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by Rob Horning

27 Jul 2009

Rob Walker’s Consumed column in this week’s NYT Magazine is about Lululemon, a vendor of overpriced “yoga-inspired” apparel, including clothing that one couldn’t possibly use for yoga, like raingear. As Walker points out, what the company really sells is faux-inspiration, a sense of goal fulfillment without actually having to fulfill any of them. The best face one could put on this is that the company provides an opportunity for a kind of monetized creative visualization: wearing expensive yoga clothes make people feel like the sort who does yoga, which then prompts them to do it more often—a variant on the notion that if you dress professionally, you will end up being more professional at work because people will regard you more respectfully and the clothes symbolism lend a sense of confidence and so on. But not surprisingly, I am more persuaded by the critique that Lululemon takes something free and ancient and ruins it for Americans by associating it with a specific affluent lifestyle, making it seem exclusive and cliquish.

It’s not at all surprising that the company’s founder, Chip Wilson, has apparently promoted the Forum, a vaguely creepy self-help workshop derived from EST, profiled here in New York magazine and parodied on Six Feet Under as “the Plan”. (If you know anyone who has done the Forum, you know what I mean by “vaguely creepy.”) The Forum seems to trade in the same kind of monetized creative visualization, but apparently with a more of an emotional-bullying edge than anything you are likely to experience in a yoga class (with the possible exception of Bikram).

What I wonder, then, is whether the consumption of yoga clothes functions in the same way as consuming “intense” self-help sessions, whether the appeal is the same: you can buy a new self and effectively efface the past. Consumerism typically promises that we can reinvent ourselves at any moment, that the pose we adopt is basically convincing as long as we believe it and put our money where our mouth is. Consumerism lets us treat spending as a mark of unquestionable conviction, even if the skeptics and naysayers cry about inauthenticity. Whether we feel this conviction at any deeper psychological level then becomes irrelevant. In other words, what I wonder about is the switch in our minds that allows us to buy Lululemon clothes and feel like we have bought into the “yoga concept” in a meaningful way, untroubled by our not doing much yoga. And once we’ve thrown that switch, do we have to keep on buying and buying lifestyle goods to make sure it doesn’t get thrown back over, plunging us into a self-doubt and shame?

by Sarah Boslaugh

27 Jul 2009

I don’t know if we’ll ever see the likes of Tony Hillerman again. His gift of imagining life through the eyes of a culture not his own was developed through an impoverished childhood in Oklahoma (he was once quoted as saying that the Joads were the people with enough money to get to California), decorated combat service in World War II, a degree from the University of Oklahoma and years working as a journalist, then a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico which qualified him to become head of the department. This less-pressured career path (no SAT prep courses or Guggenheim grants required) is reflected in his writing, in particular his novels set in the American Southwest.

Dance Hall of the Dead, Hillerman’s third detective novel and his second featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police, was originally published in 1973 and won the 1974 Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America for best novel. The story begins with the disappearance of two teenage boys, one Navajo and one Zuñi. After the Zuñi boy is found murdered, the Navajo becomes a suspect, although many Zuñi attribute the murder to a kachina (spirit) because the murdered boy had communicated forbidden sacred knowledge to the Navajo.

Leaphorn’s investigation brings him into contact with a number of characters, each struggling with their own issues of identity and exclusion. George Bowlegs, the missing Navajo boy, is trying to learn about Zuñi spiritual ways to compensate for what he feels is lacking in his own community, but is rebuffed by the Zuñi who prefer to keep knowledge of their traditions within their own tribe. Members of the Golden Fleece commune are belagana (white people) who reject modern American life and are trying to create an alternative. Chester Reynolds, an anthropologist whose ideas have been mocked by members of his academic community, is desperate to find evidence which will vindicate his theories and win him a place of respect. Ted Isaacs, a young anthropologist working for Reynolds, seeks to escape his impoverished childhood through career success. The important question in each case is just how far each individual will go to get what they want, and what they’re willing to give up in order to get it.

Like some of Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes stories, in Dance Hall of the Dead Leaphorn fails to solve the mystery in time but justice is delivered from another quarter. And rather than try to impose his will upon a situation clearly beyond his control, Leaphorn leaves another character with a dilemma where the only constraints are that of personal integrity: he could get away with something which will get him exactly what he wants, and chances are good that he will never be caught. Now what will he do?

Hillerman was awarded a commendation by the Navajo Tribal Council for his sensitive portrayals of Navajo culture; his appreciation of Native American ways of life and of the stark landscapes of the American Southwest has won him many fans outside the Navajo community as well.

