Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Dec 30, 2008

“Each chapter also has its own small story arc, with background flavours involving targeted marketing campaigns, beauty products, brand loyalty, evil products with glossy packaging, etc. Just like the story, these themes inform the artwork and level design, but are never ever crammed down the player’s throat. You’ll notice them only if you read between the lines.”
-Kyle Gabler, 2D Boy


World of Goo is a work of art in the way that The Butter Battle Book is a work of art.


Perhaps it’s too simplistic an assessment, given that the Seussian inspiration that World of Goo sports is immediately evident from the title screen alone:



Where the homage is most pointed, however, is in the narrative that it presents.


When I was six years old, I didn’t get The Butter Battle Book. I mean, I found it funny enough, what with its increasing levels of Yook and Zook technology and the clever way in which Seuss found the most trivial thing possible for the two sides to disagree on (probably not in those terms at age six, but you catch my drift), but I didn’t know what it meant. There is no way for a six-year-old to understand that the story is based on an all-too-real arms race, and that the strange, unsatisfying ending to the story—a Yook and a Zook at the top of the wall that divided their people, waiting each other out for a good time to drop a civilization-ending bomb—was uncomfortably close to the actual political state of affairs at the time.


At least, there was no way to understand it until my mother explained it to me and proceeded to give me nightmares for the next week.


Similarly, my 29-year-old self didn’t really grasp the allegorical nature of World of Goo until, provoked to comment on it, all I could come up with was to mumble something about an “anti-establishment” sort of undercurrent, which, while sort of accurate, is hardly insightful. The truth is, to that point, much of the play time that I’d devoted to World of Goo had been by the side of my own six-year-old daughter, as it’s a game that truly shines as a family-centered experience without being obviously marketed toward kids; the huge fonts and the wry humor of The Mysterious Sign Painter are, as it turns out, awfully appealing to young children, as is the almost Tinkertoy-esque nature of many of the goo structures that are built throughout the game. As such, my understanding of the undercurrent of the game was victim to a sort of willful ignorance as my time was spent focusing on the stuff a six-year-old would like, the stuff a six-year-old would get.


What could I do but play it again?


(there are spoilers ahead. click at your own peril.)


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Dec 30, 2008

Most people, myself included, are pretty confident that ads have a minimal effect on their decisionmaking; they might make us aware of the existence of certain things, but the decision to act is ours, motivated by some deep inner urge. That analysis, which I often use myself when rationalizing some marketing-driven purchase of my own, seems a fundamental misunderstanding of what advertising accomplishes collectively. Individual ads may inform and persuade us about particular products, but this is what we expect of them, and we stoke our resistance accordingly. We regard the specific advertised product skeptically.


But that expense of skepticism may make us vulnerable to marketing’s less overt goals, which are about drumming up consent for consumerism’s value system. Sometimes this is a matter of attuning us to its peculiar kind of associational illogic, in which fetishized products have transformational capabilities and sit at the center of all sorts of dramas within everyday life. When commercials make no sense or seem extraordinarily stupid (“the coldest tasting beer” campaign, for example), they are working on this string, trying to establish in our minds that connections between products and feelings don’t have to make rational sense to be effective, to exist, to affect our lives. Of course there’s no logical reason a shampoo will make us attractive, but the advertising is trying to persuade us that rationality is irrelevant, that feeling flows through different, equally authentic channels. Whether or not we think feeling flows from the particular product advertised becomes irrelevant if we are that much more convinced that it could flow from any product.


