Tuesday, May 25, 2010

End of an Era (or two)

My week of eminent loss as a television scholar continued last night with the series finales of Law & Order and 24. Both shows redefined narrative television and are cultural landmarks. I was not nearly as attached to these series as I am to so many others, but I did follow them pretty closely at different moments throughout their runs.

Law & Order has been on the air since I was in grade school. That’s INSANE in today’s contemporary television marketplace. In terms of storytelling (technically, it’s the second longest running scripted primetime American television drama next to Gunsmoke), Law & Order brought a new element to the already well-established crime serial – the “law” part. Several shows explored the police end of the chase and capture of criminals, and a few had dabbled with the courtroom, but none had successfully paired the two together. Series creator Dick Wolf wanted something that depicted the justice process optimistically, and thus, more often than not, the criminals captured at the beginning of episodes were successfully prosecuted at the end. For that reason, it’s never been lauded as a realistic representation of the justice system, but it obviously served an important cultural function – fulfilling the needs of enough viewers to keep it running this long.

My take is that it’s a combination of the feel-good message of justice with the episodic nature of the show. As technology permeated the 90s, we started to have more outlets vying for our attention, and following complicated narratives series (say, like Lost) takes quite a bit of emotional and time investment. I guess you could say Law & Order is sort of like the after dinner mint of television – if you’ve ever watched the Law & Order marathons on TNT, you can probably understand the correlation as after several hours of that, it’s the equivalent of a candy high that makes your stomach sick and keeps you from sleeping.

24 holds a soft spot in my heart – it’s a series I followed fairly closely until the sixth season, but never in real time. I much preferred to view it all at once when the DVDs came out. Why? Well, it’s a bit of a patience thing, a bit of a time thing and a bit of a recording thing. I don’t have a lot of patience for extended periods of suspense because it produces too much anxiety; during the semester, my viewing time is almost always limited to shows I’m currently writing about; and recording technology didn’t used to be what it is today.

Point being, 24 appeared at a moment in our cultural history where we were still reeling over the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Jack Bauer filled a void where viewers felt helpless – who was working against these terrorist agents? And why did it seem like they weren’t doing their jobs? 24 offered answers, with Jack’s character almost universally knowing the right approach to terrorist threats, yet demonstrating his struggles with government bureaucracy, cover-ups, and ill-advised foreign diplomacy. In a lot of ways, the series functioned similarly to Law & Order in that sense, giving us solace that justice would prevail. The series also changed the way we think about crime serials by filming in “real time,” using the ticking clock to count down the moments of a day where a terrorist attack was imminent. In that way, it also helped pull in viewers as the reality television craze boomed in the early part of the decade.

24 made some mistakes, but it also did some things well. Unfortunately, I think the duration of the series, coupled with continually killing off key characters hurt its overall narrative form. Jack started the series by working *slightly* outside the confines of established protocols, and evolved to full-on vigilante. Personally, I found the on and off again moments of rebellion more compelling than the know-it-all Jack Bauer. Ending the series with the president realizing that Jack Bauer is right was kind of key to exposing the outrageousness of how the plots have progressed since its inception. But I also did like the signing off part, though I would have much preferred Tony or Michelle to still be around for it than Chloe.

So farewell to both series. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either resurface in another form - Law & Order still has its spin offs, Jack Bauer is probably headed to the big screen. Both will continue to influence our understanding of pop culture in the next decade.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Farewell to Lost

It has finally come to an end – and while I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it, I feel like I need to put in my two cents on Lost and it’s place in TV history as a way to “let go.” Also, I’m a little frustrated with the buzz going on around about the finale not providing “answers,” the failures of season six, and the hatred surrounding the series. I’m not going to delve into issues with the smoke monster or polar bears, but there will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it and want to, you’d best stop reading now. So as not to repeat much of what you can find elsewhere on the Internet, I’m going to stick to a couple main points and then offer some critical analysis that bugged me enough last night that after sleeping on it, I still want to talk about it.

First off, to all those who thought that Lost would give them answers to all the mysteries it set up – what were you thinking?? I understand that a lot of people watch television in a narrative contained vacuum, meaning, we attach to specific series and programs and follow the narrative, searching for some sort of narrative consistency. What many people seem to have forgotten is that Lost was the brainchild of J. J. Abrams. If you expected narrative consistency, you hitched your star to the wrong wagon. Let me count the ways:

Anyone remember Felicity? Brilliant set up about a girl who goes to college following her high school crush, then four years of narrative convolution to make sure they ended up together in the finale. Of course, this was as a result of Noel’s sacrifice of realizing Felicity would never love him like she loved Ben. Lesson? College is a consistent struggle, a journey to find yourself (which almost always includes massive changes to your hair if you're a woman), and really, at the end you already knew where you should be.

Or perhaps Alias is more your speed? Secret double-agent spy spends five years chasing random fringe organizations, culminating in defeating the ultimate bad guy/mastermind. The main romance between Sydney and Vaughn underscores the action (and is even impacted by a time shift!) and they end up together in the end with two kids, retired from their time in the CIA. Oh, yeah, and there’s a big show down between Jack (Sydney’s father) and Sloane (the big bad) where Jack traps Sloane in a cave after he becomes immortal.

Over on Fringe, in case you haven’t been watching, we have a narrative quite similar to the X-Files with alternate universes and a budding romance between Olivia and Peter destined to be screwed up by his alternate reality origins. And again, the pairing of two halves of male counterparts – Walter and Bell…of course, Bell (Leonard Nimoy) sacrificed himself at the end of the second season in order to send people back to their universes (and because he publicly announced his retirement from acting, so look for there to be some kind of replacement big bad here in future seasons).

Is it any wonder that Lost went down the way it went down? The similarities are uncanny and show the same narrative preferences – Abrams creates a general world, one where romance and relationships are key, and then fumbles around with general narrative confusion ala Pulp Fiction for as many years as the television networks that sign his series will let him. AND in each of those cases, the final seasons of those series suffered when his creative attention was diverted to other outlets (the final season of Felicity was panned almost unilaterally, the last two seasons of Alias were woefully sub-par once he started working on Lost, and now Lost is catching flack for a lackluster sixth season while Fringe is getting all kinds of props for kicking up their second season). If you went into Lost looking for answers, you were duped. Abrams’ narratives are all about the journey, the underlying message that relational connectedness is what makes us human, even in the face of the most inhumane, random, odd occurrences.

So, Lost ended the only way it COULD end – with a montage of narrative connection, illustrating that each of these characters was ultimately “lost” when they arrived at the island – none of them trusted anyone, they were generally shrouded in secrets, and all of them were fundamentally flawed. Their journey was what they needed in order to truly connect and trust others, ultimately saying that without human connection and trust, the soul will never be whole. I dig it. I honestly don’t care all that much about picking apart the narrative for inconsistencies – because doing so in a J. J. Abrams series is sure to give you a migraine, and honestly, think about it. As someone who writes for a living, I can’t tell you what I wrote word for word five years ago – and half the writers working on the series probably don’t even remember some of the narrative arcs they started at that point. On one hand, you could argue it’s their job to know, on the other, have you ever tried to kick out scripts for a series that needs 20-24 new episodes in a year on a timetable fast enough to shoot it (especially with Lost being on location in Hawaii and the scenic elements of the series) over a six year period? 

In terms of the haters, I get it. You probably dislike narratives that don’t wrap up neatly. You are probably fans of more serial series scripted by CBS (aka anything that Jerry Bruckheimer touches). And that’s okay. But allow us tortured souls to enjoy our convoluted romps in peace.

That being said, my only problems with the way everything ended were problems I had very early on in the series. I’ve actually started to see these as specific patterns in Abrams’ work, so I’m not surprised, but it’s still disappointing.

1) I’ve actually commented academically about my malaise surrounding the “internationalism” Lost became acclaimed for – when in reality, the “international” characters simply serve as postcolonial templates (though a bit more interesting than have appeared in the past), and ultimately are the characters that all die so that the white people can escape. While I loved the beauty of the moment between Sun and Jin, it was more heart-wrenching that they ultimately sacrificed themselves so that Jack and Sawyer could live. And with all the awesomeness of Sayid, the fact that he got taken out by a bomb trying to save everyone was really unfulfilling given his development over the past several seasons (besides, wasn't he already dead?). Plus, the other black characters were killed/written off long ago (sans Rose, but she's always been more of a sage/wisewoman archetype, so see below). Now, I get that in the end, they're all dead. Fine. But the narrative consistently sacrifices characters of color at the expense of furthering the white characters' personal growth/journey. Again, I shouldn’t be surprised here – in Alias and Fringe, the black characters pretty much serve similar functions that support the white persons’ quest for the “truth.”

