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Sunday, Nov 4, 2007

I hate to turn this into tabloid fodder but rumors of writer Robert Christgau’s demise are greatly exaggerated.  Some message boards, mailing lists and even possibly his Wiki entry questioned this.  Christgau himself wrote to me this morning to say that it ain’t so.  No need to send flowers or anything then (unless you really just wanna be nice).


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Sunday, Nov 4, 2007

The past few nights, I’ve dragged myself to Greenpoint, a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn, to go to Cavestomp, an annual garage rock festival the brings together reunited bands from the 1960s with revivalist bands inspired by them for recitations of songs that generally were written and performed by teenagers for teenagers. Of course, there are no teenagers at Cavestomp, by and large. It seems mostly to be people in their 30s watching people in their 50s and 60s perform. I saw the New Colony Six, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and most notably, the Sonics, who apparently were playing for the first time in 40 years. They drew the most enthusiastic crowd; whether that had anything to do with a song of theirs appearing in a Land Rover commercial is an open question.


Like any convention, the principal draw seems to be an opportunity to spend money on something you love and have a lot of identity invested in. If you can’t spend money on something in a consumer culture, you can’t prove that you really care about—purchasing is the measuring stick of caring: You have to put your money where your mouth is.


I’ve mocked these sorts of things before as Star Trek conventions with guitars: most everyone gets into elaborate costumes and tries to escape into a world that never really existed. But that should probably be celebrated rather than mocked; the attendees at Cavestomp aren’t afraid to be publicly enthusiastic about something that could make them seem weird, and that enthusiasm can make them seem like they have a secret knowledge about how to come to terms with oneself that maybe we can all profit from. Of course, it can make them seem to be in state of arrested development as well. It seems like the fetishization of garage has something to do with preserving certain elements of teenagerdom—to hell with parents rules and the nine-to-five dork schedule and the mindless conformist drones in suburbia—and keeping them accessible to oneself in adulthood, but in a safe, carefully controlled manner. Like the music itself, this repository of teenageness is made into a formulaic genre with very definite rules, and the predictability of the formula, given expression in a variety of subtle variations, ultimately supplies the satisfaction. The chaos and hurt of being on the brink of unwilling adulthood is tamed into three-chord rock songs about heartbreak. Listening to the music takes you back to the pre-adult moment and offers the fantasy of imaging it was possible to make different choices, to refuse the compromises of adulthood and stay forever true and completely authentic to oneself.


So if Cavestomp is supposed to be a respite from the pressure and compromises of adulthood, it doesn’t really help to have the performers joke about how old and out of touch they are, as the New Colony Six singer tended to. It doesn’t help either when they look like a bunch of math teachers or retirees on a CostCo outing—though I prefer this actually to when they try to look “cool” and end up looking like geriatric Fonzies. An old man with a Stratocaster or a leather jacket just doesn’t fit the image one has of rock; it’s kind of like when people put sunglasses on babies—allegedly cute but sort of pathetic.


I tend to forget just how long ago the 60s was—it was the time just before I was born, which conceptually doesn’t seem so long ago. But it’s more than 40 years now, and the bands of that era are now composed of really old men. But it occurred to me as I was watching that what was happening at Cavestomp was not merely some escapism into a carefully patterned world of genre and youth symbolism, but was actually a strange form of paying respect to one’s elders and trying to establish a bridge between generations for people who feel, perhaps, desperately misunderstood by their own actual parents. Though these old folks seem at times ludicrous as performers, singing simple songs they wrote as teens about high school sweethearts, the crowd is eager and respectful, palpably yearning for reasons to give applause and recognition. And the bands respond with genuine expressions of gratitude, something increasingly rare in the commercial entertainment world that has in some ways crowded out the humbler forms of entertainment that were intergenerational in the past—the kind of folk festivals depicted in early Hardy novels, or the archetypal barn dance conjured by this image from today’s NYT.


Caevstomp, then, is a interstitial version of those lost kinds of entertainments, existing in a niche where it can thrive without getting commercialized and made cool and therefore spoiled. But that Land Rover commercial, though, may be a bad omen.


