Saturday, December 31, 2011

Saving the World vs. Keeping It Personal

In the first Sherlock Holmes film starring Robert Downey Jr., one of the most famous characters in British literature was updated to a man who solves mysteries with skills as martial as they are mental, and in this version he saves England from a diabolical scheme to destroy Parliament.

In the latest version, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, he saves Europe, at least for awhile, from total war.  He even states at one point that Moriarty's effort to start a multinational war in order to corner the armament's market would cause the "collapse of Western civilization."

What does that leave for Holmes to do in the third installment other than save the entire world?

This is a problem with the Hollywood cinema influence on popular narratives.  The inclination is to constantly "up the ante."  If you read the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, they do not build in intensity.  They are episodic.  Each story contains its own pleasures with little regard with what came before it.  The same could be said of television series about detectives.  We watch to see them solve the puzzles.  We watch to enjoy the machinations of their minds and the quirks of their personal relationships.  We do not watch for them to do MORE than they did the week before, to solve bigger crimes, to take greater personal risks, etc.

The same cannot be said for movies.

I have been in enough creative writing workshops to know that this need for greater risk can be found  in places other than Hollywood.  I have been in such sessions when people have suggested that a short story's protagonist needed to have "more at stake."  That is, the story's dramatic intensity needed to be increased or a character's motivation needed to be given more focus by creating more for a character to lose if his or her objective was not realized.

This can be productive.  But it also can lead ultimately to having EVERYTHING at stake.  And it can be hard for the audience to identify with EVERYTHING, especially once that means the entire world.

The first time I was conscious of this was while watching Blade in 1998.  In that film, Wesley Snipes's character was battling vampires who sought to conquer the world.  Arg, not that cliche, I thought.  I cannot relate to the whole world.  I cannot be emotionally involved with that.  I may live on Earth, but saving the whole world, ironically, does not strike home for me.  (We are not talking real terms, here, such as working to stop climate change; we are talking about fictions.)

This is what Bram Stoker got right with the end of Dracula.  While our band of heroes is trying to keep the creepy Count from invading England and creating a blood-sucking army there, they seem most emotionally invested in saving Mina from becoming a vampire.  They may feel patriotic love for England, but they feel personal and immediate love for Mina.  Stoker kept it personal.  He kept it human.

One could say that Steven Spielberg did something similar with his remake of War of the Worlds.  The protagonist's goal is not to save Earth but to protect his children and, at some level, to win their respect and prove to his ex-wife (and himself) that he is trustworthy.  The process of saving the world is the backdrop for that human-scaled drama.

There are plenty of interpersonal dynamics in Game of Shadows -- the developing friendship between Holmes and Watson, Holmes's effort to save Watson from Moriarty's murder attempt, the attempt to rescue their Gypsy friend's brother from Moriarty's scheme, the rivalry between Holmes and Moriarty -- and they tend to be rewarding.  But the main spring driving the film's narrative machine is the effort to stop Moriarty's diabolical plan.  And the stakes there lay outside of the interpersonal, so increasing the stakes for the next film risks moving further from the human and immediate.  Ultimately, I believe, this constant desire for MORE and BIGGER can make films LESS satisfying.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ve Haf Vays of Making You Talk Funny

Folks have talked before about the Hollywood phenomenon of having ancient Romans speak with British accents.  There is a logic to this illogical representation.

Classic American films about ancient Romans often were intended to be "classy" by Hollywood standards, and Americans long associated High Brow theater with British accents, and because of associations with Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar in particular.

"Who shtole ze decalz offen mein Rubik's Cube?"
While watching Captain America: The First Avenger recently, I thought of a related question.  Disregarding the host of things puzzling about that film -- its understanding of physics, human motivations, and narrative logic,  to name a few things -- its use of haphazard German accents made me wonder: Do American characters in foreign productions speak those languages with American accents?

The film is set during World War II, and the Nazi characters speak their lines with German accents.  This is true when they are speaking to the American characters in English and when they are speaking to each other in what we assume would be German. 

I switched the language setting to French and watched some scenes.  I could discern no difference in the accents between the Americans and the Germans in French, although in the English original there is clearly a difference.  Do French-speaking audiences not have trouble believing the German characters are German when they speak with French accents?

But Captain America was produced by Americans with an American audience in mind.  What about a German production?  Do American characters in a German film speak in German with an American accent? 

Spay-kan zee doytch, y'all?

But I am stumped for an answer.  I cannot think of a foreign film with American characters speaking in the audience's language.  If you know of some, please offer some titles in the comments below.

Thinking about these German accents made me think about Realism.  When American writers and editors changed the way they wrote fiction in the mid- to late-1800s, they did so because they wished their literature to be more like real life.  William Dean Howells, one of the grandfathers of American Realism, wrote: “Let not the artist, then, endeavor to add anything to reality, to turn it and twist it, to restrict it."

Some of these writers thought they were writing life without embellishment, without a "turn" and a "twist."  But eventually most came around to understand that Realism was itself an affect, a method not for presenting life as it truly is but for tricking the reader into believing this.  The Realists accused the Sentimentalists and Romanticists of being artificial, too contrived... unrealistic... in their plots and in their narrations.  But Realism was also an artifice, a man-made thing created to fool the senses of the audience for its enjoyment and edification.

Escorting George Lucas's money to the banking planet.
Using German-accented English to represent German speech is somehow more realistic to an American audience than having the characters speak in American English, regardless of how this does not reflect what would actually be happening.

It is like the roar of TIE fighters in the Star Wars movies.  In deep space, there is no sound.  But watching silent spaceship dogfights does not create enough sensation of movement and danger for the audience.  So, to make it seem "more real," the sounds are added. 

The German accents and the sound of spaceships are used not because they are true to reality, but because they are more realistic -- they fool us more pleasingly.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tell Me What You Mean, Pepper-Spraying Cop!