Although critical of certain aspects of the Native cultures, Hillerman reserves his sharpest satire for the Anglos who bumble into Native affairs armed with their dominant cultural status but devoid of understanding or appreciation for people outside their own narrow world. One such bumbler in Dance Hall of the Dead is FBI Agent John O’Malley, who becomes involved in the murder investigation. Leaphorn contemplates why all FBI agents seem to look and act the same and imagines the recruiting process:

He had a sudden vision of an office in the Department of Justice building in Washington, a clerk sending out draft notices to all the male cheerleaders and drum majors at U.S.C., Brigham Young, Arizona State, and Notre Dame, ordering them to get their hair cut and report for duty.

Maybe it doesn’t work quite like that, but it often seems like it does.

by PopMatters Staff

27 Jul 2009

Imogen Heap
Releasing: 25 August (US) / 24 August (UK)

01 First Train Home
02 Wait It Out
03 Earth
04 Little Bird
05 Swoon
06 Tidal
07 Between Sheets
08 2 - 1
09 Bad Body Double
10 Aha!
11 The Fire
12 Canvas
13 Half Life

by Omar Kholeif

27 Jul 2009

Why was a 12-year-old boy captured by an album that seemed almost wholly obsessed with female sexual confession? Did it have something to do with my isolated childhood, or did it have more to do with the confusion surrounding my own impending sexual awakening? Perhaps these questions are futile. To generalize about why any one piece of music would appeal to any one person, is a difficult task to reconcile retrospectively.

Still, there is something deeply moving about Apple’s first release – an album fused with intricate rhythms, and righteous piano playing.  Though only 18 years old at the time of production, Fiona Apple’s Tidal is a stark, brutal, and often beautiful portrait about a young girl’s physical and emotional growth. The opening track, “Sleep to Dream”, professes this clearly. “Don’t even show me your face, don’t bother to explain”, “go back to the rock from under which you came”, “I’ve got my feet on the ground”, and “my own hell to raise”, barks the frustrated teenager. Time and again, throughout the album, and sometimes, within the very same song, Apple reaches the brink of personal resolution, only to do a complete 180-degree turn on herself – encapsulating the fickle nature of adolescent decision making.

At other times, she replaces her contradictory outlook with conflicted helplessness. In “Sullen Girl’ for example, the artist relays the traumatic experience of being raped at the young age of 12. She wrestles with the burden of her despair and isolation, quietly hoping to be saved. Anchored by its smooth sonic landscape, and her restrained voice, it is very easy for one to grow engrossed in Apple’s intimate narrative. With its opaque and painterly lyrics, “it’s calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion” – “Sullen Girl” is able to elevate itself from a simple retelling of sexual abuse (i.e. Tori Amos’ “Me and A Gun”), and instead opens itself up to a variety of interpretations. For me, the song was about grappling with the weight of my desires, for my mother it might have been a song that captured the loneliness of depression, and I am sure that for many other listeners, it was about finding the courage to accept their silent anguish.

Elsewhere, Apple tackles female exploitation, as is evidenced by “Criminal”, a lavish track that is ambivalent about the tension between exploiting one’s self sexually, and protecting what is sacred. And despite her young age (and innocence), her breathy Nina Simone-style vocals echo a maturity and understanding of a woman twice her age.

By the end of the record, Apple is still teeming with unresolved questions. She wants to “walk away” from her “decaying” relationship, but she equally finds herself wanting to “save” the person that she has grown to love. It was this sort of confusion, this inability to let go that had me so engrossed with Tidal. At 18, Apple was staring back at me from the other end of childhood, warning me of the pitfalls that were yet to come. Nevertheless, her delivery assured me that I would survive, even if it meant the journey ahead would be wrought with puzzles, and perhaps even a sense of bewilderment. Yet, for all of the difficulties, there was also a feeling throughout Tidal that echoed the excitement and discovery that the future would bring.

Looking back now as an adult, I realize that the album played a vital role in my development. It was a continuous source of comfort, for which I will be forever grateful.

by Bill Gibron

26 Jul 2009

In Hollywood, career desperation can take on many forms. There’s the comedian who tries for drama, the failed thesp who hopes to find solace in a shift behind the lens. There’s the aging star who tries to go younger (or older), as well as the former frontliner who delves into the realm of solid supporting “character” work. Perhaps the most notorious example of fading celebrity anxiety, however, is the return to franchise form. Just ask Harrison Ford. While a mainstay of ‘80s/‘90s blockbusters, his draining fame and fortune saw him reprise his most iconic role - Indiana Jones - for a less than successful fourth installment. Oddly enough, the same thing has happened to La-La land novices Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. 

