Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Work Does Suck

In my experience offices are pretty boring places, but spending every day at work in the summer and going about the same routine day after day has not yet caused me to create a separate, cooler personality or react in some other sort of odd way. However, I've noticed lately that a lot of movies and a few t.v. shows involve someone freaking out because of office life. Maybe 1999 was a bad year for guys in offices, because besides Fight Club, one of the most memorable movies of the year was Office Space, arguably one of the funniest movies of the decade. The funny thing about Office Space as compared to Fight Club is that the main characters of each respective film react to their lives in a similar manner, but the overall tones are pretty different. In Office Space, Peter Gibbons (the main character who works a practically meaningless job in a generic company) is hypnotized into a state of bliss and is never brought out of it due to the untimely death of the hypnotist. His newfound state of happiness inspires him to stop caring about his job, which ironically works in his favor even though his company is in the middle of layoffs. Even though Peter pretty much stops coming to work, he is somehow seen as more valuable to his company than ever before.

The main character of Fight Club also works an office job that he has no passion for and lives a comfortable, boring life. He too finds bliss through an altered state of being, though his is from the fight club rather than being hypnotized. He too makes his new attitude work to his advantage at work by brilliantly blackmailing his boss into paying him as an "outside consultant." Fight Club is darkly humorous, but it is not out-and-out funny in the way that Office Space is. However, both films send a certain message about large companies and the devotion of an entire generation to meaningless pursuits.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

I am Jack's Complete and Utter Awe

I am also Jack's contentedness. Kudos to you Donna, for Fight Club was an awesome movie on which to end this class. The humor, the plot, the cast, and all of the little nuances completely brought the movie together into one amazing experience. I think that the overall style of the film has been my favorite thus far; the director used a lot of really unique angles, flashbacks, and a first-person narrative that made the twist at the end even more surprising. The funny thing is that before seeing the movie, I thought that Fight Club was just a film about, well, a fight club. For some reason (at least around me) everybody kind of followed the first rule about fight club. I've never really heard anybody talk about it or the overall plot of the film. Even though if I'd known the plot of the movie I would have watched it before this, I'm kind of glad that I went in with a blank slate. It totally wasn't what I expected, so I think it made that much more of an impact.

After class, a few of us discussed the character of Tyler Durden on the way back to our respective rooms, and though we didn't all completely agree, it gave me some major food for thought. We see that at the beginning of the movie Edward Norton's character has absolutely no sense of identity; he is nameless, except for the identities that he bestows upon himself during his first round of trying to find meaning in the support groups, he works a seemingly unremarkable office job, and he has a condo filled with mass-produced "cool" furniture. The narrator creates Tyler as a reaction to his surroundings and his feelings of having no identity, and in Tyler finds everything he wants to be and everything that he ultimately fears. He creates Tyler to become free of the restraints on his life, the restraints that society places on every man in his generation.

The existence of Tyler as a vehicle of freedom is the obvious satire of the movie. Norton's character creates Tyler, becomes Tyler, to free himself, but it is the very creation of Tyler Durden that ultimately ensnares him. Tyler becomes the system that he is fighting against, with his army of unquestioning and nameless followers, his weird little soap factory, and his incredibly well-planned agenda to stick it to the man. During his entire "existence", Tyler frees nobody, not the narrator, not the members of Project Mayham. Strangely enough, it is only with the existence and subsequent demise of Tyler Durden that the narrator truly frees himself and those around him.

Even though I didn't think that Tyler Durden was a morally good character, the very thought of how he came to be is kind of cool, and a little scary. I think any of us, especially in our generation without much to really rail against, could have a Tyler Durden waiting to come out fighting. However, there is a flip side to that coin: humans will always struggle with one another, and the world will never be peaches and cream. If you can't find anything to give your life meaning, something to really care about, then you aren't looking hard enough.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Direct Me, Please

Well, at least Steve Buscemi made it out alive. I don't exactly know why, but Reservoir Dogs wasn't really my cup of tea. Even though I've thought about it all week, I still can't put my finger on what about the film didn't appeal to my tastes. Perhaps it was the excessive violence, the crudeness, or the drawn out discussions about nothing that matters. Maybe it was the fact that I didn't find any of the characters relatable or likeable. Who knows, it could be a combination of all these factors--which I usually don't mind in a film--in a way that didn't strike me as cool.

I think one big thing that alienates me from most of Quentin Tarantino's work is that he and I don't really share the same idea of cool. As we see in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has an uber-masculine outlook on cool, with all of his big cars and big guns and big talking characters. It's all very in-your-face and violent, with loads of pop culture thrown in somewhat arbitrarily. Tarantino took a lot of things he thought were cool, from music to styles to ways of killing of characters, but I didn't really relate to much of it. I do have to give Tarantino his props for his new and stylistically cool direction style, but I think that like M. Night Shyamalan, he should leave the writing for someone else to do. Shyamalan isn't a direct comparison, as his films are absolutely nothing like Tarantino's and I tend to like his earlier work better (with Tarantino I would rather watch his later films), but I think his direction style is much better than his writing. He is also another director that should stay the hell out of his own movies. Seriously, QT and MNS, you are much better behind the camera, believe me.

