Archive for the 'Pop Culture' Category

Caught on tape

Readers may recall my piece on Michelle Shocked a while back. Shocked, at the time, had just been recorded making controversial comments about gays during a performance in San Francisco. The audio of her comments went viral and denunciation was swift. Her career, if not ruined, was certainly wounded. (Resurrection, of course, is not uncommon in the music biz.)

I was reminded of this when the Donald Serling scandal popped up. He too was recorded, though this time while on what he presumed to be a private phone call. His racist comments have now been heard by millions and he lives in infamy.

Slightly related to this: Rapper Jay Z being caught on tape being attacked by his sister in law. Or Mitt Romney’s caught-on-tape comments about the 47 percent.

In all this cases there was not necessarily the assumption of privacy but I don’t think any of the victims thought their words or deeds would be observed by millions.

The L.A. Times has an interesting article on the topic. In closing, the author observes that we can spy on our fellows easily now. And we are facing the death of privacy.

You can be a flaneur now without leaving the house. Without your shoes on! Voyeurism is clickable. Our curiosity and digital technology have come together to produce a beast.

The beast is nimble, able to leap duplex walls or suspend itself, like the hero of an action movie, above the heads of famous people in elevators.

The beast is everywhere. The invasion of privacy has been democratized. Governments do it. Google and Facebook do it. V. Stiviano and hotel security cameras do it.

For most of us average joes, the threat of being constantly on tape doesn’t matter all that much. If someone recorded Wil Forbis making racist statements, I doubt they’d be able to find a media outlet to air the tape. But I think we may be entering an era where something we say—at a party for example—is recorded without our knowledge and then shared with our boss, our significant other, or posted to our facebook page for all our friends to hear. Basically the Serling situation on a smaller scale. And at that point we have to ask ourselves whether everything we say in confidence is sterile enough to avoid the judgment of our peers.

In my case, the answer is absolutely a big, fat, fucking no.

George Costanza was right!

Seinfeld fans may recall the episode where George decides to give himself the nickname “G-Bone.” Upon hearing this Jerry says, “There’s no such thing as a g-bone. There’s a g-spot.” Furiously George replies, “That’s a myth!”

According to the book on genetics called “Identically Different” George was right.

Although it’s very hard to prove the non-existence of something, we concluded that as the G spot is lacking in academic credibility among gynecologists, has not been found by scans or anatomists, and had not the tiniest genetic influence, it was probably a figment of the modern imagination. It was more likely an area through which the base of the clitoris can be felt and stimulated in some women. Our conclusions were not popular. We got many angry letters from Italian and French sexologists who charge their patients to find their hidden g spots and from plastic surgeons who increasingly do lucrative enhancement surgery by bulking up ‘the spot’ with injection of fillers like collagen. We also received outraged letters from ‘male expert lovers’ who claimed to have satisfied many women by uniquely being able to find their G spots. Strangely we didn’t receive a single letter from a woman.

The movie industry bloodbath has begun

I’m often rather loudly complaining around here about the devaluation of entertainment products brought about by the internet. This is partly because the internet engenders piracy, but also because piracy itself engenders creators to offer their work for free (because it’s probably going to end up available for free anyway.) The result is the destructions of big chunks of the entertainment industry.

We’ve primarily seen this in the music business. But it stands to reason that as movies become more downloadable, the same thing could happen there. According to this excerpt from a book by screenwriter Lynda Obst, it is.

I leaned back a little on Peter’s comfortable couch, and he sat forward to say, “People will look back and say that probably, from a financial point of view, 1995 through 2005 was the golden age of this generation of the movie business. You had big growth internationally, and you had big growth with DVDs.” He paused to allow a gallows laugh. “That golden age appears to be over.”

“The DVD business represented fifty percent of their profits,” he went on. “Fifty percent. The decline of that business means their entire profit could come down between forty and fifty percent for new movies.”

For those of you like me who are not good at math, let me make Peter’s statement even simpler. If a studio’s margin of profit was only 10 percent in the Old Abnormal, now with the collapsing DVD market that profit margin was hovering around 6 percent. The loss of profit on those little silver discs had nearly halved our profit margin.

This was, literally, a Great Contraction. Something drastic had happened to our industry, and this was it. Surely there were other factors: Young males were disappearing into video games; there were hundreds of home entertainment choices available for nesting families; the Net. But slicing a huge chunk of reliable profits right out of the bottom line forever?

