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.