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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
backpack-picnic

This week: Visit the strangest waiting room in America. Despite not being allowed to use cellphones or gerunds, there’s something even more odd about this place. You won’t believe the incredible visual effects in this week’s episode of Backpack Picnic.


Every week PopMatters will be offering an exclusive early look at a new episode of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.


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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008

Cato Unbound has an interesting series of essays about the future of marriage, by historian Stephanie Coontz, and the economic factors driving the evolution by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. (Wolfers has a related post at the Freakonomics blog as well.) Its no surprise, considering the Cato Institute’s involvement, that a great deal of skepticism is directed at the State’s involvement in the institution, i.e. the bigoted American obsession with “protecting” marriage. But the history here is interesting in its own right, and absolutely essential if you want to have any understanding of what’s going in pretty much every novel written before World War I. Novels in their heyday dramatized the shift from more or less arranged marriages to love matches, offering all sorts of prescriptions for what love really is and proving a host of psychological and sociological defenses of the change. If I hadn’t sold all my lit-crit books when I moved to New York, I could probably even cite the appropriate scholar on this, but it has been argued that the commercial novel pretty much emerges from that shift; it’s a salient dramatic set piece that everyone in Western culture could relate to. (Maybe I need to go reread Denis de Rougemont.)


As Coontz explains, it made sense for state institutions to involve themselves in marriage when the practice was fundamentally a matter of broader family alliances than the preference of the betrothed individuals.


Because of marriage’s vital economic and political functions, few societies in history believed that individuals should freely choose their own marriage partners, especially on such fragile grounds as love. Indeed, for millennia, marriage was much more about regulating economic, political, and gender hierarchies than nourishing the well-being of adults and their children. Until the late 18th century, parents took for granted their right to arrange their children’s marriages and even, in many regions, to dissolve a marriage made without their permission. In Anglo-American law, a child born outside an approved marriage was a “fillius nullius” - a child of no one, entitled to nothing. In fact, through most of history, the precondition for maintaining a strong institution of marriage was the existence of an equally strong institution of illegitimacy, which denied such children any claim on their families.


In short, marriage was a system that supplied a legal framework for inheritances (and maintain gender roles, but that’s other story). That changed with the rising discourse of happiness, and marriage as permanent property arrangements was replaced with marriage as a public recognition of companionate love. A great deal contributed to orchestrating this shift; it correlates with the rising middle class and relaxing of the rigidity of the class system. But whatever the causes, it has left us with an institution patently rife with contradictions.


The same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation. They have also made marriage seem less bearable when it doesn’t live up to its potential. The forces that have strengthened marriage as a personal relationship between freely-consenting adults have weakened marriage as a regulatory social institution.


Stevenson and Wolfers put this in a more explicitly economic framework: when we say couples are together because they love each other, what we mean is that share “consumption complementarities”—they share similar tastes about all the good stuff consumer society brings us.


Most things in life are simply better shared with another person: this ranges from the simple pleasures such as enjoying a movie or a hobby together, to shared social ties such as attending the same church, and finally, to the joint project of bringing up children.



No longer preoccupied with productive concerns—with capital formation and division of labor in producing a household—couples now can focus on consumption; this Stevenson and Wolfers call “hedonic marriage.” And this change seems indisuptable. But as our tastes are subject to change, complementary tastes seems a flimsy pretense to enter into contract with someone that lasts until death does you part. Though I am sure this happens all the time, it’s probably not necessary to marry the people you might like to, say, play bingo with. This shift likely puts implicit expectations to share all tastes on a couple, and probably subjects marriages to all sorts of undue pressure. Making the marriage commitment can in some ways become a kind of pledge to never change your tastes fundamentally, to become, to a degree, static. Obviously this doesn’t happen to all wed couples; perhaps some share a taste for curiosity.


