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Monday, Dec 1, 2008

A few weeks ago, Nicholas Carr wrote a post about the end of the blogosphere as an independent, open field in which new writers can bypass the need for vetting by corporate media and rise in popularity through sheer merit.


While there continue to be many blogs, including a lot of very good ones, it seems to me that one would be hard pressed to make the case that there’s still a “blogosphere.” That vast, free-wheeling, and surprisingly intimate forum where individual writers shared their observations, thoughts, and arguments outside the bounds of the traditional media is gone. Almost all of the popular blogs today are commercial ventures with teams of writers, aggressive ad-sales operations, bloated sites, and strategies of self-linking. Some are good, some are boring, but to argue that they’re part of a “blogosphere” that is distinguishable from the “mainstream media” seems more and more like an act of nostalgia, if not self-delusion.


He’s probably right about that, but we should be grateful the old blogosphere was around long enough for Tanta at Calculated Risk to find a wide audience. She was absolutely one of the most lucid and engaging writers on the housing bubble and the mortgage industry, without whom even fewer people would have much of an idea of what happened to our economy in recent years. Tanta, whose name was Doris Dungey, died over the weekend, and will be sorely missed.


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Monday, Dec 1, 2008
PopMatters' intrepid photographer arrives on the scene in time for day two of the M For Montréal festival and takes in the town as well as the first two of Friday's acts.

Due to scheduling conflicts, I arrived in Montréal late on a Thursday night, a full day after events editor Kevin Pearson had touched down. As such, I missed the first day of the festival, not to mention a few swanky dinners, courtesy of the festival’s organizers.  Luckily, there was still plenty left to be seen, heard and tasted in Montréal and I was determined to make the most of my weekend in the world’s second largest French speaking city.


Coincidentally enough, I was born in Montréal, though my family left Canada when I was just a few months old. Though I had made a few trips back as a child, this would mark the first chance I would have as an adult to explore the city in earnest. As such, my trip was filled with a peculiar sense of nostalgia; fleeting moments of recognition in a city that I knew almost nothing about.


Our home base, the fashionably minimalist Opus Hotel, was located at the intersection of two of Montréal’s great thoroughfares, the Boulevard Saint Laurent and rue Sherbrooke. Boulevard Saint Laurent is apparently referred to as “the Main” by locals, as the street serves as the dividing line between the Anglophone and Francophone parts of town. Leonard Cohen owns a nondescript grey stone house about a mile from the Opus, not far from the corner of Boulevard Saint Laurent and rue Marie Anne (the latter street, apparently, serving as the inspiration for the song that bears its name).


Even though I arrived after midnight on Thursday, Kevin managed to coax me into going out to a bar (okay, I admit, it didn’t take much coaxing) with him and a few folks he had met at the festival. We ended up at Korova, an upstairs hipster dive on the main drag that somehow felt both authentically divey and authentically Canadian. The DJ spun great tunes (‘50s and ‘60s pop 45s, mostly), the bartenders poured St. Ambroise brews from Montréal’s own McAuslan brewery and practically everyone danced themselves into a sweat as the moose heads mounted on the wall silently observed the proceedings.


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Monday, Dec 1, 2008

One of the obvious delights of surveying the Beatles’ catalogue is coming across unheralded gems, like “Baby It’s You”. Written by Burt Bacharach, Luther Dixon, and Mack David, this cover of the much-covered 1961 Shirelles’ hit shares the same lazy-groove, R&B gait as “Anna (Go to Him)” and, also like that Arthur Alexander tune, showcases the Beatles in precociously assured form. They sound seasoned and not at all burdened by the pressures of a debut album. And coupled with their casual command, they also come off (to no surprise) as naturally joyful performers who recognize that their art can benefit from an influx of good humor.


