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by Rob Horning

2 May 2008

Responsible-eating advocate Michael Pollan asks a pertinient question in the recent NYT Magazine issue devoted to reducing readers carbon footprint: Why bother?

Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?

His answer:

If you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change, markets for all manner of green products and alternative technologies will prosper and expand. (Just look at the market for hybrid cars.) Consciousness will be raised, perhaps even changed: new moral imperatives and new taboos might take root in the culture. Driving an S.U.V. or eating a 24-ounce steak or illuminating your McMansion like an airport runway at night might come to be regarded as outrages to human conscience. Not having things might become cooler than having them. And those who did change the way they live would acquire the moral standing to demand changes in behavior from others — from other people, other corporations, even other countries.

I give Pollan a lot of credit for trying hard not to come across as a scold in this essay, and he is certainly one of the most persuasive writers about environmental topics for those not already convinced. But it’s hard not to notice how inconvenient and, in the case of getting a hybrid, pricey it is to “bother big-time” and maintain the standard of living Americans have come to take for granted and people around the world, judging by their consumer behavior, want to emulate. Pollan’s not particularly novel answer to the question doesn’t seem to take that into account, and that’s one of the reasons it seems so inadequate. It costs time, money and energy to avoid what our economy has made superlatively easy—a wasteful approach to life made exceedingly comfortable. Pollan blames cheap energy and specialization for fomenting this lifestyle, but what sort of energy would foment the shift to where people suddenly are trying to set a virtuous example? A sudden surge in righteous arrogance? Not having things is never going to be cool—it’s poor people who don’t have things. The rich have elaborately expensive ways of not seeing to have things, and the striving middle just needs to consume in every direction, burning carbon all the way, trying to cover all the bases. The “cheap-energy mind” that Pollan sees as the problem is equivalent to bourgeois consciousness, and it won’t be surrendered. It would be akin to surrendering the class status one has worked hard to achieve. Could planting a garden compensate for that loss, as Pollan urges us to believe at the end of his essay? It seems more likely to do so if adopted as a hobby and urged as a kind of spectacular leisure, not as an ascetic sacrifice for the good of humanity. People probably don’t want the fate of humanity hanging over their heads while they try to learn to garden.

Following Wendell Berry, Pollan notes “the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even,” But I don’t think it’s exactly a character issue in the sense that people are too lazy to choose to live better—it’s not reasonable to expect every person in a culture to anchor their character in rejecting the way of life that is embedded in every aspect of society, that is rooted in the assumptions that make it virtually every institution and every code of conduct we’ve absorbed since childhood. Consumerism is the crucible in which our character is formed, and it hinges on the pursuit of convenience and the amassing a swell collection of identity-building goods. It’s not easy to choose to reject the only life that seems feasible, even when it’s made clear how destructive and unsustainable that way of life is. It is easy to understand the logic of the environmentalists’ case and be convinced, it’s easy to feel convinced to try to bother, but then confronted with the monolith of culture not designed for such good intentions, it’s much easier to fall back into the mind-set that is in harmony with the material culture we must in the end make our lives out of. Rejecting that, all we know, seems like to much of a sacrifice in the small quotidian moments where the important decisions about how one really lives day-to-day are made.

by Terry Sawyer

2 May 2008

Countless style section profiles and GLBT weeklies have recently noted the slow and steady demise of the gay bar as a cultural institution of the queer community.  Of course, news “trends” can frequently amount to one person with a deadline and ten with Google skills but still, in my own experience, I’ve seen a welcome transformation in the culture of the gay bar, especially musically.  A few years ago, my boyfriend and I started booking bands at this affectionate leather dive bar, known mostly for its assless chaps and a back patio that had something a bit beyond mood lighting.  And frankly, there was a palpable level of hostility to women that I quickly dispensed with by sheer force of numbers and a few shaming asides.  Any gay man who is not a feminist is miraculously moronic. 

The nights became something of a hit, precisely because it wasn’t exclusively queer space and it definitely wasn’t gay bar music (I know plenty of gay people who never want to hear “Rhythm Is A Dancer” ever again for as long as they live).  Although gay bars and gay music have an importance in gay culture that’s difficult to underestimate, I like the evolution of identity that doesn’t mean that a particular category of oppression compels anyone to adopt a specific set of tastes. Sure enough, all over Austin there are now bars that are considered “mixed”, or at least places you could hang with your significant other and not have to miss a kiss.  At least in my experience, there’s a soft, meaningful transformation that happens when queers and straights share the same space, drink a few cheap beers in a bar with a whipping crucifix on the wall, and listen to a great local band like White Denim.  As always, I’m open to the arguments of the importance of “gay music”, but I honestly don’t know what that even would considered anymore, unless it’s those horrible circuit party CDs where “California Dreaming” is given a hi-Nrg workover by an anonymous diva.  I guess this should come as no surprise since hip hop has become owned by no one in particular even while it clearly began in one community.  Does identity music even have a place anywhere anymore?  Or are these treasures(old school gay bars) that weren’t a particularly important part of life, something to be territorially protected.

