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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Christopher Andreae of the Christian Science Monitor has an opinion piece in the Gulf News on the subject, that reveals 40 per cent of 4,000 people surveyed recently have lied about reading the classics in order to discuss those classics with others. Andreae testifies never having stretched the truth as to his reading habits, though he does reveal the arduousness of ticking off Tolstoy on his reading list, and the damage done by lit classes at college that made reading the likes of Eliot and James a grade-driven chore.


I’m with Andreae—I think—that I’ve, too, not lied about having read certain books, although I must admit a slightly superior feeling at seeing the classics on my bookshelf, even though most of them remain unread. Is it lying to situate The Mill on the Floss in plain sight in the office and not rightly remind anyone impressed by the highlights of my collection that they haven’t each been digested? That they don’t inform my every literary opinion? Probably, but I figure it’s okay. I’ll read it one day. Why else do I have it, right?


Tom Roper, a Sussex librarian with an outstanding Typepad blog, saw the survey, too. He makes a great point that while the survey claims to have discovered a list of books most English “readers” lie about having read, it doesn’t point out whether or not these people openly admit they’ve read books they have not, or whether they simply don’t deny having read them when involved in conversation. See, now, while I don’t think I’ve lied about not having read a book, I may very well have simply quietened down, blended into the walls, when Wuthering Heights was the topic of the moment. Would anyone judge me for never having picked that one up (and, yep, I have it)? Would I seem less important? Less educated? Less, god-forbid, interesting?


Well, get this: Roper goes on to reveals those of the top 10 he’s made it through. And while I’m in awe of his tackling Tolstoy, I’m shocked he has little interest in Anne Frank’s diary. Tom! Why? And he’s read Harry Potter! I can judge him, right? Not only does he admit not having read Frank, he admits he likely will not. Damn—now I have to respect, at least, his honesty. I could never admit that—especially in company.


There are, though, lots of thing on this topic to lie about. I’ve lied about my response to a book so as not to offend another reader. I’ve certainly lied about having seen movies I’ve either never gotten around to or have no interest in. I’ve lied about thoroughly understanding a book. And I’ve often made out I know all about, say, the Lindbergh kidnapping based on extensive research than by reading a tiny chapter in Martin Fido’s veritable flipbook, The Chronicle of True Crime.


Still, with my transgressions now on the table, Emily Barton at Telecommuter Talk might chalk me up as a big fat liar, as she believes lying about books we’ve read is something we’ve all done. She writes: “I just love these organizations that spend lots of time and money doing research in order to tell us such things as all humans giving birth these days are female.” Wow, maybe I have lied about this? Maybe I have admitted to having read The Da Vinci Code in order to back up my assumptions that lovers of that book are nuts? Would anyone blame me, really? Wait ... I just did the same thing with Harry Potter. So, I’m a snob. That doesn’t make me a liar!


In part, though, because of this survey, not only do I plan to be more honest with my reading back catalogue (i.e., to not blend into any walls), I plan, too, to get to some of those books I’ve longed wished I’d read. Then, next time someone comments on my Eliot selections, I might proudly express either my loving or loathing of the Mill and its Floss. Or, at least, I’ll know what those words actually mean.


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007


Perhaps it was Meatballs that said it best – are you ready for the Summer? It will definitely be an interesting four months. Instead of giving us one or two major blockbusters to contemplate over the next 16 weeks, Tinsel Town is dropping one on us each and every Friday. That’s a lot of popcorn product to digest. To make matters worse, the major cable channels are finally scheduling those long delayed hits from last year to turn the weekend watching decision into a real dilemma. Thank God for TiVo and DVR. While you’re standing in line waiting on the next available seat for Spider-Man 3 or Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, you can be recording the pay movie networks and their equally entertaining offerings. Beginning with this last week in April, it should be a battle between big and small screen for your leisure time attention, starting with:


Premiere Pick
Cars


Critics were unfairly harsh to this amazing animated film when it hit the big screen last summer. Apparently, a steady diet of Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles left them unable to appreciate John Lassiter’s love letter to the American obsession with automobiles. Granted, the premise is a tad predicable (hot shot racer learns life lessons from the practical populace of a small town) and the voice work was more character driven than gimmicky (which, by the way, is a GOOD thing). Still, the spectacular CG work matched with backdrops that really sell the far away wanderlust of the open road, are a joy to behold – and thanks to the typical Pixar attention to detail, the little moments are just as impressive as the big. If you dismissed this movie before, here’s an opportunity to give it a second chance. It may not be great, but it is definitely as good as the artform gets. (28 April, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)