As the song’s lead singer, John especially radiates this mix of authority and amusement. Over glinting guitars and a sturdy, medium-boil rhythm (both of which are well-proportioned), he issues a vow of devotion that ranges, in tonal quality, from calmly resigned to mocking to battered. It’s a versatile vocal, and John navigates the changes so loosely, so fluidly, almost as if he’s just engaging in regular conversation. The way he lightly massages the word “heart” in the song’s first line, the spring in his voice on the transitional “uh-ohs”, and his aching confession “Don’t want nobody, nobody” are among the highlights.


Elsewhere, John, flanked by the “sha-la-la”-ing Paul and George, sets aside his straight-up, shtick-free manner in favor of showy flourishes and interjections that might seem somewhat audacious coming from the very green Beatles (as opposed to the more established Shirelles who perform the same parts). But the Fab Four bask in these moments and appear to acknowledge their own youth by almost consciously overacting. To memorable effect, John follows the original’s use of repetition on lines like “Many, many, many nights go by” and “They say, they say you never, never, never ever been true”, but he adds more playful emphasis than the Shirelles did. Such confident poses for a mere 22-year-old. However, his smirkingly clipped delivery of “cheat, cheat”, which Paul and George echo, is probably the finest demonstration of the Beatles’ joy of craft on “Baby It’s You”. It’s an infectious spirit that helps to make for an infectious pop treat.


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Sunday, Nov 30, 2008

Screw Abraham Maslow! According to this so-called philosopher, the route to self-actualization - you know, the ultimate realization of one’s own value and worth within the context of social and interpersonal dynamics - is via some hoity-toity, ivory tower tested “hierarchy of needs”. For those of you without eggheads, Maslow created a pyramid (kind of like the finishing school four food groups of the soul) and situated the steps to ‘SA’ from bottom to tippy top. In essence, he argued that as long as you fulfilled each and every level of these innate necessities - basic needs, safety needs, psychological needs, etc. - you end up finding your true self…or some goofy PhD facsimile thereof.


Oddly enough, there’s no need to follow the unproven theorems of a cranky thinker circa 1943. Instead, just head out to the movies. If cinema has taught us anything, and the list of lessons is growing larger and more complex every day, it’s that the true path to individual enlightenment is not paved with food, shelter, law, order, family, status, or reputation. Instead, the journey, like the one taken by cubicle monkey Wesley Gibson in Timur Bekmambetov Summer 2008 sensation Wanted (now out on DVD from Universal), is covered with a singular kind of asphalt - the aggressive, ass-kicking kind. All you need is the ability to harness your own innate bad-ass and BINGO! - you’re a simple step away from uncovering the truth about who you really are, and what that person is capable of.


From ancient Greek mythology to the modern, more Lucas-oriented traditions, the geek turned titan, the nobody launched into the clouds of Mt. Olympus has fueled many a heroic narrative. Authors understand the allure of putting the everyman in the place of Hercules, giving the desk jockey or gym class dork an answer to their awkward social acceptance. Before he became the savior of the Jedi, lame-o Luke Skywalker was hanging out with his Tatoonie tool buddies, stuck back on the farm dreaming of taking on the Empire instead of actually signing up and sticking it to Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers. Of course, fate, and a full blown knowledge of the Force, turns him into the last man standing against the devious Dark Side, required to defeat the one man who can make or break his ability to actualize - his father, the aforementioned psycho Sith.



Or what about that computer hacker turned Jesus Christ, Neo, in the Wachowski’s wild Matrix movies. Intrigued by the rebellious nature of Morpheus and his gang of club hoping henchmen, this motherboard butthead dreams of breaking out of his corporate confines and “waking up” from what appears to be a living dream. He soon learns however that he is the “One”, no longer Thomas A. Anderson but a bonafide savior of all mankind. To take on such a challenge, and the ever-persistent attacks of the machine managed Agents, he must learn the truth about his world (it’s a virtual reality simulation), his skills (they’re as limitless as his ability to embrace them), and his limitations (his love for that holy hot sex in spandex sister, Trinity). While there’s no Daddy to defeat this time around, Neo does have to face off against Big Brother, proving to the omniscient mechanisms that he’s more than just a preprogrammed prophecy.


