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.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Robocop was one of the few movies on the list that I've seen previous to this class, and I have to say, I didn't really enjoy it the first time around. However, after watching it a second time I completely retract my previous statement. I still don't think Robocop is a movie for everyone--mostly meaning my thirteen-year-old self--but I do now realize that it is more than just a cheesy 80s action flick with a corny central storyline and lower-budget special effects. In fact, I would chiefly describe Robocop as smart, which is not a word I use for most action movies.

Satire is one of my favorite genres, be it more dramatic or more comedic, so I was pretty pleased when this it came up as one of the "categories of cool" for the week. I especially liked the satire in Robocop because it is noticeable enough so that the film isn't written off but it is not overt enough to be obnoxious. Even though the film focused mainly on satirizing issues facing the 1980s, such as the Reagan administration and looming privitization of any and every business, the commentary is still relevant today. We're undergoing a major change between privitization and socialization and I think that capitalism will be an issue for quite a few decades to come.

There is also the issue of the place of science in business and society. In the beginning the major corporation in Robocop uses science to build potentially dangerous weaponry that has no human judgment or discretion to deal with the issue of crime, which is to me a very frightening idea. The scene in which Jones' pet project ED-209 blasts the hell out of a company drone when it malfunctions seems a bit over-the-top (as it is meant to), but when you think about it the idea isn't totally far-fetched. Even if the scientists had been able to stop it in the boardroom, what if it had malfunctioned when on duty? Do heavily armed machines really need to be out on the streets patrolling for crime with little to no human control and involvement? I know I sound kind of paranoid, but in an age where literally almost anything is technologically plausible, I don't feel so silly.

When it comes to these scientific advances, we not only have morality problems of creating a robotic weapon, but the ethical issue of Murphy, Robocop himself. The moral question of whether or not it is humanistically right to create a cyborg from someone who was once fully human looms large over the entire movie. Sure, there is the obvious ethical faux-pas of erasing his memory and the entire Directive Four thing that is definitely not right, but what of the idea of using a dead guy as a super crime-fighting robot in the first place? Even if they hadn't erased his memory or gotten rid of all of his body parts, is it in any sense right? We discussed in class how corny the storyline of Murphy and Lewis and the whole buddy-cop thing was, but I believe that it was there to make a point about the extents to which science should be used. The beginning when Murphy is still Murphy and he comes into the station as the new kid in town, gets assigned a pretty lady cop partner, and talks about his kids is pretty hokey, but I think that (like everything in a Verhoeven movie) the hokiness has a purpose. As we see later on in the movie, Murphy as Robocop can't relate to Lewis or anyone else in that same way. As a human he can be hokey and cheesy and build bonds, but as a robot he is primarily a product. There are still parts of humanity left, but it definitely is not the same.

This movie gave me a lot of food for thought; in fact, more than enough to digest in just one blog. I can already tell this is a film I'm going to revisit several times in the months and years to come, and hopefully I can find even more nuances of satire in every viewing. Domi arigato for now, Robocop, and I'm sure I'll see you again soon.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Maybe I'm Just Cynical, but...

If you don't look at Saturday Night Fever closely, you might see the kind of thing that I saw previous to watching the film in class and discussing the different themes and meanings within the movie. At first glance, it looks like just another dance movie: lower class male + pretty girl he meets at a club/studio + talent for dance + dance competition/trial of some sort = stereotypical dance movie. However, this is not the case. Saturday Night Fever is truly unique, at least when it is put up for comparison with other dance movies, especially those produced within the last ten years or so. I haven't seen every single movie about dancing made since Saturday Night Fever, but many that I have seen follow the formula above and are tied up in a nice happy ending where everyone gets what they want or learns a valuable life lesson, whereas Saturday Night Fever keeps it gritty and realistic til the very end.

