Archive for the 'Pop Culture' Category
October 5th, 2016 by Wil
Discerning readers may know that there’s a show called Portlandia out there. It’s a sketch comedy show set in the Oregon city of Portland (duh!) and it seems to both cheer and ridicule the alternative/hipster culture of the city.
The show stars Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Browstein, singer/guitarist of the riot grrl group Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein is probably a big part of why it took me a while to watch the show and I’ll tell you why.
Years ago, in the early 90s, I lived in the town of Olympia Washington for a year. Oly is where Sleater-Kinney formed (indeed, I actually lived on the street from which the band takes its name.) Oly was, at the time, a hot bed for a certain type of punk rock generally affiliated with anti-establishment thinking, feminism, anti-capitalism and the usual stuff. The scene there also hated the heavy metal music I’ve always been a fan of and therefore they were my enemy.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I had plenty of friends in the punk community there and probably went to shows at the various punk clubs two or three times a week.
That said, I did have enough interactions with the more self-righteous elements of that scene to conclude one thing: they did not have a sense of humor. So, when I heard that an icon of that scene, Brownstein, was involved in a comedy show I just presumed it couldn’t be funny and I ignored it.
Eventually, however, I did watch Portlandia and discovered that it actually is quite funny; a lot funnier than Armisen’s alma mater, SNL, is these days. Not only is it funny, it tends to use the same self-righteous punk rockers and ultra-liberals that I detested in Olympia as its targets.
(I should note here that I’ve softened a bit in my hatred of these types and am willing to concede they have some legitimate points in their criticisms of mainstream culture and American foreign policy. But that’s another blog post.)
As I watched Portlandia, however, I became a bit curious at how Brownstein, who, as far as I can tell, is neck deep in the very culture the show lampoons, justifies the show’s attitude. And I suppose I could get on the web and figure this out, but I’m not that curious. Nonetheless, this general thought popped into my head when I came across the following link.
Feminist bookstore from “Portlandia” cuts ties with show
The bookstore In Other Words, featured on “Portlandia,” announced on Wednesday that it has cut ties with the show, CBS affiliate KOIN reports.
The bookstore said filming the show left its business a mess, staff mistreated and neighboring businesses sometimes forced to close for a day “without warning.”
The Portland store, In Other Words, initially enjoyed the publicity, reports the Associated Press. The 23-year-old nonprofit has faced financial struggles and is currently running a fundraising campaign to help stay afloat.
“It was also a direct response to a show which is in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize. A show which has had a net negative effect on our neighborhood and the city of Portland as a whole,” the bookstore said, according to KOIN.
On the show, the book store serves as the setting for a similar store run by two humorless lesbians who inadvertently deliver laughs. It’s a great example of how the show, to my mind, makes fun of the very culture Brownstein is from.
A little more digging revealed a story covering the controversy generated when Armisen and Brownstein had made an ad for clothing company Old Navy. Some of the comments responding to the article include…
Old Navy is about as un-riot grrrl as you get. Sad. She just shit on her legacy for a paycheck. I guess she doesn’t care about grrrls in Chinese sweatshops.
Carrie & Fred officially off the artistic role-call. What, Portlandia wasn’t making you enough to live on, had to become corporate shills too? You f#cking whores…how very “Punk Rock”.
Now, these comments deliver all the self-righteous fury I associate with the north west punk scene. That said, I can’t help feeling they have a point. Brownstein’s actions do seem at odds with her ethics. (Not Armisen, who to my knowledge has never claimed to be anti-capitalist etc.)
It should be said that humor is complex. You can applaud a culture or idea while simultaneously holding it up for ridicule. And “Portlandia” may not be making fun of the ultra-stringent ethics of certain Portlanders, as much as it is the stern seriousness with which they apply those ethics. It’s perfectly reasonable, in my view, to have the attitude that we’re all figuring this life thing out and maybe we should be willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Exactly what punk rock puritans don’t do.
Anyway, that’s my take. We just started watching the new season of the show on Netflix and it feels like one of the best ever.
November 25th, 2015 by Wil
Adam Gopnik has an interesting bit on a new biography of Sinatra that seems to confirm that, yes, Sinatra was a musical genious, and yes, he was also a thuggish, mob associating asshole.
I have to pause and tell the great Sinatra joke told by Shecky Green. “Frank Sinatra saved my life once. He said, “Okay, boys. That’s enough.”
Anyhoo, Gopnik does some interesting wresting with how to appreciate a musician’s artistic legacy while still staying aware of the brutality they engaged in.