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Wednesday, Jan 23, 2008


Wow. When Oscar gets it wrong, they get it REALLY wrong. Amid rumors that the ongoing Writer’s Strike may dampen the 24 February festivities, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did there typical early morning “thang” and proved it couldn’t be more out of touch. It’s not just the glaring omissions, ridiculous choices, or questionable nomination tactics (in at least one major category). It’s the knowledge that, in an arena that saw nearly 600 movies arrive in theaters worldwide, this is the way the old guard sees things.


Clearly not wanting to play favorites, four films walked away with 30 of the major nominations. Of that group, only two technically deserve such amassed recognition. There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men (eight each) have garnered so many critics awards that to have Michael Clayton (good, but not great), and Atonement (middling Merchant Ivory at best) one acknowledgement away seems specious. And when you add to it that Clayton‘s got seven of the big ones - including picture, director and acting - while our pretty British period piece is left holding up the technical ends, the distinction is even greater.


That just leaves Juno as the odd duck out in what, by now, is being labeled the Little Miss Sunshine Recognition of Indie Quirkiness achievement. It is a huge feat for such a divisive little movie. Even more amazing, Jason Reitman walked away with one of the five coveted Best Director slots, beating out DGA given Sean Penn. Speaking for the accomplished actor/director, his brilliant Into the Wild deserved a lot more attention than two whole nominations (Hal Holbrook, Supporting and Jay Cassidy, Editing). In fact, going back to Atonement for a moment, there is nothing in that stylized snooze fest that can match the final moments of Penn’s life in limbo real life drama.


But that’s why Oscar is Oscar, and why fans are flocking away from its narrow minded backslapping year after year. Take the two Supporting actor categories. No offense intended to the individuals in the running, but its dead pool time once again. No matter how good Javier Bardem is, or how memorable Casey Affleck (Jesse James) or Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson’s War) are, Holbrook is probably going to win. By the time the ceremony rolls around, he’ll be 83, and with this being his first trip to the Academy red carpet, visions of Alan Arkin and James Coburn begin filling one’s head.


The Best Supporting Actresses have it even worse. The clear front runners - Cate “I’m Not Dylan” Blanchett and Amy “Gone Baby” Ryan - figured to be even money come envelope ripping time. Even the talented Tilda Swindon, who perspired like a champ in Michael Clayton, had an outside chance of swiping Oscar gold (the less said about Atonement‘s bratty little Saoirse Ronan, the better). But all that changes now that Ruby Dee is in the mix. Another certified oldster (she’s 83 also), her blink and you’ll miss it - literally - turn as Denzel Washington’s mother in American Gangster is the kind of left field freak accident, Marissa Tomei meets the Grim Reaper wrench that’s destined to destroy the predictions of many a prognosticator.


It just feels like that kind of year. The kind where conventional wisdom - and creative logic - loses out to warm fuzzys and already celebrated career achievement. How else would you explain the inexplicable decision to nominate three songs from Disney’s Enchanted? It’s not like Alan Menken needs another Oscar (he has eight). Even worse, the craptacular sonic sludge referred to as music in August Rush got a nod - and a weird “nominees to be determined” on the accompanying press release. This must make Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder groan. His work for Penn’s Wild was crucial to the film’s overall success. Since the movie failed to get any real awards push, he appears to be the victim of your typical Academy myopathy.


Even worse, some artists never got a chance to go for the gold. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood delivered an amazing score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will Be Blood. But because some of the music was “not made specifically for the movie” an arcane rule was invoked and he was disqualified. Similarly, films from Israel (The Band Visit) and France (Persepolis) were discounted from the Foreign Film category. The latter now battles it out with Pixar’s mighty mouse and some lame cartoon penguin flop for Best Animated effort (someone involved with Surf’s Up must have pictures of naked Academy members cavorting with livestock - it’s the only way to explain that jaw dropper of a nom).


It never changes. George Clooney picks up another Best Actor nomination for playing a legal eagle version of himself with gambling issues. Cate Blanchett, already rewarded for her brave turn as the iconic ‘60s protest prince finds herself listed among the baffling choices for Best Actress for replaying (rather unexceptionally, mind you) the role of Queen Elizabeth I. Sweeney Todd - all but forgotten except in a couple of inconsequential categories and the wink to Johnny Depp, can’t even call up a glance from the sound segment of the Academy…and it’s a musical. And back to foreign film for a moment. Like documentaries a decade before, the randomized manner in which these no name offerings got on the ballot continues to baffle the mind.