Take for example 2006's Step Up, in which tough street kid Tyler meets upper middle-class dancer Nora when he and some friends break into the art school she attends. The two end up working together, dancing to impress dance troupe scouts for a prospective career (Nora) and to gain admittance into said fancy art school to get off the streets and actually have a future (Tyler). It's been out for a while and even spawned a sequel by now, but I only saw the movie this past summer after hearing several of my classmates gush about how romantic it was during high school. I have to say, I really wasn't that impressed; the movie tries so hard to be street, bringing gang life, auto theft, and even a grudge killing into the script, but I thought it ultimately came off as weakly written and kind of cheesy. And of course, the main characters end up falling in love getting what they both want in an optimistic, cheery ending.

Another film such as this is 2001's Save the Last Dance, in which
Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas (classically trained privileged white female and lower class black male with high hopes and
dreams) team up to get Julia Stiles' character into Julliard. Julia gets into Julliard, Sean gets into Georgetown, the two star-crossed teens fall in love. The acting and script were somewhat redeemable in this movie, but surely this is starting to sound familiar. The point I'm trying to make is that these movies and a ton of others like them have the same essential elements as Saturday Night Fever, but lack one important theme: realism. Sure, Tony goes to the club and dances his little heart out and he is rather talented, but at the end of the night (and at the end of the film) he still lives with his parents in Brooklyn selling paint for a living. It would have been easy to write the script more optimistically, giving Tony a big break or getting him a girlfriend or even just giving him a genuine determination to do better by himself, but that isn't what happens, and that it what makes the movie worthy of its role in film history.

Sure, Saturday Night Fever is definitely the product of a more pessimistic decade while contemporary dance movies are (well, were) produced in more optimistic times. Maybe with the recession upon us, we'll see this trend change, but my prediction is that dance movies will stay optimistic. Watching these films is within itself a form of escapism for people with real lives and real problems, people who aren't going to Julliard anytime soon, people who go back to selling paint after the movie has ended. Maybe fluffy and romantic dance movies are not of as great a quality as Saturday Night Fever, but they have their role and purpose just the same. Everybody needs an escape sometimes, and those who can't dance watch.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fine, I'll Admit It...

Okay, I've got something to admit, and it's a little bit ridiculous. Now, I have no problem admitting that some of the music on my iPod is less than choice. The Shins reside right next to Shakira and N'Sync segues right into Nada Surf; like everyone else, I have my guilty pleasures when it comes to most things, including musical tastes. This slightly tacky but highly delightful stuff is usually designated as car music, generally when I'm with close friends or by myself. One of my very favorites, though, is a fly-by one hit wonder from a few years ago that I'm pretty sure everyone else in the world (excepting my group of friends, of course) forgot about a month after it came out. Around 2004, glam metal made an all-too-brief comeback in the form of The Darkness, a British band with that one catchy single, "I Believe in a Thing Called Love." Everyone knows the song or would if someone hummed a few bars, but I don't think very many people still listen to it as much as I do.

I myself had kind of forgotten about the song until about a year ago when the song came on during a car trip with one of my friends. Instantaneously, I remembered how much fun "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" was back in 2004 and how great glam metal is in general. In the past few months I'm pretty sure every time I've gotten into my car for a trip over ten minutes in length, "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" has blasted through my car stereo. And by blast, I mean blast. This is a song that demands to be played at the highest volume your ears can phsyically take, and it also demands that you scream the lyrics at the top of your lungs along with lead singer Justin Hawkins' falsetto. "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" is good for belting out on a long-ish drive by yourself, but for maximum enjoyment, throw in a few insane friends who are more than willing to sing and dance along with you. Car, dorm room, restaurant, anywhere is a suitable location for The Darkness.

I would never say that I'm obsessed with The Darkness in a carve their initials into your flesh kind of way (this sounds like I'm exaggerating, but I have a friend who at one point in time had this sort of devotion to Aaron Carter), but I do listen to "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" when I'm in the mood to rock out to something. Most of the music in my usual repetoire is pretty mellow, so getting away from my usual genre is refreshing sometimes. There's something about glam rock that is just plain fun, be it The Darkness or Bon Jovi or any other crazy looking band with questionable music videos and power ballad lyrics. "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" may not be musically redeemable, but it is without a doubt at the top of my "Music to rock out to" playlist. And yes, I am a big enough nerd to have such a playlist, and to listen to it with alarming frequency.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wicked Awesome