Somewhere, U.C. Davis Lt. John Pike, otherwise known as The Pepper-Spraying Cop, is probably smiling.  Or at least breathing a sigh of relief.  His 15 minutes of fame seem to be just about over.  There are fewer Pike spottings on the Internet now.  He is being voted off Meme Island.

Photo by Louise Macabitas.
But not after having been placed in thousands of images from great moments in history and great works of art.  A sampling of the latter can be found here, where the corpulent cop has been placed in works ranging from Futurama to Heironymous Bosch.  The Washington Post has run a collection of them, too.  At other sites, and among friends on Facebook, etc., I have seen the images of Pike being placed in famous photographs.  I have been interested in seeing the narrative and symbolic logic that influenced these mashups of a lone campus cop and images from history and art.

As I looked at them, I wondered, "What does Pike mean?"  In semiotics, we look at signs and how they work in systems.  No sign has meaning by itself.  It has meaning in relation to other signs.  So, how does Pike function as a sign within a system of other signs?

These signs work in ways obvious and not so obvious.  Pike could not signify "power" if there was no sign of "non-power."  His signification of "power" works, in part, because the students are present as the subject or target of his power -- placement in space also signifies power relationships, with the higher position signifying greater power than the lower position.

The pepper spray has special signification of state-sponsored authority and even inappropriately applied coercive power, thanks to recent events.  It had this potential before Pike doused those students, thanks to Anthony Bologna of the NYPD, who weeks before had sprayed women at the Occupy Wall Street protests.  These women were not violent, not threatening anyone, and had been placed behind a police barricade.  After that, pepper-spray images at OWS events became almost common.

It is easy to see then that the sign of "pepper spray" was part of a system.  Any image of it being used was going to be related to other images of its use, and it was going to be placed in context of them.

From The Woeful Office blog.
We could look at many things in the image and place them within other signifying systems.  For example, Pike's apparel.  He is dressed in black.  He has a dark helmet with a shield over his face.  He is wearing boots.  His apparel resembles the riot gear we have seen in other OWS images, and at some level the viewer attaches, rightly or wrongly, connotations of the violence from those images -- Oakland, let's say -- to Pike.  On a less practical level, his apparel resembles another notorious figure, also known for bullying: Darth Vader.

When people started extracting Pike from the original image and placing him into other images, we could see some "slippage."  When a sign is removed from a system, it loses some of its meaning.  And when it is placed in a new system, it gains new meaning in relation to the signs that now surround it.  However, even though a sign is removed from a system, some of its original meaning clings to it -- like a cloud of pepper spray -- and influences its meanings in the new system.  In this regard, despite the slippage that occurred, I was impressed with the consistency of the meaning of "Pepper-Spraying Cop" across the Internet and through his many iterations.

In some images, he was used as a sign of the power of the state trampling on the rights of the people to express themselves.  This was most cogently communicated in an image of Pike spraying the freshly signed Declaration of Independence.

In other images, Pike is the sign of the Punisher, the force dishing out punishment for those who misbehave.  Such as this Peanuts image.

These images would resonate with those whose sentiments lay with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and those who were outraged as his actions that day.  In other images, he becomes a sign of something more generic, less overtly political.  He becomes a sign for "inappropriate response."

For instance, he can mean "a lack of sympathy."  That is what I took him to mean in this image, where has been inserted into Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World.  Not that I ever truly understood that painting, but I have always felt the woman in the foreground is in some kind of distress, perhaps needing to get to that house in the distance.  Rather than help her, Pike blasts her in the face with pepper spray.   

Despite the changes from his original context, Pike still functions in some similar ways -- as a sign of power and as a sign of power misapplied.  My first effort at creating a pepper-spraying cop mashup worked along the same lines.  I placed him in an image by Dorothea Lange from the Great Depression.  In my image, Pike is a sign of state power being used to control the downtrodden and powerless rather than help them.

In many images, Pike becomes a sign of "killjoy," a general disapproval of those having fun.  A friend of mine tried his hand at creating a Pike mashup.  In the video of Pike's notorious pepper spraying, someone being overly dramatic can be heard saying the students are "children" that Pike is mistreating.  So Bill Genereaux in his blog, TechIntersect, created the image of Pike spraying children on a picnic.  The children are not misbehaving.  They are not protesting or challenging the authority of the state.  But that does not free them from Pike's wrath.

I would say that Lt. Killjoy seems to be the dominant theme, more so than overtly political images.  When Pike is inserted into famous works of art, he seems to function there as a sign of disapproval of fun, especially naked fun.

One of the first images I saw was of him in an Eduoard Manet painting, The Luncheon on the Grass.

I want candy!
Notice how Pike ignores the men and sprays the woman, who happens to be nude.  We could say that in more than one way she functions as a sign of "vulnerability."  She is the female among men, and in Western traditions the "female" functions as the sign of "vulnerability" (all of CSI: SVU is based on this premise).  She also is marked as "vulnerable" because she is nude, and especially since she is nude among clothed men.  (Even without the addition of Pike, this painting has always struck as me as really, really strange.  Though I didn't complain when it was cribbed for the cover of Bow Wow Wow's 1982 album The Last of the Mohicans.)

These dynamics were at work in my second attempt at a Pike mashup.  An idea that came immediately my mind was to insert him into Henri Rousseau's famous painting, The Dream.  Some of this inspiration simply came from my memory's catalog of images featuring a person who is facing in the right direction to be sprayed by Pike's canister -- and images in which Pike's actions would be inappropriate.  But perhaps at some conscious or unconscious level, my use of Pike followed the dynamics I just described -- he is spraying a woman who happens to be nude (vulnerable + vulnerable).  The woman in The Dream seems less vulnerable than the woman in Manet's painting.  In some way, she seems to be in control of the events in the jungle; she does not seem threatened by the lions in the grass.  Yet, I have Pike spraying her and not the lions.