2) While Abrams is often lauded for creating interesting female characters, his work is always about the relationship between two men. The role of women, though more prominent than in perhaps other sci-fi narratives, leaves much to be desired, relegating fans to interpreting the narrative in ways that bolster the women’s images. (Aside: I commented here on how fans of Alias tried to reclaim the narrative power of the series from the predetermined romantic arc with Vaughn through fan fiction.) The main struggles are between Noel and Ben, Jack and Sloane, Jack and Locke, or Walter and Bell. The only thing Lost did was mix it up a bit because sometimes in the middle of the series, it made itself about Jack and Sawyer. The women are almost entirely reduced to their romantic attachments, and ultimately their roles as mothers. I actually sort of screamed at my television when Jacob told Kate she was crossed off the wall because she became a mother! She can’t take a job saving the world because she had a kid? Seriously!? And why is it that Juliet is the mother of Jack’s kid in alternate land? Is that because she was the only main female character NOT to have one (as a result of her being unable to have kids, if I remember correctly)? It’s amazing to me how much of a six year narrative on an island where women apparently can’t give birth revolves around ways for them to get around it so that they can have children and ultimately become mothers. The only one who doesn't fall into this trap is Rose, and that's because she fulfills the wise old woman/sage role, and is clearly past the age of childbearing.

So, farewell Lost. I enjoyed you immensely. I fell in love with your characters and appreciated the ride.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pop Culture Tidbit: Karaoke Excellence!

It's true dear readers. The end of the semester is near, which means I've had little time to compose my thoughts on pop culture the way I'd like. I have a running list of topics that are set to be developed as soon as I dig myself out of my piles of grading and admin work due before May 1st. Until then, I turn the debate over to you Popademic followers!!

Since I'm participating in a karaoke flash mob in about 15 minutes, I'd love to hear your most entertaining karaoke stories -- who you've seen, what they sang, etc. Leave them in the comments, and I'll put together a post of "best of" including my top five karaoke experiences throughout the years.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pop Culture Tidbit: Fashion Fads from Japan

In an effort to explain some of the cultural difference between Japan and the United States during a guest lecture this week, I used the following image. Test your PhotoHunt skills to see what’s wrong with it:

If you’re interested in seeing what all the fuss is about, go read this New York Times article. I used the example to illustrate different cultural orientations to appropriateness in public contexts, and as a way to understand approaches to conflict (attack vs. retreat) as culturally bound. I think it worked pretty well. :oD And in case you want another point of reference, here's a fun little video.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Club! - The Help

Completely shifting gears from where I’ve been lately, I should disclose that I have, in fact, become a little old lady in my mind. I joined a book club. I am by far the youngest member, but so far I’ve quite enjoyed it! Perhaps this is a result of being in a profession where I am always about 10 years younger than my peers, so I’m used to it. I actually missed the last meeting where we discussed our latest read The Help, so I thought I’d talk through my thoughts here instead. Technically, New York Times bestsellers count as pop culture, right?

The Help is a series of blended narratives exploring life in the South during the 1960s, with an emphasis on African-American housekeepers and their relationships with the white families they care for. Although the layered narrative approach had the potential to alienate and further exacerbate racial stereotypes/tensions, I thought the author did a good job of balancing those issues in a way that brings in a casual reader. Perhaps my favorite moment of the book was when one of the African-American women explained very carefully how you never, ever crossed a white woman. The series of events she articulates align tightly with our cultural understandings of “mean girl” behavior among white women – passive aggressive ways of controlling the behavior of other women, particularly with respect to the relationships they build and sustain with men. I also enjoyed the undercurrent of education throughout the book – one of the main characters teaches the white children in her care to think in “colorblind” terms, in a sense, emphasizing that the progress we make on race relations (or any other kind of social acceptance for marginalized identities) begins in educating the young to think outside the boundaries of what society currently defines as acceptable within any cultural moment.

It really is a wonderful read – I picked it up here and there before bed for several weeks. There were plenty of places to pause if I needed to, and plenty of spots to keep me glued to the page if I had more time to invest. If you’re looking for a well written text with poignant social themes without the heavy-handedness of a lot of social commentary fiction, this book is for you!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Film Roulette

I’ve been sick lately, so I’ve had quite a bit of downtime to catch up on pop culture stuff. I’ve had less time to write about it because in between watching things, I’ve been sleeping. So here’s a quick Monday run down of some short, under-developed thoughts about films I’ve seen in the past several days.

The Ugly Truth – Terrible script that reinforced awful gendered stereotypes of dating. Decent chemistry between Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. I just about cried when I saw the news that Heigl will star as one of my favorite crime novel characters Stephanie Plum – if there was a worse casting decision ever in the history of Hollywood, I’m not sure what it was! Oh yeah, that’s right, Hayden Christensen as adolescent Vader.

Where the Wild Things Are – Kind of brilliant. Dark. Twisty. Not at all what I was expecting, and it now makes sense why so many people disliked it. Certainly not a film for young children. I need to watch it a second time because I’m still not sure what to make of the sand scenes.

2012 – Here’s an idea. For every scene in this film that is completely and totally unrealistic or implausible, take a drink! You’ll be through a six pack before the first half hour is over, AND you’ll still have over two hours of film to look forward to! Try not to black out. Seriously, John Cusack. Fire your agent.

Love Happens – On a related note, Jennifer Aniston, what happened to you? This film should have been a drama about people dealing with grief and loss, which would have been great with Aaron Eckhart as the lead. Layering in a terrible romantic comedy B-line with a parrot was just ridiculous.

I have a bunch of random TV things too, but I need to get moving to catch up with everything else I’ve missed the past few days. So, wander back over here later this week.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pop Culture Rewind: Stand By Me, River Phoenix

When I think of films that completely defined the 80s for me, several come to mind. It’s a sign that I’m getting old when I mentioned one of my favorite films, Stand By Me, to a couple different students last week who stared at me blankly. Then to say, “you know, with River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton?” and hear, “Who’s River Phoenix?” – it sort of just makes me cringe. Granted, I shouldn’t hold this against them. After all, several of them weren’t even born when the film came out. Sailor hadn’t even seen it, so we dialed it up this weekend while I was couch-bound with a stomach bug. I love coming back to pop culture at different moments in your life – it almost always retains some of the original impact, offers a sort of nostalgia for the past, and can shed light on what you’re experiencing now.

Quick recap for those not in the know – Stand By Me is a film released in 1986 based on the Stephen King short story “The Body.” Directed by Rob Reiner (who most recently directed The Bucket List, and whose credits include other classics like Misery, A Few Good Men and The Princess Bride), it’s a coming of age drama about four boys growing up in a small town in Oregon. The main characters are played by River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell with other significant roles played by Kiefer Sutherland in his hoodlum/punk phase pre-Jack Bauer awesomeness and John Cusack back when his career wasn’t a farce that needed a time machine. When the boys learn the location of a dead body, they embark on a two-day journey that helps them learn about life and death.

What I remember about the film from my first experience is that a) I was in love with River Phoenix, b) the dead body was a lot scarier, and c) I felt kind of sad that I was a girl, because boy bonding looked way cooler than girl bonding. I guess that makes sense if I’m watching this in middle school. What interests me about it now in retrospect, after years of critically analyzing media, is how timeless the story is – the trials and tribulations of growing up, defining identity from adolescence to adulthood, and the pain of loss that never goes away. We also have a kind of cultural obsession with childhood friends, though this nostalgia may be tempered by today’s technological ability to remain “in touch” with so many from our pasts. The performances turned in by Phoenix and Wheaton fill the screen and perfectly capture tortured youth searching for ways to define existence. Phoenix explained his experience on the film saying, “I realized that what I was creating was going to live on far longer than anything of me as a person. The characters are more powerful than the person that creates them.”