Over spring break I didn't have a lot of time to watch t.v. and movies, but I did get the opportunity to see three awesome musicals in New York City: Wicked, Guys and Dolls, and Avenue Q. I've read the novel that the musical was based on, but this past week was my first chance to see Wicked in musical form. It was pretty different from the book, but the main character Elphaba (also known as the Wicked Witch of the West) was much the same in both mediums and was, as always, very cool. Elphaba is kind of an outcast her entire life, not only because she is different on the outside but because she has a not so conventional personality as well. She accompanies her favored younger sister to University, where she finds her calling in life and learns that what makes her different also defines her purpose.

In a strange way, Elphaba's type of cool sort of reminded me of Shaft. Both characters have a take-no-crap kind of attitude and both couldn't care less what other people think of what they do. Shaft and Elphaba also both have a gentler side, though, and have certain groups that they feel a need and duty to protect. Elphaba can be snarky and prickly and a bit unpleasant, but she is also fiercely loyal to her friends and causes she wishes to uphold. Later in the show, she is also publicly demonized as being "wicked" because she chooses to go against the grain, but she still has an in with the wizard who rules Oz and her friend Glinda, the powerful and popular Good Witch of the North. Shaft is the same in that he too has a duality of his nature: he works with the law establishment to fight crime, but at the same time he teams up with street gangs and other criminals to get his job done. Like Shaft, Elphaba will also do whatever it takes to get her job done.

Shaft can also be compared to another character who is snarky and prickly and a bit unpleasant, and maybe even a little bit wicked. Yes, Dr. Gregory House is all of those things, but if I had a practically undiagnosable ailment with horrible symptoms, he is certainly the doctor I would want on call. House takes Shaft's confidence and pay-the-world-no-mind attitude through the roof and although it drives everyone around him crazy, it gets the job done. Like Shaft, House fosters few personal relationships and seems to live almost solely for his work. The interesting thing about House, though, is that although his character is cool on t.v., he is probably not someone you would want to interact with on a day-to-day basis. I often wonder if House would be cool in real life, especially if he were someone I had to see every day, and I think that Shaft would fit under the same category. These types of characters just go to show that you can be kind of a jerk as long as you make up for it by being completely awesome.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Oh Yeah, I Can Dig It

I had never actually seen Shaft before last night, but somehow I was familiar with many elements of the film. With a movie that culturally iconic, it's a bit hard to not recognize the jive beat, smooth voiceovers, and oh-so-seventies dialogue as being from Shaft. However, I had never perceived Shaft as much more than a blaxploitation action movie (which is probably why I hadn't seen it) that was cool in the same way as Rocky or Die Hard. While in a way Shaft kind of fulfilled my expectations in that respect, it was also a pretty potent commentary on how views on race relations were changing in a major way in the 1970s.

If I had to use one word to describe the character of John Shaft, it would be dominating. Now, don't read me wrong, I don't mean dominating in a domineering sense. Shaft is clearly the guy in charge, from the opening sequence as he walks across a busy New York street like he owns the town to the very end when he delivers the last word to the Lieutenant Androzzi. Shaft is completely in control of every situation that he enters into, regardless of who he happens to be dealing with. He deals on his own terms and no one else's, be it with the white mafia or one of his many ladies. He maintains this attitude with everyone in the movie, though different facets of his personality tend to show when he is dealing with different people.

I noticed that the way Shaft treated people had very little to do with color, and much more to do with status. Shaft has a paradoxically irreverent working respect for the white police lieutenant, an equal distaste for the Italian mafia and black crime boss Bumpy Jonas, and a gentle kind manner with all of the regular people on the street that he appears to know regardless of color. Shaft's ability to be in complete control of every human encounter says a lot about how race relations had changed since the 1950s and 1960s. Racism was still very evident in several scenes, but it was made very clear that Shaft (or any other black person in the movie) was not going to take anyone's crap. This is the very reason that Shaft is such a culturally significant film. For the first time, there was a black action hero who projected pride and power to an audience of all races. Shaft not only contributed to the movement that forever changed the African American role in Hollywood, but it changed the way America viewed minorities and their cool. That, my friends, is something I can dig.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Living the High Life