Marketing sets up the nonrational system of association that is to govern our appreciation of the things we buy, and at the same time, it encourages us to blame ourselves if we end up disappointed. After all, it’s our fault if we end up with irrational expectations because we’ve been drawn in by commercials that so clearly were nothing more than “fun” fantasies and jokes about quotidian life. In Shifting Involvements, Albert Hirschman remarks on the existence of insidious products (he cites psychoanalysis) which have blame-shifting built into them. With such products, our disappointment with how they failed to transform us turns into disheartening disappointment with ourselves—we feel as if we had let the product down. (“This shirt had the capacity to make me sophisticated, only I persisted in my boorish ways. Why can’t I live up to the sophistication of my wardrobe?”) Hirschman suggests we can turn on ourselves in respect to “any purchase that requires discrimination on the part of the buyer.” We are always in danger of not living up to our own good judgment. The degree to which we take responsibility for the disappointment inherent in our purchases protects consumerism overall. So ads will frequently work in a theme of how “you make the difference” with the help of a product, which unleashes your potential. Then, when nothing happens, it is because you didn’t have that potential, upon which another product can be marketed to dig deeper into you to find it.


Ads also reinforce the ideology of the soundness of private pursuits. As Hirschman notes, consumerism rests on “an ideology that proclaims self-interested behavior as a social duty”:


Accordingly, the dogged pursuit of happiness along the private road is not, as we often tend to think, “what comes naturally”; rather, it is presided over and impelled by an ideology which justifies it, not only in terms of its beneficial results for the individual pursuer, but as the surest and perhaps only way in which the individual can make a contribution to the common good.


This is the model for voting through the market as a way of moving society toward some ideal form. If only everyone stopped buying goods made in Chinese sweatshops, sweatshops would not exist. All we need to do is arrange a boycott and buy other things. The barrage of ads associated with an election day theme reinforces this ideology, equating consumer choice in the market with political expression. Sometimes these connections seem comically hyperbolic (vote for fried chicken today!), in which case they work on both this front and the illogic front, conveying a sense that we belong to a society that doesn’t privilege rationality and one in which our choice is held to be stupendously significant, no matter how banal the substance of it.


Hirschman continues:


The ideological claims made for the private life thus sustain the individual’s quest with two messages: one, the promise of satisfaction and happiness [this is typically the specific, overt content of an ad]; and two, the assurance that there is no need for guilt feelings or regrets over the neglect of public life.”


This is the message that slips through even when we resist the specific appeal for a particular product. We don’t choose that product, but we accept the flattering idea that such a choice is all-important and our primary social responsibility. Rejecting what is advertised may actually be a way of simultaneously affirming the whole structure which makes possible such a rejection and dignifies it.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Dec 29, 2008

Talk about tough. After carefully scanning the over 200 movies SE&L experienced this Cineplex season (and that’s not counting the numerous DVDs), choosing a mere ten titles to represent the year’s worst cinematic stool samples was hard…and not for a lack of candidates. Without a doubt, this was one junk filled 12 months. Everyone’s favorite Teutonic whipping boy - Dr. Uwe Boll - offered not one but two terrible trifles in 2008, with only one being ‘so bad it was kinda good’ (Postal). In the Name of the King: A Dragon Siege Tale was pure garbage. Similarly, Meg Ryan and a bunch of menopausal actresses gave Women everywhere an incredibly lame name, while that classic combo of Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer provided their own double dose of drek - Meet the Spartans and the appropriately named Disaster Movie.  And let’s not forget Larry the Cable Guy and his should be career swansong Witless Protection. On second thought, let’s.


So in the end, with numerous examples of awfulness to choose from, how did we pick between losing friends and alienating people? The answer, oddly enough, takes a page out of the Best Picture paradigm: quality. No, not the inherent value in a project, but the innate noxiousness and nausea a terrible movie creates. A really bad film fumes like an overripe puppy pile and stays with you like the stink of a dead deer carcass. It rots your brain and boils your aesthetic, doing more damage internally than drugs, alcohol, and George Bush’s social policies combined. Still, scanning over nearly 30 entries that could be included here (like What Happens in Vegas…, Baby Mama, Doomsday, and the horrendous 88 Minutes), the final selection seems incomplete. Like any kind of crapshoot, the collateral damage is often more compelling than the target taken out.