There it was. Technology had destroyed the DVD. When Peter referred to the “transition of the DVD market,” and technology destroying the DVD, he was talking about the implications of the fact that our movies were now proliferating for free—not just on the streets of Beijing and Hong Kong and Rio. And even legitimate users, as Peter pointed out, who would never pirate, were going for $3 or $4 video-on-demand (VOD) rentals instead of $15 DVD purchases.

Frankly, I never understood why people paid 15 bucks to own a DVD movie but I guess they’ve come to their senses on that one. Netflix is probably a big reason for that as you can essentially buy a huge streaming dvd collection for 7 bucks a month.

So what does this collapse mean in terms of movie quality? I think Obst’s article ties into an article I wrote a while back about the noticeable decline in the quality of current film’s stories. I used the blockbuster “WWZ” as an example.

On top of that, “World War Z” was just poorly written. There’s was no sense of ratcheting tension, no sense of real danger. The hallmark of the great horror films is that some of the characters—sometimes characters you really love—get killed. (Even “Shaun of the Dead,” which was something of a horror satire, got this.) Nobody you like in “WWZ” dies. (This is partly because you don’t like any of the characters but that’s another complaint.) And unlike the book, the movie “WWZ” is devoid of clever plot twists. The main conceit of the film—the means by which Pitt formulates a way of stopping the zombies—barely generates a “meh.”

“World War Z” had the sense of being written by committee. When a story is written this way, any interesting proposed plot twist (say, killing a key character, or having a likeable character betray the group) is bound to upset someone in the room. If everyone working on the story is granted veto power, all life gets sucked of a tale.

To quote Obst:

[The studios are] frozen, so the gut is frozen, the heart is frozen, and even the bottom-line spreadsheet is frozen. It was like a cold shower in hard numbers. There was none of the extra cash that fueled competitive commerce, gut calls, or real movies, the extra spec script purchase, the pitch culture, the grease that fueled the Old Abnormal: the way things had always been done. We were running on empty, searching for sources of new revenue. The only reliable entry on the P&L was international. That’s where the moolah was coming from, so that’s what decisions would be based on.

Gut calls are part of what lead to interesting, innovative movies. And deference to the international market means you have to dumb content down for non-English speakers and those who may not get the nuances of certain kinds of storytelling.

As I mention in my article, I think cheap horror flicks are still willing to take risks, as they always have. But I’m curious as to whether they are making any money.

Who writes Creepypasta?

I’ve mentioned lately my suspicions that the idea of authorship might be dying out. I don’t think that people will no longer create art or writings but that the concept of attaching one’s name to the final work will decline. (Indeed, my understand is this is how much of European music was written in the pre-baroque era—you didn’t know the composer.)
This theme arises in an interesting article about “creepy pasta.” Creepy Pastas are short scary stories spread across the internet via “cut and paste.” As the article notes, because of this method, the author’s name often fades while the story survives.

What motivates the authors of all this stuff? Ego must play its part, but it’s interesting that the criterion for ‘success’ is a kind of oblivion for the creator. A winning copypasta is one that’s copied and pasted — one that gets circulated and shared, blending into urban myth, FOAFlore, netlore. The role of the author is not to be remembered down the ages; it is to disappear. In this respect, creepypasta appears to brush aside 250 years of authorial gothic, weird and horror fiction, returning shudder-making to its cultural roots. With its rituals and shared experiences, it seems more social than artistic. Scary stories, after all, serve social purposes: they help us to learn which fears are widely held and which are idiosyncratic, defining us as societies and delineating us as individuals.

LaBeouf versus Clowes

I’m a big fan of the comics and graphic novels of Daniel Clowes; have been for 20 years. (His compendium Lout Rampage is one of the funniest and possibly most profound works I’ve ever seen.) As a result of my Clowes-philia, I was interested in this story: Shia LaBeouf admits Daniel Clowes’ uncredited work was ‘inspiration’.

Actor Shia LaBeouf posted the short film he directed and screened at Cannes, “HowardCantour.com,” online Monday. The short stars Jim Gaffigan as a unhappy film critic who opts for a harsh critique of one of his heroes for reasons that are more personal than artistic.

Hours after the posting, comic book fans began noticing that the work bore a significant resemblance to Daniel Clowes’ 2007 piece “Justin M. Damiano.” Not only was it the same idea — unhappy film critic — LaBeouf’s film opened with a voice-over that is a word-for-word match with Clowes’ text…

You might recall LaBeouf as the waste of carbon that starred in such travesties as the Transformers movies and the last Indianna Jones (which I actually didn’t think was as bad as many people did.) He’s one of these actors Hollywood tries to convince you is a person of talent until it’s painfully apparent he is not. (Remember Josh Harnett?)

