Friday, July 25, 2008

Entertainment Weekly's classics

Entertainment Weekly recently published an exhaustive mega-list of the "new classics" of pop culture. The lists, which really aren't all that bad, enumerate the 100 greatest books, TV shows, films, albums, etc. of the last 25 years.

To me, "classic" works of art are 1) of extraordinary quality and 2) of significant cultural/social/political impact. Classics are game-changers -- media events that helped define an era. Psycho, for example, is a classic not just because it's exceptionally made, but because it influenced the horror genre for decades and sits as a rich historical median between the classical and post-classical eras of Hollywood cinema.

So, with that, here are what I consider the new classics of the last 25 years. These aren't my absolute faves; they're a compromise between personal taste and cultural impact.

TV Shows:
1) The Daily Show
2) The Office (UK)
3) The Simpsons
4) Freaks and Geeks
5) Seinfeld

1) The Satanic Versus by Salman Rushdie (1988)
2) Watchmen Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (1987)
3) Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985)
4) The Corrections Jonathan Franzen (2001)
5) White Noise by Don Delillo (1985)

1) Daydream Nation (1988) by Sonic Youth
2) OK Computer by (1997) Radiohead
3) Funeral by (2004) Arcade Fire
4) Slanted & Enchanted (1992) by Pavement
5) Grace (1994) by Jeff Buckley

1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
2) Mulholland Dr. (2001)
3) Se7en (1995)
4) Toy Story 2 (1999)
5) Pulp Fiction (1994)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

McCain Pun Mania

If you read the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, or any political site that allows users to leave comments, you've no doubt read a sentence featuring the word "McSame."

This is one of many, many nicknames low-level Internet activists have churned out for the Arizona senator. "McSame" is the most popular, but there are countless others. Here are some other gems I've come across:

McBlame (Get it? He's to blame for Iraq 'cause he voted for the war!)
McBush (Get it? Bush's third term!)
McFlame (Get it? He's a hothead!)
McCane (Get it? 'Cause he's so old he needs a cane to walk!)
McThuseluh (OK, that one's actually kind of funny)

As you might tell from that last one, you can make a John McCain pun out of anything, really. I've even seen such clever turns of phrase as "McOld," "McLoser," and "McBombBombBombBombBombIran."

Let me know if I've missed any.

The Green Revolution as Trend Journalism

Kim Severson published a feature story in the New York Times yesterday on so-called "lazy locavores" -- that is, people who want to eat locally grown produce but don't have the space, time, or energy to garden.

While it's no hack-job, the article frames general "green" activities in trend-journalism terms. This, in my mind, is socially irresponsible.

Save the gee-golly-did-ya-hear-what-those-crazy-kids-are-up-to-now? pieces for cuddle parties, metrosexuals, and, I don't know, dudes who slather their chests with Preparation H to look ripped.

The novelty of "going green" may be nothing more than a fun change-up for some, but Severson paints her subjects as trend-spotting bandwagon-jumpers. This is the inherent framework of a trend piece: Find something a few folks are doing, leech onto it, and hype it up as the next passing fad.

Just look at this example, from my former paper. Note the hint of exhaustion and irritation in the headline, as though whoever wrote it is totally sick of hearing about organic-this and carbon-footprint-that.

Here's my main problem with articles like these: We are in the beginning stages of what is most certainly not a fad or a trend. Our society is fundamentally shifting away from conspicuous consumption and toward sustainability. You've no doubt noticed. To report these seismic changes as standard trend-spotting journalism is counter productive, because it suggests that sustainability's just a fleeting trend. It's not -- and it deserves better than coverage that simply asks "Guess what's gone organic this week??"

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Lincoln Group

As early thesis reading, I'm breezing through When the Press Fails, a pretty solid account of the American media's lapdog days after 9/11.

One of the more enraging discussions in the book regards the Lincoln Group, a PR firm paid by the Pentagon to place pro-US stories in Iraqi newspapers. It's old news, but it came as news to me.

Read more about it here.

It's a return to the good old days of "grey propaganda," when the CIA planted anti-Mossadegh articles in American and Iranian newspapers, in hopes of framing Iran's progressive prime minister as an unpopular Communist. For those not familiar with the story, major spoiler ahead: It worked.

Monday, July 7, 2008

An interesting read

Here you'll find a new LA Times article on the fascinating connection between Hollywood and the US Army.

In essence, it's one man's job -- Lt. Col. J. Todd Breasseale -- to decide which major-studio scripts receive Army assistance and which ones do not. Often, with big-budget blockbusters and war films, filmmakers cannot push projects into production without the Army providing access to jets, planes, ships, etc.

Put bluntly, the army can ostensibly kill a film because of something Breasseale finds objectionable in a script.

As a progressive film-lover, I'm immediately off-put by the idea of a military man making ideological judgments on which films merit help and which ones don't. Yet, at the same time, Breasseale comes off as pretty reasonable in the piece. He's no artless ideologue. The writer pits Breasseale against Crash mega-hack Paul Haggis, and it's debatable which figure is more convincing.

