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Friday, Jun 6, 2008

The most recent Harper’s has an interesting article about culture-bound syndromes (the fear of having one’s penis stolen in particular, a Nigerian phenomenon). Culture-bound illnesses are society-specific mental illnesses that would seem to be an acute expression of some aspect of that culture’s fears and preoccupations. It takes the pervasive ideology and renders it intimately and pathologically personal, employing it to explain away otherwise nebulous complexes of symptoms of dis-ease and anxiety. A culture’s concerns find bodily expression; obviously this has something to do with the prevalence of eating disorders in Western society. In this overview of culture-bound disorders, we learn this:


In North America the incidence of anorexia nervosa increased dramatically since the 1960s, coinciding with a drastic change in the feminine body ideal towards thinness, as propagated by the fashion lords and publicized by the media [GARNER & GARFINKEL 1980; JONES et al. 1980; LUCAS et al. 1991]. It is of interest that the weight tables used by American physicians, supposedly objective scientific measures of “normal” standards of health, followed the fashionable downward trend in female body weight [RITENBAUGH 1982]. The increasing frequency of anorexia nervosa is associated with socio-cultural factors such as disturbance of intrafamily relations due to the nuclearization and limitation of Western families, and the penetrant influence of the mass media popularizing Hollywood-type life styles and beauty ideals. Since the 1980s, cases of anorexia nervosa have also become increasingly known in non-Western countries among young women in social strata exposed to heavy Westernizing influence, notably in Japan and Hong Kong [Di NICOLA 1990; LEE et al. 1993]. The epidemic spreading of anorexia nervosa among young females of all Western countries, and among certain Asian populations and immigrants under Westernizing influence, links this syndrome to socio-cultural emphases and developments in modern Western societies.


In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi’s overarching argument in the book is that the coming of the machine led to an extremely dislocating shift to a market culture in 19th century Europe that disoriented the populace and threw value systems into chaos. In the culture-bound disorders overview, the authors write: “The bouffée délirante reactions are sudden attacks of brief duration with paranoid delusions and often concomitant hallucinations, typically precipitated by an intense fear of magical persecution through sorcery or witchcraft. They are also characterized by a confusional state and by highly emotionalized behaviour and, after the attack, by amnesia, or rather disavowal.” That is basically identical to the penis-thieving described in the Harper’s article. The overview continues, “In its symptomatology, the bouffée délirante is reminiscent of the transient psychotic reactions occurring in the early phases of industrialization and mass-urbanization in 19th century Europe; described under such names as folie hystérique in Paris and amentia transitonia in Vienna” [empahsis added]. The reorganization necessitated when implementing a market system has the potential to unleash these strange social illnesses, which seem like pathological ways of expressing a personal resistance to the “creative destruction” of market culture that the conscious mind perhaps wouldn’t bother with, knowing it is futile.


In many ways the Harper’s article was reminiscent of this unforgettable Atlantic article by Carl Elliott about voluntary amputees (a phenomenon which, incidentally, is back in the news), but it culminates in the author wanting to enact an instance of hysterical penis theivery. Thankfully Elliott did not remove his own leg in the name of journalistic diligence. Elliott was preoccupied with the very frightening question of whether merely describing an ailment like wanting to have your limbs removed was enough to make people catch it. The author of the Harper’s piece seemed to be trying to test that premise, seeing the ability to contract a culture-bound phobia as proof of having truly become acclimated to a foreign culture. This paragraph from Eliot’s article nicely captures what is at stake:


Ian Hacking uses the term “semantic contagion” to describe the way in which publicly identifying and describing a condition creates the means by which that condition spreads. He says it is always possible for people to reinterpret their past in light of a new conceptual category. And it is also possible for them to contemplate actions that they may not have contemplated before. When I was living in New Zealand, ten years ago, I had a conversation with Paul Mullen, who was then the chair of psychological medicine at the University of Otago, and who had told me that he was a member of a government committee whose job it was to decide whether pornographic materials should be allowed into the country. I bristled at the idea of censorship, and asked him how he could justify being a part of something like that. He just laughed and said that if I could see what his committee was banning, I would change my mind. His position was that some sexual acts would never even occur to a person in an entire lifetime of thinking about sex if not for seeing them pictured in these books. He went on to describe to me various alarming acts that, it was true, had never occurred to me. Mullen was of the opinion that people were better off never having conceptualized such acts, and in retrospect, I think he may have been right.


I’m inclined to agree to, though I’m completely uncomfortable with the further implication that there should be limits on the freedom of thought; that some ideas are too dangerous to be expressed even in a putatively free culture.