In some images, Pike signifies something less sinister or aggressive.  Sometimes he signifies simply "pest," more El Barto than evil.  For instance, in the Futurama image (an animated gif) mentioned above, a tiny Pike sprays Fry in the eyes, causing him to squint.  In that image, very little of the original meanings of the sign "Pepper-Spraying Cop" are carried over.  There is little or no connotations of power relationships, for instance.  In fact, the size=power dynamic is reversed.  Fry is larger than the cop, so he should be more powerful.  But the cop's implied ability to evade that power, as small pests frequently can do, mocks that power.  And mocking power is not what Pike's image communicates elsewhere.  While some viewers may chuckle at the Futurama-themed image, it gains little traction in the public imagination; it does not resonate strongly or widely, as measured by how much it gets passed around by e-mail, Facebook shares, and the like.

"Shoo, cat!"
While I have seen several of these Pike the Pest images, I have seen very few Pike the Hero images; that is, very few images of Pike spraying his pepper appropriately.  In fact, I played with inserting Pike into another Rousseau image, The Sleeping Gypsy.  This time he sprays the lion.  In this mashup, Pike would be a hero, scaring away the lion from the vulnerable gypsy.

Sorry, Lt. Pike.  That just does not make sense to me.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Say It Ain't So, J.Lo

Jennifer Lopez in "My World" for the Fiat 500.
The website The Smoking Gun seemed surprised to learn that Jennifor Lopez did not actually visit the Bronx to film her "My World" commercial for the Fiat 500.  The site reported that a body double drove the little Italian car through the Bronx, while J.Lo's closeups were filmed in the car in Los Angeles.

Bloggers also seemed surprised and insulted that Jenny didn't go back to the Block for filming the commercial, during which she praises her old neighborhood for inspiring her music.

The surprise surprises me.

Just another night on the town.
No one seems outraged at the latest Fiat commercial, "Elegance," which features Lopez in a sexy evening gown driving through "Manhattan" in the black Gucci special edition of the Fiat 500.  No one calls "foul!" on the idea that she drives herself to an event and parks at the curb.  No one is outraged that she is not shown being swarmed by TMZ vultures.

I put "Manhattan" in quotes because the commercial could be a mashup of downtowns from New York City and Los Angeles.  For instance, the top of the Chrysler Building is featured in one shot to clearly communicate New York City.  But I think a shot of Lopez closing the sun roof includes the top of the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles in the background.  (Non-Angelenos would know this as one of the iconic buildings zapped by the aliens in Independence Day.)

Lopez arriving at AMA rehearsals.  Fiat in the trunk?
No one seems upset that Lopez almost certainly does not drive a Fiat 500 anywhere other than a film set.  I have not learned how much Fiat paid her to endorse their venture into the American car market, but American Idol is paying her about $12 million to be a music judge.  Do you think she drives an Italian mini priced at around $22,000?

Lopez appeared in the broadcast of the American Music Awards -- along with a Fiat 500 on the stage with her, but her actual ride to the rehearsals was a Bentley, which probably cost $200,000 or more.

So why the surprise that elements of her Bronx homage are an illusion?  Television commercials are at least 50 percent illusion.  Do we truly think bears use toilet paper?  Do we truly think those corporations who sell their products through patriotic appeals are patriotic?  Do we believe the milk being poured on cereals in TV commercials is actually milk?  It isn't.

And speaking of milk, a "Got Milk?" commercial from early 2011 features Susan Sarandon in her "home" talking about the nutritional value of milk as she puts away toys.  How humble!  How warm!  How motherly!  But her youngest son is now about 20 years old.  I doubt his school backpack is in the den floor.  I doubt he left his skateboard out for his mother to put away.  I doubt he plays with a youth-sized basketball (in the basket where Sarandon puts the skateboard).  In other words, I really doubt Sarandon's home is featured in the commercial.  The commercial is a cinematic ploy to create pleasant associations between viewers and the product.  And no one complained then about that commercial's pleasing deceptions.  So why would people complain about Lopez's?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

School Daze

Class is in session.
I work on a university campus as a professor in the English Department and in the American Indian Studies Program.  On our campus, we like to assume that we all serve the same goals: the advancement of knowledge and the education of students.  We like to think you serve those goals whether you are an instructor, an administrator, an accountant, a receptionist, a librarian, a groundskeeper, or a janitor.

Even if you are a campus police officer.

So it was with particular disgust that I saw this image over the weekend, a picture of University of California Davis Police Lt. John Pike calmly dousing UC Davis students with pepper spray at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration on that campus.

I do not expect university police officers to be giving lectures or handing out pop-quizzes, but they play an important role in making a campus a safe place to learn.  And I can see a situation in which a campus police officer would need to use pepper spray against a student -- if that student threatened the safety of other people on campus.

UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza cited safety as a concern in defending the use of pepper spray against students: "There was no way out of that circle.  They were cutting the officers off from their support.  It's a very volatile situation."

But in this picture Lt. Pike looks as threatened as the Orkin man does spraying for ants.

On my campus there has been some OWS activity, all of it peaceful.  And we frequently have a variety of demonstrations and protests by students about various causes, such as never-ending fee hikes.  My university generally works to accommodate these events, and many of them are organized or assisted by professors.  That is, the teachers see these activities as an extension of the classroom.

It seems that Lt. Pike does not see himself as an extension of a classroom.

That is not to say there were not lessons being taught that day at UC Davis.

As its name indicates, civil disobedience needs to break some rules, otherwise it is simply a demonstration.  Students need to understand when and how to disobey the rules, and which rules are worth disobeying.  Students need to learn that disobedience frequently has consequences.  Students need to be prepared for those consequences, such as being handcuffed and arrested.

They need to understand that such consequences frequently are the goal of the disobedience -- the protester challenges the authorities to make arrests.  Their actions state, "I am willing to be arrested for my cause.  Are you willing to be seen publicly arresting me for your cause?"

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi seems to have forgotten her school's educational mission when she authorized the police to use such force (whether she authorized it directly or indirectly, she still bears ultimate responsibility -- and the university's faculty association has called for her resignation).  The school could have taught students about the consequences of their civil disobedience with respect and dignity.