I also tend to compare Tarantino to another writing and directing powerhouse: the duo that made their name big in the 1990s, Joel and Ethan Coen. The Coens, like Tarantino, have made their names synonymous to some with a few of their more macho flicks like Fargo and The Big Labowski, both of which are favorites of mine. These movies also use a lot of violence and can get pretty crude in places, but I found the writing both entertaining and shocking, which I didn't really get in Reservoir Dogs.

Maybe it's just a matter of personal preference, but I think that Quentin Tarantino and I will have to agree to disagree on our views of cool, at least for now.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Hip Question

-Facebook chat
-skinny jeans
-Adam Lambert
-one-of-a-kind threads
-acoustic guitar
-The Colbert Report
-going green
-Barack Obama
-Tower of Power

-Internet Explorer
-plaid shorts
-Clay Aiken
-clone clothes
-The O'Reilly Factor
-plastic bags
-Fox News
-the Church
-John McCain (c'mon, you knew it was coming)
-Huey Lewis and the News

Okay, so those last two on each list were kind of a joke. But still, this list was not at all easy, and it's mostly due to the phenomenon of the hipster. I don't know about you guys, but I find it completely bizarre that there is a subculture of people who all like the exact same things and dress the same way and make fun of other people for not being "scene", yet flip out if you give them a name and point out the fact that you've seen about five other people with the pair of Converse they have on. Now, I'm not bashing Converse, obviously, as I own a pair or two and wear them constantly. However, I am fully aware that my gray Converse sneakers were mass produced and that they sell them at Target (mostly because that's where I got mine, but that's beside the point); . It seems that nobody really likes hipsters (including hipsters, who don't want to realize that they follow a mass movement), but at the same time I think that if liking "hip" things qualifies one as a hipster, we all have one in us somewhere.

For me, the lines between "hip" and "square" get blurrier every day. The prevailing attitude that I gather from most of my peers is that individuality is cool, but if you look around, everyone tends to follow the same sorts of trends. From what I gather, the members of our "cool culture" are all a herd of followers who really just can't admit to our own conformity. So what does this say about coolness? Is it cooler to ignore the fact that we like being "hip" and keep on being the same while we pretend to be different, or should we preserve our cool by finding new, more individual tastes and interests? I propose a separate solution: how about we all just embrace our conformity? You like what you like, and if they happen to be the same "hip" things that all the other cool kids like, so be it, and if they happen to be super-dorky things that lots of people like but no one will admit to (I'm looking at you, Huey Lewis), then so be it. Maybe it really is hip to be square.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dragging Along

In the almost twenty years since the filming of Paris Is Burning, the LGBT community as a whole has experienced somewhat of a coming out in mainstream popular culture. It always seems as though comedy is the first place people and ideas that were formerly taboo gain acceptance, and this is definitely the case with gay and lesbian roles in movies and t.v. shows. However, since the 1990s there have been more and more serious roles and discussions of LGBT people in dramatic, mainstream movies and shows, Queer as Folk and Brokeback Mountain being two that immediately come to mind. There have also been more roles that depict gay characters in films and t.v. series that don't focus on their homosexuality, but are instead simply people who are homosexual. A good example of this is the character of Marshall on HBO's newly released United States of Tara, a show about on a dysfunctional family that must deal with the mother's (Toni Collette) Multiple Personality Disorder.

Although these advances are pretty important to the acceptance and integration of the gay community into mainstream culture, there are still parts of the LGBT community that have not yet sufficiently escaped the comedy spotlight. Transgendered people and the drag lifestyle are both still mainly entrenched in farcical depictions, such as Victor/Victoria, Tootsie, and the classic Some Like It Hot. Now, I'm not saying that I don't think drag-based movies are good or funny (Some Like It Hot is one of my all-time favorites) but I do think it's a shame that the topic hasn't been explored in more serious films.

There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule. Since the 1990s (Paris Is Burning actually probably influenced some of these films) there have been a few good films made about transgendered lifestyle, if not about the drag scene. Hedwig and the Angry Inch came out in 1993, a staged musical-turned-film about a rock band fronted by a transgendered singer. By the end of the film, Hedwig sort of reminds me of some of the older drag queens in Paris Is Burning, particularly Dorian Corey. Though she sees her mentee go on to become a successful rock star, she somehow never makes it big and spends her career playing small coffee joints and shady dives. The most recent film I can think of that really focuses on the trangendered lifestyle is 2005's Transamerica, starring none other than desparate housewife Felicity Huffman. Transamerica is the story of Bree, a transsexual awaiting his last operation who learns he has a son from a one-time sexual encounter when she was still a man. Bree is forced to confront her past before the operation can go on, and is one of the only non-documentary films that I know of that deals directly with being transgendered.

