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Saturday, Jun 9, 2007

Let me begin with a disclaimer: when I expressed interest in reviewing this book, I wasn’t aware just how young were the “Young Artists” for whom this book is evidently intended. Niedzviecki, founder of the art zine Broken Pencil, is something of an indie guru, and I’d assumed this would be a book for the art college crowd about zines, blogs, websites, and other ventures in self-publishing, along the lines of Ellen Lupton’s fantastic D.I.Y: Design-It-Yourself (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007). In fact, however, it’s actually a book for young teens. Now, I don’t know any young teens, and it’s a long time since I’ve been one, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway, so please bear with me.


The Big Book of Pop Cultureby Hal NiedzvieckiAnnick PressApril 2007, 176 pages, $14.95

The Big Book of Pop Culture

by Hal Niedzviecki

Annick Press

April 2007, 176 pages, $14.95


The Big Book of Pop Culture may not be as glossy, as big (or as pricey) as similar books aimed at this age-group, and the examples might date pretty quickly (which is always the case with pop culture), but it’s packed full with projects, ideas, plans, and inspiring sidebar interviews with young people who did it themselves: the producers of zines, blogs, self-published books, magazines.


In fact, I wish I’d had a book like this when I was a kid. Not only is it handy sized, appealing to the eye, and neatly produced, but it’s also full of projects that look like they’d be great fun to try. Quick and easy ideas, like keeping a family journal or writing fictional stories about your problems, are designed to help emerging artists get ready to tackle more ambitious works, and Niedzviecki is full of encouraging advice about what to expect, how to get things done, and how to avoid feeling disheartened when your ideas don’t work out as planned. Once these easy projects have been mastered, there are lots of suggestions about how young artists can use the tools of modern media to make popular culture of their own, in the form of print (self-publishing zines, comics, and books), video (making movies and shows), CDs (creating original music), or online (blogs and webzines).


Significantly, The Big Book of Pop Culture isn’t just about how kids can make culture of their own, it’s about teaching them to recognize mainstream pop culture, and to understand where it comes from and how it circulates. Niedzviecki has a strong and clear message here, and it’s a message about the corporate system and how it works to limit the kind of narratives kids tell about themselves and their experiences. By explaining to young adults how power works, how popular culture emerges, and how it has a tendency to co-opt independent ventures, Niedzviecki suggests ways for kids to think about models of success and self-expression that are different from those espoused by the mainstream media. This, ideally, will help them to create new communities and more personal kinds of grassroots-level cultural expression, which really do have the potential to transform our future, whatever age we might be.


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Saturday, Jun 9, 2007

Rob Walker’s Consumed column in this week’s NYT Magazine (which is a special issue about income inequality and well worth reading) takes up the business practice of marketing products to the poor, but rather than look at the exploitative practice of pushing shoddy financial instruments on them as the BusinessWeek article I mentioned in the post had, he looks at the sale of soap to impoverished families in India. He cites C.K. Prahalad, author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, who is the main evangelist for the idea that by offering consumerism to the poor you can improve their lives and make a steady profit. It’s easy to be skeptical about this—if you want to help the poor, why charge them for the services and extort profit from them? One could argue that the absence of incentives makes philanthropy unreliable and its patronizing lack of rigor does nothing to reshape the mind-sets of beneficiaries. By regarding the poor in the market, they could theoretically acquire some of the social capital required to profit from exchange, some of the financial savvy that would prevent them from being ripped off. And there is a value in participation in culture for its own sake, which is what Walker’s piece hints at:


Building a campaign around a well-known product like Lifebuoy can be effective precisely because even the world’s poorest citizens can be “brand conscious.” (Hindustan Lever’s Misra agrees, saying that such consumers will stick with a brand they trust, because “money means that much more to them.”)


Brand consciousness itself may be a form of social inclusion that alleviates some of the alienation of poverty, but it also seems that developing brand consciousness is the price the poor must pay in order to have the market extended to them—they must be consumers in order to have their miserable living conditions ameliorated. It may be that becoming brand conscious is the prerequisite for becoming middle-class in general, that in some respects to be middle-class is to be brand conscious, that part of the security and the values (cleanliness, to use the example from the article) the middle class are accustomed to stem from the comfort of being surrounding by familiar brands and the ethos that animates them.


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Saturday, Jun 9, 2007

Usually, I try not to read Bob Lefsetz anymore- it’s just too aggravating.  But sometimes I do slip and then I get reminded why his writing is so horrible.  I guess what gets me really angry is that he’s got the ear of many people in the music biz so they might actually believe what he’s saying.


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Friday, Jun 8, 2007


What do you do when the sensation of sex no longer satisfies? What are your options when the adrenaline rush and power of money (and making same) no longer fill the void? Do you simply sit back and wait for the inevitable heart attack, stress striking all viable organs until your Type-A lifestyle eventually kills you? Or do your take matters of life and death into your own hands and use all that pent up aggression as an excuse for dabbling in the darker side of life? If you’re the super-successful business types prowling around the edges of international legality and human morality in Eli Roth’s amazing Hostel Part II, you join an exclusive social club that caters in human flesh as the way to fulfill those fiendish fetishes. And Heaven help the young people being bid on as the murderous means of such psycho-erotic release. 