I wrote in my blog last week about how the movie Easy Rider includes many of the same thematic elements as more contemporary stoner movies. However, it seems that as the years since the counterculture movement go by and fade into memory, cinema looks back with nostalgia at the good parts of free love and all its effects on society while somewhat neglecting the negative aspects of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. While Easy Rider starts out as many stoner movies do, the recent genre tends to have a much more comedic, lax view of drug use and all that it entails. There are a few stoner movies, though, that expose the more negative side of drug use, even if the manner is not as grim as that of Easy Rider.

One movie that jumps out particularly in my mind is last year's Pineapple Express, the Judd Apatow comedy about two friends (stoners, naturally) who accidentally see a cop murder someone, get caught witnessing the killing, and get caught up in a crazy adventure as they try to avoid being offed. Seth Rogan and James Franco star in the film, and their characters are even somewhat parallel to those of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Dale Denton, played by Seth Rogan, is somewhat serious and realistic about his lot in life toward the middle and end of the film, though he starts off the movie as just another aimless pothead who makes a living serving court orders. During the middle of the movie, he seems to realize what a meaningless existence he's been leading thus far, and that drugs may not necessarily be a great thing for him. He sees his own immaturity and inaneness much more clearly than his trusty sidekick, Saul Silver. James Franco's character Saul Silver is a bit more like that of Dennis Hopper; he doesn't really see a problem with the whole scene and thinks that he will eventually be able to make something of himself even though right now he does nothing but deal pot, watch t.v., and visit his bube in the nursing home. Both characters eventually somewhat come to realize that they might lead more productive lives if they stop smoking up so frequently, and that drugs aren't all fun and games.

The majority of stoner movies, though, don't really show the downside to drug use. One recent movie that I think falls into this category is Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. The entire premise of the film is brought on by smoking pot and getting the munchies, leading the two main characters on an adventure that results in epiphanies/major life changes that are relatively positive. Even though Pineapple Express and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle can both be put into the genre of stoner comedies, they have very different messages. It seems as if most movies that focus mainly on drugs have to be comedies these days, even if they do have a significant message to relay.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tonto and the Lone Ranger Do Counterculture

From the opening credits to the end, I think Easy Rider has to be one of the most stereotypically "cool" movies we've watched all semester. Filmed during the first part of 1968, Easy Rider exemplifies the best and the worst about the booming counterculture going on all across the United States, and sort of foreshadows the darker turn the movement would make shortly after the filming of the movie. The movie kicks off with lots of drugs and lots of rock n' roll (don't worry, we'll get to the sex a little later), much like a lot of stoner movies nowadays. However, I seriously doubt that Easy Rider could be classified as a stoner movie--although the main characters are indeed stoned for a good deal of the film--due to its serious outlook on American society and grim themes violence and the less happy side of drug culture.

Like most movies in the bildundsroman genre, Easy Rider has the main protagonist and his sidekick. Now, I think we can all spot the fact that Peter Fonda's character Wyatt is the main protagonist from a mile away--for the love, Billy calls him Captain America! That, of course, leaves Dennis Hopper's character Billy as the ever-faithful sidekick. From the very beginning, they kind of reminded me of an amoral Tonto and the Lone Ranger. However, in this story, I don't feel that Billy supplemented Wyatt's personal growth; rather, he provided a contrast to the sort of life that Wyatt thought the counterculture was all about. Billy lived off of and actively participated in the counterculture and all of its glories and excesses, but in the end his mindset was not so different from that of a staunch old Republican: take advantage of capitalism and make a fortune, then find a nice condo in Boca and settle in for the rest of your days. He is very casual about the whole journey, from the commune to Marti Gras Billy is along for the ride, having a good ole' time.