Also, revisiting River Phoenix is spooky. He spoke to a lot of people, and saw things about culture that went largely unnoticed at the time (check out this interview where he claims the celebrity culture of Hollywood is out of control). Halloween of 1993 was crazy. The news of Phoenix’s death surprised a lot of people, but I distinctly remember feeling numb – numb from the shock and from the eerie sense that it made sense at the same time. From everything that surfaced both before and after his death, it’s a strong possibility that Phoenix was bisexual – or if not, at least sexually experimental in ways several youth didn’t have language for in the 80s – and in several public appearances in the early 90s, it was clear he was into drugs. And maybe that’s why I always had this strong affinity for him – seeing something behind the eyes that produced riveting performances, knowing that something darker was underneath.

Substance abuse, suicide and depression are rampant among LGBT youth, and the prevalence of drug or alcohol use among bisexual youth is 340% greater than the rate among straight teens. Though rates of addiction and depression have decreased for LGBT youth in recent years (which I firmly believe is linked to increased media representation and language to talk about sexuality), those youth growing up in the United States obviously still live in a cultural climate that is hostile to any non-heterosexual identity. It’s hard. It’s a terribly hard existence, and it’s little wonder that Phoenix (or any other young person living in that time period) would look for ways to escape. Everyone does stupid things in their teens or 20s, but for youth struggling with depression, substance abuse or self-abusive behavior, there are a series of double-binds in place that make it hard for things to ever feel any better. I lost a family member, a friend, and saw many other people I knew go through these issues. It’s a constant barrage of wanting to help, feeling helpless, hoping for understanding, and encountering judgment in return. It affects your life every day, even after those people aren’t part of it any more.

So, I never KNEW River Phoenix – this is entirely my speculation/narration as to what his presence meant to me and how I make sense of it in retrospect. And I do feel the absence of his presence a little bit each day, the same way I feel the absence of so many other wonderful people who touched the world in ways they probably never knew. It’s fitting that Phoenix’s character’s death is what prompts the retelling of the story in the film – that those stories will always “stand by” us as part of a cultural legacy, a legacy I hope youth can learn from to make their lives better today.

(Because I touch on some pretty weighty issues here, I wanted to make sure the following information was available – if you are (or someone you know is) struggling with depression, addiction, or other self-abusive behaviors, please check out the resources available through organizations like Hopeline or TWLOHA.)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reading Old Navy and Verizon Commercials

I don’t generally talk much about advertising because it’s not really my area, but in my recent run of catching up on TIVO, I noticed two commercials that really got under my skin as a critic for very different reasons.

The first was actually brought to my attention by a feminist media critic, who in passing asked if I’d seen the latest Old Navy commercial (I hadn't seen it at the time, and just now caught it). They’ve been doing these commercials with “modelquins” which have bothered me on and off.

Not that Old Navy’s advertising has ever been a model of ethical responsibility, but this particular ad is REALLY disturbing. I understand it’s a spoof on America’s Next Top Model or whatever. I get it. But what is really being represented here? A “real” girl wants to be judged and accepted by the “fake” modelquins? And told she’s not good enough? Given the barrage of images shown to women advocating that they look like supermodels, is it any wonder we went one step further to say, “we really don’t want you to look real at all – please figure out how to pose and stand like a mannequin.” The biggest “secret” among most tween and teen girls is that they are all on diets of some sort, many of which lead to full blown eating disorders as a result of the way media continually makes women feel as if their bodies are unworthy of occupying social space. So, Old Navy. Not funny.

The second commercial that’s really irking me is this Verizon commercial. The point of the commercial is to highlight Verizon’s coverage AND your ability to stalk people! It shows a mom who is “letting her daughter go shopping alone” for the first time, only to then show that her daughter is not actually alone because the mother can use the Verizon network to track her. Now, I’m not entirely against having such a feature for an emergency, like if your daughter doesn’t come home that evening – but the image presents woman as being a good mother by micro-managing her daughter, and implies that if you don’t track your children, you’re probably not being a good parent. I hate how this dovetails into a culture of helicopter parenting where kids are taught that they don’t need to be responsible in a sense because parents are always going to be there to bail them out. At the same time, any parent who tells their kid to explore the world without this micro-management is a lunatic for allowing their child that much freedom. If you’ve done your job teaching your child to make good decisions, is shopping at a mall (especially the clearly upscale, suburban mall represented in the ad) really a situation where you’d need to stalk your daughter? And what's more, it's not used for a son. It's used to track a daughter, implying the patriarchal notion that women need to be hovered over and cared for (and perhaps that we can't make good decisions).

Yes, these are the things I think about when watching television. Sometimes I wish I could turn my brain off!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sam Tsui & College Musical

Well now. This blog did more traffic with my random pop culture tidbit than any other entry, and it took significantly less time to develop than other posts. This is either because Sara Ramirez is hot, or I need to use pictures more often. From now on, I’ll be cribbing more images from the net.

In a completely unrelated follow up, I wanted to bring some attention to a talented guy I discovered randomly on the Internet: Sam Tsui!

Actually, Sailor discovered him when bored at work and looking for something that would make me laugh. Given my interest in pop culture, my obsession with Glee, and general love of all things college, he found this little gem – HYSTERICAL! A great blend of the High School Musical narrative codes with satirical college humor. I was so impressed with Tsui’s voice that I decided to find out more about him (read, research/stalk him on Google, which is how all good pop culture junkies do it).

Apparently, Sam is a student at Yale, and his musical exploits are chronicled by his friend Kurt Schneider. This interview gives a bit of background on the guys – basically, they were messing around like most college students do, but given that both are ridiculously talented, their musical covers of popular songs have gone viral. Part of what makes them awesome is that Sam sings a number of parts – often times five or six harmonies – and Kurt layers them together in video montages that are really quite well done. Some of my favorites include the Glee version of “Don’t Stop Believing,” an awesome rendition of “Fireflies” (that I actually enjoy much more than the original), and a wicked fun melody of Michael Jackson songs. The guys recently released an album on iTunes (which I downloaded the first week it went live) that includes all of these tracks and more.

Their work is definitely a Broadway/theatrical style of singing/production, but it has solid pop appeal. Its success is most likely related to its ability to capitalize on a cultural moment where traditionally campy, theatrical representations are anchored to kid's culture and youth movements. But that's as far as my theoretical read is going today, so, if you’re looking for a fun distraction, check them out!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pop Culture Tidbit: Sara Ramirez Before Grey's

A funny thing happened this morning, and it made me decide to start another mini-feature of this blog in addition to the Rewind section: Tidbit of the Day. Sometimes I notice random pop culture things that aren’t really worth me delving into an entire post about, these Tidbits will simply present an observation without (too) much of the critical long form you’ve come to expect from Popademic.

So, this morning I caught a few scenes from You’ve Got Mail. Beyond the dated (1998) painfully obvious “What happened to you AOL?” irony, I was shocked to see one Sara Ramirez playing the (Indian?) cashier Rose! Would I have remembered this casting choice? No way!

Oh, how your career has improved since joining the crew of Seattle Grace – instead of playing the cashier with the thick accent, you’re now cast as a beautiful Latina doctor/lesbian whose girlfriend recently surprised her with the news that she doesn’t want children!

I <3 Pop Culture!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ask Me Anything! The Rise of Formspring

For the last several weeks, I’ve been posting random updates on Facebook and Twitter soliciting people to “Ask Me Anything!” For those not in the know, Formspring is one of the latest Internet fads floating around. Several of my students started accounts, so I thought I’d check it out. The premise is this – a platform where people can ask whatever question they want, and you can choose to respond. They can ask anonymously or with their user information, and given the platform, most opt to ask anonymously. I thought it might be a fun experiment to see what types of things would be asked and see whether or not the platform had anything interesting to offer in terms of pop-culture value.