Instead, Katehi and Lt. Pike taught the students about the dynamics of asymmetrical power.

The calm demeanor with which Lt. Pike sprays the students says a great deal about the power he felt.  His body language suggests he feels free of any consequences for his actions, that he fears no retaliation, that those whom he sprays are powerless to resist.

He taught the students about the inhumanity of their confrontation.  He did not respect them, their voices nor their bodies.  He did not teach them that groups of people and institutions can oppose one another but still conduct that conflict with compassion and dignity.

Instead, he taught them about the arrogance of power.

There could have been negotiations -- and simply telling people they must leave is not negotiating.  If that failed, there could have been arrests.  Peaceful arrests.  Perhaps Lt. Pike and others felt spraying down the students would have sped up that process, but if the students had been arrested peacefully, this whole event would be over and not in the news. 

How expedient does the pepper spray feel now, Chancellor Katehi and Lt. Pike?

Would you like some pepper with that payback, Lt. Pike?
But now there is another lesson to be taught, and this time Katehi and Pike will be the students.  The students apparently disobeyed university regulations with their demonstrations, but Katehi and Pike disobeyed the campus community's expectations of mutual respect and common decency.  And now it is time for that community to flex its power.

Lt. Pike works on that campus, among the instructors and staff who are very serious about their roles in the school's educational mission.  He now faces their disapproval.  Until he publicly and sincerely apologizes, he needs to become a campus pariah.

He potentially will see those students he sprayed on campus -- going to class, in the library, at the coffee shop, by the bike racks, etc.  He definitely will see other students.  There should be no place to hide from their public disapproval.

I have friends who think Pike should be arrested for assault.  I don't think that is going to happen.  I am sure there will be lawsuits against him.  But I would like to see the campus community flex its power and force Pike to make amends or resign.

That would be a powerful lesson.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Wizards of Wall Street

Mordor Financial District
In their dark towers
they waved their hands
over books and keyboards,
transforming the essence of things
into numbers and values
and then into commodities,
bought and sold,
bought and sold.
Through secret rivers
on maps only they saw
flowed the work of others
to their dark pools
"One CDO to rule them all."

that fed this private alchemy.
The empty ranch house in Atlanta
became the week in St. Barts.
The auctioned condo in Las Vegas:
a shiny black Audi.
The boarded-up duplex in Chicago:
botox and implants.

But the land is drained
and secret rivers are dry.

What now for the dark towers?


This is my contribution to the poetry blog project "99 Poems for the 99 Percent" by my friend and award-winning poet Dean Rader.  According to Dean's site: "Since Walt Whitman, American poetry has been about democracy. It's been about reaching people on issues they care about in a voice they recognize."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Solving crimes and looking sultry

Much has been said and by many people about American society's double-standard for men and women.  Men tend to be valued by society for their competence, but women for their beauty.  Even in roles that require skill, women must also be attractive to be successful.

This is especially true in Hollywood.  In "Snark-Infested Waters," I discussed how female stars are scrutinized in ways that male stars are not.  Women on the red carpet at the Oscars and Emmys are subjected to catty remarks and literal grades from observers for the gowns they wear and the tresses they sport.  The men, meanwhile, pretty much all wear versions of the same tuxedo and escape the night snark-free.

Don't ask why everyone has a blazer but me.
CBS has made this dynamic evident again with the new series Unforgettable.  It is the story of a police detective (played by Poppy Montgomery) who has remarkable abilities to recall events and details that she sees.  This ability is key in helping her solve crimes.  Her methods may be unconventional, but so is her wardrobe.

Think of her as The Mentalist in a tank top.  Or Monk with curves.  Or sexy Psych.

In my opinion Unforgettable has a worn-out premise, but the viewing public seems to disagree.  If the idea of superhuman powers of observation has not been exhausted in the time since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle launched it with Sherlock Holmes, then perhaps it never will be.

Smart and smartly dressed.
The new show does raise the question, though, of why the detective's physique is as much on display as her prescience.  That is not the case with male versions, and a reliable source (my wife) has informed me that Simon Baker is pretty darned good looking -- yet his manly shoulders are covered with a blazer or suit in every episode.

I am not surprised that network executives took the detective genre down this path, but I hope it does not become the standard method of reviving a tired franchise.  We do not need Law and Order: SBU (Skimpy Bikini Unit).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Kitsch, kitsch: Adventures in Heidi-reality III

Heidi Montag, Heidi Montag (2010)
Like Luke Skywalker feeling homesick for the twin suns of Tatooine, I have remained drawn to Heidi Montag's augmented breasts.

I have written about them before, in earlier installments that discussed them in relation to hyper-reality.  That is a name, coined by Umberto Eco, for the result of the modern desire to have art and technology improve on reality.  The effort to make representations as realistic as possible quickly led to the desire to make them more than real.  Ironically, the way to do out-real the real is to produce the fake.  The hyper-real.

Heidi Montag's efforts to make herself an example of the perfect female body led her to multiple plastic surgeries on various parts of her body, including that part that is perhaps most iconic of femininity: the breast.  If G-cups can't put the hyper in hyper-reality, I don't know what can.

But I am fascinated with the entire array of alterations she experienced, not just the Gs.  I think of her experiment with these surgeries (she has since had her breasts reduced) as performance art.  She was like a living, breathing Jeff Koons statue.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles, Jeff Koons (1988)
If Koons can earn fame and fortune with  gleaming porcelain replicas of a celebrity, why can't Montag be a glittering porcelain celebrity? 

As I investigated some of the things written about Koons's work, I found some descriptions of his items that could refer to Montag.

His Michael Jackson statue was part of a series of pieces called Banality in 1988.  The porcelain pieces ranged in size from small to life-sized, and they seemed to celebrate (but also ridicule) kitsch -- like Hummel figurines with an ironic sense of humor and a great deal of worth in the art market. 

Heidi Odalisque (2010)
Arthur Coleman Danto, in his book titled Unnatural Wonders, described them as "commonplace kinds of objects re-imagined as surrealistic presences."