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Sunday, Nov 4, 2007


At first, many wondered if it was a weird Halloween prank. Longtime info outlet The Satellite News, the (former) official web address for all things Mystery Science Theater 3000 announced that, after years away from the format, both Best Brain Industries (producers of the classic TV series) and creator Joel Hodgson were coming back to the theater riffing roost – sort of. Jim Mallon and former show writer Paul Chaplin are resurrecting MST3K via a new site and a collection of online cartoons featuring the formidable robots – Gypsy, Servo, and Crow. Hodgson, on the other hand, is teaming up with former friends and cast/crew members Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff to create Cinematic Titanic, a DVD based update of the old talking back to the screen format. For fans of the former stand-up, it was a dream that many thought would never come true.


Oddly enough, nowhere in the publicity materials is there a mention of The Film Crew – otherwise known as Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. Now, some of it may have to do with contracts, outstanding obligations for other companies (like the Internet commentary collective Rifftrax), and some minor animosities that still exist among the participants. It could just be an oversight. While the obsessive are probably crafting conspiracy theories, using the success of the trio’s Shout! Factory releases as a motive for the uninvited’s sudden interest in returning to the medium, it’s clear that the one time cult is marching toward the mainstream respect it so richly deserved/deserves. And based on the brilliance shown in The Giant of Marathon, the final installment in the Crew’s digital quadrilogy, there’s a lot of life remaining in the old cinematic criticism gig.


For this episode, employer Bob Honcho appeals to Mike, Kevin, and Bill to create an alternate narrative track for a subpar sword and sandal epic featuring that mountain of man meat, Steve Reeves. Playing an Athenian Olympian named Phillipides, he is so well loved after his athleticism based triumph that he’s put in charge of the Sacred Guard, a group of strapping, overly defined men who wear nothing more than a snug fitting diaper. A falling out with the political powers that be, including the treasonous Theocrites and his paid whore Karis, leads our hero back to his country home – but not before he can woo and fall in love with Andromeda, the daughter of a high raking member of the Council. In the meantime, exiled leader Hippias has banded together with the Persians to take over Greece. Hoping to halt their advance, Athens calls on Phillipides for help. He gets Sparta’s support, and before you know it, loincloths are leaping across the screen as scantily clad extras beefcake it up for a homoerotic tour de force.


As a film, The Giant of Marathon is a talky, disposable affront. Steve Reeves is given the same old dubbed voice vacancy that tends to mar his entire cinematic catalog, and he’s once again paired up with women who aren’t as attractive as him. The storyline will remind viewers of 300, except with more gay overtones, and the regular sequences of man on man action (wrestling, grappling, battling) will have you instantly mulling over director Jacques Tourneur and substitute helmer Mario Bava’s proclivities. Yes, this is one of those notorious productions where the original filmmaker was fired, and a soon to be Italian maestro stepped in to pick up the hack. In this case, Bava was merely a cameraman, but when feelings toward Tourneur turned sour, the Mediterranean auteur in the making was given the go ahead. His success in completing the project led to his first credited film as a director.


The Film Crew, on the other hand, needs no rescuing. Thanks once again to the DVD format, which frees them up to contemplated quips of a slightly more sexual nature, we get a nonstop laugh-a-thon offering jabs at male genitals, numerous butt references, and a running gag concerning Karis and her less than virtuous reputation. Under Mike, Kevin, and Bill’s constant badgering, the aging Italian actress playing the part is vicariously saddled with every STD known to man. During a particularly potent section (the character is trying one last time to seduce Phillipides – though a strumpet, she loves him) the guys give her such a thorough going over that you envision the onscreen disgrace and fall that Karis goes through paralleling the pall late actress Daniela Rocca would experience could she hear their taunts. Most of the naughtiest knocks come at her and her B.C. hooker’s expense, and each one’s a classic.


