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by Bill Gibron

10 May 2009

Someone posed an interesting question to me the other day. “Why,” they asked, in classic essay intro parlance, “are audiences and critics going so insane over J. J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film?” The question wasn’t one of contempt but pure curiosity. You see, Hollywood offers dozens of entertainment options every year, and few if any resonate with elements both inside and outside the industry like this one. Of the 221 members of Rotten Tomatoes who’ve reviewed the film, only 10 have disliked it - and outright dismissals are rare amongst even the contrarians. Similarly, the film was projected to only do about $50 to $60 million at the box office over the 8 May weekend, and yet managed to rake in close to $77 million.

But my friend wasn’t quite finished with his inquiry. “Could it be,” he sniped, a small amount of sarcasm creeping through his typically serious demeanor, “that J.J. has done the impossible - that is, made a really good movie in a current realm of unmitigated mediocrity? What I mean is, could Star Trek‘s popularity in whole or in part be chalked up to the fact that, when inundated with junk for 364 days a year, the movie-going public will take a good old fashioned well made ‘movie’ any time?” In essence, the argument is this: Abrams hasn’t made a masterpiece, just a highly sophisticated and expertly helmed piece of pop culture eye candy. It was/is specifically created to please the widest majority of the populace, and will keep the Star Trek name on studio heads minds for sequels to come.

by Bill Gibron

9 May 2009

This is not meant as an objective overview. This is also not meant as some definitive list. As J.J. Abrams literal reinvention of Star Trek prepares to beam onto movie screens worldwide this weekend, I thought I would take a moment and offer my ten most prominent memories from my four decades in the making fandom. You notice the lack of an adjective like “Best”, or descriptive phrase like “Most Memorable”. Instead, these are the images that flash before my mind’s eye when I recall first finding this amazing sci-fi series, and the reactions/distractions I had/picked up along the way. As you see, some aren’t even directly related to the show, though it’s hard to look through my entire aesthetic catalog and not find a link to Kirk, Spock, and the rest of Gene Roddenberry’s merry crew. It will be short and sweet without a lot of metaphysical heft, but that doesn’t diminish the value of any entry here. So without further ado and in no particular order, here are my 10 Trek moments - for now:

William Shatner’s The Transformed Man LP

It was the Holy Grail for us ‘70s syndication fans, a copy of the Enterprise Captain’s seminal sonic assault on what people might call “music”. From the brilliant deconstruction of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, to the near Billboard blockbuster success of “Mr. Tamborine Man”, the non-singer’s style could be best described as poetry readings on horse tranquilizers. When a copy was finally located, it was share and share alike. I still have my cassette of the album, right next to my mandatory CD translation.

by Rob Horning

9 May 2009

I attended the opening ceremonies for the Blowing Up the Brand conference at NYU yesterday and heard Rob Walker give a talk about branding’s current status as a kind of governing cultural metaphor. Not only are lay discussions of how successfuly or ingenious marketing has become commonplace now, but the “self as brand” has become a ready-at-hand way of conceptualizing our motives for ourselves, for organizing our incentives and our goals. It seems an offshoot of the building preoccupation with identity and self-actualization. It’s no accident that “authenticity”—which came up a bit in the Q&A with Walker after the talk—features prominently in discussions of brands and self-fashioning. (In fact, I wonder if brand managers could get a PowerPoint presentation out of reading Stephen Greenblatt.) The properly groomed brand image will reveal the enduring truth about us that others will invariably recognize, or alternatively, in will supply others with the raw material (or perhaps the playing field) with which to shape the meaning of our social being. In other words, the transaction involved in brand recognition is now the way we understand how we affect and are affected by others; the brand is what we imagine gets fixed as permanent about ourselves after series of social interactions. If that is so, then—and I took this as Walker’s point—it will be efficacious to self-brand. People will recognize what you are doing, will interpret it properly, will slot it in with a set of values that have (through the ubiquity of brand talk) established themselves as creditable. But, as Walker suggested, we are also in danger of reducing our own complexities and the nuances of our relationships to the shape of the brand, to the commercial verities of guarded and proprietary corporate communication. Self-actualization becomes perpetual self-promotion. And worse everyone collaborates to keep it limited to this—every one agrees to “follow you if you follow me.” (Fittingly, in such a culture with so many mutual followers, there can be no leaders.) Technology plays in to this because it supplies us with a way of measuring our reach, of rating ourselves the way a TV show is rated by Nielsen. We degenerate into vulgar utilitarians. This drives us to be fixated on our metrics, and ultimately necessarily nebulous concerns about quality are shunted aside for an overriding concern for quantity—which is far more convenient to wrangle with since it is so cut and dried. (This is also the problem with positivism and enlightenment techno-rationality.)

My own thinking about the brand begins with this: Branding coopts a vital and socially necessary process—signification; negotiating and fixing the meaning of signs—and commercializes it. Rather than work to fix meanings (as do signification processes traditionally), branding tends to render signs permanently provisional, always open-ended, so that they can be adapted to whatever commercial purposes suit a given moment. But the commercial aura of this kind of communication gives it a kind of validity that the onslaught of postmodernity had threatened to strip from signification. This vindicating, validating authority from branding as signifying practice derives from its association with structures that in capitalist society come to seem eternal and primary—the market and a fundamentally “rational” selfishness. (For example: If one can see what a person has to gain by saying something, one understands the “truth” of that statement.) Brands makes us believe the uncertain process of signification has been professionalized.

So brands are always indeterminate, negotiable, but they also aspire to connote permanence, stable meanings. I think this has the effect of making us experience or consume brands for this specific feeling of permanent truth—we consume the permanence they signify and suspend our knowledge that that meaning is an illusion born in the moment of consumption. We suspend our concern with the fragility of meaning, with its fundamental ambiguity, which seems banished by the clarity of commercial exchanges. Brands offer us a series of engagements with the promise of forever in a transitory moment. The best of both worlds.

by PopMatters Staff

9 May 2009

Whatever Works
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Larry David, Ed Begley Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Conleth Hill, Michael McKean, Evan Rachel Wood
Opening: 19 June 2009
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

 

Plot summary: An eccentric New Yorker played by Larry David abandons his upper class life to lead a more bohemian existence. He meets a young girl from the south and her family and no two people seem to get along in the entanglements that follow. Run time: 92 minutes. Rated: PG-13 [Sony Pictures Classics]

by PopMatters Staff

9 May 2009

John Mellencamp’s latest video from Life Death Love and Freedom was shot in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana and features a duet with country singer Karen Fairchild from Little Big Town.

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Supernatural: Season 11, Episode 19 - "The Chitters"

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"Another stand-alone episode, but there's still plenty to discuss in the Supernatural world.

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