But perhaps the notion of freedom needs more careful consideration in light of “semantic contagion.” At SkepticLawyer, an Australian legal blog, this discussion, prompted by a Tyler Cowen lecture, of liberty and culture’s interaction made me wonder if the fixation on personal freedom (the snakeskin jacket syndrome) was itself a culture-bound syndrome.


Finally, in language sure to gladden the heart of jurisprudes everywhere, throughout the address [Cowen] placed considerable emphasis on the rule of law and the benefits that flow from it. What poor countries need is not more liberty, but more law, law that is abstract, end-independent but - and this is the clincher - also enforced. He then moved into territory that is politically dangerous, but needs to be addressed: one of the things that helps promote both liberty and prosperity throughout the Anglosphere is citizens’ widespread ability to be loyal to a set of abstract concepts. Russia, he pointed out, is failing as a free society not because it is poor - Putin’s shrewed management of high commodity prices has put paid to much Russian poverty - but because Russians tend to privilege their friends and contacts above all else, leading to epic levels of corruption. Corruption, of course, is a signal rule of law failure.
He then asked, somewhat rhetorically, if liberty was confined (and defined) by culture: ‘We should not presume that our values are as universal as we often think they are’. What happens, he asked (also rhetorically), if - in order to enjoy the benefits of liberty and prosperity - societies have to undergo a major cultural transformation, including the loss of many appealing values? Cowen focused on Russian loyalty and friendship, but there are potentially many others. Think, for example, of the extended family so privileged throughout the Islamic world, or the communitarian values common in many indigenous societies.


Take that one step further—perhaps the struggle to exchange communitarian values for market-based ones throws off pathological symptoms: What if individuality (and the consequent preoccupation with personal freedom) itself is a kind of sickness that the demands of a market society imposes on us, forcing us to surrender those other indigenous values. This, more or less, is what Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation. The labor market requires the end of paternalist protections extended by pre-market societies; to make this palatable, the destruction of the safety net is represented as the freedom from state intervention into personal life. Polanyi writes,


To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one. Such a scene of destruction was best served by the application of freedom of contract. In practice this meant that the noncontractual organizations of kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed were to be liquidated since they claimed the allegiance of the individual and thus restrained his freedom. To represent this principle as one of noninterference, as economic liberals were wont to do, was merely the expression of an ingrained prejudice in favor of a definite kind of interference, namely, such as would destroy noncontractual relations between individuals and prevent their spontaneous reformation.


So Sailor’s fetishistic attachment to his snakeskin jacket in Wild at Heart—“a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom”—is perhaps emblematic of our need in general to cling to the consolation prize of individuality in the face of our loss of a more-organic value system, which roots our self-worth in a social system—in a community’s mode of functioning. But we are too far along the path of a market society to turn back; we’d experience that pre-market culture as unfreedom, the loss of possibilities, even though we rarely seize upon all those possibilities and are likely to feel oppressed by them. Yet we are haunted by these values, and perhaps our submerged longing for them causes us to pervert the freedom the market culture supplies us with, leading us to come up with wildly bizarre uses of freedom, like lopping off our limbs.


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Friday, Jun 6, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

The Notwist
Where in This World [Video] (from The Devil, You + Me, releasing 17 June in the US)


Supergrass
Diamond Hoo Ha Man [Video]


The Futureheads
Broke Up the Time [MP3]
     


Jaguar Love
Bats Over the Pacific Ocean [MP3]
     


Ed Harcourt
Revolution in the Heart [MP3]
     


Bottle Up and Go
Wayword Son [MP3]
     


Frog Eyes
Bushels [MP3]
     



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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

Feel that heat? Summer is really starting to fire up. For 6 June, here are the films in focus:


Kung Fu Panda [rating: 8]


If the Shaw Brothers had access to CGI and the post-modern voice talent, Kung Fu Panda would have definitely been part of their stable of wuxia epics.

It’s been interesting to watch the youth-ification of martial arts. Sure, kids have always been the major market when it comes to karate lessons, video games, and other media oriented kung foolishness, but it seems slightly surreal that the under 10 set would be the primary demographic for such obviously adult aggression. Remember, for every lesson about loyalty and duty, there’s a series of roundhouse kicks and face-destroying punches provided. While it preaches an anti-antagonism stance, violence still sells these spectacles. It’s the same with the latest CGI effort from Dreamworks and Paramount. Entitled Kung Fu Panda, this candy coated compendium of cartoon idioms may look loveable, but it’s all about the butt kicking in the end. read full review…


You Don’t Mess with the Zohan [rating: 7]


From the wholly insular and yet perfectly realized fantasy world it creates to the nonstop barrage of ethnic slams, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is a comedy of contradictions..