So without further ado, here are Short Ends and Leader‘s choices for the worst films of 2008. Argue with them all you want, but here’s betting there’s more common ground than complaints. We begin with:


#10 - Nights in Rodanthe
Sometimes, source material says it all. A luminous cast and a worthy director will still have a hard time making a cinematic silk purse out of a literary sow’s ear. This Windstorms of North Carolina Counties is so overwrought and Harlequin-ed that only the most susceptible of spinsters or inexperienced poetry majors will fall for its faux passions. While Diane Lane and Richard Gere are a great onscreen couple, the set up stunts their appeal. There is so much hand wringing and heart sickness here, so many unexplained subplots and unclear character motives that by the time the death/denouement arrives, we’re too confused to care.




#9 - Babylon A.D.
Mathieu Kassovitz is livid. Not just angry, mind you, but completely pissed off. After five long years of planning and praying, after months of harsh production elements and massive studio interference, his dream project, Babylon A.D. closed the Summer 2008 season with the kind of wounded whimper and no preview punishment that comes with abject studio hatred. Knowing they had a bomb on their hands, Fox wrenched the film away from the La Haine director and monkeyed with it a bit. The result is perhaps the biggest load of speculative shite ever to be argued over by supposedly smart people. Now Kassovitz is just embarrassed.




#8 - Four Christmases
Flailing like a dying fish out of water and smelling just as fetid, Four Christmases is stiflingly unfunny. It’s rotten mistletoe over a condemned homestead’s archway. In fact, it’s such an unbridled waste, such a horrifying amalgamation of inept attempted laughs that you wonder what the capable cast was thinking during the filming of certain scenes. And this is a group who collectively own five Oscars, mind you. Between the painful pantomime of the various slapstick sequences, to the complete lack of emotional truth or temperament, this is holiday cheer for the stupid and stunted. And yet it has made over $100 million. Sigh.




#7 - The Eye
Beyond disheartening, this was just plain abysmal. Anyone lucky enough to see David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s brilliant Ils (released in the US as Them) knows that this French filmmaking duo can really deliver the shivers. Their simple set-up, involving a secluded Romanian estate and a couple victimized by some unseen invaders was a stark, suspenseful romp. It literally rekindled one’s faith in the subtler forms of the horror genre. This rancid remake re-killed it. Our directors obviously suffered from some kind of cinematic amnesia after hitting LaLa Land. With this Jessica Alba atrocity, they definitely forgot everything that made Ils so wonderful.




#6 - The Love Guru
Former funnymen have had a tough time this year. Jim Carrey barely survived Yes Man with his disintegrating dignity intact, and Eddie Murphy proved that science fiction and floundering talent just don’t mix. But no one undermined their own box office legacy better than Mike Myers. Clearly needing some cash to pay for his pending divorce, the one time Wayne Campbell took the worst parts of his Austin Powers franchise, fluffed them up with some Hindi hate crimes, and delivered a deathblow to everything he ever had a hand in. Being dumb and disgusting is one thing. Being hateful doing it is par for this pariah’s new course.




#5 - The Happening
If it wasn’t so pathetic, it would be laughable. Former wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan finally spent the last bit of his Sixth Sense/Next Spielberg credentials making a movie in which plants went on a rampage against mankind. No, not in a Day of the Triffids kind of carnage. No, our friendly neighborhood vegetation decided to release a neurotoxin which caused humans to kill themselves. Huh? Anyway, with questionable scripting and even more specious acting, this was a truly terrible attempt at terror. Leave it to the freefalling filmmaker to make things even more unintentionally hilarious by touting this as the scariest movie ever. Huh?




#4 - What Just Happened?
A really bad movie, that’s what. Proving that whatever creative cache he accumulated during the ‘80s and ‘90s is just about used up, Barry Levinson takes Art Linson’s self-absorbed and referential mess of a memoir and tries to turn it into a mid-naught version of The Player. What Just Happened? commits so many cardinal motion picture sins that it should be excommunicated from the entertainment arena on principle alone. It wastes the talents of several sensational performers, leaving actors like Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, John Tuturro, and Stanley Tucci looking absolutely lost. Now that’s tough to do.