And then there’s the IKEA loving disciple of one Tyler Durdin in Fight Club. Incapable of anything other than ordering overpriced material comforts out of a catalog, our no-name auto recall reject (and future urban terrorist) discovers his proto-polar opposite in a studly, esoteric soap salesman. As they begin living - and fighting - together, the drone becomes the driven, inadvertently targeting the financial structure of society to implode the noxious new world order. They even bed the same psychological mess of a Miss in an attempt to prove their otherwise inert manhood. Before long, our antihero and his hunk realize they are one in the same, ID inverted and supercharged so that the rest of the psyche can feel free from inevitable liability. A bullet through the cheek, and things are suddenly starting to look right.


In all three cases, the wimp inevitably becomes the champ, the marginalized and mistreated turned into something akin to a human nuclear device. It’s the same for Gibson (played with plucky sarcasm and endless charm by a well cast James McAvoy), given over to Google-ing his own name, only to discover he’s the perfect post-millennial example of a nothing.  When Fox (again with the hottie, only this time she’s inhabited by Angelina Jolie, and packs a lot of ammunition efficiency to boot) finds him refilling his anxiety meds, the message is simple - your absentee father is dead, and Cross - the man who killed him - wants you gone as well. This lures Wesley into the mighty maw of the quasi-religious Fraternity, delivering dogma and death skills in several face punching, knife slashing sessions.



Under the Yoda like tutelage of Sloan, a kindly older man with a strict sense of murder-for-hire morality, Wesley discovers his inner assassin. Soon, he’s learning to curve bullets, hug danger, cuddle cruelty, and heal with wax-bath rapidity. Eventually, the truth is told - the man who wants Wesley dead is really his dad, and the entire “school for slayers” was just a set up to help the Fraternity get rid of the diabolic double-Cross. But by that time it’s too late. Wesley has been an apt pupil to say the least. Within days of discovering the reality of his being, he creates a complex plan to take out Sloan and his murderer’s row once and for all. He’ll need some help from the inside, but with his sense of self primed into overdrive, there’s almost no stopping him.


Indeed, Wanted tries to be new and novel - and the stunning actions sequences staged by director Bekmambetov are a marvel to look at - but it can’t escape its heroics heritage. Wesley doesn’t grow a pair of no holds barred balls until he discovers the power of money, and of making people suffer. His initial office encounters with fat boss Janice and best friend/girlfriend f*cker Barry sets things up perfectly for the clever comeuppance everyone will experience later on. Similarly, Sloan is seen as somewhat benevolent and trusting, and yet when the other shoe drops somewhere in the third act, Wesley is left to decide if he’s a man, or a mouse-bomber killing machine. Like his brethren in actualization, Luke, Neo, and Tyler-Twin, the protagonist in Wanted has to suffer and sacrifice to survive. He must face death and personal loss head on, if only to turn into the individual he’s destined to become.


Along the way, we are introduced to the creative clichés buried in the a.k.s.a. genre (elements acknowledged as necessary in the DVD’s intriguing added content). Wesley goes through a period of training, learning the lessons of the Fraternity. Substitute past preparations like the ways of the Force, the virtual dojo, or the sweaty, blood spattered basements of various Fight Clubs, and you start to see the pattern. There’s almost always a mentor involved - be he an ex-Jedi schooling yet another young pupil in his folklore ways, a believer desperate to train the new Messiah, or a manly macho mug skilled at doing everything his alter ego is incapable of. Toss in various babes - princesses, killers, super hero honeys in skin tight leather - and you’ve got the makings of a movie.



But the reason that Wanted is so superior to other ordinary action fodder is its desire to make you think. All throughout the narrative, Wesley wonders aloud about his sorry lot in life. He confronts his lack of backbone, and questions the very fabric of his false existence. His initial reaction to Fox is one of panic, followed by the giddy kind of joy a child must experience when something new and exciting enters their sheltered sphere of influence. By the time he’s learning gut-level courage from The Repairman, knife skills from The Butcher, and firearms from The Gunsmith, he’s no longer questioning himself. Instead, the last line of the movie is aimed at the audience, asking them to look into the motion picture mirror and ‘reflect’ on who they really are.