It’s not that the choices are bad - for all this critic knows, they could be amazing. Of course, very few if any were screened for the general reviewing populace, nor did companies send out screeners. So how, you may ask, did these five get chosen? By a combination of The Da Vinci Code and The Star Chamber, apparently. Industry insiders can explain the process much better, but apparently, Oscar takes noms from specific countries, determines if they meet their mysterious and sometimes contradictory rules, and then gives their handpicked choices to a group of Academy volunteers (usually old members who’ve retired) who agree to screen them and narrow the field. That sounds fair, right? Well, it’s not. There are a couple of egregious omissions this time around - the 2007 Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, The Orphanage - and all this just one year after two masterpieces (The Lives of Others and Pan’s Labyrinth) battled it out for best film supremacy.


There is a little light here and there. It’s nice to see Julie Christie - and even better, Sarah Polly - get acknowledged for Away from Her, and Nancy Oliver’s bump for Lars and the Real Girl argues that the members of the Writer’s Branch understand the value of a good script (they did reward the undeserving Savages, and the gimmicky Juno however). Yet if you were a betting man or woman, you can easily see the Academy setting you up. Atonement gets the surprise Best Picture win in a classic Shakespeare in Love style statement. Aside from Christie, the entire Best Actress category seems set up to simply hand the statuette to a far too young to deserve it Ellen Page. Depending on how the DGA decides, the directing trophy could be another of those out of left field flukes, and there is the distinct possibility that Norbit, one of the worst if not the worst film of 2007, will walk away with more Academy cred than Sweeney Todd, Into the Wild, or Eastern Promises (it’s already beat The Darjeeling Express, Zodiac, and Knocked Up - films that didn’t garner a single nomination).


The best thing that could happen to the Oscars is a Golden Globes like lockout, with host Jon Stewart and a select group of union busting performers reading the list of winners and then running away before the villagers remember where they put the pitchforks. There’ll be the standard 15 minutes of moaning, the typical ‘woulda’, ‘coulda’, ‘shoulda’ of a collective that can’t get its pejorative head out of the studio’s behind. Consensus will crown the true non-Crash champ, and the motion picture planets will temporarily realign. Then like the most sinister and secretive of cabals, the Academy will slink away and reconfigure its formula to guarantee even more ennui next time around.


Perhaps we have their purpose all wrong. Maybe AMPAS was designed not as a means of recognizing the industry’s best. It could have been specifically crafted to create contention and debate. Of course, that would make them very smart and rather forward thinking, and so far, their methods have been very, very dumb. As the mainstream moves further and further away from the sainted celebration, as a stint on TMZ or You Tube becomes the larger badge of fame whore honor than a symbol of old school studio system stagnation, as Indie’s continue to forge new art, and established names go digital, or simply disappear, Oscar 2008 remains a lot like Oscar 2007, 2006, etc. That means more Acade-mediocrity at its bumbling best.


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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008


It’s River Phoenix all over again. Don’t recognize the name? No need to worry. He’s definitely related to Joaquin (look it up). Many in the current pop culture demo were teething when the unlikely Hollywood hunk, a combination of staggering talent and blond boy good looks was found dead from a drug induced heart attack. It was 1993. Phoenix was only 23. And now he has a slightly older companion with a similar star power spiral in the late Heath Ledger. When the tab-net tragedy went wildfire on 21 January, the assumption divvied into two distinct camps - pissed it away and impossible to believe. As the pundits began the piling on, and the speculation went seismic, other questions came up. Not surprisingly, very few have easy, understandable answers.