Roth’s original Hostel, a vision of Europe as one big urban legend and Americans as the ugly within it, continues to stand as one of the most important horror films of the last ten years. Brutal in its vision while equally effective in its subtext, it woke up a waning genre and proved that gore could be both viable and visceral. It even created its own categorical catchphrase – “violence porn” – that has come to define any film where innocents are horrifically used and abused for their value as medical commodities (Turistas) or entertainment (Live Feed). Now mutated into all manner of sensationalized labels – ‘smut snuff’, ‘gorno’ – the inherent worth of Roth’s film has been superseded by media and public perception of a young, cocky filmmaker flaunting the mainstream to make his own craven, cruel statements.


Well thank GOD for that. It’s one thing to play nice in order to keep the PC thugs in check. It’s another to offer up nonstop brutality merely for the sake of shock. The original Hostel did neither, and the new film is even better at tempting taste while staying safely in the realm of reasonable dread dynamics. You’ll be hearing a lot of outcry over the next few weeks about this so-called cinematic abomination. There will be pundits and persons directly linked to the business of show who will argue for Roth’s lack of humanity and inner childishness, but those voices will be self-serving and self-congratulating. When it comes down to it, Hostel Part II is the near perfect sequel, a money mandated continuation that actually works as a companion piece to the original effort.


After wrapping up the last loose end from the previous picture, we are introduced to three young coeds studying abroad – rich girl Beth, spoiled skank Whitney, and depressed loner Lorna. Lured to a Slovakian spa by visiting artist’s model Axelle, the girls soon travel to the far ends of the Easter block, check in to the infamous title inn, and prepare to party and relax. Of course, the audience knows much, much better, and it’s not long before the gals are being bid on like sick corporeal commodities. Two participants in such depravity are Todd and his sheepish buddy Stuart. Traveling the world looking for the ultimate kicks, the pals have shared many deplorable experiences. But this one may be the icing on their desperately distorted cake. Todd sees committing murder as a way of improving your potential business acumen and ‘aura of danger’. Stuart has a far more suspect reason for this descent into murderous madness.


Still as shocking as ever, but more polished and perceptive this time around, Hostel Part II does a rather remarkable thing. Saddled with creating a follow-up to his first film, Roth avoids an actual redo. Instead, he obviously sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a 180 degree opposite take on the subject matter. Gone are the madcap moments of sex, drugs and gore-drenched debauchery. In their place are moments of real tension, suspense amplified by a better knowledge of the sinister circumstances, and killings that are quick, aggressive and highly disturbing. While the female angle is the most obvious twist (more on this in a moment), the real revelation is the creation of the Elite Hunting Club and its collection of corrupt membership. In Hostel, we got a fleeting glimpse of the creepy clientele, most notably an American with more moxie than manners. Here, we are introduced to a network of fiends, and head honcho Sacha who can easily be bought and sold, as long as the price is right.


Even better, Roth delves much deeper into the motives of his victims. Granted, he presents the trio as supersized stereotypes from the Big Book of Female Archetypes, but our wealthy woman isn’t some mean spirited snob, nor is our happy go lucky whore completely without moral fortitude. No, it’s Lorna (essayed by Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Heather Matarazzo) who lamentably plays the role of needy loner to its typically fatalistic ends, and it is here where Hostel Part II makes its first significant statement. In an attempt to keep the spoilers to a minimum, the infamous legend of ‘Countess Dracula’ (the Hungarian “blood queen” Elizabeth Báthory) gets the kind of horrifying update that will keep tongues wagging for weeks. Combining the worst elements of male fantasy and fright film referencing (there’s a noticeable nod to Angel Heart as well) this first major murder scene is destined to go down in movie macabre as the one of the most notorious – and to some, the most noxious.


Of course, said repulsed reaction is only coming from one place, and it’s not as well meaning and high minded as the critics would have you believe. Far worse things happened to the characters in the initial Hostel, and the outcry was not this intense or outrageous. In essence, the notion of gender equity doesn’t exist in the realm of cinematic reality. Kill a beer-swilling dude with his passion in his penis and you’ll get a minor murmur. Cut the throat of a sad, depressed female adult and everyone’s inner parent comes crying. It’s a concept inherent in Roth’s redesign of the film franchise, and you know he has to love all the hand wringing and kvetching. Back in the ‘80s, girls were the notorious targets of all manner of slice and dice serial killer, and except for Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, everyone took it as a gratuitous given. Now, with decades of deconstruction and pro-PC protocols, you just can’t torture and kill young women without accepting some kind of sociological payback.


Roth is way ahead of the game, giving us only one major drawn out damsel in distress sequence. The rest of the time, events happen off screen, or within a unique twist on the aggressor/victim paradigm. Indeed, all of Hostel Part II is about bucking trends. Don’t listen to the messageboards that lament that this is more of the same thing. It’s not. The gore is limited and hardly as excessive as the first time around. The terror isn’t tied to the torture scenes themselves, but what happens in and around them. The characters are more clearly drawn, developed far beyond their archetypal façade. And Roth’s direction has improved by leaps and bounds. Where once he seemed like a homemade movie maven lucky to get his basic b-movie ideas up on the big screen, he now comes across like the beaming bastard son of a dozen equally diabolical cinematic stalwarts.


