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 ChloĆ« 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.