To call this censorship would be knee-jerk liberalism, which is what I think Haggis is guilty of here. Still, the situation is troubling. Now, I understand it would be against the Army's greater interest to help Oliver Stone shoot his latest hit-piece on the US government. Clearly the Army can't help every production that needs a tank in scene 12, so it hires someone to act as a filter, to decide which projects get assistance and which ones don't. There is no set of objective criteria used in this process, so there's certainly room for Breasseale to make PR-driven value judgments in the name of "fairness" and "accuracy."

The problem I have is with Breasseale seemingly believing that filmmakers have an obligation to portray the military in a balanced, "nuanced" way. They don't. American filmmakers are artists in a country that values freedom of expression, and as such they have no obligation to any outside entity. It's OK for the the Army to avoid helping a film it doesn't like, just as it's OK for a corporation to not play ball with a film that mocks corporate America. It only makes sense. But Breasseale's goals are clearly propagandistic -- it's his job, essentially, to make it so the Iraq War doesn't become culturally defined by a series of scathing films (i.e. Vietnam = Born on the Fourth of July, Apocalypse Now).

Thus far he's gotten lucky: Every major Iraq-related fiction film has failed commercially and critically. In the article, he disingenuously exploits this fact and claims the films failed because of their one-sidedness. Nice try. The implicit argument here is that people don't like anti-war films, and they'd much rather watch balanced, more neutral accounts of war. I'm not sure too many people saw the trailer for Rendition and thought "Now, I would go see an even-handed film on America's use of torture, but this I'll pass." I'd argue it's not anti-war films that critics and audiences don't like, but rather it's bad anti-war films.

(Brief digression: The flat-out failure of Iraq War films to resonate with critics/audiences has given false ammo to those on the left and right. Liberals say critics pan Iraq films because of the status-quo bias inherent in the corporate media, while conservatives relish every box-office failure as another example of Hollywood's out-of-touch liberalism. Both sides are wrong here: Liberal film critics blasted Rendition, Redacted, Lions for Lambs, etc. because they were poorly made on the level of cinematic craft, not because of any ideological dispute; while audiences rejected the films simply because they were bad and not because of their deep-down support of the Iraq War. Most Americans are against the war, obviously, so it doesn't make any sense to argue that these films' financial failure suggests otherwise).

In Breasseale's view, it seems, the perfect war film makes no polemical claims; rather, it presents a neutral depiction of the US Army at work.

It's no wonder the story's accompanied by a photo of Breasseale holding a framed poster for Black Hawk Down, the Jerry Bruckheimer war-porn fantasy from 2001.

I'd be interested to know what others thought of this story and the Army program it discusses. I'm not outright against it, but, at the very least, I'd be interested in learning how precisely Breasseale determines a "good" film from a "bad" one. Is it just accuracy? What if a filmmaker is accurate in his negative depiction of the Army? Is he required to show a differing viewpoint? Must Iraq War films be made with a bizarre incarnation of the Fairness Doctrine in place?

All questions I'd like to research and answer soon.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Haven't written in a while

I've been quite busy with my position at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. I've taken hours of video and hundreds of pictures on the floods that've been going down here. I hope to get some of the good ones up shortly, that is if the DNR doesn't have some copyright qualms with my uploading the photos on a blog.

I saw two films in theaters last weekend and wanted to discuss them very briefly:

Wall*E: Pixar's newest is as good as everyone says. Quelle surprise. The film skewers our culture of convenience without the ham-fisted, Randy-Newman-montage lameness of Cars. It's the best film I've seen thus far this year. The film pays tribute to everything from Chaplin to Kubrick, and does so without completely alienating the kiddies. A number of friends have argued that Wall*E is the best Pixar film to date; I still reserve that spot for Toy Story 2, but this one's undoubtedly a top-tier addition to the cannon. Mark my words: Filmgoers my age will look back on the '90s and 2000s as a golden age of cinematic animation, surpassing the prior untouchable span from the '30-'50s that gave us Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc.

The Happening: Now, let's get one thing out of the way: I didn't hate it. In fact, I've pretty much thought all of M. Night's films have ranged from OK to quite good. The Happening is better than Lady in the Water, if for nothing else because the film has a number of genuine scares. The premise -- that some sort of airborne agent causes uncontrollable suicide -- is strong. Shyamalan builds suspense and dread in his money scenes by visualizing a quick succession of events: blank expressions, verbal delirium, backwards pacing, etc. Rather than have his victims quickly bite the bullet, Shyamalan forces us to watch these warning signs first. Essentially, each time you hear someone speak nonsense, you know they'll be dead within a minute, and the terror is in knowing there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. Water's postmodernist jokery was amusing and nothing more, while The Happening displays Night's ability to craft ominous, memorable images. But, in all, the movie's absurd and not particularly worth seeing in theaters. So much of it seems intentionally bad, but, even then, why? Why the awful performances? Why the bombastic score? Why the limp-to-the-finish ending? All in the name of creating the "the best B movie ever made"? More inexcusable than anything else, the film is shoddily made, having been shot in just 44 days. It's poor editing is remarkable, given how even Night's questionable films like The Village are at least well-executed. The film shifts tones wildly, and contains a core melodramatic center that's no different than the likes of Signs and War of the Worlds.

So, one weekend, two films concerning environmental issues. One is a call to arms, another a warning of what's to come. At least they're both better than The Day After Tomorrow.