Jewish humor has driven American mirth for as long as their have been baggy pants burlesque comics and joke-stealing vaudevillians. Update it to the pre-modern mirth of Mel Brooks and the post-modern mensching of Woody Allen and you’ve got the current concept of wit in both of its ethnic excesses. But is there such a thing as plain old ‘Jew’ humor, that is, satire based solely on the notion of what an entire race of people find culturally significant and outwardly uncomfortable.  Or for that matter, can the entire Middle East crisis be summed up in a series of slapstick sight gags and borderline racist rejoinders? Adam Sadler wants to find out, and he’s bringing along that fascinating flavor of the moment Judd Apatow with him. read full review…


Mother of Tears: The Third Mother [rating: 8]


Hitting the ground running and never giving up for 90 nasty minutes, Mother of Tears is Dario Argento’s final statement on his precedent as the definitive Delacroix of dread..

Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the possibility of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality. read full review…


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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the possibility of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality.


When an ancient urn is unearthed in an old Italian cemetery, it brings with it the standard portents of evil. The death of an innocent art historian marks just the first of many unspeakable acts. Soon, Sarah Mandy is caught up in a sinister situation that she barely understands. Chased by forces bent on destroying her, and unsure of the admonishing voice in her head, she seeks the help of fellow museum employee Michael Pierce. When he proves ineffectual, she searches out the counsel of the Vatican’s last official Exorcist, as well as one of Rome’s leading alchemists. Through her connection to her late mother, and the previous incarnations of Maters Suspiriorum and Tenebrarum, Sarah soon learns that Mother Lachrimarum has risen, and plans on orchestrating the second fall of Rome - unless our heroine can find a way to stop her.


Hitting the ground running and never giving up for 90 nasty minutes, The Mother of Tears is Dario Argento’s final statement on his precedent as the definitive Delacroix of dread. Avoiding most of the slow burn visual splendor that made Suspiria a classic, and shunning all of Inferno‘s incomprehensible tone poetry, the 68 year old director has finally finished this long gestating journey - for better and for worse. There will be complaints that this film feels nothing like its predecessors, that there’s an obvious scary movie overkill methodology at play. Indeed, the first film used witchcraft as an afterthought, the denouement in a plotline that had numerous other elements going for it. Similarly, the notion that pagans ruled a decadent New York apartment building was but a single facet in a film overloaded with optical - and occult - wonders.


Here, Argento seems to be saying ‘enough is enough’. Instead of painting the screen with memorable imagery, or provocative pictures, he just antes up the arterial spray and hopes for the horrific. Luckily, he delivers some delightfully disgusting set pieces. Throats are slit, bodies carved open, and various torture devices remove eyes, mouths, and other organs from their biological owners. This is also one of the few films that put kids directly in harms way. A baby is tossed off the side of a bridge, while another toddler is vivisected into several disturbing parts. The F/X work is wonderful, unsettling in its power and putrescence. Sure, there are some moments of mindless CGI that get in the way of the wickedness, but overall, The Mother of Tears provides an open grave full of gruesomeness.


The director also has a capable cast on hand to sell the sluice. Though she’s reduced to ‘last girl’ role quite often in this splatter rampage, daughter Asia Argento is an agreeable lead. She may act whiny and weak a great deal of the time, but she has a presence that the camera can’t deny. And though she’s hidden in smoke and mirrors for her part here, it’s great to see Daria Nicolodi back in the genre camp. As Detective Enzio Marchi, Christian Solimeno may come across as nothing more than plot fodder, but he makes good use of his screen time, and Adam James does a decent job as Mike, the art historian with an interest in the supernatural. Elsewhere, moments with the legendary Udo Kier and Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni remind us of why Argento is the master. No one kills a character like Dario.


Yet what most fans are probably wondering is where Mother of Tears fits in the entire Mater mythology. It is clear that, when he came to this fabled finale, Argento knew his narrative would have to do some rather basic back peddling. He ties to Suspiria and it’s dance school setting and makes reference to the Manhattan mayhem section of his set-up. There are call backs to the original Three Mothers book (which we see in Inferno) and lots of exposition regarding architecture, cults, history, and death. Again, this is the first of these films to feature the Mother plotline almost exclusively. We aren’t dealing with a character discovering the witch and her secret, underlying purpose. Here, everything’s out in the open and a part of it.


The observant obsessive will see references to other Argento works as well. The obvious bow is to his mostly forgotten effort Phenomena. With the use of a monkey familiar, and a last act flood of maggot-filled offal, the director clearly delights in reminding us of his legacy. Similarly, he seems to be channeling the entire post-modern creepshow canon, tossing in a homage to Clive Barker here, a direct reference to Peter Jackson and The Frighteners there.


Mother of Tears works best when it avoids conversation and simply brings on the carnage. It may not satisfy every fan of Argento’s prosaic past, nor is it the realistic return to form everyone has been hoping for. Still, for anyone who doubts his power behind the lens, one look at this luxuriant, ludicrous exercise in excess will convince you - Dario Argento is a master, and Mother of Tears is an effective, engaging statement of same.