Shouldn’t this push aside the malicious gossip? Why does the other crap matter at all? It matters because if art and the lower reaches of journalism and biography converge on a single point of common purpose, it is in being truthful about human beings as they really are and not as we would have them be. History is what we have to struggle to remember even when legend is more pleasing. It would be nice if Sinatra had been a good guy with a few regrettable friendships rooted in Jersey simpatico—it was a lot worse than that. It would be nice if J.F.K. were a family man with a sometimes-wandering eye—the truth there, too, is more ravenous and complicated. None of this need diminish our admiration or even our love for them. Humanism is made from a faith in humans, as they actually are, flawed and real, screaming devilish threats at casino managers and then singing “Angel Eyes.”
And then, one of the things you learn ever more certainly as you grow older is that all art is made in the image of the artist. It can often be articulated as an opposite, with all the low spots in life thrust forward in art, as with Sinatra. But it is some sort of picture. It isn’t supposed to be so; high-minded people are supposed to pull life and art apart, trust the tale not the teller, and all that. But if an abstract artist makes pictures only of white, there is a white moment, or knight, somewhere there in her past, bugging her still. Sinatra’s painfully bipolar nature is exactly the pattern of his best music, with “swinging” records continually succeeded by sad ones, again and again, and though this is obviously partly a response to the oscillating commercial demands for dance music on the one hand and make-out music on the other, it isn’t just or mainly that. No one else even attempted it quite this relentlessly. We have “Songs for Swinging Lovers” and “Only the Lonely” because Sinatra was a desperately driven man with a melancholic depth. This doesn’t make up for other people’s fractures and stitches, not remotely. But there the albums are, and there he is, a whole man, made up of broken parts, like everyone else.
I pause to think of my own reaction to these sorts of conundrums. I can still certainly enjoy Sinatra’s singing (especially when backed with Nelson Riddle’s fantastic arrangements) but the nature of who Sinatra was is never far from from mind. And these days, when I hear the music of the Beatles, it’s never far from my mind that John Lennon beat a guy almost to death (for implying that the Beatle was a homosexual.) When I hear the music of the Foo Fighters it’s never far from my mind that the entire band distributed AIDS denialism. When I hear Eric Clapton it’s never far from my mind that he once went on a racist tirade onstage.
That said, I still enjoy their music, at least when it’s enjoyable. (Some of the Foo Fighters stuff is pretty mediocre.) I think what bothers me more is not the various crimes these artists committed but the fact that they were allowed to get away with it. Had they not had the power of celebrity and iconic status they would have been imprisoned or at least reviled. But most people don’t seem to be even aware of these crimes (it’s only recently I heard of Lennon’s behavior.) It’s the double standard tolerated by society that bugs me.
January 17th, 2015 by Wil
As may or may not be known, I make a certain portion of my income playing in an early jazz duo that performs at senior homes and the like. It’s quite enjoyable, but I’m constantly aware of one point: the senior audience is always fading away, e.g dying, so eventually the market for the kind of music we play will be gone. If someone is 90 today, then the “music of their generation” is music of the 1920s and 1930s. In ten years or so you should expect that the demand for that music to be in serious decline.
Except, it’s not quite that simple. There have been several revivals of early jazz through the years and I think later generations appreciate it. Additionally, a lot of the hits from the 40s and 50s were actually recycled tunes from previous eras—those songs earned a second life.
Additionally, a new study makes some interesting points.
Weirdly enough, though, subjects also displayed a similar attachment – including a feeling of nostalgia — to music that was popular in the early 1980s, long before they were born.
“According to previous research, this would be the time when [the subject’s] parents’ preferences were established,” the researchers write. Their theory is that because of this attachment, parents listened to this music during their “child rearing years” contributing to their children’s musical education.
So, you not only like the music of your youth, you like the music of your parent’s youth. I can relate to this. My parents didn’t listen to much of any contemporary music when I was a kid but my Dad was a big fan of Broadway musicals. As a result I’m well versed in the music from “My Fair Lady” and “The Pajama Game” and those songs have a certain emotional resonance that few others do.
Nonetheless, I think I’ll eventually need to be getting better versed in the music from the 40s and 50s, which is fine with me.
January 5th, 2015 by Wil
A while back there was an interesting blog post on Andrew Sullivan’s site (written by a guest writer) tying Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead in to the issues surrounding the hacking of the Sony Corporation. Rand’s writing is, of course, often lauded by libertarian free market types. This post had a different take… (Warning: Major Spoiler Alert about The Fountainhead.)