Here’s what we do know - Heath Ledger, a rising A-list member of the Tinsel Town elite, accidental gay cowboy extraordinaire and Australian son, was found dead in a New York apartment sometime on Tuesday afternoon. He left behind a daughter (with ex-partner - and co-star of Brokeback Mountain - Michelle Williams) and a devastated core of family and friends. He had just begun work on the Terry Gilliam fantasy The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, leaving the state of that project (and its seemingly cursed director) in temporary limbo. More importantly, he had beaten out several big name actors to be Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Joker in said filmmaker’s continued reimagining of the Batman character. The Dark Knight, as the summer spectacle is called, was already one of 2008’s most anticipated films. Now, its name is nuclear. 


And it’s just starting. The concern over the need for Ledger’s participation in post-production on said film drove Harry Knowles and the gang over at Ain’t It Cool News to go a little pre grave digging and contact the studio. Nerd nation was assured that the actor had completed his commitment to the project. The clown face was 100%. It was part of the deal to do the Gilliam movie. So the Caped Crusader saga remains intact. It will also probably be the last time Ledger is seen on the big screen. His turn as the early ‘70s Bob Dylan archetype in Todd Haynes I’m Not There and as a drug casualty in Candy now stand as his last stints as a serious dramatic type. While his super hero villainy promises to be terrifying (the trailer hints at delightfully twisted horrors), it’s the more streamlined leading man form that audiences will remember.


Ledger began acting the year before Phoenix’s senseless self-destruction. He had a small part in the Aussie film Clowning Around, as well as more unusual Downunder efforts like Blackrock. He came to our shores to co-star in 10 Things I Hate About You, and found some fleeting small screen fame in the Shaun Cassidy created sword and sandal series Roar. Yet it was working alongside another of Australia’s favored sons, Mel Gibson, that brought Ledger to the big time. With the one-two punch of revolutionary war actioner The Patriot, and the modern rock meets medieval jousting of A Knight’s Tale, he finally arrived. From then on, his choices seemed random, and in a couple of cases, very brave.


He was one of the Brothers Grimm in the Gilliam flop for Miramax. He was Billy Bob Thorton’s embittered son in Monster’s Ball. Between the period piece pomp of Four Feathers and Casanova, to the lesser outings in genre jokes like The Order, he seemed like a star being poised and prepped for a massive mainstream breakout. That came with his turn as tortured Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. He earned one of the film’s two male acting honors (he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy) and saw his status rise. Where once he appeared unlikely to be a popcorn hero, he did look ready to balance both aspects of his craft with occasionally bouts with box office clout.


It was a path followed rather closely by Phoenix. He too was a young man playing in an aggressive adult’s world, a critically acclaimed effigy that seemed to suggest great things over a long, successful time. Sure, there also were undercurrents of trouble and tragedy, a soul too old for the teenage body of a boy to contain, but in the dead-eyed ‘80s where everyone was coked and cooked from greed and gumption, such a dark side was dead sexy. Phoenix took the first part of that flimsy phraseology to heart, even after landing one of the most important parts of his young career - the original young Indiana Jones in Last Crusade. Of course, he rejected the recognition and crawled back into his Indie skin, leaving behind remarkable performances in My Own Private Idaho and Dogfight.


There is a difference, however. Phoenix’s appetite for destruction - and drugs - was all too deliberate, that stereotyped cry for help from someone who many felt was beyond the basic psychological needs of the common man. From all initial reports, Ledger’s pharmaceutical finale may have been accidental, spur of the moment, or just plain inconsequential. While his closest relatives regale the media, and anyone else willing to sacrifice etiquette and listen, with tales of his giving spirit, easy going nature and love for his two year old, the celebrity chumsuckers are already smelling buckets of ratings blood. They’re circling the story, and its 24 news cycle ocean, ready to pick apart the bones of any snippet of sensationalism with their own brand of self-serving guesswork.


Was an Olson twin involved? Maybe, and then a definite ‘No’. Did the recent break-up with Williams (and resulting party animalism) plant a suicidal seed, or did he simply mix too many sleeping pills with a case of exhaustion, pneumonia and/or some other fatalistic catalyst? Who saw him last? Who has insight into what he was thinking before, during, and after the act? Sign them up, champion their appearance and indirect information, and let the ethically inert yakking begin. As the Gilliam camp regroups, as Nolan eventually releases a statement in support and suffering for his lost collaborator, as mothers weep, fangals gawk and fanboys fidget (no Joker in Part 3, huh?), the tragedy of a human life lost will be swept up in yet another wave of that grand old Day of the Locust legend of young prominence poisoned and fading into myth.


