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.