Like Star Wars, and The Matrix, and Fight Club, Wanted is propelled by as many concepts as car crashes, redefining the genre as it embraces and enhances it. Bekmambetov is wildly inventive as a filmmaker, fleshing out his storyline with quirky moments of brutal slapstick, sick humor, and that all important element for any bullet ballet - slo-mo stuntwork. By mimicking experts at the style like the master of the reduced frame rate, John Woo, Bekmambetov enhances the character’s inner voyage. By the end, we understand the misbegotten bravado, the need to prove to everyone that he is better, smarter, stronger, craftier, and about as whole and individually realized as any person can be.


Few of these films backtrack on the heroics. In the case of Wars and Matrix, both took their icons and gave them added humanizing aspects like doubt, fear, and that always lethal combination of love and honor. It will be interesting to see where Wesley goes should a rumored Wanted sequel ever materialize. He’s a hitman with a lot of potential. In the meantime, we can re-watch our anxious account manager go from lox to legitimate in the span of two tripwire hours. Behind the edge of your seat veneer and raging amounts of filmic testosterone, Wanted is just another example of self-actualization via a well placed foot in someone’s behind. Maslow may need several strangulated steps to get to where he’s going, but a prophet like Wesley Gibson only needs one. It’s the pyramid or the punch-out - you decide. As with any journey into self-discovery, the decision is yours.


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Sunday, Nov 30, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-12-01...

Another painfully (some would say mercifully) slow release week is upon us as the year winds down and publishers allow the games that they’d never put up against anything to trickle out. 


The lone truly big-ticket item to be seen in the bunch below is Prince of Persia, for which the lack of numbers or subtitles would seem to indicate a restart for the franchise.  Interestingly, it’s a franchise whose momentum seems to be building, given some recent high-profile shoutouts from the likes of Yahtzee and the news of an upcoming movie version of the game starring none other than Jake Gyllenhaal.


Prince of Persia would seem to be the one game this week that is being released because its publisher wanted it to get the release day highlighting—and the holiday promotional push—it deserves.  It’s not too late for the Christmas rush, and yet it’s found a window in which there is very little to distract us from its release.  The Prince himself is new (and quite frankly, he sounds like kind of an ass), but the plot is basically the same—evil dark spirits are released upon the world, and the Prince must save the world with the aid of a mysterious woman named Elika (who becomes the means of saving the Prince from death when we players are inadequately suited to such a task).  If you liked the Sands of Time trilogy, it sounds like you’ll like this, and with the inadvertent spotlight put on the series thanks to the similarity of Mirror’s Edge‘s acrobatics to those of Prince of Persia, now might be just the time to get into it.


There are a couple of Mushroom Men games coming out this week as well, which may be worth a look.  The Wii version of the game (subtitled The Spore Wars) has been the recipient of some pretty decent preliminary reviews, and who doesn’t love a good platformer?  Platformers not based on already-established franchises are pretty rare these days (LittleBigPlanet notwithstanding), so it feels like something I’d want to support, anyway.


Elsewhere, SingStar Abba might just be the game that finally gets my father into video games, WiiWare might have some buried retro treasure on its hands with Space Invaders Get Even!, and The Tale of Desperaux is on its way for the kids.  Finally, there’s A Vampyre Story, which at first glance looks like your run-of-the-mill PC adventure game, but a closer look reveals that it’s been in production since at least 2004, and the folks behind it are former LucasArts adventure game developers.  If this doesn’t make you squeal with joy, you must not have played PC games in the ‘90s; for the rest of us, this could be a classic in the making.


What are you playing this week?  Have you recovered from your turkey hangover?  Let us know in the comments, and enjoy the snow.


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