You’ll hear the names of other Hall of Flame-Out members mentioned, nods to everyone from James Dean to Kurt Cobain. Even when his death is ruled something other than a purposeful attack on everything he achieved, his acting skill and the resulting acclaim will play Devil’s advocate to the continuing disbelief. Poems will attempt to explain his allure, songs will be sung trying to make sense of potential snuffed out, the standard siren’s lament to all fallen figureheads. While it may sound resoundingly callous, we’ll get over this death. We’ll mourn the fallen, place him in perspective, line up for Dark Knight come July, and indulge in the months of unfathomable pre-release publicity. It will all be so careful, so cautious, so…cash flowing.


Ironically enough, the tagline for Nolan’s blockbuster in the making is a snide little comment from Ledger’s Joker - “Why So Serious?” The answer, sadly, is succinct. It’s because you left us too soon, Heath. We thought we knew you, and now we never will. You leave behind a body of work for future generations to judge. They’ll have the much better perspective. For now, we’ll have to suffer the whirlwind of conjecture and gossip. It will be funny sad, Mr. Joker, not funny ha-ha. No one feels much like laughing now, and you really can’t blame them. After all, 15 years ago we went through something very similar to this. It was, like this, horrible and unexplainable. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much a guarantee we’ll go through it again sometime in the future.


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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008

While 2007 was a busy year for new graphic novelists and cartoon artists of all kinds, particularly now that they’re getting some long overdue respect, one of the real treats for the genre came late in the year when W.W. Norton (in their infinite wisdom) re-released a pleasingly hefty pile of books by the late, great Will Eisner. As in father of the graphic novel, as in the churning vortex of industrious creativity during the bastard art form’s early formative years, as in mentor and inspiration to a generation of artists from Michael Chabon to Frank Miller, as in the reason that the greatest creative award in graphic novels and comics is named the Eisner Award. Yes, that Will Eisner.


Norton secured the rights to the Eisner back in 2004 (he passed away in 2005) and have been steadily releasing nicely presented trade paperback and hardcover editions since then. The trilogy that made up A Contract with God came out in 2005, while a quarter of Gotham-centric titles were bundled into the hefty Will Eisner’s New York a year later. Those four titles—City People Notebook, New York the Big City, Invisible People, and The Building; all originally published between the early-1980s and early-1990s—were then released last December as individual paperbacks.


As groundbreaking as Eisner was in pushing the idea that comics could be not just serious but also art, in a sense, there remains an overwhelming sense of the past around his work, even the material drawn only a couple decades ago. The rubbery-faced goons who galumph through these books, all exaggerated features and shabby clothes, seem at first like caricatures out of some Depression-era vaudeville. Eisner’s faces are rarely just there, instead registering Dickensian pathos or Broadway musical-style joy, without a lot of shading in between. The style is right out there and populist in the great early-to-mid 20th century style, located visually somewhere between Mad and Playboy. These stories of love and loss in the great big city of New York range from the two-page character vignettes of New York the Big City (all true then as they are now and fifty years hence) to the fairy-tale tragedy of The Building, many of them moral fables anchored around a particularly concrete piece of real estate, whether it’s a subway grate or office building.


Being the fantasist at heart, these books seem almost a truer expression of Eisner’s heart than the three weighty “autobiographical stories” bundled together in Life in Pictures (also released late in 2007 and reviewed in full by PopMatters’ Erik Hinton here). Although the trilogy—To the Heart of the Storm, The Name of the Game, and The Dreamer—contain a number of sharply drawn portraits that limn the corners of the Jewish-American experience, whether in high society or a comics sweatshop, they seem more forced and less organic than the self-contained fables of the New York novels. Some things just beg to be made up.


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