Wyatt is another story. Much more reserved and removed, everything Wyatt does has an air of sacredness to it. Take for example the acid trip toward the end of the movie. Wyatt deals out the tablets like he is a priest delivering the Eucharist on Sunday morning. He also seems to subscribe to a somewhat virtuous code of living, at least when it comes to hospitality and being a polite guest. He makes sure to compliment the owner of the farm on his "nice spread" and in the commune he gently chastises Billy for wanting to refuse some of the women a ride to another place, pointing out that he and Billy had eaten their food and therefore owed the women a ride. Unlike Billy, Wyatt is not so much into the coke dealing and living off of other people's money. At the commune, he seems genuinely interested in the idea of being self-sufficient and living off of the land, and appears pretty impressed with the farmers, even though they are almost certainly doomed to failure.

Between Wyatt and Billy, I'd have to say that Wyatt is most clearly the epitome of cool within the film. However, the question must be asked: are either one of them that cool? Sure, they are kind of free and definitely represent freedom of the open road, but what is the frame of reference for coolness? Personally, I don't find the drug scene all that cool, and they were both pretty deeply involved in that. I think what Easy Rider said most to me is that there is no hard and fast rule of cool.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cool Is As Cool Does

The movie Blowup was a bit confusing to me, but it was pretty clear that it dealt with the subject of London and its youth culture. During the 1960s, it seems that London was in constant motion; the film's main character, Thomas, embodied this trait, especially in that he was always going but never really got anything done. The film highlights all that was cool in London in the 1960s, most notably the fashion and music.

The way in which Blowup featured Thomas running all over London and hitting up the hippest places in the city kind of reminded me of the John Hughes movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, in which the title character and his two friends skip a day of school and take a trip to Chicago, all the while avoiding getting caught out by parents and the vehemently anti-Ferris principle, Mr. Rooney. Throughout the film, Ferris and company are constantly going, both to cram the best of Chicago into one day and to stay one step ahead of any authority figures. Ferris Bueller is admittedly much more light-hearted than Blowup, but for me it still had the same sense of futility. Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane stayed crazy busy all day, attending a museum, a baseball game, lunch at a ritzy restaurant, and even participated in a parade. Still, at the end of the day, nothing had really changed for them. They were still in high school, still at the same level of maturity, and Ferris still didn't have a car.

Another more recent film that explores a major city and its people is Paris, Je T'Aime. This film takes a fairly avant-garde approach to storytelling by using eighteen short films, all by different directors, to encompass the city of Paris and all the different people who inhabit and experience it. These arrondissments range from comic to heartbreaking to uplifting. Some are very realistic, while some deal in the area of pure fantasy. As different as all of the shorts are, they all have one thing in common: all eighteen leave the viewer thinking, "Nowhere but Paris." This is the exact effect that Blowup has on London, though the Antonioni film makes its point in a very different fashion. Paris, Je T'Aime displays the city's diversity of types of people and cultures that exist side by side, while Blowup does more to display the futility of London's youth culture and the people that make their living by becoming parasites who leech off of it.

Blowup is a fairly difficult movie to compare to others, as it is (at least in my experience) a pretty unique film. However, themes of swinging scenesters, the futility of hip lifestyles, and the endless search for cool can be found in all sorts of media, if only you look hard enough.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Obamanation Generation

The crowd is massive, over two million people thick, standing room only for most. People from all different walks of life are there, from the young suburban mom types to the radical students, to rabbis and priests to old distinguished politicians and lawyers. Blackberry-toting texters abound, as do multitudes of tech-savvy urbanites with digital cameras and phones whipped out to capture a momentous, once-in-a-lifetime event. At the front of it all, a young African-American family is the center of attention as millions watch history being made. The place? Washington D.C., right in front of the Capitol. The date? January 20th, 2009. The event? President Barack Obama's inauguration, an event that will undoubtedly define our generation.

I know I've mentioned the Obamas in passing before as being exemplary of coolness in our generation, but I really do think that the 2008 presidential election and youth involvement in the Obama campaign has redefined what it means to be cool here and now. Like F. John mentioned in class last night, since the turn of the century and emergence of geek chic, obsessive cool has replaced ironic disattachment as the main aspect of popular culture. Everyone who is anyone is getting political or getting involved in some sort of humanitarian project. Angelina Jolie has her thirty-seven adopted kids and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador gig, Ophrah openly supported Barack Obama in his campaign for the presidency, and satirical political shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show actually focus on world events, bringing news to the youth of America in a hip, up-to-date way.