The problem of willingly selling out to the Chinese reminded me of Ayn Rand, whose bracing moral lessons I’m sure Freddie had in the back of his mind. Rand’s finest novel,The Fountainhead, is an anti-capitalist screed about the spiritual and cultural evil of catering to market demand. Forget the problem of giving the commie censors what they want. It’s wrong to give the free market what it wants, when what it wants is aesthetically debased, which it always is. The architect hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is the ultimate in spine, the patron saint of never selling out. When one of his perfect, austere modernist buildings is bowdlerized the better to suit the public taste, he blows it up. That’s right, Howard Roark is a terrorist, a jihadi for artistic integrity.
This is the first time in writing I’ve ever seen someone wrestle with what I always found confounding about the novel. When I read the book, I was struck by how anti-libertarian Roark’s actions seems; he shows no respect for property rights when he blows up the building. I assumed it was a kind of glitch in the philosophy of the book but it could be that it is the philosophy of the book. It does, at least, present the trait I’ve always liked about Rand: love her or hate her she clearly did not give a shit what anyone else thought, so much so that she present a character who is essentially a terrorist as a hero. (I believe I’m correct that no one is actually killed when the building is destroyed as he does it late at night.)
December 20th, 2014 by Wil
As you probably already know: Sony Pulls the Plug on Dec. 25 Release of ‘The Interview’ After Threats
As major movie chains moved to pull “The Interview” from their holiday lineups after threats from the Sony Corp. hackers, Sony has decided to shelve the film.
“In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film ‘The Interview,’ we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release,” the company said in a statement. “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.”
Freddie De Boer also notes:
There have been widespread claims that recent blockbuster movies like the latest Transformers have been written so as to appease Chinese censors. There’s nothing wrong with writing movies to reach out to a particularly huge foreign box office– why wouldn’t you want your movie to play to Chinese moviegoers?– but appealing to the Chinese government is a whole other ball of wax.
I’ve complained about the fact that much of modern cinema seems toothless and feels as if it was neutered by committee style writing. I also think it’s very hard to be an auteur style filmmaker (or musician or comic artist) because audiences are used to high production values. A filmmaker in the 1970s who had a great or at least provocative idea for a story (think Abel Ferrera or Doris Wishman) could collect a meager budget, make the film and earn some some small success, usually as a step towards a greater career. Viewers were more forgiving of cheap special effects because even the big players didn’t have particularly awesome effects. (Think about how fundamentally cheesy the creatures in Steven Spielberg’s Gremlins looked.) But once we entered the era of massive CGI it was hard to make a decent action or sci-fi orientated film without being compared to the Transformers or Planet of the Apes reboots (the latter of which I think have some great stories.)
I think this idea that blockbuster movie companies are running scared from internet terrorists and the Chinese censors may be a great thing for cheap, auteur storytelling. If the big players are too afraid to create stories that take chances, then poor (in money, not talent) writers, filmmakers and comic creators have a void they can fill. And there’s a hunger for that kind of storytelling.
December 16th, 2014 by Wil
I watched “White Christmas” for the first time last night and was struck by how much Danny Kaye’s character reminded me of Michael Richard’s portray of Kramer on TV’s “Seinfeld.” I was so struck by the similarities I looked online to see if there was any discussion of this. In fact, it’s right there in the wiki article for Kramer which states…
It is interesting to note that many of his mannerisms resemble those of Danny Kaye’s character in “White Christmas” though it has never been mentioned as an inspiration for Richards’s characterization of Kramer.
But that’s not all. Over at this yahoo page an observer notes:
Danny Kaye died shortly after appearing on The Cosby Show, in 1986.
Kramer (Michael Richards) died horribly (career) after making racial comments at The Laugh Factory, on the, “Cosby Stage”, in 2006. Exactly 20 years to the day.
It’s clear that the Danny Kaye/Kramer connection exposes the machinations of a secret society that has been controlling world governments since time immemorial!
And I like this gal’s spin on things.
It’s amazing how much Danny Kaye looks like Seinfeld’s Michael Richards. Perhaps Richards should star in a remake of “White Christmas”? After the “N” word incident, it would give the title a whole new meaning.
May 17th, 2014 by Wil
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.
April 18th, 2014 by Wil
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.
April 17th, 2014 by Wil
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.
March 3rd, 2014 by Wil
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.