The drag scene and transgendered lifestyle has not yet been as explored as thoroughly as other aspects of the homosexuality, but there are a few excellent exceptions. We can only hope that these exceptions lead to acceptance.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Like A Gay Street Gang...

One of my first thoughts after the credits for Paris Is Burning ended (after, Well, this should make for an interesting discussion) was that I am really glad that someone documented all of this. Jeanie Livingston's careful documentation of New York City drag life would not have been out of place in any anthropology class I've ever had, so the experience of watching kind of shocking and foreign things wasn't so, well, shocking and foreign. I was more fascinated by the entirety of the culture, from the practice of voguing to the categories and processes of competing in balls, and the way it related and fit in to American culture as a whole. I'm not a huge fan of the classroom brand of American history, but things like this remind me that the history of the U.S. isn't just old guys making laws and wars. I'm a dork, I know.

Ball culture began in earnest for minority LBGTQ people in the 1960s and 1970s when the underground drag shows began in Harlem and started being organized by groups of people who separated into houses modeled after mainstream culture fashion houses, such as the House of Chanel. Though balls had been around since the 1930s, they were previously run by white men and had limited minority participation; perhaps the fact that these separate events began taking place around the time of mainstream civil rights movements is not complete coincidence. This subculture is inextricably connected to mainstream culture, and over time, the drag culture has become an inextricable part of mainstream popular culture.

The most fascinating thing about Paris Is Burning in relation to the other films we've watched, especially Saturday Night Fever, is how thin the line between escapism and reality can be. For Tony in Saturday Night Fever, the nightclub scene is only a part of his life that he uses to escape from the day to day dreariness. It is a hobby in which he finds meaning, and though it influences other areas of his life, like his monetary habits and work ethic, the disco is largely separate. For the people in Paris Is Burning (who are real, mind you) the drag balls are not just a hobby, they are a way of life. The balls are what brought about different houses, which provide the function of a family for individuals who grew up without a family or who were rejected by their own biological kin. These houses are just one of the ways that people in an extreme minority can cope with the rejection and even hatred of others in the same social class. Although ball culture may have started for some as escapism, it has become for most participants the main focus of one's life, unlike Tony in Saturday Night Fever.

Seeing Paris Is Burning was a valuable experience not just in the sense of understanding a different type of cool, but also in understanding a part of American history and culture. Kudos to Jeanie Livingston for capturing the ball culture to be remembered and shared, and I hope to see more of her work in the future.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Of Onions and News Shows

Though the whole of Robocop was awesome, one of my favorite parts was the news clips and the commercials in between the news segments. They were only a small part of the film, but they really set up for the audience an overall setting of the world that Robocop exists in and provide a bigger picture of how the people in Verhoeven's futuristic America think and act. The news in the movie is presented in all seriousness, but you would have to be pretty clueless to not pick up on the strong underlying tones of satire in the stories read by the newsanchors and commericals for toys like "Nuke-em!" and giant gas-guzzling automobiles. I can definitely see this part of Robocop providing inspiration for the advent of satirical news that was presented in two kinds of ways.

In the most popular satirical news, instead of serious anchors reading off outrageous fake news stories, the news stories are real and the anchors provide the slant that makes actual events seem more than a bit ridiculous. I've mentioned The Daily Show and The Colbert Report before in passing as cool sources of news for hip young things, but they really are brilliant. The Daily Show premiered in 1996 (not that long after the last Robocop installment) with anchor Craig Kilborn as a "fake news" program. Though it still refers to itself as such, the show has taken on some pretty serious national and international news issues under Jon Stewart, the current anchor who took over in 1998. Stewart often interviews serious authors and political figures, including foreign prime ministers and presidents as well as American Senators and Congress members. The show became especially popular among college students and young adults during the Bush administration, as Jon and the rest of the correspondents voiced many opinions that could not be found on regular news shows. The Daily Show may be advertised as just comedy, but like all good satire, Jon and company use their humor and exagerrated takes on issues to get viewers to wake up and pay attention to world events in a way that other news shows cannot.

Another popular form of news satire is closer to that used in Robocop: fake news presented in all seriousness. The most popular provider of this type of satire is by far The Onion (motto: America's Finest News Source) a newspaper and website that appears exactly as an actual newspaper would, just with completely outrageous stories. I had actually forgotten about The Onion until we watched Robocop, but this past week the site has seen many, many hits from yours truly. It has a special place in my heart not only for getting me through my Business Law class senior year of high school (especially during the unit on torts), but also for being one of the absolute best web sites for entertainment news I've ever come across. The Onion was founded in 1988 by two students at the University of Wisconson, starting as only a small paper popular in surrounding universities. When the web site launched in the mid-1990s, The Onion gained national popularity that is still growing today. The Onion's articles, videos, and regular columns not only make you bust a gut laughing, but often point out how ridiculous pop culture can get and offer a pretty pointed view on certain people and happenings.

From Jonathan Swift to Stephen Colbert, satire always has been and always will be cool. The use of irony and disattachment in satire is not only smirk-worthy, but presents the opportunity to get people to think about real issues in a clever way.