Not only did LaBeouf “borrow” Clowes work, he doesn’t really seem very apologetic. He’s tweeted:

10:42 p.m.: “In my excitement and naiveté as an amateur filmmaker, I got lost in the creative process and neglected to follow proper accreditation”

10:42 p.m.: “I was truly moved by his piece of work & I knew that it would make a poignant & relevant short. I apologize to all who assumed I wrote it.”

Right… what idiots people were assuming LaBeouf actually wrote the film.

I do consider, however, the following. LaBeouf is really of the first generation that grew up in a “content is free” culture. In this culture, if you want to own a song you go online and download it. If you want a picture of a cat for your web site, you find one and click ‘save as’. You happily create mash ups of other people’s work. That’s just how it’s done.

I’ve been thinking about this unavoidable evolution of the creative process and I want to write about it more here. My thoughts might surprise you.

Having said that, LaBeouf is clearly being a douche. I’d like to say I will now boycott his work but I probably wouldn’t have seen it anyway.

Short man’s vindication?

I’ve mentioned my conflicted feelings about the strange Bob Brozman situation. Brozman was a great acoustic guitar player who killed himself this past year. Laudatory eulogies came flowing forth from the web until allegations that Brozman was a child molester came out.

Last night I was listening to a Brozman track called “Short’s Man Vindication” in which he bemoaned his small stature. I couldn’t help but be reminded on a L.A. Times article on pedophilia I commented on.

Researchers have also determined that pedophiles are nearly an inch shorter on average than non-pedophiles and lag behind the average IQ by 10 points — discoveries that are consistent with developmental problems, whether before birth or in childhood.

Am I implying that all short people are pedophiles? Hardly (I would guess the number is more like 50%.) But I can’t help wonder if maybe Randy Newman was on to something.

R.I.P. Al Goldstein

Al Goldstein, publisher of famous porn mag “Screw” died recently. He had an epic life arc; at one point he was a millionaire from “Screw”, but…

By the mid-2000s, Goldstein was homeless. He once got a job as a restaurant greeter, only to lose it when the management discovered he was sleeping on the premises.
Even in that period he reveled in irreverent humor. In 2005, when he worked at a New York deli, he told the Washington Post, “I’ve gone from broads to bagels.” But there was also the ever-present anger. “Anyone who wishes ill on me should feel vindicated,” he told the New York Times in 2004, “because my life has turned into a total horror.”

What brought the duke of porn down? The ubiquitous availability of porn once the internet appeared. I wonder if that is a sign of things to come for other industries —music, books, movies—that find their content becoming more and more digitized?

I discussed Al’s strange, public access talk show “Midnight Blue” a while back.

The general focus of the show was interviews, usually with female porn stars, though eventually non-porn guests like O.J. Simpson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gilbert Gottfried and Debbie Harry made appearances. Al’s primary interest was that of sexual technique; he would often throw out provocative, curse laden queries along the lines of “How do you like your pussy licked?” or “Is there anything wrong with me fucking a chick with my nose?” The porn royalty sat in the hot seat—too jaded to be shocked at Al’s questions—and offered serious answers. (One of my favorite “MB” moments occurred when Al asked Carol Connors, the “forgotten actress of Deep Throat” (and mother of current mainstream film actress Thora Birch!) whether she would ever perform bestiality. “No,” Carol demurred, “But I love animals!”)

On “You Are Not a Gadget”

I’ve just started reading a book that I’ve mentioned being interested in: Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget.” The book is something of a condemnation of aspects of modern Internet culture, made all the more damning by the fact that Lanier is technologist who played a role the development of the web. Many of the “pro-Internet” views he takes on belong to good friends of his.

One argument he makes is that eccentricity—the expression of unique behaviors and ideas—is being removed from modern culture. Part of this is because of the mob-like nature of Internet comments sections. As I have noticed, in many Internet forums a consensus view often develops among the participants. Those who express opinions different from this view are either mocked or ignored (as I have been until I gave up on opinion forums.) People tow the party line and are not exposed to ideas that may challenge their views. And, as has been well commented on, people gravitate towards blogs and sites that correspond to their world view, further isolating their thought processes.

(Related to this: I once argued that the fluid communication the web enables makes one realize just how hard it is to be unique.)