Even though Washington D.C. is the epicenter of cool action, technology has made it possible to experience this coolness anywhere in the world. There are some crazy advantages to being members of such a technologically connected generation: with stuff like podcasts and Youtube anyone can make his or her opinion known, and millions of people use the advent of the Internet fully for self-expression. It only seems appropriate that in a class about finding cool, we use blogs to share our writing assignments with the world. With our newfound connectedness, it seems as if cool for our generation is all about a search for community, trying to connect with people worldwide and make some sort of difference. Despite all of the problems with the world right now, I find ours to be an inherently optimistic generation, continuously working to make things better and brighter.

Yes, my friends, right now D.C. is the place to be. No longer does politics belong solely to old, stuffy guys and gals in drab grey suits. A newer, fresher face is in town, and though I don't know how long this political involvement thing will be hip, right now it seems to be what defines our generation. It's a pretty awesome definition of cool, and I can only hope that it lasts long enough for me to fully take advantage of our cool culture.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What's Cool About Love?

The major theme for Jules and Jim was cool love, but in class I think the sub-theme we discussed at length in class after the movie--is cool long-lasting or ephemeral--is also important to take into consideration. Can love be cool if it is long-lasting, or is the ephemeral trend of serial monogamy that we see prominently played out in our society more hip in popular culture? I think this is one of the many cases where aspects of cool can be found in both situations.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the happily-ever-after ideal is something to strive for, something that is really cool. As the children of the generation who have a fifty percent divorce rate, we ourselves can relate to this idea of cool. You see the idea of couples who last forever everywhere in pop culture, from the most recent film adaptation of Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice to the phenomenon that is the Twilight series, in which Edward and Bella literally stay together forever. We've even got our very own fairy tale couple living in a big white castle (er, executive residence) in Washington, D.C. Every picture of Barack and Michelle Obama positively exudes happiness; they constantly show their affection for one another, just another new and romantic aspect of the change the Obamas have brought with them to the White House. Staying together forever is the ideal for a romantic relationship. After all, how many kids tell you that when they grow up they want to be an astronaut, get married, and then probably get divorced?

However, there is a flip side to this idea of long-lasting cool love, and to see it, we have to look at reality instead of focusing on the ideal. The fact of the matter is not a whole lot of people end up staying together forever, whether it's a dating relationship or a marriage. And let's face it, where's the cool once all the romance is over and done with? No one wants to read Twlight: Edward and Bella File a Joint Tax Return or Pride and Prejudice: Darcy and Elizabeth Go to Home Depot. This seems to be part of Catherine's behavior in Jules and Jim. Once all the excitement and sexiness is gone from a relationship, she either moves on to a new one or rekindles an old one to start some sort of drama. This kind of behavior is wildly apparent in the serial monogamous nature of most relationships in American culture. We want to stay together forever, but we also don't want boring and mundane lives with the same old person day after day. Doing the dishes and taking the kids to soccer practice just doesn't factor into the idea of cool.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Manic? Yes. Pixie Dream Girl? Maybe.

I don't know if I should admit this, but I was kind of surprised by how much I enjoyed Jules and Jim. By now, the love triangle plot is nothing new to me, but this film somehow still managed to come off as an original creation. Stylistically, it was different than anything I've ever seen before, and the story and characters were very compelling. Catherine especially brought the entire film together; like her or not, she made the movie.

The movie is called Jules and Jim, but I think we can all agree that the central character is Catherine. She is like the sun for both title characters; it is almost as if she is a celestial body with an insane gravitational pull that draws people into her orbit. Sometimes they are close and sometimes they are farther away, but Jules and Jim both always manage to revolve around Catherine. What quality does Catherine possess that makes her so appealing to men like Jules, Jim, and even Albert? Jules sort of explains things when he says to Jim of Catherine, "To be frank with you she's not especially beautiful, intelligent, nor sincere, but she's a real woman and she is the woman we love and all men desire..."