Isn't that what Montag had transformed herself into?  A surrealistic presence?  At least for awhile, didn't she turn her breasts into unnatural wonders?

Many art critics were not fans of Koons's work.  They dismissed the pieces as shallow contrivances more clever than expressive, more glib than insightful.  But Danto said they didn't see the works in the right light.  He said the Koons show needed to be understood not only in light of kitschy culture objects, such as Hummel figurines, but also in the tradition of the porcelain statues of Jesus found in European churches.

"People would pray to it and leave little notes expressing gratitude when their prayers were answered," Danto wrote.  "Celebrities are the products of contemporary adoration, fans form entire companies of worshipers."

In this sense, we can think of Montag's self-sculpting as a tribute to her own celebrity-hood.  But since she had earned more notoriety than "contemporary adoration," we can think of her self-sculpting as a tribute to her pursuit of that adoration rather than a sign of it.  Her efforts were part of her pursuit to make permanent the fleeting fame produced by her appearances in The Hills.

And in that way she was, however briefly, a fitting representation of the desperate hunt for attention made possible and then put on display through reality television.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Picture from the Revolution

An Egyptian citizen photographed by Platon.
Today, I have no uncanny connections to make between images and ideas circulating in our popular culture.

All I have is a picture I have been meaning to post for some time.  It is from the Aug. 1, 2011 issue of the  New Yorker.  That issue featured a series of photographic portraits of protesters from Tahrir Square in Cairo, titled "Pictures from a Revolution."  The excellent photographs are by Platon.  One of them in particular struck me.

This kid is cooler than I will ever be.

I could never wear that silky shirt without looking ridiculous.  But this young man is beautiful.

And what is that over his shoulder?  A flag?  A silky jacket?  A scarf?  It doesn't matter.  

I could never wear that marijuana-leaf and machine-gun bullet belt buckle without looking like a total poser.  It works for him.

Those eyes.  So calm and strong.  A maturity that defies his age.  No grand gestures of defiance -- that would be for those who lack confidence. 

And that hair!

This young man looks like the Johnny Cash of Cairo.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Arrivederci, Kobe

Rumors have it that Kobe Bryant is ready to sign a contract to play professional basketball in Italy during the NBA lockout, so I thought I would run a blog entry about him that originally appeared in 2010 in The Weekly Rader, a blog created by my friend Dean Rader.  This essay will be republished in December in a college textbook by Greg Barnhisel, Connecting with Culture: Readings for Writers. 

Picture taken at the artist's booth at Venice Beach.
I love this picture.

I saw it being sold as a poster by a vendor at Venice Beach. He also was selling images of Marilyn Monroe with thuggish tats on her body. But it was this picture of Kobe that fascinated me more.

I saw it and laughed before I even understood what I was laughing at. I stared at it, fascinated by it and by my fascination with it. As I tried to understand my reaction to this gunslinging Kobe, I was reminded of reception theory. Yes, even on a sunny day in Venice, with bikini-clad girls rollerblading past, over the din of the construction of yet another medical marijuana dispensary, and lit by the flashes from the digital cameras of a thousand German tourists, I could wax wonk-like about a bootleg poster.

Must I over-analyze everything? Yes. Yes, I must.

In literary studies, reception theory is an attempt to explain the process by which audiences understand texts. Traditional literary studies had concentrated on what an author might have intended to communicate with a text, but reception theory (and reader response theory) concentrates on the reader’s interpretation, regardless of how that meaning deviates from the author’s intent.

One of the many influences on how a person receives a text is his/her community. People who share a culture, an economic class, or a community are likely to interpret a text in similar ways. And if the maker of a message shares this connection with the audience, it is more likely the audience will generate an interpretation similar to the maker's intended message. The further apart creator and audience are, the less likely they will be in agreement. 

As I stared at Gangsta Kobe, I knew I had no way of knowing what its creator meant to convey since I didn't know who had made it. And I knew that what the poster could mean would depend a great deal upon who was looking. Is the poster celebratory? Does it appeal to people who see themselves as gangsters? Are they embracing Kobe as one of their own? 

This seems odd when you think he so clearly is NOT one of them. He is a multi-millionaire. He spent much of his childhood in Italy, where his father played pro basketball. He did not grow up in the American inner city. He did not know the mean streets. He is more scampi than Scarface. However, Los Angeles is obsessed with the Lakers. Gangsters are obsessed with the Lakers. The people who identify with gangsters, even though they may go to church every Sunday, are obsessed with the Lakers. And so perhaps they claim him as one of their own, and they dress him up in the images from pop culture paraphernalia they are familiar with --­ movies, rap and hip-hop videos, CD covers, etc. 

Do they imagine Kobe sharing their fantasies of fighting back against a system they may feel oppresses them? Is this poster some kind of Robin in the ‘Hood fantasy? Do they dream of Kobe following Public Enemy’s instructions to “Fight the Power”? Do they hope Kobe will descend from his gated community, arm his merry band of bodyguards, and cause some serious mayhem?  My original title for this piece was "Ice Kobe," an allusion to Ice Cube, a former member of N.W.A., one of the pioneers of gangsta rap. 

(By the way, no one could ever make a similar poster with a player from the Clippers. That would be ridiculous.) 

Or is the image mocking? Does it appeal to an audience that sees Kobe as unlike themselves and similar to those lower-income people who identify with gangsters? Does the poster suggest that Kobe, despite his millions and comfortable childhood, is a gun-wielding criminal at heart? 

Is it a racist poster? It may appear comical, but perhaps beneath the laughter is a quiet fear about the violence that can come from black anger. 

Is it the celebration of the wannabe? You know, Seth Green's character from Can’t Hardly Wait. Jamie Kennedy’s character from Malibu’s Most Wanted. Does this poster hang in the bedrooms of nerdy boys across L.A., boys who wish they could be as cool as Kobe? Boys who mash up being cool and being black with being gangsta?