As remakes go, this update of Wes Craven’s 1970s cannibal holocaust is pretty straightforward. It follows the original as an unlucky family finds themselves at the mercy of some demented desert mutants. But once the standard slice and dice dynamic has been explored, director Alexadre Aja does something quite effective. He turns the tables, focusing on the foul irradiated murderers instead of our supposed heroes. (28 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Phat Girlz


Mo’Nique is a very talented comedian. She’s also a fine actress when she wants to be. So you’d think a big screen comedy focusing on both of these facets would be a winner. Well, you’d be wrong. Strikingly schizophrenic in approach, part of the narrative wants to condemn our current fascination with body type and weight. Then, out of nowhere, a wild and crazy comedy emerges. For fans only. (28 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Elizabethtown


Here’s proof that even the mighty must fall sometimes. After winning over audiences with Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe went and whizzed his film geek goodwill right down his leg. This slow, dragged out declaration of the old adage about ‘going home again’ made audiences weep – but not in a good way. No, they were wondering where all the wit, style and invention of Crowe’s previous canon had wandered off to. (28 April, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.


It’s the second week in a row that we’ve featured a documentary here, which speaks volumes for the long overlooked format. This time around, genre giant Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Fog of War) looks at the man responsible for most of the execution technology used in our current penal system. Mr. Leuchter’s engineering expertise, especially in the arena of putting people to death, became crucial to modernizing the approach toward capital punishment in this country. His so called know how was also manipulated and abused by revisionist historian Ernst Zundel, a Holocaust denier that got Leuchter to agree with his proposition that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. That Morris manages to keep our interest in this man once such a baffling bombshell is dropped confirms his ability as a fascinating auteur. It’s also the main reason why the fact-based film is such a misunderstood member of the cinematic community. (30 April, IFC, 5:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Dumplings


Just call this Dim Sum Death Becomes Her. The storyline follows a fading actress and the rumors surrounding a mysterious chef’s dumplings that may actually rejuvenate one’s youth and beauty. The cook’s previous life as a gynecologist and renowned abortionist may have something to do with the miracle food – and its unique filling of effectiveness. Yes, it’s apparently as gross and gory as such a suggestion implies. (29 April, Sundance, 11PM EST)

Solaris


No, this is not the original version of the Russian 2001. Instead, this is the George Clooney/Steven Soderbergh update, which many find equally compelling. In essence, both versions of the story are an exploration of loneliness and alienation, made all the more obvious by the vast distances of time and space inherent in interstellar travel. But there are also elements of love lost and the heart exposed that make the cosmic contemplation even more human. (2 May, IFC, 11PM EST)

American Me


Following 30 years in the life of a Chicano gang member, actor Edward James Olmos banked some of his Miami Vice/Stand and Deliver commercial cred to direct this three hour epic. His first feature film behind the camera, Olmos went for a combination of The Godfather, Scarface and Once Upon a Time in America, dealing realistically with both life in prison and on the streets. The combination makes for compelling, if occasionally overdone, motion picture drama. (2 May, Sundance, 3AM EST)

Outsider Option
Beloved


Believe it or not, this is a very well done adaptation of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s famously poetic novel. Indeed, it’s hard to fault star Oprah Winfrey, director Jonathan Demme, or anyone else in the extremely talented cast or crew. So why wasn’t this movie more popular – both critically and commercially – when it arrived in theaters back in 1998? Perhaps it had something to do with the very nature of Morrison’s work. Her storyline is part ghost story, part metaphysical reparations for a nation still smarting from the pain of civil war. Demme draws directly from the book’s baroque prose, illustrating moments that appear to play better in one’s mind. And then there is the title character, a surreal specter that disturbs in her otherworldly whine. Put them all together and you have an art film as horror-tinged history. It works – perhaps just not in the way that you, or any other fan of the TV talk show hostess intended. (3 May, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!/ Mudhoney


Apparently, the TCM Underground is already running out of films to feature. First they repeat a pair of Ed Wood epics, then they revisit the DePalma thriller Sisters. Now it’s Russ Meyer’s turn to take up residence in rerun city. These remarkable movies, unlike anything else made in the exploitation era of the ‘50s and ‘60s, stand as monuments to one man’s idiosyncratic eccentricity. Sure, they’re nothing but babes, boobs and bloodshed, but no one ever handled that tantalizing trio better. (27 April, Turner Classic Movies, 11:15PM EST)