After several weeks and 30+ questions, I don’t think it’s valuable for the most part. Sure, if you are interested in asking someone something but you’re intimidated by them or you aren’t sure how to ask, it helps you out. But I find the system a way to passive-aggressively deal with issues that would be better dealt with in person. I didn't get a whole lot of that in terms of questions asked of me (sans bitch question), but I did find myself thinking, “Oh! I should ask so-and-so this question!” only to start to type it into the box and then think, “Why ask it here when I’m going to see him/her in an hour and I can ask them then?” So, I think there’s potential in this being a useful tool if people are geographically estranged or aren’t entirely familiar enough to ask what they perceive to be sensitive questions. But more often than not, I found myself staring at a blank screen thinking, “What if I have nothing to ask you?” Which, ironically, was one of my favorite questions asked of me. :o)

BUT, I’m not entirely ready to scrap the system. I think a lot of people use technology as a social buffer – we used to ask friends to do recon for us if we thought someone was interesting or wanted to know if they had a problem with us, and now we use these public forums as a way to screen individuals to see whether or not they are interpersonally interesting to us. So, in that sense, I think the platform offers quite a bit – but it has to be matched to the audience, and for the most part, Formspring only works for people asking questions to those who are friends enough to know the person in some kind of technological context (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to get the link to Formspring. So perhaps I’ll leave it open a bit longer as this blog has a different kind of traffic and see if any interesting questions pop up. If not, I’ll probably scrap this and move on to some new pop culture fad – all those who want to know things about me will just have to figure out how to ask without the veil of anonymity!

So if you feel like saving it, “Ask Me Anything!”

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The One Where I'm a Luddite (or Music and Technology Meet)

In grad school, I read a book on diffusion theory and quite enjoyed its discussion of how new ideas and technologies infiltrate culture(s). Even at the time, I was the first to admit that I’m not an early adopter. Early adopters are defined as those who want to be in on something before everyone else – so, in terms of my life, I’m typically an early adopter when it comes to music, but nothing else. I love finding new artists before anyone else, camping out for concerts when people aren't massively popular, and getting that one-on-one kind of relationship feel with particular bands/artists. Technology – I’d rather people work the bugs out before I have to deal with it since I really just want things to WORK if they are essential to my productivity. So, it’s no great surprise that I’m not entirely on-board with the tech revolution so to speak. I find myself participating in it and seeing great potential, but also wary of some of the consequences of technological saturation. To illustrate, I’d like to blend my love of music with the newest changes in technology.

I am a complete and total concert junkie. Every year when spring turns around, I get excited about the potential concerts I can attend – scouring Ticketmaster and following updates on iTunes about what albums are being released. Usually, concert season doesn’t get into full force until May or so, but this year, I had the opportunity to go to three concerts so far to kick off this year’s season, and I have to say, this year has really tuned me in to the different realities of concerts than even ten years ago. Ten years ago, you couldn’t bring a cell phone, camera or other recording device to a concert venue. Now, this is sort of expected. And while this gives us awesome You-Tube footage of the concert, it also means that half the people at the concert don’t actually EXPERIENCE the concert. They spend it recording through a camera lens rather than actually engaging.

For example, at one of the concerts I attended recently, the lead singer went crowd surfing at the end of the concert. It was perhaps one of the most awesome moments I’ve experienced in a concert venue – it evolved from his connection to this particular crowd, this place, and the vibe of the evening. When he announced that he was going to do it, I screamed like a little fan girl and got myself in prime position to help the surf (and yes, got to touch him in the process – so cool!). I was amazed that half the people around me backed away from the opportunity to engage this and instead turned on cameras to record it. On one level, I feel bad that they were there – experiencing yet not experiencing something at the same time – but on another level, I LOVE that I can look up that video on You Tube and relive the moment for myself. At another concert, several of the people around me spent more time texting about the concert than actually engaging in the performance and the music. I get it – sharing the experience with people who cannot be there – but on another level, isn’t the experience worth containing in a sense? I like being able to say, “this was my experience, this is mine. I own this.” Certainly, I’ve texted at concerts, so I’m not totally un-implicated in this technological change  – but I don’t send more than a couple, and usually during breaks in the concert rather than during the performances.

So, I guess I’ve been interrogating what it means to be part of a concert experience. It certainly seems to have changed to me in even my short span of life. A lot of scholars have been talking about how this new generation of teens/twentysomethings is so used to technology that to them it is transparent – where to me it might seem intrusive or obstructive, to most people, it's just another aspect of experience. Perhaps my love of being “in” a moment keeps me from really understanding the benefits and pleasures of being connected relationally through technology at all moments. Perhaps there is a social distance perpetuated by technology under the guise of being more relationally connected, we’re actually disengaging with day-to-day realities in a way that constitutes experience differently.

Nothing all that crazy theoretical here – just some thoughts I’ve been pondering during a very busy week. Looking forward to some more concert goodness in the near future! Feel free to leave a favorite concert story – particularly if it deals with the intersection of concert experiences and technology use.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pop Culture Rewind: Aviator

Ah, this is terrible. I totally meant to move on from film at this point and into other pop culture terrain, but I can’t help it! Here’s the thing. I LOVE Leo…not surprising as a child of the 90s Growing Pains, Gilbert Grape thing. But, for real. And, I’m now grown up enough to be skeptical of his twists, especially since he really just attaches himself to directors he thinks are good vs. scripts that are good for him. Fine line there, and I’m one of the few who can see it, but I do. So, anyway.

I meant to see this film three times before now. The first time, I was on my way to the theatre and told that my partner’s mother had cancer, so…we didn’t go. The next time, I was on my way to the theatre and was in a car accident. The third time, I tried to rent it and the disc was messed up. If I try to see a film three times and some higher power seems to think this is not a good idea three times, I give up and say it wasn’t meant to be.

But tonight, I finally watched this film and I can say, it was brilliant. I know that Hollywood has undertaken the OCD kind of character a lot, but this was SO real. The thing I really enjoyed about the film was that, despite the whole history behind it, the OCD issue was kind of downplayed. Which really, if you watch it, it doesn’t seem like it’s downplayed. But I enjoyed the tension between the OCD and reality – that the best moments of an OCD persons’ life are when they are ON with other people, but the majority of those around them don’t know what’s going on underneath.

So, although this is YEARS late – I feel bad that Leo didn’t take the Oscar for this role. I saw Foxx in Ray, and I thought it was good, but not THIS good. Which is sort of a change I guess in how we expect media bio-pics to be…Foxx was good at being Ray – the exact replica of an image we have seen in a variety of forums, but Leo was creative in bringing something to Hughes that made it REAL beyond the media pictures. There’s a book (Speaking Into the Air by John Durham Peters) that interrogates the notion of “speaking to the dead” – that media, in a way, have made it possible for us to live/relive the experiences of those long gone, ghosts in a sense, in ways that make it relevant and timely for ourselves. I think about that theory a lot when watching this kind of film, because my impulse is to ask “is this real?” – did Hughes really go through this? – as opposed to “how am I supposed to understand this person?” – which is a creative question, rather than a realistic question. And it makes me sad that we ultimately rewarded the actor with the closest representation to the original rather than the one who pulled something from the original and made it into something creative and translatable.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Valentine's Day the film (a bit late)

I am WAY behind on writing about this, so I'm posting it today and then will move on to more recent issues in the near future. I try to avoid Valentine’s Day like the plague. I don’t like it’s cultural place as the heteronormative reinforcement of traditional conceptualizations of relationships AT ALL. That being said, I am also an utterly unapologetic romantic, so I love any excuse to express feelings that might not be kosher in a day to day kind of setting.

I mentioned to Sailor I might want to see this film, but only as a date kind of thing. He took this as a sign that, although he thought it would be terrible (he expressed this on at least three separate occasions), he should take me anyway. Thus, I was kidnapped from working on Valentine’s Day to go see this crappy, terrible film. And, here’s the thing. I really wanted to like it. I wanted it to be like a Love Actually kind of thing that I could pull out every year and enjoy. But, in reality, it is not that kind of classic. Certainly entertaining for the short term, but longevity it does not have. And it was clear the writers KNEW that going into to it.

My big issues were the following – this kind of film works when you anchor it to a singular storyline with solid leads. Ashton Kutcher and Jennifer Garner were NOT that. Their “we’re friends but more” storyline was so undercut by other lines that it didn’t even make sense. How did he encourage her to fly to San Francisco, from LA, after she gets done teaching classes (like 3 p.m. for most schools), stop her at the airport but she goes anyway, finds out her boyfriend is married and a cheating liar, to then show up in LA for dinner reservations he has at 6 p.m.? Is that even possible? Time-wise, that’s insane. Totally shot for the dramatic airport scene, followed by the dramatic restaurant scene (which really was the kind of scene any woman with a cheating partner dreams of enacting).

Then, the terrible, terrible role of George Lopez as the “Magical Latino.” I had a student several years back who was convinced that there was a “Magical Negro” role in film, where the African American character existed only to serve the white protagonist’s quest to become whatever…and I was skeptical at first, until he made me re-watch The Legend of Baggar Vance and I was like, okay, you’re on to something. Well, Hollywood totally recycled that stereotype and now we have the magical Latino who knows anything and everything about love – ironic given that we have a cultural conceptualization of the Latin Lover? I think not.

