PC - making women commanders, that kind of thing. I stopped watching."

HA! Wow! It's been a long time since I've heard such a straightforward illustration of gender essentialism. Mr. Moore, aren't you supposed to be up on new developments? Like, the developments that have occurred in the last century? The "golden age" of television supported an outdated status quo, it was full of cultural biases and homosexual tension, and it exhibited a social awareness befitting a well-trained monkey. Television has been getting smarter, more aware, and more complex ever since the "golden age."

Unfortunately, Mr. Moore represents a discouraging trend, especially in his discussion of science fiction. Alongside the profoundly intelligent, gender-aware science fiction of authors like Ursula LeGuinn, Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler, there's an old-boys club of authors whose work I generally haven't read... people like Larry Niven... whose characters are flat and one-dimensional, and whose gender and relationship paradigms read like testosterone fantasies. Male character saves helpless females from rape, male character has sex with multiple women during debaucherous youth, male character eventually grows up and accepts ideal female who obediently falls madly in love with him. Some mass-market authors' work comes across as clinical and sloppy when it comes to emotional dynamics. Sir Patrick Moore's public statements have a similar sloppy regressiveness to them, and it's unfortunate.

Luckily, we can see the wheels of social progress turning, even now. Apparently, according to some spokesman for the BBC, Sir Patrick's "forthright" views are "what we all love about him". Maybe it's just me, but I can't help chuckle at that phrasing... forthright views? It's what we all love about him? Those words sound equivalent to "quaint" and "nostalgic." Sounds to me like Mr. Moore is being tolerated, but quarantined.

And that's what's going to happen to regressives in a progressive society. Sir Patrick Moore has just officially dated himself to irrelevance... he'll continue to be honored, to appear in history books and tribute specials, and maybe he'll be impersonated or modeled on some referential television show, but his "forthright" views on women, who make up a huge part of both the critical community and the consumer demographic, will get him chuckled at. He's managed to go from respected thought-leader to strange cultural artifact, the entertainment equivalent of an antique.

Thanks to RT for heads-up on this story. Even now, I'm recognizing that there's a lot more to be written about women in science fiction, and about the strange relationship within that community between progressive (read: sensitive, intelligent) and regressive (read: sloppy, masculocentric) strains of thought, but that discussion will have to wait until another day.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

SPECIAL REPORT: Follow-Up on Literature: Suspicious links to video games?

Literature linked to more dangerous behavior for your children. Brutally maladjusted past-time of “playing video computer games” has long been recognized as one of predominant social ills among youngens. However, recent research at miksimum has linked this scourge to the older, more ubiquitous execration of LITERATURE, first profiled in our most recent post. Our sources have linked literature to dangerous video games like WoW (acronym for World of Warcraft, unrelated to the diarrhea-causing potato chips), which is rife with themes and references to “classics” like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d'Arthur (a French title, no less! Pfffttt!). These kindred rituals share with video games more than the merely cosmetic devices of “swords,” “goblins,” “magic” and “epic romance”… they’re linked to insidious patterns that have plagued the youth for generations, including “getting lost for hours in a vibrant fantasy world” and “having a wild imagination.” After we follow Jack Thompson’s lead and neutralize all the video games, we must take the next step to assure that no more will ever be made: we must burn the books that inspire us! Err, them!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Special Report: Literature may be coming for YOUR child

We live in scary times. Just watch the news… that tenacious media bastion, reassuring us with a dose of truth in the face of everyday challenges. They’re the only ones you can trust these days, as newscasters are quick to tell: politicians, the homeless, minorities with their reverse racism, scientists with their global warming…

Atheists with their discrimination…

Libraries with their sexual predators…

Emo with its girl-pants…

It’s you against the world, with only the evening news by your side. Every day, FOX and ABC and NBC give you the low-down on the newest alert colors. For the former optimist, the inner enlightenment philosopher we all have to overcome, it begs the question: why has the world gone to shit?

I think I’ve got it. What’s the great link between “libraries,” “emotional drama,” and “godless enlightenment?” What bane, what threat to our collective complacency, do we find at the center of that sinister Venn diagram? What’s been sitting under our noses for hundreds… nay, thousands of years, feeding these cultural instabilities that are looming before us, threatening us all?

The answer is obviously literature.

Here’s what our field researchers have discovered.

REASON THE FIRST: It’s found in libraries.

How can you trust a place that’s so quiet, so self-enclosed, so free of corporate advertisements and loud noises? It’s not only (as Carl Monday pointed out) a breeding ground for sexual predators. It’s also a breeding ground for books, and this is much worse. Stephen Colbert was the first to see the danger, but he’s continually underestimated it. The book is the crack in society’s moral foundation, and libraries are the syphilitic, spongiform masses where those cracks begin to propagate.

REASON THE SECOND: Books are constantly expressing things.

You may say, “But Jesse! You’re expressing something right now! How can you so quickly condemn?” Well, I say to you, AWAY, shuffling abomination with your logic drool! You obviously haven’t SEEN what’s to be found in these books! Literature gives voice to all sorts of nooks and crannies of the human soul that are better left in shadow. Pederasty? Lolita. Childhood fratricide? Jude the Obscure. Self-inflicted eye-poking? Oedipus, one of the oldest of the so-called “books.” Homosexuality? You’ve read Oscar Wilde. Don’t tell me you didn’t pick up on it.

And by “expressing” these destructive impulses, books are obviously advocating for them… urging us to carry them out in our everyday lives. Forget Steal This BookKill This Baby is scrawled across every surface in our cultural history. No wonder emo kids are all cutting themselves.