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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

Jewish humor has driven American mirth for as long as their have been baggy pants burlesque comics and joke-stealing vaudevillians. Update it to the pre-modern mirth of Mel Brooks and the post-modern mensching of Woody Allen and you’ve got the current concept of wit in both of its ethnic excesses. But is there such a thing as plain old ‘Jew’ humor, that is, satire based solely on the notion of what an entire race of people find culturally significant and outwardly uncomfortable.  Or for that matter, can the entire Middle East crisis be summed up in a series of slapstick sight gags and borderline racist rejoinders? Adam Sadler wants to find out, and he’s bringing along that fascinating flavor of the moment Judd Apatow with him.


As one of Israel’s top anti-terrorist operatives, the Zohan lives the good life. His days are spent semi-clothed on the beach, his nights are taken with tripping up members of radical fundamentalist sects. Of course, he can’t stand the violence and the incomprehensible politics of the region. He just does his job with all the invincibility of a superhero. After once again battling the famed Palestinian rogue The Phantom, Zohan wants out. So he fakes his death and heads to America with a dream of being - a Paul Mitchell hair stylist. Rebuffed by the famed salon, he winds up in the Arab/Israeli section of New York. There, he works for a fetching female shop owner named Dalia. As he plots his move into ‘silky smoothness’, the Phantom discovers Zohan’s still alive - and plots to take him out once and for all.


From the wholly insular and yet perfectly realized fantasy world it creates to the nonstop barrage of ethnic slams, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is a comedy of contradictions. On the one hand, Sandler is back in fully familiar territory. He is putting on an accent, creating a complete camouflage of a character, and sticking with his shtick no matter how uneven or unusual it becomes. At the same time, co-writers Apatow and Robert Smigel reduce the entire Arab world into a series of disco loving, diarrhea inducing soft drink swilling, hacky sack playing Mariah Carrey worshippers. When they’re not arguing policy, they’re playing into every cultural cliché a group of Klansman could possibly conceive.


This is the kind of movie that requires its own unique modifier to describe. Perhaps a nice abbreviation would be “E3” - for “ethnically embarrassing eccentricities”. Sandler and crew then take these ideas and beat them to within an inch of their life. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is also the classic example of an in sync spoof. Like George W. Bush’s Iraq plan, you’re either for it, or against it. There is no meeting this movie halfway. If you don’t “get” what this story is selling, if you’re offended by the marginalization of an entire race into a series of unattractive targets, you’ll hate everything about the Zohan experience. It’s a gamble on the part of the filmmakers. If they can’t convince the mainstream to embrace this worldview wackiness, it’s straight to the cult classic section - or the cut out bin. 


The failure really won’t be Sandler fault. He’s like a Method mirth maker here, so fully immersed in his performance that there are times when we forget we are watching the former SNL slugger. The thick Israeli accent helps, even if some of the faux Yiddish/Hebrew phrases play like an in-joke to inattentive and absent audiences. Far more obvious is John Tuturro as The Phantom. He frequently stands outside the material and makes faces, implying a secret code with the crowd that he’s in on how bizzaro this movie truly is. It would have been nice if he played it straight, a real live terrorist taking on an oversexed ex-Mossad agent with a dizzying dream of blowdryers, but You Don’t Mess with the Zohan goes for something more ungainly - and achieves it more times than not. 


Director Dennis Dugan, redeeming himself from the horrid misstep that was last year’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, doesn’t let his journeyman blandness undermine the surreality. He applies tricks learned from a dozen different movies (everything from Hong Kong action flicks to Bourne style thrillers) and yet never forgets to let his stars do most of the heavy lifting. Certainly, there is too much Rob Schneider for anyone’s comfort level. What should have been another Sandler comedy cameo turns into a wildly underwritten supporting role, and the whole Israeli/Palestinian divide is treated as a massively misguided goof, a result of location vs. long simmering animosity. Luckily, this movie takes nothing seriously. Not even its retarded redneck vigilantes or tagged on corporate land scheming. 


Still, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan remains a tough sell. Anyone coming in expecting Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison will be treated to a West Bank version of Little Nicky. Those craving political insights within a smartly styled satire will find their jaw permanently unhinged at how chock full of cheese the comic commentary is. Sandler deserves credit for taking such a risk, especially when you consider that his box office fortunes have been lagging as of late. And bringing Apatow along was a smart move, even if this kind of humor falls outside his far more successful interpersonal irony ideal. Just like all proposed laughfests, funny is fiercely personal. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is destined to push such a genre maxim to the very limits of its legitimacy.


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