And here is my big sticking point – several critics got all in a twitter about the “de-gaying” of the film’s advertisements, saying Eric Dane’s character was denied equal promotion time in the posters and trailers. And normally, I’d be all over that saying “dude, you can’t do that!” but then I saw the film, and seriously, he’s in like 10 minutes of the film. The “gay” story line is only a brief suggestion. It’s not the purpose of the film, and omitting it from the advertising was not a misalignment of resources given the narrative of the film. If they had a serious storyline that wasn’t mentioned, yeah, but it was superfluous at best. As a media critic devoted to issues of sexuality, I would be the first to jump on this bandwagon if I felt this claim had any merit AT ALL. But really, it’s people getting their panties in a bunch over something that is not important. Sure, it’s a story line. But if you want to be incensed about it, why not be mad that the main story couldn’t be about a gay couple navigating Valentine’s Day? Seriously. It probably would have been a better plot!

Sappy Romantic, 0 – Culture Industry, 1

Sunday, March 7, 2010

And the Winner IS...

Well, tonight’s the Oscars! I look forward to this every year, but not nearly with the fervor of my youth. I used to be SO on top of this stuff that I would have seen every single film nominated in every single category prior to the awards just so I could make my own judgments about who should win. Of course, that was in the days of having a valid student ID and living in rural Midwest America where tickets to films in the theatre were $3 a pop and there really wasn’t anything better to do on a weekend night if it seemed too early to hit the bars.

Then I went and started studying film for a living, and I can now safely say, some days the LAST thing in the world I want to do is see another film. I’ve gotten to the point that I can tell, regardless of accolades, whether or not I will like something from trailers and buzz, and I simply just don’t care to see things that I’m not going to like. For example, Sailor was shocked that I had never seen No Country For Old Men, to which I replied, “Why would I? I saw Fargo. I didn’t like it. It’s like Fargo, with Tommy Lee Jones.” After months of arguments about the cultural value of this film, its amazing direction, etc., I finally sat down to watch it and guess what? Yes, I get it. Yes, I appreciate the acting. The directing is pretty much what I expected (kind of a slower more methodical version of Tarantino), which is fairly over-indulgent and gory for the sake of proving the point that mankind is vicious and that death is meaningless. Fine. I GET IT.

So, I have not seen all the films up for Oscars this year, but I have seen most of the ones I actually want to see. Inglorious Basterds? No thank you. See above. And yes, I understand that Quentin Tarantino did Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction and I still think his directorial style can be compared to that of an over-eager puppy. Precious? A film about incest and abuse involving a 16 year old? I’d rather sleep through the night. I almost passed on The Hurt Locker simply because I’m not a big fan of war films, but decided to give it a shot since I’ve liked Kathryn Bigelow’s work (Point Break is amazing, and I really liked K-19 even though it didn’t get the greatest of reviews). And it’s REALLY good. Like, wicked good. Better than Avatar good. And that’s from someone who’s not really into war films. My guess is that it will win tonight, if only because people are still a little miffed at the year that was Oscars 1997 and this film is sort of like the Platoon of our generation. But then again, the Oscars of 1997 DID happen, so it's anybody's game.

But what I’m really dreading is the AFTER…especially if it’s anything like the lead up has been. How many times have media outlets referred to Bigelow as James Cameron’s ex-wife? Why aren’t they calling James Cameron Bigelow’s ex-husband? Don't believe me? Type "James Cameron's ex-wife" into Google News and see just how many times the term is used (it's over 1000 stories, try the reverse and you get only 500 hits, most of which aren't even about Bigelow).  It really irks me. As if she wasn’t anything before marrying Cameron, and now that she’s not married, she’s defined by it – like, the reason you’re a good film-maker now is that you had time to sit at the hand of a god like Cameron, so really in a way, The Hurt Locker is kind of Cameron’s film and it’s a win-win for him. But the reverse is not assumed. She gets no implied credit for Avatar. That’s just Cameron being brilliant. So, if the film wins tonight, all the stories tomorrow (or even later tonight) are going to be about how Cameron’s ex-wife nabbed the Oscar from his awesome film that made way more money, and there will be quotes about how he’s “so happy” for her and “always knew she had amazing potential.” If Cameron wins, watch the war metaphors that will appear...clash of the spouses, humble deference, requests for peace.

This is the kind of stuff that frustrates me when I hear students and even colleagues say they are not feminist because women are equal and we don’t need to be political about this stuff any more. If that’s the case, why is it that a woman directing an amazingly brilliant war movie is constantly referred as an ex-wife? Her ex-husband and her relationship to him define her accomplishment. And even in the places where the press isn’t fixated on her former relationship with Cameron, they laud how “humanized” the film is, implying that a woman’s view of war is more empathetic and caring. I could link to a ton of stories using this kind of rhetoric and they all make me sick. Not to say that there isn’t value in a standpoint – or that standpoints aren’t essential to understanding gendered experience – but when the standpoint is defined by sex and marginalization and then used in a way to uphold traditional patriarchal values (it IS a war movie after all), it crosses the line into this complex grey area that Americans are easily willing to dismiss as apolitical, thus, reifying their beliefs that feminism is no longer really useful or necessary.

Phew! That was a lot to get off my chest on a Sunday morning! Feel free to comment my few dozen readers. Also, feel free to chime in with your Oscar favorites since that’s what the purpose of the post was to begin with before I got all worked up about media.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Industry & Idol (and all the things people should already know when auditioning for this show!!)

It’s March, and while for most that means basketball madness, for me it means weeding out the losers on American Idol! The making of the top 24 this year was an interesting process to watch. First, there was such a backlash the past couple years about picking talent that wasn’t “raw” – more seasoned performers were making the cut, and as a result, we started to see some very polished performances. Next, FOX was charged with favoritism by promoting some contestants strongly in the audition rounds while ignoring others – and then when put to the American vote, it was SO shocking that people voted for the those who had the most previous air-time!

This season it seems that AI has taken this into account, because the performances so far have been…pretty pathetic. Raw talent it IS – and we’ve gotten stories on most of them (though still some more than others). The more that I watch this show, the more I’m surprised at how the contestants don’t seem to GET it. Like, the largish, emo African American guy didn’t understand why he didn’t make the top 24? I was yelling at the TV, “Dude! You’re a large black guy, and they already took the guy whose wife had a baby during Hollywood week! There’s a quota!” And that continued. White girls lamenting that they are awesome and why didn’t they get picked? Because there are four other blonde girls that look just like you! That’s why! And you were like #5, we can’t put in another cute blonde girl or America won’t be able to differentiate between them!

Another issue I have with contestants is how they do NOT seem to get, no matter the YEARS of footage available to them, that this show is about BEING A BOX. America wants you to be something standard, packaged and easily digested every week. Until we get bored with you. Then we want you to do something "daring" and "creative" and "original." Seriously. I really think people who to be on American Idol should hire me as their coach on what to do with the package and whatnot. I know they have people there to coach you, but they are all supposed to be impartial and crap. I'll support whoever wants me to represent them.

What we learned from round one – the Hispanic community does not watch American Idol. Pour Joe. He was actually pretty good. Probably my second favorite of the night, and alas, no one voted for him (perhaps because he spoke in Spanish at the end of his montage?). I felt less bad about Latino girl, who really DID suck, so that’s not America’s fault, but you’re gorgeous and you should have given us a reason to keep you around. My read – girls, it’s a toss up and mainly a popularity contest at this point unless you're Crystal. Guys, it’s a clear top half/bottom half scenario and I don’t expect too many surprises there, other than the young awkward guys will probably put themselves in a position to be the Elliot or the Chris R. of this season.

Let’s see who goes home tonight…my guess is Haeley, Lacey (who both deserve it) or Michelle (who I don’t think deserves it…just what I think America will do…) and one the guy’s side, I’m pretty sure John and Jermaine are gone, though it could also be Tim since he got the reverse Simon mojo this week.