REASON THE THIRD: I don’t actually have a third reason, which sort of offends my fairytale sensibilities.

At any rate, it’s time for us to take action against this lurking threat. These sin-holes, these tomes of the damned, these liberal fascist tools of Satan must be purged from our libraries… nay, the libraries themselves must be purged from the epidermis of our sacred culture. What would our founding fathers think if they found us harboring all these instruments of degeneracy?

There’s only one answer: they must be set ablaze. Firemen would probably be the best people for this job. I don’t remember who it was that suggested that course of action, but dammit, they were right.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Pirates of the Carribean III: Gore goes Lynch

So a new Pirates movie has hit, and in the spirit of my previous in-depth analysis, I thought I'd come to this one with some critical observations, as well. I was struck by... I don't know, by the sort of indescribable character of this movie. Try to describe the plot. You can't. Try to describe the themes or the core relationships. You can't. It was sort of overwhelming.

Obviously this has caused a wide array of critical reactions. Richard Schickel gives the film a reasonable characterization, although he didn't seem entertained by his findings: "They're everywhere, these not-so-merry miscreants — in Singapore, in Antarctica, on a desert island, in a secret pirate cove, riding mid-ocean waterfalls (very odd, that bit), exchanging broadsides while being whirled about in a maelstrom. It is very exhausting, and it makes no sense whatsoever." Here you have a good idea of the impression people got from At Worlds End... strange and incoherent, engaging in its eccentricity, but generally unfathomable.

There's something weird that shows up in these reviews, though... when they reject the movie for its strangeness, these reviewers also snark cynically at the public approval the film is bound to receive. Schickel ends his review by suggesting that "some close variant" of his Pirates III criticism "could be written week-in, week-out every summer movie season." Similarly, and even more cynically, Frank Swietek of ONE GUY'S OPINION says Pirates III "will doubtless repeat the inexplicable boxoffice success of its predecessor—testimony to the lemming-like proclivity of today’s audiences not only to rush to even the worst retreads but in some cases to do so repeatedly." Damn! Such contempt!

But what are we really critiquing here? Seriously... was it too confusing for the critics? In the work of some filmmakers, we see ambiguity and lack of resolution as assets. In the case of a Disney movie, have we no option but to recast them as "confusion" and "lack of focus" and to reject them as failures? Critics need to work out their demands... you can't judge a movie negatively for being weird, incoherent, and dense, and at the same time, criticize it for being another piece of meaningless Hollywood trilogy fluff.

Deep in the writhing mass of special effects and half-realized on-screen relationships, there was something really fascinating going on in Pirates III. It was Gore Verbinsky's cinema freak-out, a desperate, unbridled flash of filmmaking, something... how do I put it...


Yeah, David Lynch. Anyone who attacks this movie as being too weird or incoherent can go chew on that name for a while. Mulholland Dr. was a tweaky roller-coaster of a film, and it shared a lot of creative and stylistic techniques with Pirates III: unexplained reappearances of characters, strained and shifting loyalties and relationships, and recurrent motifs that were hard to pin down to a particular significance.

There are a few specific elements that made me think of Mulholland Drive as I was watching Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End.

First, Jack Sparrow's on-screen delerium was very Lynchian. He spent whole chunks of the movie interacting with himself, and frequently murdering other versions of himself. Two of them were little shoulder-mounted Jacks, like the old couple in Mulholland Drive who were shrunk to the size of a rodent. Others were alternate-reality versions, Jack Sparrows that laid eggs, Jacks that had been assimilated by the Flying Dutchman, Jacks who were into bestiality. There was no good reason for this tendency... just a lingering postmodern sense of the surreal and absurd, giving us reason to ask: just whose head are we wandering around in here?

Second, the recurrent theme of the crabs was like something from David Lynch. Mulholand Drive also had a few themes that kept coming back into the narrative, like the little box with the key, and these frequently had no clear symbolic significance or obvious associations. There are a number of ways they could fit into the narrative... they could represent something abstract, like deliverance, or they could represent the call of the sea to Jack. They seemed to be metamorphic presences, turning into objects and people and disappearing back into the environment again. They were never capitalized on or made clear... they just showed up and established their surreal presence, and then vanished again.

The mad, forgetful Bootstrap Bill was another strange, surrealist character figure, particularly in the scene were Elizabeth finds him on the Dutchman. He's pathetic and imprisoned in his own uncertainty, caught between mindless loyalty to Davey and futile, misguided hope in his son. Being part of the ship has made him tragic and amnesiac, able to repeat a conversaion as if he's having it for the first time, and it establishes his character as a unique, unpredictable force, both emotionally and narratively. In this sense, he shares a kinship with Mulholland Dr.'s Diane Selwyn, who first appears as a distraught, disturbed, and emotionally crippled actress at a low-point in her career.

There's also the sick anatomy stuff that keeps kicking us gently in the face. The scene where Jack's doppelganger licks his own brain is priceless. The death-by-tentacle lobotomy is pretty brilliant, too. These are the signature scenes of a filmmaker who REALLY wants our attention.

I'm not going to sit here and say I liked Pirates III because it was, like a Lynch Film, a profound, avant-garde piece of art cinema or a masterpiece of surrealist post-modern narrative. But it did share something with Lynch: it was an explosive, ecstatic act of filmmaking, almost childlike in its lack of inhibition.

This is the maelstrom... take it as it is: a mad cinema freakout that none of us could have expected from Gore Verbinsky, hard to follow, but insanely engaging on a dramatic and aesthetic level. Don't hold back, Gore. I'm right behind you.