Jules' explanation is still rather vague, but I think that he's trying to say that Catherine has an inexplicable quality that draws people to her. Throughout the film there are scenes where Jules, Jim, and Catherine seem to be in perfect harmony and unity with one another. These moments are usually spontaneous, like when they are racing across the bridge and when they are wandering through the woods during their vacation to the sea. Is Catherine the secret ingredient to the best memories that Jules and Jim have? They both certainly seem to think so, and they quickly grow to rely on her for happiness as she relies on them for affirmation and attention.

In some ways Catherine is an archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl character, but in many ways she's pretty unique. Catherine traipses through life existing by her own bizarre moral code, living out whims that change with the wind. She does not exist within the bounds of reality but takes and leaves lovers and relationships based purely on feelings with very little logic, making her the most romantic character I've seen in a long time. Jim and Jules are both slightly more stable characters, but it is as if being around Catherine causes them to abandon logic and reason as well. One example of this type of behavior is Jim's longstanding relationship to a woman called Gilberte, who is the exact opposite of Catherine: stable, loyal, and a little dull. He loves Gilberte, but whenever Catherine gives him the slightest favor of her love, he abandons poor Gilberte to bask in Catherine's ethereal glow. In the end, this draw is fatal for Jim. Catherine drives both of them off of a bridge without any warning or second thought, apparently intent on doing things her way to the very end. Catherine may be one of the craziest women this side of the Seine, but the movie could not have been the same without the ending that she and Jim met.

I can definitely chalk Jules and Jim up as another major win for French cinema. Romantic, unique, and oddly optimistic, this movie is one of my new favorites that we've watched thus far.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Strange Fascination

When we watched Double Indemnity on Wednesday, I couldn't help but hope that Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff would get away with their crime. It was so well thought-out, so well planned that I wanted to see them succeed. That got me thinking about instances of other movies and television shows that deal with elaborate criminal schemes and elements of noir. I noticed that there are many, many shows and movies that are about true crime or are based on it.

One of the more recent movies that comes to mind is Zodiac, Hollywood's latest incarnation of the tale of the Zodiac killer. Though the film focuses more on the lives and careers of two men who obsessively hunt the serial killer over several years, the draw for me (and I assume most people) wasn't Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery. No, it was the idea of the Zodiac killer himself, a man who terrorized California for years and to this day remains unidentified. There have been dozens of television specials, movies, and books based on this sociopath, and I have no doubt that there are dozens more to come. There is something inherently fascinating about our culture's ambivalence toward cases such as the Zodiac. Obviously no one is rooting for the serial killer, but subconsciously I think there is a certain draw to the tale that would not be there if his identity were known. This is indicative of a darkness in all of us; there is something inexplicably intriguing about the deep-running taboo of cold-blooded murder.

Interestingly enough, noir during the 1940s and 50s was not only found in movies. Dark themes of violence and horror stories were also found in the entertainment medium of the comic book. Since the 1980s, comic noir has once again resurfaced, and this time looks like it is here to stay. One specific example of darkness in comics has recently been generating quite a bit of hype due to its upcoming film adaptation. I am talking about Watchmen, DC Comics 1980s series that is set in a gritty alternate reality where superheroes are not so super. Watchmen, from what I gather so far (I'm about halfway through the graphic novel) makes the point that superheroes are not always a good idea. Most of the characters have pretty major flaws and oftentimes use their status for personal gain. Characters like Edward Blake and Rorschach express a kind of gritty realism that shows us that the idea of the superhero is unrealistic and ultimately deeply flawed. Like in film noir, moral ambiguity surrounds all of the characters and keeps us from the delusion that there are supermen who can save the world. Depressing? Maybe, but knowing that the world is probably ultimately better off with plain old humans is kind of cool.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

And He Would Have Gotten Away With It, Too . . .