And what’s with all the weird sexual innuendo this season? Ellen comparing a male contestant to an unripe banana, and Simon saying a performance was limp and unmemorable, kind of like our host? It’s a new level of catty. Bring it on! Plus, this whole cougar thing with Kara kind of disturbs me in ways I can't yet put my finger on, but more on that later.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Seriousness...just for now

So, it’s been a while…February was an incredibly crazy month for me – between work, trying to keep up with a life outside of work, and all the other drama, I haven’t had much time to reflect on pop culture. But now it’s time to jump back in. I’ve been working on several ideas over the last few days – jotting down concepts and themes I’ve been thinking about over the past month and making them reality this month.

I’m going to start with something a little morbid, and surprisingly it’s not Shutter Island (I know it’s probably awesome, but I can’t get into horror, even when Leo is the face of it). You’ve been warned. Leave now if you’re already in a bad mood, because this is not a happy-go-lucky post.

One of my favorite television series is Brothers & Sisters, which unfortunately, has been all over the place this season. The plots have been contrived and ridiculous, summed up as “Oh no, I can’t tell my family that, but oh they found out anyway, and now I’m going to make a big fuss about how I didn’t want anyone to know but really I did want people to know, so now I’m just going to whine about it.” Not that families don’t actually do that on occasion, but unlike previous seasons where those tensions were nuanced into interesting family communication dynamics, they've devolved into campy banter that rarely hits its mark.

So I wasn’t entirely surprised by the crazy turn of Rebecca’s pregnancy, Kitty’s cancer, Kevin's issues, Nora's man-crush and all the other dramatic silliness. It was kind of an escape, a way of saying, hey, my family communicates oddly sometimes, but we’re not that bad. I guess since the show falls in that landscape for me, I wasn’t prepared for it to hit home as closely as it did with the Valentine’s episode – Rebecca loses the baby, and Emily VanCamp brilliantly conveyed the isolation and frustration of the situation in painfully accurate terms (despite some poorly written dialogue). Her desire for comfort is contrasted with a need for “something to go as I plan,” her inability to talk about loss, though not written particularly well, captured the struggle many women face after the loss of a child.

Last year at this time, I lost a child. It was one of the most devastating, life changing events I’ve endured. And the sad thing is that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, but miscarriage is so rarely conveyed in public contexts, it continues to be a silent struggle for millions of women who have difficulty expressing their experiences in a culture surrounded by representations of healthy pregnancy and birth. Culturally, we understand grief when it is attached to a person – there are traces of that person that can be understood after loss – but when the person has yet to be, the only person they were “real” to in a sense is the future mother (and to some extent the future father). Support networks are essential in dealing with grief, but often an individual’s interpersonal network might not know how to support grief associated with the loss of a vision of how life was supposed to be, or might have been.

Not to be entirely morose, I think the experience put me in a much better place today, as terrible as it was at the time. But I think it’s important that popular culture takes up these hidden, yet serious, issues as part of a fictional landscape. There is something to be said for an image, beyond statistics, an embodiment of grief, that is missing from our cultural lexicon of images. Grief in popular culture is momentary, not pervasive; a narrative catalyst to move characters forward in particular way, not an event that forces one to look at life like a kaleidoscope, seeing every angle of what might have been, or what could be. The good part is that grief can warp things out of focus or pull them back into clarity you never thought possible. I’ll be interested to see how they finish the line – and I hope it’s not some trite write out that basically ends with Nora solving everything by being super mom.

Guess I needed to get that off my chest and start there. I promise the next post will go back to silly pop culture stuff with less personal stuff – still working on finding a balance of those voices for this venue.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Pop Culture Rewind: Groundhog Day!

It’s Groundhog Day! And apparently, the breaking news is that Phil saw his shadow this morning, meaning more winter ahead. But, Phil isn’t the most accurate forecaster, so I hold out hope for sunnier, brighter days ahead.

While I’m bundled up with my hot chocolate, fire and dread of the next six weeks, I figured what better way to kick off the holiday than by doing a pop-culture rewind to one of my old favorites Groundhog Day! It is amazing to me how much has changed since 1993. Here are four random bullets/observations about this film seventeen years later (older and perhaps wiser):
  • In this day and age, I’m pretty sure you couldn’t sell a romantic comedy pitched on leads like Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. They both seem so painfully average looking in comparison to what flies as a romantic lead these days (that, or we simply need more than two pretty people to entertain us with the turn to large star-studded casts like Valentine’s Day is boasting).
  • Although lauded for its “originality” in terms of narrative, the film still always reminds me of Sure Thing.
  • It’s pretty sad that in the end, MacDowell only starts to take Murray seriously and fall for him when he puts her on the backburner. For much of the script, he tries to be the man she wants and needs, and then when he decides to put everyone else first (including himself), THEN she falls for him. I get frustrated with the repetitive representation of women in romantic comedies, always wanting the mysterious guy rather than the one that’s in front of their face and trying. I know it makes sense and sells tickets, but it bugs me in terms of gender expectations in romantic attachments. 
  • No one is better at depressed, pathetic, life contemplation than Bill Murray. Except maybe George Clooney.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Going Up?

I meant to go see Up when it came out in theatres, but it was summer and I had beaches to go to. Since then, I’ve had so many people talk about how wonderful this film is, I figured it was time to see it. Plus, one of my students lent it to me, so I didn’t even have to spend money at Blockbuster.

Boy am I glad I didn’t go to the theater for this one! Up?! They should call it Down! A handful of barbiturates probably would have seemed like an upper in comparison. It was only about three seconds into the movie when I was bawling like a three year old when the film is saying “I regret being old and never doing anything remarkable with my life!” And later bawling again when it’s all like, “life together with someone I loved was all the adventure that I needed!”

I guess it probably hit me harder than others who were able to see the more positive aspects of these messages. A few days ago, a student asked me what my biggest fear was, and I said failure, because that always seems like it’s the right answer (especially to over-achieving, stressed out students). But after watching the film, I don’t think that’s right. Because I’ve come to accept that failure has an element of control. I don’t really feel like I’ve FAILED something unless it was within my control and I screwed it up. If I don’t succeed at something as a result of factors beyond my control, I don’t really conceptualize that as failure (I used to, but I guess I grew out of it). What really scares me is loss. I’ve dealt with a lot of loss in my life – albeit not very well – and it’s never a feeling that I want to repeat. And that kind of loss, the loss of the one person who truly gets you? Gets all the crazy silly things about you and still doesn't want you to change? I just don’t know that I’d want to go on and have adventures after that. So I had to admire the main character, and worry about myself the whole time. Not exactly a fun way to spend 90 minutes.

My own psychosis aside, I did like the animation of the Paradise Falls region, and the DVD bonus feature about the art direction and their trip to South America made it even more interesting. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a cute film. Not one of Pixar’s best – the main character is interesting, but beyond that, most of the secondary characters are fairly one-dimensional (which was apparently the goal of the production team given their discussions in the bonus features, so I guess they accomplished what they set out to do…).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Psychopaths and Philosophy (otherwise known as House M.D.)

I’m a big fan of House, and although its “case of the week” format can be repetitive at times, I like the way the writers use the cases to talk more concretely about philosophical issues. This week we were introduced to a psychopath who apparently had a copper deficiency (to which I say, can we cure all psychopaths with copper? For real?). At one point, House is talking to said psychopath and in the middle of typical House/patient banter, the psychopath says something to the effect of “a conscience is just an instinct.”

Now, if the following ranting doesn't prove my brain works way too much on pop culture, I don't know what will, but my brain has been stuck on this random line of dialogue for two days. Because, if a conscience is an instinct, why does it seem like I’m often surrounded by people who don’t have one? Is it some weird genetic deficiency (that can be cured with copper!)? And if it is an instinct, that doesn’t mean I have to act on it, which means I could act against it. But when challenged, we revert to instincts, so wouldn’t everyone naturally act with a conscience if that was that case?

I guess I’m having trouble getting my head around this because I had a conversation with someone recently that went, “yeah, I made this choice because and in the end it was the wrong choice and hurt a lot of people but I don’t feel bad about it.” And I just don’t get that. I feel bad about choices even when I make the right choices, let alone the wrong ones. So either I have some weird biological makeup that makes me interpret the world this way, or it’s the Catholic guilt thing socially constructed over time. Or I could be an alien. It’s possible.

Sorry this is SO not like my usually insightful and directed posts. It’s Wednesday, and my brain hurts. If you can help me clarify any or all of the above randomness, please comment.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

American Idol is Back!

