I realize that Kick-Ass is gratuitously violent and profane. But when it comes to roles–and role models–for teenage girls, more of this please:
So, for some reason, I always find myself queuing up the Rent original cast recording around this time of year. I think it’s probably because more than half the show takes place between Christmas and New Year’s, and I like the slightly fractured sound of Christmas carols that slither through the score. But this year I really noticed a shift in how I feel about the show, something that’s been coming on for a while, I think. While in middle school and high school, I–and every other artsy girl in the country–definitely identified with the dramatic and freezing artists who make up the core of the show’s cast, I’ve come to a place where I identify a lot more with the characters who are pursuing art and justice through the system, namely Benny and Joanne.
I feel deeply strange about this. I was a bit of a college radical. I got arrested in a protest! I had to go to a disciplinary hearing! I want to sympathize with the yippie protesters demanding that homeless people not be evicted from a vacant lot around Christmas! But I kind of can’t deny that I find the starving artists in Rent a little…obnoxious. It’s not actually romantic to freeze and live in a slum (or a hipster trailer)–romanticizing that experience is just a way to make it bearable. And when Benny points out that “Maureen is protesting losing her performance space / Not my attitude,” he’s absolutely right. Her protest has nothing to do with the lived experience of homeless people in New York. It’s all about a kind of bohemian posturing. And as much as Benny’s kind of an ass, sexually harassing Mimi, threatening to kick his old buddies out of their apartment, and declaring the death of Bohemia, he also ultimately gives them their housing back (not that they’re remotely grateful or anything, which always rubbed me the wrong way), offers to get Mimi into rehab, and pays for Angel’s funeral. Like it or not, living does take money, and Benny’s one of the only characters practical to recognize that.
But he’s still basically an unpleasant person, and in truth, the person I like most in Rent now is Joanne. When she sings ”I look before I leap / I love margins and discipline / Baby, what’s my sin? / Never quit, I follow through / I hate mess but I love you / What to do with my impromptu baby? / So be wise, ’cause this girl satisfies” in “Take Me Or Leave Me,” that’s basically my personality. Joanne, tied with Benny, is probably the most effective character in the entire show. She’s working full-time as a lawyer along with producing Maureen’s show; she’s the only person with enough knowledge to figure out that Mark, Collins and Roger have squatter’s rights; and she and Maureen find and save Mimi at the end of the show. Joanne is engaged with the artistic efforts that absorb the rest of the show’s characters, but she’s also working for change in a larger world–she’s not myopic, though it’s clear from her calls with her parents that she’s blazing her own path within the legal profession. Joanne wants a world where wearing Doc Martens is no impediment to being a badass attorney, which is essentially what I’d like to see, too.
I even feel like Alexi Darling, Mark’s producer at Buzzline, gets a bad rap. The disdain with which she’s treated, despite the fact that she gives Mark an income and the financial means to finish his movie is really kind of disgusting. The news business may not be art, but at least Alexi wants to cover a protest in support of the homeless. I don’t really see a reason why Mark, et.al. are purer than her.
Now, let me be clear, I have a lot of respect for people who throw themselves into artistic work, despite the fact that it’s rarely financially rewarding and exposes them to a deeply uncertain life. I recognize there are major problems with gentrification, the treatment of the homeless in New York, etc. I just respect people who work within the system to foster support for art, to combat sexism, to make the law fairer. And ultimately, I grew up to be one of them. My pre-teen and teenage ambitions to write fiction are basically shelved. I work as a reporter, and write about popular culture in a mainstream publication that’s been hesitant in the past to really dive into the subject. And frankly, I’m okay with that. I don’t think it’s a path that automatically deserves disdain. I still like Rent. But I see very differently than I did when my neighbor first taped the cast recording for me.
This conversation between Peter Jackson and James Cameron about the future of film-making is pretty great, and you should read the whole thing. I hope Jackson’s right about this, but I’m not entirely optimistic:
There are all great tools that people haven’t quite gotten their heads around yet. But one of the things that has happened [is that] people focus on technology. Probably the film industry has been guilty; there’s more attention spent on the technical aspects than the story. That’s led to a self-fulfilling prophecy. People regard CGI as a gimmick, they almost blame CGI for a bad story or a bad script. They talk about CGI as if it’s responsible for a drop in standards. We’ve gotten to a point now where there isn’t nothing else we haven’t seen. We’ve seen dinosaurs, we’ve seen aliens; with Avatarwe’ve seen realistic creatures. I think we’re going to enter a phase where there’s less interest in the CGI and there’s a demand for story again. I think we’ve dropped the ball a little bit on stories for the sake of the amazing toys that we’ve played with.