Still, it will be hard to hear your own thoughts over the media din about to accompany this film. Grassroots campaigns will start, backlash will begin, and Roth will be labeled everything from a slick charlatan trading arterial spray for actual talent to a chauvinist shilling his perverted perspective to a desperately under-educated fanbase. Of course, none of this is true. If do-gooders want a collection of movies to grumble over, this critic could give them a laundry list – Scrapbook, Murder-Set-Pieces, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, plus many, many more – of deplorable efforts. While it’s true that in our current mainstream perspective, violence against women is a rightfully taboo subject, in the context of a FICTIONAL horror storyline, it’s desperately old hat. Leave it to Eli Roth to make the ancient seem appalling once again. It’s just one of Hostel Part II’s many unconventional conventions. It’s the reason why this sequel is as successful as its precursor.


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Friday, Jun 8, 2007

A few days ago, Amanda Marcotte wrote an astute entry regarding this BusinessWeek story about subprime lending and other poverty exploiting rackets. The general gist of the article is that the poor are often in tenuous and desperate situations that make them easy to exploit with usurious interest rates, rent-to-own ripoffs, exorbitant mark-ups and other opportunistic schemes. Just go into a ghetto “grocery store” or check the storefronts in a rundown shopping center on the wrong side of town and you’ll get the picture. Paycheck loans, rent-to-own outfits, dollar stores, Chinese takeout, etc—businesses that set high margins on small-ticket transactions. As Marcotte points out, desperation is an opportunity, as long as you lack the requisite scruples. You can take advantage of the lack of social capital in poor neighborhoods and present your exploitative behavior as a service. Without social capital, without the education to understand complex financial transactions, without legal protections being enforced for them or the political clout to see their interests protected, without the potentially powerful word-of-mouth networks or plain old money to smooth over life’s frictions, the poor have no leverage over the businesses that deign to serve them, and the result is they are served only on vulturous terms. (One of the many ways disparate power among participants distorts the workings of the market, one of the heterodox views of the economists Chris Hayes considers in this Nation story.)


Insecurity in general is the basis of a lot of retail business, which is why so many ads are designed to generate feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. The poor, of course, don’t need ads to make them feel insecure, which makes them a cost-effective target —though ads are part of the discourse that establishes what is culturally normal, defining what it means to be impoverished. The bogus premise of equal opportunity is widely enough held in America that the poor must keep up appearances lest it seem that their poverty is their own personal fault. Of course, to keep up, they must take on risks and terms that sink them in debt traps and assure their continued failure to achieve the bourgeoisdom the signals normalcy—that allows you to feel that you are the target of so much of the media’s messages. The added bonus is that the working poor assume responsibility for their poverty as a kind of personal, moral failure—this is what The Hidden Injuries of Class, by Sennett and Cobb, is all about.


We can fault business for following their incentives to profit at the expense of those with little defense and no social safety net, but it seems the counterveiling power of government is more likely to correct the problem then a sudden and complete change of heart among competitive firms. But politicians rely on business contributions to finance their campaigns, which leads to legislation that rewards business (the recent bankruptcy bill exemplifies this). So without any institutional power, the working poor has no reason not to seize the only form of power left to them. From Marcotte’s entry:


Charles H. Green points out that this untenable exploitation of the working poor has become such a morally troubling issue that up-and-coming capitalists are beginning to turn on the system.


  “One healthy sign: my 30th reunion at Harvard Business School last fall. The most heavily attended lecture was by Professor Bruce Scott, who spoke about the global trend toward concentration of wealth. We’re moving toward looking like Rio de Janeiro—armed gated communities surrounded by violent gangs. Scott’s lecture got a standing ovation—both in his lecture room, and in the audio-connected overflow room, hastily put together to accommodate the crowd. This from the old school crowd at HBS—the West Point of capitalism. There is hope.”


It’s an interesting dilemma, from the capitalist point of view. Keeping the poor living from paycheck to paycheck and in constant debt serves two purposes. From the article, you can see that it’s actually quite profitable, especially in a deregulated era like ours. Second of all, desperation breeds complacency, to a degree. Workers who are constantly treading water and robbing Peter to pay Paul are likely to suffer all sorts of indignities to keep their jobs, including taking lower pay than they’re really worth if it means securing the jobs that much more quickly. But it has to be controlled desperation—there’s a tipping point where the poor are so much in debt to the rich that they simply can’t pay it all back and the system could collapse on itself. It’s happened before in history, many times, and it can happen again. Opposition to usury isn’t just about morals, but protecting a system that ultimately benefits the rich by keeping a check on the excesses that threaten the entire situation.


 


Very depressing, that, and the classic dilemma of all ameliorating, incrementalist approaches to social change: You end up perpetuating systems of oppression, making them more tolerable for the oppressed. But then you consider how much misery, chaos, and evil the typical revolution unleashes, and it’s hard to think of any course of action worth advocating.


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