At this point in pop-culture history, I’m apparently really, really old. American Idol is consistently appealing to 30+ year old people like me and 8-12 year olds. Anywhere in between, and this show just doesn’t register on the radar. Which is a little odd for me, because I’ve always been able to talk AI with my students, and now they are oddly curious as to why I watch what they perceive to be an antiquated bunch of nonsense for old people. Because, at some level, they still think I’m cool, and not old. Which is sweet, and not entirely accurate – because I am old, and I am a dork.

Anyhow, audition season is back. I rarely watch the audition section of AI because in the past few years, it has continued to disappoint in disastrous proportions. It started as a way to introduce major players to the competition, but in the last few years, the “let’s make fun of idiots” took full control of these shows to the point that you were lucky to see one good audition in an entire hour. And in many ways, let's make fun of the queerest of the odd balls, which really, really irked me. I think after the criticisms last year, they’ve adjusted by cutting the tapes more equally – so we’ve seen some fairly balanced coverage of the fantastic and the abhorrent, most of whom are not exhibiting what we would call stereotypically queer mannerisms.

So far, my take is this – Paula is not missed at all. Kara is less annoying and makes sense sometimes because she doesn’t have Paula to look equally annoying and crazy with. Simon is being nice…maybe because he’s out of here? Randy is losing more and more vocabulary by the year. There seem to be an awful lot of country singers making it through with golden tickets – time for the show to find Carrie Underwood #2? And next week Neil Patrick Harris guest judges, but apparently splits time with one of the Jonas brothers. I cannot, cannot quite get my head around how that’s going down.

But my favorite part of AI coming back is not the show, the competition, or whatever else FOX tries to cram down my throat – it is my folks over at Television Without Pity who never fail to disappoint by providing hysterical recaps on the show. It’s a carefully balanced love of pop-culture and all things fandom with a critical, cynical vision of the entertainment industry and what it does to people. Needless to say, I can spend hours enthralled on that site, but the AI recaps are by far my favorite. I look forward to them every season! Check them out - see if they recap your favorite shows.

Monday, January 18, 2010

To Twitter or Not to Twitter?

I finally got my first official invite to Twitter -- from my sister-in-law, a woman who rarely answers her cell phone and doesn't use the internet for much other than email. It's odd she would be the first person to ask to "follow" me. But here's the thing - I don't have a Twitter account and it just seems like one more thing to keep up with that I will ultimately fail at...so, dear readers, what's the point? What benefit do I get from Twitter that I don't get from blogging or Facebook or email or any of the other technologies that have taken over my life? Discuss.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Holiday Films: Take Three!

Finally, after weeks of waiting through this “limited release” crap, Up in the Air appeared in theatres. I’ve been looking forward to this film for several reasons – most notably, it’s directed by Jason Reitman (who also directed Thank You for Smoking and Juno) and okay, sue me, George Clooney’s in it. The man is too charming for words when he’s on screen. And if you haven't seen it yet, there are major spoilers in this review.

The film chronicles the life of Ryan Bingham, a “terminator” (or career transition counselor), who spends his days flying into companies to deliver the bad news about layoffs to a variety of American workers. Given the current economic recession, it’s a timely topic that most viewers will be able to identify with. In the process, he trains a young protégé, Natalie, who is the HR director you’d never want to have – completely dependent on technology as a crutch to distance herself from interpersonal interaction. He also meets Alex Goran, a charming business woman who lives a fairly nomadic existence and seems to speak his language.

From the trailers, it looked like another romantic comedy in the vein of Juno, but this film is about romance sort of like Schindler’s List was about hope. It’s incredibly cerebral. The narrative conveys an omnipresent postmodern sense of alienation in an age where interpersonal relationships are messy and untrustworthy. Clooney’s character spends the film in pursuit of flying 10 million miles so as to reach elite customer status, the underlying tone of which screams “corporate America is the only entity that values honor and loyalty in relationships!” But just as you’re drawn in by this message, Clooney is out on prowl to downsize more people, most of whom weep about their loyalty to a company and its caviler dismissal of their self-worth.

I get the sense that Reitman is maturing or becoming more cynical, take your pick. His previous efforts offer at least some semblance of redemption for his leads (though not always for his supporting characters). There is no redemption for Bingham – he constructed his life with a series of choices, all of which led him to this particular path, and when he tries to break free of it, finds there is no exit ramp. He’s trapped within the confines of an existence separated from true emotional connection, and at the end of the day, instead of offering yet another representation of a man in crisis who is able to rise above and change, Reitman says, “you can want to change, but really, you probably never will.” It's a far more realistic take on understanding ourselves as actors within a social context. I mean, who hasn't spent hours or days or years thinking about changing to find that even if and when you do make changes, those around you already have fixed perceptions of you that are outside your realm of influence?

The film also functions as a metaphor for the ways we use technology to hold others at bay by culturally distancing ourselves from “unpleasantness” in relationships through whatever means possible. The characters routinely use technology to deliver to their bad news rather than dealing with the situation in person - breaking up or quitting a job through text messages, videoconferencing with employees you're firing, etc. It says a lot about conflict resolution in an age where interpersonal skills are lacking and in a culture that is over-litigious.

Certainly, there are criticisms – perhaps the biggest being the showdown scene between Ryan and Alex. It’s oddly cut for some reason, and given the chemistry between the two actors in all of the other scenes, doesn’t quite ring true. Granted, Ryan doesn't ask a single personal question of Alex the entire movie, so you can sort of see the bad news coming - but it also doesn't make a whole lot of sense that she rearranged her schedule to go to his sister's wedding. The only thing that really saves it is that neither party is really to blame (though the film, or just Clooney's likability, seems to paint him as the victim) – Ryan is led on, so we blame Alex, but really, one could say that Alex chose him because of the person he was...and Ryan at the beginning of the film was absolutely the cute guy you have an affair with, no strings attached. One person wants to change, the other doesn't. At the end of the day both parties are to blame. Oh, and that conversation takes place over a cell phone. Not in person. Go figure.

There are also some editing issues near the end of the film that simply don't work - it seems like they cut 15 minutes that seemed like it was a good idea, but in reality probably wasn't. The scene where Jason Bateman asks Clooney about a termination that results in the death of one of the employees let go was awkward and forced. And then of course, you have the suspension of disbelief thing – 10 MILLION miles? You assume he's working in the U.S., so stays in the U.S., and at best, a flight from New York to LA racks up about 3000 miles. He's stationed in Omaha, which is about equal distance from either, meaning his average flight can't be more than about 1500 at a time, one way. So if we work with the 3000 number (being generous), and assume he flies at least one round trip a day (which isn't realistic as most of his meetings must take a day or two), he'd need a good ten years to amass that number of miles. It's within the realm of plausible, but hard to fathom at the same time. As long as you go into it knowing it's metaphorical, it's enjoyable, but if you spend too much time thinking about the nuts and bolts of Clooney's supposed job, you'll end up seeing the trees and not the forest as it were.

In all, it’s worth seeing. It will have you thinking long into the next day about the current state of our culture and wondering what choices you've made that cause alienation in your own life.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Top Five Albums of 2009 – #1

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#1 – David Gray: Draw the Line

A lot of waiting, but here we are at the top of my list for 2009! Words simply cannot describe how much I am in love with this album. I’m by no means a die hard David Gray fan. I was enamored with White Ladder and somewhat underwhelmed by his subsequent albums, which seemed more one note and less complex in terms of a holistic narrative. Draw the Line explores memory, time, relationships, and the connection we feel to the present even when we’re bound by the past. The songs are serious narratives about the dangers of relying too much on ones' own perception, the joys and heartaches of living for the moment and the potential for transcendence. In a way, each song functions as a turn of the kaleidoscope - Gray is always looking at the same end, but the paths leading toward and around it are varied, depending on the moment. It’s the kind of album I can listen to five times in a row without being bored of the material, and every listen provides a new turn of phrase or interpretation.