#3 - Towelhead
Oh boy - a 14 year old girl gets molested and finger-raped on camera and we’re supposed to see it as some manner of post-modern sideways sexual awakening…with War on Terror/9-11 overtones. Right. As we stare at a young girl sitting on the toilet, her period soaked panties filling the screen for all to see, we wonder, did writer/director Alan Ball really believe that such shock value adds to the effectiveness of his film? Is it merely menses for menses sake, a Larry Clark like truth taken to Tinsel Town fantasy extremes? Instead, it feels like sickening exploitation without any redeeming value whatsoever.




#2 - Blindness
There is a lot of critical support for this lamentably awful faux-fable, with many pointing to the powerful message buried within Fernando Meirelles’ reading of José Saramago’s novel. The only problem with such an excuse is that you have to get through the dark, dim muck to even begin to appreciate what is, in the end, a pretty simple “society sucks” statement. As a look at what happens when civilization breaks down, we do indeed learn a very valuable lesson. The world will not end with a whimper or a bang. It will just fester in a pool of its own filth. Yuck!






#1 - Funny Games
Okay, okay, we get it. American’s love violence. We crave the brutality and support all cinema that substitutes death blows for discussions. But just like rubbing a bad dog’s nose in his own self-styled entertainment excrement, smirk-filled preaching isn’t going to get us to change. Someone needs to tell German jester Michael Haneke that like arguing that abuse is unhealthy by beating someone over the head, wallowing in the very genre excesses that you want to foil is hypocritical at best. Even worse, the director then purposefully insults the audience, asking them to accept his treatise as truth even when he doesn’t have the balls or backbone to support his stance. There have been few films as irredeemable as Funny Games. It’s not only one of this year’s worst - it’s a worthy competitor for the “all time” title.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Dec 29, 2008
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

As intimate venues go, the Blue Note in New York City’s Greenwich Village certainly qualifies. Reaching up and high-fiving the lead guitarist after a solo is doable, if not downright tempting. And it’s dinner theatre-style seating instantly makes a set a communal experience. (The mirror and leather-padded striped walls suggest a more wanton environment though.)


So when Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, traversing the crowd in order to take the stage, mingled through, their larger than life abilities seemed quite ordinary—if only for a moment.


The occasion, a holiday tour in support of their latest release, the festive Jingle All the Way, found the band even more relaxed and in their element than usual. It also makes one wonder how long the above album really took to record. With such incredible pitch, listening abilities and virtuosic skill, the album seems like a jocular seasonal exercise evolving into a record ex-post. Without abandoning the melodies that have made them seasonal standards the record is more or less deconstructed Christmas carols.


They lead off with “Medley”, a densely packed six minutes including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas”, “My Favorite Things”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The Little Drummer Boy”.


Only getting started, “Silent Night” and “Sleigh Ride” quickly followed. At one point saxophonist Jeff Coffin played both alto and tenor saxophone, simultaneously harmonizing and performing on the two instruments—an awesome party trick.


Percussionist and inventor Future Man (Roy Wooten) dressed like a pirate, as is his custom. He regularly ignites the crowd with his singularly unique synthaxe drumitar instrument, tapping and fingering intricately delicate rhythms. With his younger brother, Victor Wooten, on bass, they continually created a coolly swinging rhythm section, particularly on “Sleigh Ride” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. They possess an intangible rhythmic connection, manifesting itself in an effortlessly perpetual swing. It plants the quartet’s sound into a jazzy context whenever they need such a feel.