I think it may take longer than Jackson thinks for people to get sufficiently accustomed to spectacle that it’s not enough to make a moviegoing experience satisfying for them. But even if it takes a while, it’s encouraging that two guys who are some of the most important technological innovators in film are also two of the guys most committed to story out there, and have the clout to make expensive, daring, story-driven movies.
“Drops of Jupiter” was one of the biggest radio airplay songs of the decade*?
Man, has a) pop culture generally and b) the role of radio changed a lot since 2001.
*I know the song was released in 1998. Just going by the airplay stats in the linked article.
I really dig this post by quadmoniker over at PostBourgie about the need for Hollywood to get more women directors in the mix. She writes, of the stunning excellence that is The Hurt Locker (probably my vote for best movie I’ve seen this year):
I’m not going to say that this was due to Bigelow’s special woman-sense or anything, because we don’t know why she was able to make it so good. That’s kind of the point….If we leave out half the population from movie-making, we’re leaving out half the perspectives that might be able to bring something new to the table. The major studios would be better off if they brought it, because I’d love to see more movies like The Hurt Locker.
The one thing I’d add is that we don’t know that “half the perspectives” would necessarily be gendered. It turns out that just as I didn’t need a woman to make a movie about enduring female friendships in New York City, I didn’t need someone with specific combat experience to make an astonishing movie about war: I needed Kathryn Bigelow. The reason to finance movies by female directors is not because you’ve suddenly discovered that shucks, ladies go to the movies and they have all this money to spend on fancy shoes so why not on tickets, and broads will attract broads, right? The reason to back movies by female directors is that they’re just as well equipped as male directors to capture the entire spectrum of humanity.
Now, my admiration for my Atlantic colleague James Parker’s writing and vision of pop culture is a matter of public record. But I’ve got some issues with his list of the top popular culture moments of the decade, which seems to me like a fairly good example of why lists like these are more a window into an individual critic’s psyche than into any given set of experiences in any given period of time.
First, only one of his choices, the rise of Jersey Shore and The City, is about women artists, or performers, or whatever. Leaving gender aside for a moment, it seems to me that if you want to single out reality television about the young and aimless, it makes more sense to pick Laguna Beach, which kicked all of this nonsense off. The show may be less aimless or offensive than either of Parker’s choices, but it’s an origin, a turning point, rather than a culmination. But the gender stuff does matter. Especially given that this has been a fascinating, problematic decade for women in popular culture. What about Britney Spears’ meltdown, the coverage of which was a popular culture phenomenon in and of itself, breaking new ground in invasive coverage of a clearly disturbed woman, and a major transition point away from late 90′s-early aughts mass-produced pop? What about Helen Mirren conquering the United States and rising as a viable alternative to Meryl Streep, herself in an astonishingly productive period of her career, both of them symbolizing a path to aging into grandness? What about the absurd genius of Lady Gaga, who may be a late entrant into the aughts, but emerged as the first viable heir to Madonna in two decades? The fact that black actors and musicians are left off this list bothers me too. No Kanye West, no matter how ridiculous he may have become over the course of the decade? The bridging of the gap between indie and hip-hop, and between black audiences and white audiences, seems to me to be a significant hallmark of this decade: thus, OutKast’s B.O.B. topping indie record site Pitchfork’s songs of the aughts list.
Second, I have no idea how the rise of cable and premium television as not just a viable site but the critical incubator of astonishing entertainment is entirely left off this list. Grizzly Man may be a good movie, but while James resonates to its pastoral awe, the depictions of urban centers and suburban tension in The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men say a great deal more about where our society is at today and how it got there than a fiercely individual movie about a suicidally individual man does. I don’t mind some of the smaller entrants on this list–the rise of things like tribute bands and fan culture more generally is certainly one of the important developments in popular culture of this decade. But Grizzly Man just strikes me as too small.
But the thing is, who am I to say this list is entirely wrong? Or any other critic? We all see influences and progressions differently, and developments in different garden patches of popular culture register as more or less important on our respective radars. I understand the urge to define canons: it gets pageviews and sells magazines. But I actually think best-of lists are more useful as a way of individual critics explaining what they value and why as a service to the readers who rely on them year- and decade-round than of actually establishing definitive bests.