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. “I am a sudden and quite unexpected twist.”
  2. “Moses had his tablets, yeah. Noah had his ark. But all I’ve got’s a haystack needle, stabbin’ in the dark.”
  3. “We can rise above our pettiness and love like we ain’t loved before. Free on this earth as the surf that rolls, crashing on the shore.”
  4. “Names beneath the lichen on these cemetery stones, and carnivals of silverfish waiting to dance upon our bones.”
Favorite Tracks: 
  1. Jackdaw 
  2. First Chance
  3. Breathe
  4. Stella the Artist

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Top Five Albums of 2009 – #2

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#2 – Train: Save Me, San Francisco

I’ve always had a soft spot for Train, but I’ve always wanted them to make an ALBUM – not trade on several good singles with some so-so filler. This album is what I always thought they could do from the brilliance of popular singles like Drops of Jupiter and Meet Virginia to lesser known gems like I Am and Save the Day. Through a variety of styles (from simple acoustic guitar in Marry Me to the brilliant mash up with the Doobie Brothers’ Black Water in I Got You), it paints the many facets of love on the canvas of San Francisco – the bay, the food, the wine, the cable cars. Maybe that's why it rose so high among my favorites this year since I'm convinced that San Francisco is the most romantic place I've ever been (screw Paris, they got nothin' on San Fran).

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. “An open bar can open your mind.”
  2. “We were way before our time, as bold as we were blind. Just another perfect mistake, another bridge to take on the way to letting go.”
  3. “I never knew all that I had, now Alcatraz don't sound so bad…at least they'd have a hella fine merlot.”
  4. "You throw me in the fire just to save my life a pretty little liar, when I call you out you'd rather put up a fight than just come clean."
Favorite Tracks: 
  1. This Ain’t Goodbye
  2. Marry Me 
  3. You Already Know 
  4. I Got You

Monday, January 11, 2010

I <3 Neil Patrick Harris

It’s hard to believe my favorite little sitcom is airing it’s 100th episode tonight. Here's to many, many more!

*updated after viewing* 

Brilliance. Sheer brilliance. I do feel bad for Hannigan since she's clearly NOT a vocalist (it's not really Radnor's cup of tea either), but how awesome was it to see the Glee influence here?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Top Five Albums of 2009 – #3

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#3 – Dave Matthews Band: Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King

To be honest, I thought DMB was over. Absolutely defined a lot of my undergraduate years (Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash and Before These Crowded Streets were party favorites regardless of the personalities in attendance), but recent efforts after the turn of the century like Busted Stuff and Stand Up failed to capture the "GrooGrux." So, I wasn’t going to buy this album, but then after a couple reviews from trusted music friends, I did – and boy am I glad. DMB is back in true form on this album, with emotionally charged lyrics and complex musical layering. Tim Reynolds returns for the first time since Before These Crowded Streets, and it's obvious his presence impacts the quality of what shows up on this album. The energy and passion in upbeat tracks such as Shake Me Like a Monkey and Why I Am is carefully balanced with the soothing comfort of the slower tracks like Lying in the Hands of God and Dive In. It’s a wonderful tribute to LeRoi Moore, who is missed but not forgotten as part of this collection.

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. “I like most liquor, but I don’t like gin.”
  2. “Confess I'm not quite ready to be left, still, I know I gave my level best.”
  3. “Though we would like to believe we are, we are not in control, though we would love to believe.”

Favorite Tracks: 
  1. Alligator Pie
  2. Dive In
  3. Time Bomb

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Top Five Albums of 2009 – #4

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#4 – Kate Voegele: A Fine Mess (Deluxe Edition)

Like many, I discovered Voegele through my obsession with One Tree Hill. Her first album, Don’t Look Away, released in 2008 was one of my favorites – perhaps because its messages about messy relationships, struggling to find oneself, and inevitable heartache spoke to where I was at that point in time. She captured the same with this album, a smooth transition from the angst of the first album into a more detailed look at relationships gone wrong and the identity crisis that ensues in their demise. The upbeat pop tracks are fun, but Voegele is at her best when the bluesy tone of her voice shines through in the tracks that will clearly never make it to radio play. It's introspective about the past, mournful of what we've lost, while at the same time hopeful for the future and what it might hold.

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. “If fear was money you’d be a millionaire, all alone in a leather swivel chair counting stacks of gold.”
  2. “This is so you, this is what you do – You'd rather make do than make a move.”
  3. “Those who get to know our hearts the most, they always seem to be the ones we'll never hold.”

Favorite Tracks: 
  1. Manhattan from the Sky
  2. We the Dreamers
  3. Sweet Silver Lining

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Top Five Albums of 2009 – #5

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#5 – Patent Pending: Attack of the Awesome

I happened on this album from a student recommendation – we were chatting about music and I mentioned that I like what I call "pop-punk" to which he said, have you heard of these guys? I hadn’t, but I’m SO glad I know about them now! This little album runs under 30 minutes, but it’s a great 30 minutes. Patent Pending reminds me of some of the earlier pop-punk bands that had something to say, cut out a sound and ran with it (think early Fall Out Boy before they entirely sold out to mediocre writing designed for the lowest common denominator of radio play). It’s fun, catchy music that has something personal to say about life in your early 20s without being glossy and overproduced. I really enjoy how they tell emo stories in a way that transforms generic anger and angst into something upbeat and sarcastic (Dear Stacy I Hate You is probably the best example of this).

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. "You always let me down with such grace and precision."
  2. "She's giving up her motivation for a black backpack full of her frustration."
  3. "So what's another word for I hate you? What's the right pronunciation for complete abomination?"
Favorite Tracks: 
  1. The Way You Make Me Shake
  2. Hey Six
  3. Anti-Everything

Top Five Albums of 2009 – Intro

I’m a little late getting to my yearly review of music, mostly because I’ve been debating the finalized list. In general, for me to consider an album one of my best of the year, it must meet some criteria: A) it has to be released in the year I’m reviewing and B) I have to like the WHOLE thing – appreciate the story the artist is trying to tell and fall in love with it. I’m an album purist. You might have a track or two that isn't the greatest, but if it works with the story okay, none of this cutting out singles with crappy lyrics that don't make sense together (I’m looking at you Kris Allen – how could you be so disappointing?). Or situations where there is clearly a single or two that makes no sense with the tone or style of the rest of the album but is marketable enough to sell your album (Duffy, you are the quintessential example of this).

I was going to do this in one installment, but after working on it for a week, it’s way too long for a single blog post, so I’m breaking it up over a series of posts. Here we go!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Holiday Films: Take Two!

Everyone’s talking about it. It was all over Facebook updates. Of course, I’m talking about Avatar, James Cameron’s first full-length feature film since Titanic – which, no joke, is pretty awesome. It’s taken me a few days to think about what I want to say critically about the film. Here are the basics – it’s Dances with Wolves in space. Not that I expect much from Cameron in terms of dialogue and story…in fact, the story was probably better on the whole than I expected. There are guys searching for something called “unobtainium” which they find on a planet with an indigenous people. Of course, the largest deposit of this mineral is underneath the site where they live. High-tech battles over the resource ensue, issues about biology, the environment, technology and humanity are called into question. The ending is feel good, and leaves itself open for a sequel. Basically everything an action film is supposed to do – this film does it REALLY well.

The film is enjoyable and impressive. Up until now, I’ve sort of taken the whole 3D thing as a gimmick to impress kids and jack up ticket prices. Now I’m thinking it might actually go somewhere. It’s not perfect, and it still gave me a headache afterward, but several scenes were enhanced by the depth perception. I also sort of want to see it again to see if your placement in the theater impacts this (I went with my seven-month pregnant sister, which meant we had to sit on the aisle). The acting was pretty good given the confines of the script, with Giovanni Ribisi turning in what I thought was one of his best performances ever. The second to last new episode of Bones this fall made WAY more sense when I realized that Joel Moore is in the film.

My qualms are minor – but of course I have them, because I can’t just enjoy a feature film for what it is. I think my biggest issue was that I wanted more information. There are scenes that talk about the biology of the planet and what not, but don’t go into depth (I mean, seriously, “unobtainium”? Apparently I'm not the only one that thought this was ridiculous...). Similarly, the technology behind the avatars isn’t quite fleshed out, but couldn’t have been written the way it was even five years ago with the increase in avatar gaming and what not. My sister’s biggest problem was the, “how are they going to write their way out of this?” – but the scene where Grace is presented to Eywa solves the problem (she turned to me at this point in the film and said, “Oh! I know how this ends. We can go home now.”)

Overall, it was a great film experience. I would be shocked if this film doesn’t totally sweep every technical category at the Oscars this year. I feel bad for J.J. Abrams. Star Trek probably won’t win any special effects awards against this film…which is unfortunate, because it really was one of the better films of the year in that respect.