Similarly, the Crew dishes out some fine funny business regarding Reeves. Stoic and as statue like as ever, the former bodybuilding champion does make the Governator look like Sir Ralph Richardson, and the script doesn’t make things better. This is one of those performances that relies almost exclusively on what the actor looks like sans shirt. Phillipides may be a wonderful sportsperson and skilled competitor, but once we see him shimmy with his fellow semi-nude Olympians, the vast majority of the action is over. We have to wait another 80 minutes before the last act battle, and then again, Reeves and his steroided buddies spend more time in the water setting up harbor-protecting spikes than flexing their quads. With his standard, dopey heroic dialogue and unflinching blandness, he’s a far too easy target for the comedians. As they did with prior Hercules-oriented epics during the MST days, Reeves gets ripped – and not in the good GNC way.


As part of the presentation of this pathetic peplum, Shout! Factory and the Film Crew do their usual bang-up job of supplementing the shortcomings. During the opening skit, Mike plays unskilled laborer to hilarious results, while during the mandatory “Lunch Break” intermission, Bill explains how the real Battle for Athens played out (it’s history as a Hellsapoppin’ food fight). Finally, at the end, Mike makes a ridiculous racist plea. It warrants a DVD bonus feature apology that’s equally unhinged and borderline bigoted (especially if you’re Norwegian). Finally, there’s a “commentary track” (about 9 minutes in length and covering various scenes in the film) where a supposed actor on the shoot, one Walter S. Ferguson (Mike in old coot mode) provides some gloriously goofy anecdotes. In combination with the jolly joyful riffing, we wind up with another post-SOL winner.


Still, the question remains, what happens now? Shout! Factory has had great success with these titles. They’ve been very popular and critically acclaimed. As much as the fans love Joel, Trace, Frank, Jim, Paul, Mary Jo, and Josh, they’ve been out of the game for a while, and seeing them pick up the MST-styled mantle at his point questions their motivation. Of course, what everyone wants is a full blown reunion, something that can work the Film Crew, the Cinematic Titanic, the new MST3K.com gang and the ridiculously resplendent modern film mocking of Rifftrax into one big comedic gathering, a return to the days when a tiny cowtown puppet show gave notorious new life to bad B schlock-busters. Whatever happens, the four films that made up the Crew’s initial output deserve a place among the best these performers ever offered. The Giant of Marathon is indeed a huge cinematic load. Thankfully, these satiric caretakers are still around to clean up the mess. 


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Sunday, Nov 4, 2007

By Trudy Rubin


The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Americans’ perceptions of Iraq are molded by scenes of horrendous violence; few get to see the bravery and humanity of Iraqis living under hellish conditions.


So I wish millions could have watched the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) present its 2007 Courage in Journalism award this week to six Iraqi women journalists who have risked their lives in the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. (Brave Mexican, Ethiopian and Zimbabwean women journalists were also honored.)


But the ceremonies could not be televised or photographed, because, if the Iraqi women’s faces were seen back home, they or their families could be targeted by terrorists for having worked with Americans. The husband, 5-year-old daughter, and mother-in-law of one of the women, Ban Adil Sarhan,
were shot dead for just that reason, and she is now living in America; another of the awardees is in hiding, and all are under threat.


I know all six because I work with the McClatchy bureau when I visit Baghdad (the McClatchy-Tribune wire distributes my column). So let me tell you a bit about Sahar Issa, who accepted the award for the group.


Sahar is a woman of immense dignity and composure, her English excellent and soft-spoken but with a quiet passion underneath. When I worked with her in Baghdad in June, I couldn’t comprehend how she persevered.


During this conflict she lost her son, who was caught in a cross-fire while riding his moped on the street. She also lost her brother. She struggles to care for her family in 110-degree heat with two hours of electricity a day and little water, waking at night to fan her children. Each day when they go to school, she worries they might not return.


Earlier this year she had to go to the morgue to find her nephew. Women are often sent to the morgue rather than men, because the men are in more danger. She, the boy’s mother, and an aunt had to search bare-handed through body parts to bring home the remains.


And yet, she decided during this war to work as a journalist, a profession that exposes her and her Iraqi colleagues to even greater peril, especially if they work with Americans. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 121 Iraq journalists have been killed on duty since 2003. Yasser Salihee, a member of the Baghdad bureau (then run by Knight Ridder) was killed in 2005.