Strange Days


Right at the height of his popularity as a sci-fi whiz (around T2 time), James Cameron gave ex-wife and fellow director Kathryne Bigelow a chance at equal speculative fortunes. His script for an end of the millennium thriller involving portable memory and governmental conspiracies was turned into a big budget spectacle by the Point Break helmer, with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett along for the ride. Unpopular at the time, the movie has since had a kind of reactionary cult rebirth. (30 April, Fox Movie Channel, 10PM EST)

The Thing Below


Every once in a while, even the most tolerant film fan needs a little cinematic cheese to cleanse their artsy fartsy tastebuds. No one is suggesting that this low budget drek from 2004 is good, or even tolerable, but with a plot involving an alien creature terrorizing an offshore oil rig and its occupants, who are we at SE&L to say ‘No’. In fact, something as sensationally stupid as this only makes us enjoy the cinematic artform that much more. (2 May, Showtime Beyond 12:15AM EST)

 


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

The first two in a series of book-related media items that must stop:


  • How much longer can we possibly be plagued with stories about how the internet is destroying the ‘serendipitous discovery’ in bookstores?  For readers in most locations—that is, locations not blessed with great bookstores and plentiful used-book stores—this sort of noodling is just pointless.  But the notion that one can’t find serendipity online is pretty ridiculous.  Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguoro allow themselves to be quoted in the article as implying that the only form of serendipitous discovery is Amazon’s “you may also like . . .” feature.  That’s not even especially true as a description of Amazon: One might also find user-created lists of related texts; at the bottom of the screen there are links to cataloging-type descriptors that you can click on to bring up related books; you can see what others who bought a particular book have viewed or bought, etc.  The most important limitation of the argument, though, is that one doesn’t shop at Amazon or any other online bookseller the way one shops at a bookstore.  It’s true that I usually know what I want to buy when I start shopping at Amazon, but that’s because I’ve usually spent hours trawling other sites for things to read.  This sort of trend piece was all very well 5 years ago . . . but it’s done.
  • Likewise, it’s time for so-called conservative groups to recognize that reports like “Vanishing Shakespeare,” commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni manage simultaneously to be false as a description of higher education (as The Little Professor demonstrates easily) and clichéd as a salvo in the culture wars.    I will promise to take such reports seriously when they suggest how to craft a 36-hour major in such a way that it also satisfies the various accrediting agencies, offers needed support to general education requirements, and meets all the other extrinsic pressures brought to bear on the curriculum (including demands for accountability,  transparency in assessment, and responsiveness to employer demands for skills training).  Further, such reports should explain how on earth we would staff such a curriculum.  (My department, which has no Shakespeare requirement, teaches 6 or 7 sections devoted exclusively to Shakespeare every semester.  That’s more than a full-time professor’s teaching load, and doesn’t even take into account that that person would also need to teach 1 or 2 sections of composition, as well as any other courses in general education or in the graduate program.)

Besides, we don’t need to teach Shakespeare any longer.  The University of Guelph has it all sorted:


Reading Shakespeare can be a daunting and even dreaded task for kids. That is, until a University of Guelph English professor added a futuristic spaceship and an outer-space mission into the mix.


Daniel Fischlin has found an innovative way to use Shakespeare’s language to teach literacy skills through a fast-paced computer game called, ’Speare. It was officially launched today on campus and could soon become commonplace in the classroom.


The first of its kind, ’Speare raises the bar on Flash technology and is a pioneer in educational gaming. It was designed to teach students about literacy within a familiar arcade environment, using cutting-edge technology to create a highly interactive educational tool.


“‘Kids love this game, and when we tested it, we found that literacy scores increased by an amazing 72 per cent after just one hour of game play,” said Fishlin, who created the video game with the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) team.


You can play the game for free online here (registration required).


Between ‘Speare and Dickens World, the times are cushy for English-professor types. 