So, during Law & Order marathons, James Patterson is running pretty strange advertisements for his latest novel, I, Alex Cross. It’s just him on screen, holding up the novel and telling viewers: ”Buy this book. Or I’ll have to kill off Alex Cross…It’s very good by the way.” I don’t think of Patterson as an auteur with great artistic integrity, or anything, and I assume it’s an echo of National Lampoon‘s “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, we’ll Kill This Dog” cover, but it still seems unusually ineffective. Patterson’s not going to kill off a successful character, so the threat is hollow. And the spot does zero to convince readers who aren’t already familiar with Patterson’s work that the novel is remotely worth reading. Maybe they assume that anyone who is watching Law & Order marathons is naturally a Patterson-head. But it’s still a weak pitch.
I basically agree with Ta-Nehisi on whether stereotypes in professional wrestling are harmful:
Truthfully, it doesn’t bother me now and I see it as a kind of vaudeville. The key is that pro wrestling made gimmicks and employed stereotypes fairly equally. I’ll leave to others to speak on how they felt. I think smacking Jimmy Snuka with a coconut was pretty ignorant, but the context of having, say, Roddy Piper as a hot-blooded Scottsman, Hillbilly Jim as an Appalachian hick, Nikita Koloff as “The Russian Nightmare,” The Iron Sheik as the tool of Iranian tyrants, Hacksaw Jim Duggan as a redneck, and Brother Love as a Jimmy Swaggart made it hard to be angry.
I think professional wrestling tends to walk a fine line between using typing to brand individual characters, and to convey messages and to rope in new audiences. I don’t think, for example, the branding of the wrestler Sheamus as “the Celtic Warrior” is an ethnically meaningful statement. I don’t know that there’s strong enough ethnic identity in the United States that having a distinctively Irish wrestler would draw in new audiences, much less that such an ethnic enclave is significant enough to worth disapprobation to draw in with a type. On the other hand, the increasing Central American immigrant population in the United States is big enough that it makes sense to coopt element of lucha libre, rebrand them within a larger context, and draw in an audience that misses a familiar form, but that’s also interested in embracing American popular culture.
I’m not saying the WWE is exceptionally sensitive. That fine line in ethnic branding doesn’t exactly apply to WWE divas in the same way it does to the male wrestlers. The plots are, um, broad. But I think WWE has been smart, commercially. They’ve used broad ethnic branding without getting in trouble for it. And they’ve made a lot of money by doing so.
So, Ethan Hawke’s new vampire-action movie, Daybreakers, looks a little mordant and silly, and I’m not sure it has any of the stylishness that made the Blade movies so much fun:
That said, I’m quite fond of movies, TV shows, etc., that grapple meaningfully with vampirism as a choice. Not all supernatural manifestations lend themselves particularly well to discussions of the nature of evil. If you’re a werewolf, in most narratives, you don’t have a lot of choice about whether your brain shuts off and you get all hairy and bloodthirsty once a month. If you’re a zombie, you don’t really have a brain at all to make choices with. Vampirism used to be the same way: if you needed human blood to survive, you were going to kill people to get it. But it’s one of the few supernatural manifestations of evil that’s changed with technological advancements. The existence of blood donation technology means that needing human blood doesn’t require murder–the killing part of vampire identity becomes a choice. And synthetic blood can–as it does on True Blood–take humans out of the equation entirely. It’s true that medical advancement has more generally introduced the idea of cures to magical transformation stories. But vampirism is the supernatural evil that’s been most directly affected by medical developments, I think.
One of the reasons I found Twilight so vexing is that it entirely walks away from these kinds of opportunities. Carlisle Cullen (the “father” of the Cullen clan of vampires, for those of you lucky enough never have to read the damn things) is a doctor for goodness sake–they’re perfectly set up to include those medical developments in the novels, though except for a Breaking Dawn episode in which Bella drinks donated human blood, the books avoid both the medical developments that affect vampirism, and really the questions of evil and control and choice more generally. Daybreakers may look kind of trashy and violent, and have some really doofy looking special effects. But at least it has more moral questions going for it than Twilight does.
But when, in the second Clash of the Titans trailer, Liam Neeson declares “Release the Kraken!” did everyone involved in the film’s production somehow miss the Pirates of the Caribbean reference? And if so, how?