by Mike Schiller

1 May 2008

It’s no secret that Grand Theft Auto IV is, at this point, an utter phenomenon, not just a gaming entity but a media entity that is currently, in the few days following its release, destroying every other form of entertainment in terms of popularity, interest, and commentary.  On one hand, we have the side of 99% of the gamers who have bought it: basically, that it’s the best damn thing since San Andreas came out.  Then, there are those who are utterly and unequivocally against its release, suggesting that it should be locked behind counters or banned outright.  There is very little in-between to be found, which makes for a dearth of common ground from which intelligent discussion of the merits and flaws in the game can appear.

Buzz vs. Will, Round 1…FIGHT(Image courtesy of AOL Fanhouse)

Buzz vs. Will, Round 1…FIGHT
(Image courtesy of AOL Fanhouse)

Interestingly, this particular split is happening just as another such split is popping up and threatening to consume the media: blogs vs. the mainstream (read: print) media.  It’s a split that had been brewing for some time, but it all seems to have come to a head now that Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights himself, relentlessly browbeat progenitor Will Leitch all over Bob Costas’ HBO show the other night.  The divide is framed as such: those who have spent their life cutting their teeth on print media can’t stand the brash, brazenly amateur tone favored by the majority of blogs (and have no trouble saying so via endlessly trotting out the tired “living in their moms’ basements” line), and blogs are dismissing those criticisms as baseless and completely without merit (often by indulging in exactly the sort of bottom-feeding that the “old guard” is criticizing).  Much like the split inspired by Grand Theft Auto, sanity can only be found somewhere in between those two arguments, but let’s face it: arguments that try to reconcile two sides of a very tall fence are a) difficult to present, and b) bound to be slammed to death by both sides of that fence.

by Bill Gibron

1 May 2008

SUMMER’S HERE!!! and for the weekend beginning 2 May, here are the films in focus:

Iron Man [rating: 9]

Iron Man is fantastic, a sure fire blockbuster that will leave audiences breathless and fanboys wanting more

It may have been the moment when Tobey Maguire went emo, a visual gag that gave longtime Spider-man fans a similar physical reaction. Or maybe it was the flailing Fantastic Four franchise, taken out of its superhero element to be forced and family friendly. The Phantom didn’t help, and Ghost Rider only staved off the inevitable. The superhero movie was hobbled, and having a hard time maintaining its cinematic relevance.

So when it was announced that Marvel would take control of its own brand and make its own movies from its catalog, some were skeptical. Hollywood knows about film, not a comic book company. Well, all doubts now need to be cast aside. Iron Man proves that, by going to the source, the genre has finally found someone who understands it implicitly. 
read full review…

Snow Angels [rating: 6]

For all its noble intentions and universal truths, Snow Angels is not a great movie. It’s not a grand movie. It’s barely a very good movie.

Is there really any surprise left in the story of a small town racked by tragedy? Would something like Blue Velvet, or David Gordon Green’s George Washington really resonate today? The last movie to try was Todd Field’s fantastic Little Children. While poised to be an awards season hit, it was ignored by critics and barely made a box office dent. While marketing and studio support can easily be blamed, audiences clearly didn’t want to take another trip down sad suburban lanes. Now Green has returned with yet another look at how the problems of people spiral into events of Earth shattering consequence. And up until the final ten minutes, Snow Angels is some very powerful stuff. read full review…

Other Releases—In Brief

The Visitor [rating: 6]

The United States, post-9/11 is a confluence of contradictions that would make even the most skilled sociologist wince with professional pain. On the one hand, we want to extend an olive branch to the rest of the world, convincing them that our time in Iraq is not a matter of hubris or revenge. But back at home, we want the borders closed, the airlines safe, and the slightest ethnic suspicion investigated fully. Into this new world sleepwalks Ivory Tower widower Walter Vale. Forced to leave his New England home for a conference, he returns to his unused New York apartment only to discover illegal squatters Tarek, an Arab, and Zainab, an African, living there. Agreeing to let them stay, they develop a nice liberal-lite living arrangement, and everything seems fine…until Tarek is arrested on a minor infraction. Before Walter knows it, his new found friend becomes part of America’s homeland security bureaucracy. All of this allows The Station Agent‘s Thomas McCarthy an opportunity to work out all his fixations and frustrations on our current cultural isolationism. His capable cast never lets him down, while the story occasionally strands the characters in the inviolable victim mode. Not a bad film so much as an underwhelming one.

by Bill Gibron

1 May 2008

Is there really any surprise left in the story of a small town racked by tragedy? Would something like Blue Velvet, or David Gordon Green’s George Washington really resonate today? The last movie to try was Todd Field’s fantastic Little Children. While poised to be an awards season hit, it was ignored by critics and barely made a box office dent. While marketing and studio support can easily be blamed, audiences clearly didn’t want to take another trip down sad suburban lanes. Now Green has returned with yet another look at how the problems of people spiral into events of Earth shattering consequence. And up until the final ten minutes, Snow Angels is some very powerful stuff.