Lanier also sees individuality taking a hit on social networking sites like Facebook. In the mid 90s people defined themselves on the web via home pages, many of which were housed on now deceased hosting site geocities. I remember these pages and you probably do too. They were often amateurish in design and usually had god-awful background tiles that made text unreadable. But they had personality. It was hard to confuse one person’s home page for another’s. The same is not true with Facebook—most people’s pages look basically the same. (Yes, you get your own header but that’s not much.)

Now the fact that everyone’s Facebook pages look similar is hardly the greatest calamity facing society. But I get Lanier’s point. It’s one more chip away from the idea of individuality, of personality. The Internet is not encouraging individuation, but a borg-like assimilation into a mono culture. I predict this will cause the death of all humanity within 20 years.

Our defining years

Though it’s long, this Daily Beast article arguing that the Millennial generation is to the left of even the Democratic Party makes sense to me. Its core argument is that Millennials came of age in a decade of unending economic insecurity and, as a result, expect the hand of government to address this.

The article also makes an interesting point I can relate to psychology and brain science. (I’m sure everyone is excited by that.)

For Mannheim, generations were born from historical disruption. As he argued—and later scholars have confirmed—people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties. During that period—between the time they leave their parents’ home and the time they create a stable home of their own—individuals are most prone to change cities, religions, political parties, brands of toothpaste. After that, lifestyles and attitudes calcify. For Mannheim, what defined a generation was the particular slice of history people experienced during those plastic years. A generation had no set length. A new one could emerge “every year, every thirty, every hundred.” What mattered was whether the events people experienced while at their most malleable were sufficiently different from those experienced by people older or younger than themselves.

On one hand this is hardly news – it’s well known that a person’s (or generation’s) character is largely defined by the culture of their late teens to mid-twenties. I, for example, will always be defined by and partial to the music of Guns-n-Roses, Nirvana (even if I’m not a fan) and movies like “Die Hard” or “Pulp Fiction.” The article is simply carrying idea this over to politics, making the claim that political events that occur in your teen/twenty-something years have a stronger effect than political events that occur earlier or later. (This makes sense. Whenever I hear people older than me ranting about Reagan I think, “Jesus, get over it!”)

But there’s an interesting question here: Why? Why are our tastes and politics defined by experiences in our teens and twenties? I would argue it’s because that is a period when our brain is primed to most richly experience life. At that point our brains have become sharpened in the sense that we’ve learned much of what we need to become adults, but we still have an active emotional system (the somewhat controversial limbic system.) We are thinking and reasoning better than we ever have, but we are also enjoying the emotional depth of life in ways we will likely lose in coming years. Because of these brain changes, life is exciting and thus the events of those years – personal, cultural, historical and political events – have a pronounced effect on us. As a result, when we get older and jaded and tired, we don’t fully appreciate how the current teen/twentysomething generation is reacting to events.

Facing up to Facebook

Sky News reports: Facebook Linked To Unhappiness

The number one social networking site is strongly associated with declines in well-being, psychologists claim.

Scientists found the more time people spent on Facebook over a two-week period, the worse they subsequently felt.

In contrast, talking to friends on the phone or meeting them in person led to greater levels of happiness.

Study leader Dr Ethan Kross, from the University of Michigan in the US, said: “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection.

“But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result – it undermines it.”

In think we’ve all felt this. You get on Facebook and view a flurry of posts from people telling you how great their lives are, how their dreams are being fulfilled, how they’ve found love and respect. As a result, you are forced to contemplate your disappointments and lack of fulfillment. You begin screaming at the screen: “Fuck you whores! You cocksuckers! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all…!” and they drag you out of the Starbucks.

But there’s an interesting point in this study I’d like to contemplate. Hearing your friends blather on Facebook about their achievement is depressing but it appears this is not case when hearing the same on the phone or in person. Why would this be?

I’d suspect it has something to do with the one way communication that Facebook offers. Essentially it’s a virtual soapbox – I get up and yell my point at those beneath me. (They can, of course, reply in comments, but those comments are not on equal footing as the original post.) Facebook is about talking down to people. In person, or even on the phone, you are on more equal footing; there’s much more give and take. As result, I suspect we feel like we can better take vicarious pleasure in someone’s good news. When our conversational partner talks about a “win” (say, they just got a new job) we feel connected to that win, part of the team. On Facebook there’s a great distance between us, because that person is not really talking to us specifically but all of their Facebook friends.

Frankly, I think phone and in-person communication have their own flaws – especially when they involve one person blathering on about their own thoughts while paying little attention to the other people involved (e.g. a lot like Facebook.) But they’re certainly more equal forms of communication.

I like the word “blather.”