Béla Fleck jokingly told the crowd, “Hey guys, keep it down. Vic’s playing”. The crowd ceased murmuring even though Fleck said it teasingly and it was inconceivable for such an appreciative audience to ignore Wooten’s solo, but quiet, playing. And from his extended solo he segued into the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, only to trip over a transition and start over with the crowd’s encouragement. He obviously should have practiced more. Redeeming himself, he then played a solo version of “The Christmas Song” with everyone in the room looking on in a mix of admiration, astonishment, and apathy (the latter referring to the wait staff).


In a season replete with circus albums, the Flecktones’ contribution came by way of a juggling act: Performing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” using a different key and time signature for each day. It was dizzying to listen to, let alone keep track of.


And with the melodies so familiar, the group so relaxed and the playing mostly effortless, it was easy to forget how masterful the Flecktones really are.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Dec 29, 2008

In Shifting Involvements, Albert Hirschman takes a prolonged look at the ways that disappointment is built in to consumerism. Drawing on Tibor Scitovsky’s The Joyless Economy, Hirschman argues that what is pleasurable is not merely the use value of the goods and services we buy, but the process of their taking us from dissatisfaction to satisfaction. That move is what we register as pleasure, not the fact of being in the satisfied state itself. If we merely remain satisfied on account of something we’ve purchased, then we experience no joy. From this point of view, pleasure hinges on our capacity to be dissatisfied.


This may be in part why needs turn out to be such slippery things, in that we often think we want thing until we have it, whereupon we discover that we really want something else. This movement to disappointment may be less a matter of fussiness than a protective move to guard our capacity for pleasure. Hirschman points out that “we never operate in terms of a comprehensive hierarchy of wants established by some psychologist surveying the multifarious pursuits and ‘needs’ of mankind.” In other words, the hierarchy is always in flux, always in the process of being articulated through our life activities—in consumer society, predominantly through shopping. We discover who we are and what we want in the process of shopping for ourselves. Shopping becomes the end in itself and the acquired goods mere souvenirs of the pleasure process. (This is the “experience economy” that zealous marketers frequently champion.) But at the same time, we have an innate tendency to be disappointed with what we buy, to preserve the capacity to renew our expectations for surprise, for a repeat of the satisfaction-seeking process. When shopping and identity are conflated, as they are in a consumer society, the result is an inherent, structural tendency for us to be continually disappointed in who we think we are, accompanied with an increasing tendency to try to solve that problem through acquiring more stuff. Journeys of self-discovery launched in the mall are almost by definition never-ending. There are good reasons for our identities to be somewhat fluid and open-ended, but anchoring them to consumer goods subjects them to a distorted set of criteria that undermine any sense of stable accomplishment. Our self-concept gets linked instead to the vagaries of the fashion cycle rather than to our own rhythm of personal growth. We become alienated from our own development and start to feel like we harbor multiple personalities, all of them shallow and fickle.


A similar paradox adheres to our efforts to customize consumer goods. These efforts seem to make the product more durable and less prone to dissatisfy in that it is reshaped to express and suit our needs, and in that we remain actively engaged with it, remaking it afresh. But the customization process may in fact reflect a dissatisfaction with the good’s durable usefulness—we want to distract ourselves from its humdrum utility and render it more exciting, though this excitement can only be short-lived, more so than its utility in most cases. Hirschman points out that in many durable items, we long for a “certain amount of ‘built-in obsolescence,’ ” since this makes for a “radical shift in the pleasure-comfort balance.” Replacing a good gives pleasure; getting more use out of something we already have merely supplies unrecognized comfort. By customizing something, and tying it to an expression of identity in a particular moment, we can build in an object’s obsolescence by ourselves, without having to rely on the thoughtfulness of manufacturers making goods shoddy for us. By foregrounding a good’s ephemeral function of articulating an ever-fleeting sense of self, we undermine its lasting quality of being prosaically useful and make it far more likely that we will want to replace it before it’s entirely kaputt. By fusing our personal fashion whims to a durable item, we make its depreciation more recognizable; it becomes something that more evidently falls out of date. It becomes something that gets used up rather than being merely useful. Customization, then, is a matter of adapting useful things to disposability.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.