Minor chords, murder, characters with questionable morals--I have to admit that I really enjoy film noir. This is the first time that I've seen Double Indemnity, but after reading Paul Schafer's essay and watching a good deal of similar movies, I felt like I knew what to expect. Sure enough, Double Indemnity was a very cynical, gritty, corrupt look at life. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are two of my favorite actors from the 1940s, the writing and storyline were both intriguing, and stylistically the movie was shot very well. As much as I enjoyed the film, though, I really don't know if I could call any of the characters cool. At the beginning of the movie, they all had coolness potential, but in the end I can't say that I thought they pulled it off.

Now, don't get me wrong, they are good characters. Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson was an excellent femme fatale, and was kind of refreshing after all of the lovely sweet leading ladies in some of our previous movies. Fred MacMurray's portrayal of Walter Neff, the insurance man who takes the plunge and crosses over to the dark(er) side is pretty spot on as far as dashing villians go. The character of Barton Keyes was definitely the icing on top of the arsenic-spiked cake; he may not have been bad, but he most certainly was not the picture of just goodness that may have been found outside of the noir genre. Put all together, these three characters, along with the supporting cast, make for a pretty nasty situation.

From the beginning of the story right around until Phyllis and Walter start falling apart, Walter Neff is kind of cool. He had always considered different ways to play the system, and I think that meeting Phyllis Dietrichson really just gave him an excuse to test his skills at getting away with, well, murder. I found it interesting that it was Neff instead of the femme fatale to suggest actually going through with the murder, and I found it interesting that he took it one step further to get paid double the claim. As someone who watches movies like this and always spends the entire film finding ways that they could have gotten away with it, I rather enjoyed Neff's plotting, conniving mindset. However, he didn't pull the murder off, when I was really hoping that he would. Like Jerry mentioned in class, he would have been much cooler if he had gotten away with murder.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

That's What She Said--Imitating Cool

When I gave a long and hard eight seconds of thought (I feel that it shouldn't have been that easy; I watch way too much t.v.) to what examples of imitating cool there were in popular culture, one particular person immediately jumped to mind. This guy has Allan Felix beat in the looks and perhaps the mental stability department, but that's about it. I know I stated previously that cool is mainly about the attitude, but this character may be the exception. Although he thinks he is very well-liked and cool, he often proves to be burdensome and obnoxious. He believes himself to be exceptionally smart, but in reality he's just not that bright. I am, of course, talking about The Office's Michael Scott, who is played by Steve Carell (incidentally, a pretty cool dude). Since the first season aired in 2005, Michael has been trying and failing to imitate all kinds of cool. From Chris Rock to Meryl Streep, Michael idolizes and mimics all sorts of celebrities, and each and every time he fails to emulate their brand of cool. Much like Allan, Michael never realizes that when he is being himself he is at his most likeable--I still think the word "cool" would be a stretch for this dude--and that in spite of his generally obnoxious behavior, he is still somehow endearing.

Another example of imitation cool that I thought of this weekend was the character of Eve Harrington from the 1950 Bette Davis film All About Eve. In the film, Davis plays Margo Channing, a Broadway superstar who is approaching middle age. Margo is approached by "her biggest fan" one night and, touched by the girl's story of acting aspirations, takes the young woman under her wing. Unbeknownst to Margo, her fan Eve is out to become her biggest rival not only for fame and admiration but for her family and friends. Throughout the movie, Eve attempts to replace Margo by practically becoming her: she becomes Margo's understudy and steals a major performance and she attempts to seduce Margo's longtime director and lover. Eve eventually succeeds in becoming a Broadway star by ruthlessly using Margo Channing's connections and goodwill, though Margo manages to remain somewhat irreplacable.

Eve's imitation of cool is much, much different from that of Allan Felix or Michael Scott, but I still believe it to be one of the best examples I've come across. She imitates Margo Channing not because Margo is really her idol, but because Margo has the career and fame that she herself wants. She is not content to be cool alongside or after Margo like most other imitators of coolness, but instead wants to replace her. Eve even manages to become cool (at least to the public within the film, though the movie's audience sees her as cold and vicious) by the end of the movie, kind of at the expense of Margo Channing. All About Eve is an interesting example of the darker side of imitating cool, for Eve Harrington shows that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery, nor is it always innocent and well-intentioned.