Ultimately, I cannot know what the poster means. And the fascination it holds for me is exactly the fact that I cannot know. I am fascinated not by what its ultimate meaning might be -- that is rather UNfascinating -- ­ but by its simultaneous and conflicting and irresolvable messages.

+ + + 

I have a copy of the poster in my office now.  Once I was contacted about reprinting the essay in a textbook, I had to locate the artist.  I had several conversations him down at the boardwalk on Venice Beach.  I was careful to never ask him what he intended the picture of Kobe to mean.  I didn't want to know.  You can check out some of his crazy, wonderful images through his Flickr account.  His professional name is Venicewow.  Go find him down by the beach and buy some of his stuff.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Stephen Colbert Delivers 1833 Smackdown

A quote attributed to Stephen Colbert has been making the rounds of the Interwebs lately, especially on Facebook.  It looks like this --

I give Colbert lots of props for the consistency of Christian principles.  If you recall, he testified before a Congressional panel on issues about rights for immigrants.  At the end of his remarks, he broke from his satire long enough to quote Jesus regarding compassion and fighting injustice: "Whatsoever you do for the least of these my brothers, you do also to me."  Colbert added that the migrant workers are "the least brothers," and therefore he felt the need to do what he could to help them.

However, two things struck me about this latest Colbert meme.

1. Colbert is in good company, as a wise man said much the same thing 178 years ago.

2. Colbert speaks to the mistaken assumption that the United States is a "Christian nation."

William Apess was a Pequot who became a Methodist minister and lived among the Mashpee Indians near Boston.  In his 1833 sermon titled "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man," Apess asks a white congregation how they can profess to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ but turn a blind eye to the injustices committed against American Indians in Massachusetts.  Many in the congregation were upset about injustices being committed against Southeastern Indian tribes, who were being removed to what would become Oklahoma, but none seemed to worry about the Mashpee, who were being arrested, abused, raped, and robbed in the congregation's own backyard.

He reminds the congegration that Jesus said nothing about race being important to salvation or for distinguishing to whom one should show compassion.  And yet many white churches did not admit people of color and did little to help those people of color being abused by the white population and government officials.

Apess says, "If you can find a spirit like Jesus Christ and his Apostles prevailing now in any of the white congregations, I should like to know it."

Oh, snap!

A few moments later he says, "Who are the children of God?  Perhaps you may say, none but white.  If so, the word of the Lord is not true."


I paraphrase his point for my students this way:  He gives the congregation a choice; either everything in the Bible is a lie, or they are hypocrites.  To say one is to commit blasphemy.  To say the other is to admit something about yourself most people would want to avoid. 

I teach this powerful and very modern-sounding sermon just about every semester.  I refer to it as Apess's "Dr. Phil Smackdown" to Massachusetts Christians.

I think Colbert makes an important distinction at the beginning of his comment.  He says, "IF the United States IS GOING TO BE a Christian nation...."  His statement seems to assume that the United States has not been a Christian nation before now.  And I agree.

Some people have responded to this Colbert quote by pointing out the separation of church and state.  Government-sponsored welfare programs cannot be justified on the basis of Christian beliefs.  Additionally, Christian charity is voluntary, but government assistance is financed through taxation, which is not voluntary. 

Colbert's remark also reminds me of how I often hear people make the claim the United States is a Christian nation.  This argument is often times made when discussing "the Founding Fathers" and their intentions.  This argument is often times made when people talk of legislating social or moral issues, especially when that issue runs counter to what they believe is permitted by the Bible (gay marriage, for instance).

I think Christianity is not about what you eat or drink.  It is not about your sexual partners.  It is about radical compassion.

Jesus said "by their fruits you shall know them," meaning that a person's true character is evident in his actions.  The Founding Fathers and Americans throughout history have talked a lot about God, but talk is cheap, and talking does not make a nation Christian.  Its actions do.  No one has pointed out to me those actions taken by the United States government that proves its Christian character. 

My Cherokee and Choctaw ancestors have the loss of their Southeastern homelands as evidence to the contrary.

I am not holding the United States to some unrealistic standard, though.  I think it is unrealistic to expect any nation to be truly Christian in its principles.  Nations tend to be built upon one group of people protecting their interests against the interests of other groups of people.  The United States built an empire, and since an empire is built by imposing one nation's will upon other nations, I do not see how one can build a truly Christian empire.

That "do unto others" thing keeps getting in the way .  If you let it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tux Me? No, Tux You! The Skinny Look Has Gone Too Far

Punk magazine, 1976
Skinny jeans made a comeback several years ago.  The young men on my campus in skinny jeans gave me flashbacks to my teens years when The Ramones were ripping up "Rock 'n' Roll High School."

I can understand skinny jeans then as part of a punk aesthetic.  I am too poor to afford jeans that fit.  Besides, I do not care to conform to society's expectations of good clothing and good grooming.

Skinny jeans were different from tight jeans.  Tight jeans could be used to feature the muscles of a man's legs or butt.  Cowboys (I grew up in Oklahoma) wore tight jeans, but not skinny jeans.  Skinnies were tapered and would not accommodate boots.  And the punk lifestyle did not allow much time at the gym nor on the mechanical bull.  Guys who wore skinnies had skinny legs.

John Travolta in Urban Cowboy (1980)
That seems to be true today, but the aesthetic seems different.  People spend a great deal of money on skinny jeans, so they are not a clear signifier of poverty.  And I have seen the young men fuss with them, getting them pulled exactly right and getting all of the seams lined up just so; so they are not a clear signifier of an anti-aesthetic.

The jeans are so tight that adjustments may be difficult, though important to ensure certain delicate body parts are not damaged.

But the skinny look has conquered the rest of the men's fashion world.  Now the skinny look is in with trousers and shirts.  There are skinny blazers now.  And even skinny tuxedos.  You could see them at the Emmy Awards on Sunday night.