One winter’s afternoon, in a small Pennsylvanian burg, the sound of gunshots fills the air. It halts band practice, where high school kid Arthur Parkinson is playing the trombone. It resonates across the football field, where his new girlfriend Lila is standing by, taking photos. It travels across town, where Arthur’s separated parents continue their blame game, as do waitress Barb and her wandering husband, Nate.

As the last echo careens off a distance source, all thoughts turn to recent events. Little Tara Marchand went missing a few weeks before, and angry parents Glenn and Annie took it very hard. Now, some suspect the tragedy has escalated beyond a tiny child and a horrible accident. Glenn was never that stable to begin with, and Annie’s done nothing by spurn and sour his feelings. The terrifying sound might just be their issues - adultery, attempted suicide, alcoholism, abandonment - coming to a head. It might be something much worse.

It’s really a shame that Snow Angels stumbles when it does. It’s not like we can’t see it coming, however. Green, who tends to underplay everything with a deliberateness that borders on the unbelievable, shows a striking lack of restraint through most of the movie. Whenever Sam Rockwell’s failure in flux character Glenn first appears onscreen, we hope his newfound religious fundamentalism will be his only obvious quirk. By the time the actor grabs a gun and starts looking for Kate Beckinsale, we’re pining for the previous piousness.

It’s not that Rockwell is bad in the role, or too mannered in what he’s trying to accomplish. It’s just that Green has pitched the rest of his narrative so down on the dour temperament key that larger than life plays like out of this world. We hold little compassion for Glenn, never understand his numerous tantrums, traumas, or transformations, and simply wait for the mechanical movie making beats to take over and get us to the foreshadowed finale (the open sequence ends with a punctuation of gunfire after all).

And Beckinsdale is no prize either. Playing white trash and trampy may be a stretch for this striking UK beauty, but again, it’s not the performance that throws us. Instead, we are constantly taken by how selfish, manipulative, and just plain unlikable Annie is. She’s like the character played by Amy Ryan in Ben Affleck’s brilliant Gone Baby Gone, except without the drug problem or the pathos.

In Snow Angels, most of Annie’s actions are inexcusable. Her affair with a coworker’s wise-ass male nurse husband feels forced, the plot point predicament like something out of a dime store detective novel. When she needs our empathy, we could honestly care less, and there is never a mea culpa where she confesses to being a stone cold, conniving witch. Instead, Rockwell’s unclear history is supposed to excuse her actions. It doesn’t work.

Luckily, the rest of Snow Angels does. The material with Michael Angarano plays out perfectly, his flirtation with Annie never pushed, his eventual hook up with Lila, a girl more in line with his age and ideals, has a breezy, offbeat grace. The boy’s backstory, including a pair of feuding parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanneta Arnette) has little weight, but it’s really not necessary. Angarano carries everything he needs with him, and the results give the arc a real sense of purpose.

There are also some sensational supporting elements that keep us engaged. Comedian Amy Sedaris may be the last person you’d picture playing a wounded, whiny small town waitress, but her turn as Barb is beautifully realized. Similarly, little Grace Hudson is the perfect child star antidote as Glenn and Annie’s daughter Tara. While one imagines that most of her scenes were the result of extended improvisation, she never comes across as Dakota Fanning phony or, God forbid, Quinn Cummings cloying. 

Maybe it’s the fact that Green is going with someone else’s ideas here. Snow Angels is based on Stewart O’Nan’s novel, and the feeling of something written, not organic, is everywhere. Much of what happens here would probably come across better on the page. We recognize how minor moments can evolve into unfathomable horrors - human or otherwise - but we miss most of the internal monologues that fiction uses to flesh out these situations. Green hopes his camera and contemplative cinematography will carry us across these plot pot holes. Sadly, we struggle to see the significance.

For all its noble intentions and universal truths, Snow Angels is not a great movie. It’s not a grand movie. It’s barely a very good movie. But if taken at face value and allowed to be its earnest, overplayed self, the sense of cinematic satisfaction is fairly forceful - that is, until the shameless showboating at the end. It really does dampen an otherwise intriguing drama.

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