 


 


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

When I used to study novels, one of the things that annoyed me most was the idea that I was supposed to take moral instruction from them, as though the writers has somehow seen deeply into the nature of human life and had a wealth of profound wisdom to impart in the form of a story about men marrying their servants or discovering their true aristocratic heritage. I had a hard time believing that artists magically secure some special insight into the way ordinary people get along in society or that they were in anyway morally superior and were in a position to dispense lessons about what it means to be human. The humanistic mumbo jumbo about exposing oneself to the great works and getting in touch with the extent of human possibility seemed like self-serving bullshit meant to allow the instructor teaching the “great works” to shine in the halo of the nominated geniuses. Sometimes, if the writers themselves and their works weren’t held up as moral exemplars, the art of novel reading would be put forward as a morally edifying activity, one that taught readers how to be empathetic or more tolerant or more aware of the universal nature of suffering and joy and our potential as a species—another convenient and flattering trope for literature instructors, who can dress up close reading as a kind of casuistry that improves students’ moral calculation while setting teachers up as arbiters of what is most human. (Some of the ideas Hermione Lee surveys in this NYRB review of recent books about the grand enterprise of novel-reading echoes this theme, which is what suggested this topic to me.)


As much as I liked to have believe it was true, and as many insights about human life as I’ve been able to glean from novels, I remain skeptical of novel reading as an inherently moral activity. It seems to me that if you want to learn to be tolerant and empathetic, you probably need to actually spend time with other people learning about their ways firsthand and listening to what they have to say. Conducting a social life is a much more humanistic project than reading or writing novels—novel consumption seems a way to escape social life if the prospect of it frightens you. Novel reading seems a convenient substitute for conversation, a hassle-free way to indulge in the pleasures of society without having to actually listen when you don’t feel like it or come up with anything interesting to say yourself. When I was younger, I started reading novels out of loneliness and shyness, and if anything I tried to mask that fact from myself by dressing it up with the promise of edification. I read novels looking for those ideal interlocutors I was too tentative to search for in the real world.


The conclusion of Lee’s review seems to suggest something similar about writers, that they write in order to conjure up the perfect listener, to fulfill a social need. Far from being a crusade, novel writing is better considered an inward, compensatory discipline. Lee quotes a passage from Edith Wharton’s the Buccaneers to illustrate her point, setting it up thus:


The passage (in Chapter 28 of The Buccaneers, one of the last things she wrote) could also suggest the old novelist’s sense of having been on a long road of storytelling, a road stretching on beyond the last unfinished page of her books, speaking as if to the faithful reader of the novel, who will continue to exist after her own journey is over:


  In this great lonely desert of life stretching out before her she had a friend—a friend who understood not only all she said, but everything she could not say. At the end of the long road on which the regular tap of the horses’ feet was beating out the hours, she saw him standing, waiting for her, watching for her through the night.


 


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Elk City
Cherries in the Snow [MP3]
     


Los Cruzados [MP3]
     


You Got Me [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


“Lead-singer of Elk City and firebrand, Renée LoBue brings you on what feels like a free-wheeling make-out session right after your worst break-up.”—Friendly Fire Recordings


CéU
ave cruz [MP3]
     


Buy at Six Degrees Records


“Just when you think that Brazil must surely have exhausted its supply of irresistibly jazzy, funky, sexy, soulful electro-pop singer-songwriters, someone like CéU comes along and irresistibly mixes samba, reggae, dub, electronica and soul music and makes you think that maybe that particular well is bottomless after all.”—Six Degrees Records


Elliott Smith
Between the Bars [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


“Drink up baby / Stay up all night / With the things you could do / You won’t but you might / The potential you’ll be / That you’ll never see / The promises you’ll only make”. So starts “Between The Bars”, from Elliott Smith’s third solo album either/or. It’s as good a statement as any to describe the mood of this collection of songs about drug abuse, failed relationships and the pitfalls of stardom. Not that Elliott Smith the songwriter or performer isn’t making the most of his own potential here. It’s the downfall of his characters. Over the course of his first two solo outings, Roman Candle (Cavity Search) and his self-titled second effort (Kill Rock Stars), his fans are left to wonder if he isn’t writing entirely autobiographically. It would be hard to imagine that the majority of his lyrics, so sincere and detailed, could be a work of fiction. With his admitted past drug use and problems with relationships (both family and otherwise), it seems clear these songs are him, raw and unedited. >> read full PopMatters review


Dungen
Familj [e-card with downloadable MP3]


Shearwater
Red Sea, Black Sea [MP3]
     


Rock Plaza Central
My Children, Be Joyful [MP3]
     



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