Adam Scott, 2011 Emmys
I do not see the aesthetic appeal of them.  Tight-fitting clothes can be attractive and sexy, depending upon the body beneath them.  But I think that requires the clothes to fit smoothly, to outline the shape of the body beneath the fabric.  Skinny tuxedos just bunch and bind.

Look at the pants on Parks & Recreation's Adam Scott.  They are so tight you could count the change in his pocket if his hand weren't in the way.  And not only are the pants legs too tight, they are too long.  They have gathered so much his legs look like bendy straws.

The worst of the night was possibly the tuxedo on Glee's Cory Monteith.  His tuxedo looked like it hurt him.  It looked like he had been extruded into it.  Did it explode when he sat down?  Or did the jacket merely break some of his ribs?

Skinny blazers and skinny tuxedos make grown men look like they are children again, dressed by their mothers for a great aunt's funeral.

Cory Monteith, 2011 Emmys
Now that I think of it, this could be part of the appeal.  There is another general aesthetic running through men's fashion.  We could call it a Peter Pan look.  The uncut, uncombed hair.  The facial hair that suggests no need to get up early in the morning and go to work.  Fashions that look more appropriate for a life spent slouching on the sofa than accomplishing... things.

Perhaps the skinny look is a way of appealing to a reluctance by the American male to grow up.

Or perhaps I am just old.

Hey, you kids!  Get off of my lawn!  And get a haircut!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Symbolic Indians vs. Smiling Indians

Classes have begun again at the university where I teach, and I asked students in my American Indian literature to talk about their impressions of American Indian cultures and the source of those impressions.  At least one person mentioned this famous public service announcement, which I vividly recall from the 1970s:

Famous Sicilian-American
It features an actor who is known widely as Iron Eyes Cody (1904-1999), but he was named Espera Oscar de Corti by his Sicilian immigrant parents.  That is, one of the most famous Indians of the 1970s was not an Indian. 

The students said such images helped produce their impression that American Indian cultures and mainstream America related to the natural world differently.  That led to an interesting discussion of how something true can be communicated through something false.

His presence on the screen was insulting to many American Indians, yet it wasn't surprising.  Cody was part of a long tradition of non-Indians appearing on the screen as Indians -- and taking work away from American Indian actors in the process.  Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, and even Audrey Hepburn have played American Indian characters.

The Unforgiven (1960)
I repeat.  Audrey Hepburn.  American Indian.

I played the commercial for my students and we agreed that however much we laugh at the commercial today, and however problematic is the casting of Cody, the commercial was effective.  Summoning the iconic image of the Indian as protector of nature was effective.  Showing a lone tear running down the face of the iconic stoic Indian was effective.

The student who is tempted to dismiss the commercial because it makes use of stereotypes is missing the interesting discussion about how icons and signs work.

In the real world, it does matter that Cody was not an American Indian because there was an American Indian actor quite capable of filling the role, and he had a family to feed and a career to build.

But within the world of the commercial's message and within the world of the dominant American culture that was communicating to itself with this commercial -- that is, the public service announcement was not targeting Indian Country -- the race of the person playing an American Indian did not matter.  His symbolic function overruled that.

It is like Rene Magritte's famous painting of a pipe, The Treachery of Images.  On it is emblazoned the message (in French) "This is not a pipe."  Of course it isn't.  It is a painting of a pipe.  Cody's PSA could be titled "This is not an Indian."  Of course it isn't.  It is a someone pretending to be an Indian.

Cody was playing the very familiar role in American culture of the Noble Savage.  In American culture, the Noble Savage's relationship to any actual living Indians is irrelevant.  He says more about the people using him to communicate than he does about American Indians -- as does mainstream America's inability to distinguish a real Indian from a fake one.

Understanding the symbolic/iconic function of Cody's stony face is not to say that such representations are OK.  They have real-world implications other than stealing work from American Indian actors.  The viewers of such representations are not aware that they are viewing signs and symbols; they think they are looking at real Indians and then expect Indians in the real world to behave in the same ways.

Two Strikes by Edward Curtis
As an antidote to Cody's stony face, I showed my students a wonderful short film, Smiling Indians.  It is made by two young men from Oklahoma, Ryan Red Corn (from the Osage Nation) and Sterlin Harjo (from the Creek Nation).

The film is ironically dedicated to Edward R. Curtis (1858-1952), a very famous American photographer who did much to create the whole tradition of the stoic Indian that made Cody's career possible.

The faces in Smiling Indians do NOT function so clearly as symbols or icons.  The faces are not participating in various narrative conventions of how American Indians relate to mainstream American culture.  They are images of Indian people being... people.

Human beings.  Not symbols.

Watch it and smile.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Badness of King George (Lucas)

Believe it or not, there was a time when people tried to defend George Lucas's storytelling abilities. 

Who ya gonna call?
He withstood the criticism fairly well, until cracks in his narrative armor began to appear with Return of the Jedi.  The highly merchandisable cuteness of the Ewoks and the wretched sentimentality of the "family photograph" at the conclusion -- when ghosts of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Darth Vader appear with Luke and company --  foreshadowed things such as Jar-Jar Binks.

What the duck?
Sure, there was his involvement with the Indiana Jones series.  But when people wanted to talk about Lucas as if he possessed undiluted genius, I had a standard response to them: "Always remember three words: Howard. The. Duck."

I waited nearly 20 years between the release of Return of the Jedi and A New Hope, only to be horribly and bitterly disappointed in the crapulence Lucas threw at us and was somehow proud of.  I then began to think perhaps Howard the Duck was the norm and the first Star Wars movies were the exception.

Now it seems Lucas was not satisfied ruining my expectations for the Star Wars prequels.  He now wants to ruin the originals.

Still lame.
Back in 2004, in the re-release of Return of the Jedi, Lucas replaced the original image of Sebastian Shaw, the actor who played Darth Vader during the brief moment when we saw beneath his mask, with Hayden Christensen, who played Annikin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

I don't really care about that.  That doesn't make that cinematic moment less groan-worthy than it already was.  I say that Lucas is determined to ruin his legacy because, in the latest Blu-Ray release of Return of the Jedi, he is injecting groan-worthiness where it had not existed before.  (Link to story about changes.)