Remember when this duo was supposed to set the Tinseltown action empire on fire? How Diesel was pitched as the thinking man’s Neanderthal and when Walker embodied leading man qualities in a stuntman’s form? Amazing what a series of less than successful starring roles will garner. Eight years after the first Fast and Furious film made both men car geek gods, the duo have returned - along with most of the original cast - to flesh out their failing finances. Avoiding the auto erotica tenets of the previous titles, part three participants Justin Lin (director) and Chris Morgan (screenplay) have decided to forgo all vehicular fetish to go moody and revenge-oriented - and it almost works. Almost.

When the heat gets too hot on his highway bandit enterprise, Dom Toretto breaks up his gang and heads undercover. Tragedy brings him back to LA. There, he learns that a drug dealer named Braga is responsible for his current pain. Without provocation, he decides to join the criminal’s gang of drivers and get some payback. Standing in his way, however, is old pal/nemesis Brian O’Connor. Now working for the FBI, he wants Braga as well. Reluctantly, they form a partnership which one again takes them into the street racing scene. As Dom’s sister Mia frets over the fate of both men, the bureau wants answers and they want them fast. Discovering who Braga really is, however, may be more difficult than maneuvering the back roads between the US and Mexico.

As long as you know what you’re getting into, Fast & Furious will end up fun and effective. This isn’t Shakespeare. No one will be looking at the expanded Oscar list come awards season for this film’s name to turn up. But when all you really want is a few high-powered action sequences, a simplified narrative that doesn’t play too dumb, and some solid work from an already comfortable cast, this most recent deposit in the fuel-injected franchise’s bank does deliver. Sure, Lin and Morgan want to make this all seem like the greatest tragedy known to man, to show Dom and Brian mulling over their fate in slo-mo statements of import. But this is one movie that doesn’t forget the flash - or put another way, the CGI aided automotive mayhem. Indeed, those looking for old school chrome on concrete chaos may come away disappointed.

This is nu-era F/X, green-screened heroics where our well-washed cast can sit idly back in the safety of the soundstage’s driver seat and look like they are facing almost certain death. An opening bit of mountain road piracy has a wonderful sense of authenticity - that is, until the computer-enhanced cliffs indicate a set of logistical impossibilities. In Los Angeles, Dom and Brian race two others through real traffic strewn streets. Yet every near miss or eventual collision comes straight out of a video game version of life. Nowhere is this more true, however, than in the two main “trips” across the border. Using a tunnel forged under a mountain, our highly modified cars careen back and forth between precarious rock walls. While it strives to be breathtaking, however, we suddenly start flashing back to the “realism” of the mining cart chase from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Granted, there is nothing wrong with these motherboard managed sequences. Modern audiences need much more bang for their buck less their already addled attention spans sputter and spin out. And the new DVD from Universal offers an entire second disc loaded with Behind the Scenes how-to. But when Quentin Tarantino put Zoe Bell on the top of a car and ran her around the California countryside in Death Proof, we could sense inherently how scary the cinematic stakes really were. Indeed, Fast & Furious could be called Grand Theft Autopilot. Lin knows that his demographic doesn’t care about truth. They want to see stuff smash up - and in as outlandish and outrageous a way possible.

And as for those actors returning to pick up a much needed bit of commercial clout? Fast & Furious proves why they were so highly touted in the first place - sort of. Walker gets the less flamboyant of the two roles. He gets to play rebel cop badass without having to damage either side of the badge. He also knows that co-star Diesel has more to lose than he, and skillfully lets most of their moments fall on those Riddick-riddled shoulders. As for the former bald beefcake, Dom remains a defining role. It allows Diesel to seem substantial without doing much more than holding a steering wheel and the sequences where he sits and broods bring a small amount of gravitas to the otherwise superficial proceedings. With Jordana Brewster back as Mia, and a few more familiar faces thrown in for continuity, this is a literal crowd pleaser - it knows who it’s playing to and exactly how to entertain them.

You too might find some minor amusement buried in all the gearhead rhetoric and mechanized machismo. The film looks good, offering a broader scope than most post-post modern action films, and Lin’s love of all things hip-hop transforms more than one scene into the latest “hos and bros” rap video. But it’s impossible to shake the air of business model dread here. Had Fast & Furious failed at the box office, it would have meant the end for Walker and Diesel. The former would have to find work in the background of otherwise high profile showcases, while the latter would be forced back to flesh out the possibilities within the Pacifier series. Thanks to some impressive ticket returns and a fanbase that clearly wants more of these motor sports, however, Dom and Brian will be back. So you see, sometimes, career desperation pays off. Like Fast & Furious itself, it’s almost never easy, but it can be satisfying in its own way.

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