I asked Sahar this week why she took the risk. “It means so much to me,” she replied quickly. “Not a lot of people in America know Iraqi society. It makes wrongdoing (against us) easier. We have to speak out ... to demonstrate to people who may affect decisions (about our lives) that we are human beings - that Ali is like John.”


Along with the rest of the McClatchy bureau’s Baghdad staff, Sahar writes the Inside Iraq blog (www.mcclatchydc.com/iraq). The feedback convinced her that Americans know little about Iraq. They don’t know, for example, that Iraq once led the Arab world in women’s education, before wars, international sanctions, and the American occupation set women back. Both she and her mother are university graduates. Those gains, she says, are now being reversed by religious parties.


She also wants Americans to understand that sectarian strife in Iraq is not really over religion - but over political power.


To correct such misconceptions, she is committed to journalism. “No one will do it for us,” she says. Is she frightened? “I am scared silly. I am at tremendous risk.” Her kids are proud of her, but when she left for America, her son said, “Mother, don’t be photographed.”


At the award ceremony in Washington, CNN’s Zain Verjee asked Sahar how she deals with fear. “Every day could be my last,” she said. “I try not to dwell on it. Living in fear has become quite commonplace in Iraq and not just for journalists. We go out to visit relatives, to school or the store, not knowing whether we’ll come back. I’ve been in situations on the way to work where I thought I had said my last prayer.”


What Sahar didn’t say is that the courage of Iraqi journalists - female and male - is crucial to American correspondents who depend on them to get to places where Americans can no longer go. “They are the backbone of the bureau, my eyes and ears when I can’t get out,” says Leila Fadel, theLebanese-American McClatchy bureau chief in Baghdad, and no mean example of courage herself. “They are our guide to the streets of Baghdad, and so often they never get recognized for what they do.”


Sahar wants to stay in Iraq, but other Iraqi journalists working with Americans are finding the danger is too great. It is shocking so few have been able to get asylum. America owes the brave journalists who have helped us every assistance. The IWMF should be congratulated for giving their
courage the attention it deserves. (You can read more about all six Iraqi women and the other honorees at http://www.iwmf.org/courage/awardees.php.)


___


ABOUT THE WRITER
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia
Inquirer.


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Saturday, Nov 3, 2007

Having already cut his teeth as an illustrator for the ne-plus-ultra of American nonfiction comics, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Josh Neufeld would already be considered a dead-on solid choice for the right guy to do an epic graphic treatment of Hurricane Katrina. Add to that the fact that not long after the hurricane slammed through the Gulf Coast, Neufeld spent three weeks as a Red Cross volunteer in Biloxi, Mississippi, soaking up stories of the storm and its aftermath (which he blogged and then collected as a self-published book, Katrina Came Calling), and you have what seems to be a perfect match. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is Neufeld’s webcomic, published by one of the more exacting online magazines, SMITH, lives up to its promise by being the exact kind of knowing and humane document the victims of Katrina well deserve—and the rest of us need. Parceled out in a dozen installments a month at a time (it’s now up to Chapter 7, “The Bowl Effect”), A.D. follows five real people, and their assorted relatives and friends, through the buildup to Katrina, and what they went through after.


While the webcomic format is an attractively democratic one, requiring hardly anywhere near the resources that physical printing does, there are some limitations here. SMITH‘s previous comic, the justly acclaimed Will Eisner-nominated war satire Shooting War, benefited from the jaggedly episodic structuring, packed as it was with dramatic close-ups and sharp angles. Neufeld’s more graceful construction may in fact look better on the printed page once some publisher wises up and puts it out there (Shooting War was picked up by Grand Central for publication this month). That being said, Neufeld makes good use of the expanded abilities offered by the web, embedding appropriate links, like to the National Hurricane Center’s archived site for a particular date, and even sticking in MP3s at critical junctures in the story. For all this new media construction, though, Neufeld never lets the format take over from his elegantly elegiac story; all of which is taken, by the way, word-for-word from accounts of the people it depicts. And somehow, even though there’s of course no question about how things will turn out, Neufeld keeps you coming back, month after month, to see not necessarily what happens but who it happens to.


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