In a key scene, Luke is saved and Darth Vader turns against the Dark Side -- he stops the Emperor from Tazering Luke with the Force and tosses him down the funhole of a Death Star.  In the original scene, Darth does all of this silently.  In the "improved" version he says "Noooo!"  Twice.

I understand the problem Lucas might have felt he was addressing.  There is a lot of emotion going on in Darth Vader's mind in this scene and he makes some key decisions.  But the character's face is hidden behind his famous mask.  Giving Darth dialog, however inarticulate and unconvincing it might be, would communicate to the audience what he was thinking and feeling.

But there is no problem for Lucas to solve here.  We do not need any verbal assistance to make up for a lack of facial cues from Darth Vader.  His actions tell us what he is feeling.  Tossing one's boss into a pit of blue fire is not very ambiguous.  But that wasn't enough for Lucas, the Master of Obviousness.

Seeing this revised scene made me think about the peculiar convention of the wordless close-up.  Most films have at least some of them.  The shots rely upon crucial information being communicated through the close-up of an actor's face, which focuses the viewer's attention on the emotions taking place within the character.  Even when that face is relatively expressionless, the audience can be trusted to understand what is happening beneath the calm surface.  This is partly through the dialog and action that surrounds the close-up, but it also is through the audience's training.  We have been taught how to understand such film conventions by watching thousands of hours of film and television.

The Searchers (1956)
A famous example would be a scene with John Wayne in The Searchers.  After his character, Ethan, and others have determined that they have been lured away from the settlements by the Comanche and that all of their families are in great danger, the posse races back to save them.  But Ethan knows their horses cannot make the hard ride.  Racing back will kill their mounts, which will keep them from saving the families AND leave them without horses.

He is left behind and wipes down his tired horse.  Across his still somewhat stoic face we see the concern and fear for what might be happening to his brother's family.  No dialog.  No scenes of mayhem.  No overwrought expressions.  Some of his frustration is evident in the way he wipes down the horse.  He is helpless and he hates that.

In film studies we talk about "reading" images.  But with many wordless close-ups, we are not really reading the face of the actor -- at least not reading it separate from the dialog and actions that have come immediately before or that will follow.  We must admit that a face without dialog can sometimes be ambiguous.  But if the elements surrounding the close-up are clear, the viewer is not so much reading the face in the close-up as he/she is projecting expected feelings onto that character -- or what they would be feeling themselves.  In a sense, the face can be like an empty space that the viewer fills in.

My evidence for this is Team America: World Police, a film with no actual faces, only puppets.  This movie has close-ups and reaction shots of puppets.  Some of them are rigged to have expressions, but many times the faces do not change during the shot.  The emotions are conveyed through actions and dialog.  However, in some scenes we are given reaction shots from puppets who are showing no reaction and who have no dialog or actions for cues of their emotions.  But the audience, I believe, understands what is going through the character's mind.  The close-up functions as a time not for the audience to "read" the face and decipher its meaning, since there is nothing there to read on the surface.  Instead, the audience uses the time of the close-up to register or sense more deeply the emotions and thoughts of the character they are projecting there.

In this scene from Team America, the leader of the agents tries to recruit Gary Johnston to join them.  The scene includes reaction shots of Gary during the pitch, but, of course, his face never changes.  Yet somehow the audience understands what he is thinking and understands when he declines the offer.

If you think about it, what is Darth Vader but a large puppet?  If we can understand Trey Parker and Matt Stone's marionettes, then we do not need George Lucas's help to understand one of the world's most iconic villains in his moment of redemption.

Monday, August 22, 2011

From the Arab Spring Fashion Collection


By the time I post this, Moammar Gadhafi may be among the ranks of the unemployed, if not the unliving.  Despite the dramatic events in Libya, this picture of rebels advancing on Tripoli struck me as rather familiar: It looks like a shot from a Banana Republic ad campaign.  

Our Striped Pique Polo Shirts keep the rebel on the go feeling cool and comfortable -- and the horizontal stripes are slimming, just in case dodging rockets has kept you from the gym.

Our Relaxed Fit Cargo Pants have roomy pockets that can carry extra ammunition for a firefight, or your digital camera to capture the good times on your own Road Trip to Tripoli!

A Swiss Military Classic Watch can take whatever punishment Gadhafi's goons can dish out.  What time is it?  It's time for regime change!  Spring Break Libya-style! 

Banana Republic 2011 Spring Collection
My imagination here is not far off the mark from some fashion ads I have seen.  They seem to follow advice similar to that offered by a blog about fashion photography:  "Location, location, location! Getting the right location is important if you want to convey a narrative within your shot.  For example if the clothing and beauty styling are edgy, hard or provocative you may want to consider an urban setting , alternatively for spring/summer and natural fashions find a rural environment like; a field, meadow, beach, woodland or river bank."

Fashion photographers, such as those for Banana Republic, often place their subjects in settings that contrast interestingly with the clothing being worn by their beautiful models.  Apparently the incongruity of the backdrop with the clothing draws the reader's eye and can excite the imagination.  The settings also can make the clothing seem more interesting, suggesting an intriguing though often cryptic narrative -- look at the amazing lives of people who wear clothes like this!  

Banana Republic 2010 Holiday Collection
My rugged four-by-four will take me wherever my Milan  platform peep-toes won't!

Hey, babe, look at this firewood I chopped myself in these Clarks Desert Boots!  Sorry about stepping on your windshield wiper!   

(What does Banana Republic have about people standing on their vehicles?)

On the one hand, these ridiculous fashion images -- unrealistically beautiful people in "real" situations -- prepare us for images such as the one from Libya, images of real people in extraordinary situations.  And yet an image like this from Libya also show us how ridiculous the ad campaigns are.  How adventurous would these anorexic hipsters be when the gunships move in?