I’ve got a longer remembrance of Brittany Murphy and the cultural impact of Clueless up at The Atlantic today. It’s hard to think of another movie that a) my father liked that also b) influenced a million middle-school girls’ fashion choices.
Brittany Murphy has reportedly passed away. She was 32. And while she’d seemed to have lost her way as an actress in recent years, her performance as Tai in Clueless is absolutely iconic. I don’t mean that in a big, Grace Kelly way, or anything like that. But she was the epitome of cute awkwardness. We may have all wanted to be Cher, but at heart, most of us were really Tai. So sad.
So, Mr. & Mrs. Smith was on FX last night, and I definitely didn’t notice this when I saw it in 2005, but Angelina Jolie’s team of spies in the movie is made up of some pretty amazing female actors. Among them, Kerry Washington, former Law & Order: Special Victims Unit ADA Alex Cabot (aka Stephanie March), and House M.D. vet (and Kirk’s mom!) Jennifer Morrison. I’ve always had genial feelings for that particular piece of trash, and I feel even better about it noticing they gave some actresses a little work in roles that could have been filled by nobodies.
Washington, D.C. is about to get deluged by what is apparently an actual phenomenon: extremely heavy snow and thunder, known as thundersnow. And of course, someone’s written a song about thundersnow. Pop culture encompasses all things!
Okay, there’s a bit of false advertising in the title of this post. Yes, there’s new Robyn here, but she’s just singing the chorus on a pretty sweet song by I Blame Coco, also known as Sting’s daughter:
I’m kind of digging that “It’s the Milgram device all over again” line.
But really, the song is making me wonder when we’re going to get a new Robyn album. She’s had a great run of guest appearances, whether mixing it up with Snoop Dogg or absolutely killing the vocals on “The Girl and the Robot” (which has one of my favorite videos of the year). But it’s been 2005 since she released Robyn on her own label, Konichiwa Records. That record is one of the defining CDs of my early twenties. The bravado on “Curriculum Vitae” is a fairly precise match for my sense of humor, and for the kind of self-presentation I wanted to have when I was graduating from college. ”Bum Like You” and “Be Mine” were the opposite heads of a coin that encapsulated my feelings during a tough transition period. And “Handle Me” is a great, slightly overaggressive anthem to independence of all kinds. But we’re coming up on five years now. I want more from her–and I want it to be entirely her creative vision, not in collaboration with anyone else. Robyn is too unique, and too fascinating, to deny us herself for this long.
Quite literally, in fact! Shaolin is set for a $137-million initial public offering that will enable the site–and the head monk there–to promote tourism in the region and to enhance Shaolin’s cultural brand. I recognize that this is a serious issue for Zen Buddhism, and indeed, having beauty contests at the temple seems pretty inappropriate. But really, all I want to do is make Carl Douglas jokes. I am a bad person.
Update: PostBourgie’s Jamelle and coworker and buddy Gautham Nagesh have pointed out, via Twitter, that I really should be posting Wu-Tang videos on this post. They’re probably right, but I was a nerdy little suburban white girl when I acquired my goofy Carl Douglas references, and I stand by ‘em. But to appease them:
Emily Nussbaum’s New York piece about how television became art in this decade is, predictably wonderful. But I wish she’d spent a little bit more time on the structural issues that allowed shows ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Sopranos to The Wire to Dexter to Mad Men to survive and thrive. One point she makes that I think is critically important is that technology both allowed audiences to exist beyond the rigid time slot when shows originally aired and the time they were released on DVD, and provided supportive communities that deepened fans’ analysis of and attachment to complex shows. She writes:
In fact, a series like The Wire might not have found that audience were it not for galloping advances in technology: DVDs that allowed viewers to watch a whole season in a gulp and, later, DVRs that let viewers curate, pause, and reflect. By opening up TV to deeper analysis, these technologies emboldened a community of TV-philes, fans and academics who defended the medium as worthy of critical respect. Online, writers were forced to reckon with their most passionate viewers (and some loopy new critical forms: the recap, fan fiction, “filk”). A show like Lost, with its recursive symbol-games, couldn’t exist without the Internet’s mob-think. But this was true as well for The Sopranos and Mad Men, allusive dramas that rewarded rumination, causing nationwide waves of appreciation and backlash for months after each new episode.