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Friday, Feb 16, 2007

Phillip Wohl (“Philly” to his friends and family) is his mother and father’s pride and joy. He is also their overpowering yoke. The youngest of three children, the mentally handicapped man has never attended school, and barely left the Queens apartment where he lives with his overprotective parents. At 52, Philly is an extroverted exercise in overcoming personal limitations. In some ways, his parents are more limited by the effects of age and responsibility than Philly and his cerebral shortcomings. With his caretakers each in their mid-to-late ‘70s, Philly’s future is very much in peril. Without his family, there will be no one to take care of him.

Filmmaking cousin Ira decides to champion a change in Philly’s life (and document the journey along the way). Ira wants Philly to leave home, go to a special school, and be evaluated for placement in a group home. For Philly’s parents Pearl and Max, this news is greeted with begrudging acceptance. They want the finest for their son. But they also can’t imagine a time in their life when he hasn’t been an active, omnipresent part. Philly’s journey into an existence with more options and opportunities is really a story about letting go, having faith in humanity, and knowing that, no matter what happens, the young man you raised will always be your Best Boy.

One of the most remarkable portraits of a family unit in fundamental free-fall, Best Boy can easily be described as a last will and testament to the old fashioned attitude toward the mentally handicapped. Prior to the mid-1970s, those whom society deemed “retarded” or “slow” were often shipped off to homes and hospitals, hidden away like a dark secret in a back closet of the community. In such stark places, the level of care directly coincided with the institution’s idea of the patient’s practical usefulness. No matter what you may think of him in his present, proto-tabloid manifestation, Geraldo Rivera will always be sainted for saving the physically and developmentally disabled from the living Hell that was most state-sanctioned sanitariums. Rivera’s 1971 report on the New York snake pit Willowbrook (forever to be equated with horrifyingly unethical and inhumane treatment) opened the dialogue (and the legislative agenda) for a more principled and sympathetic handling of these sweet, special souls.

Over the years, while the mentally ill have been sidelined, viewed as victims of their own self-indulgent desire to remain insane, the intellectually challenged have gone from handicapped to “handi-capable”, seen as potentially constructive, contributing members of the human race. Best Boy is an allegory for this transition, a version in miniature of this shift in ideals. It admonishes the sheltering of those who are “special” from the rest of the populace, while advocating their eventual re-entry into the real world (even with all its bureaucratic and traumatic consequences). It’s a moving, magnificent window into a realm that most of us have never seen or had any direct contact with.

Best Boy is one of those rarities, a true-life documentary that transcends its basic subject matter and premise to say something universal about the human condition. Like Brother’s Keeper, Hoop Dreams, or Capturing the Friedmans, we soon learn that the initial reason we are watching these individuals has long since taken a backseat to the real interpersonal and character drama now playing out. As Philly moves from total dependency into the first few baby steps of autonomy, the impact on everyone is delightful and devastating. For the last half-century, Philly’s parents have known only caring for, and being the constant companions of, their son. Philly represents their life, their purpose for living. He has been everything from a burden to a bounty. When we meet Philly, he is in limbo, someone his parents rely on to clean the house or wash the dishes. Yet with all these indicators toward independence, his relatives will not relinquish control, considering the possibility of his leaving home unthinkable.

All of their own emotional issues are tied up in him. Philly’s father Max is so down and defeated, quietly pained by his son’s plight that medical maladies are literally eating him alive from the inside out. He is a skeleton of a man, a strong, silent, and stubborn stick figure in a constant state of reflection and rejection. Pearl, on the other hand, is a far more shrewd and suggestive entity, a woman who deeply loves her son while keeping the family spotlight solely on what best serves the adults’ needs, not just Philly’s. There are facets to her personality that reek of Jewish-mother stereotyping: she loves to guilt Philly into focusing attention on her, while subtly manipulates his decisions. You often get the impression that there is nothing between the elder Wohls except the age-old oppression of Philly. It’s interesting how the freedom of school and the excitement of the outside world devastates everyone other than the Best Boy himself. He loves it. The rest of the family can only resolve themselves with waves of weary finality.

But Best Boy is more than just a nuclear family fending off the final meltdown of mortality and change. There are greatly comic moments (Philly experiencing animals at the Bronx Zoo for the first time) and scenes of perfect emotional resonance (Philly meeting Zero Mostel backstage at a performance of Fiddler on the Roof is magical and moving). We never once feel that Philly is being exploited, and his camera-carrying cousin Ira never lets events turn maudlin or sappy. Death is handled with straightforward dignity. Loss is expressed simply and made to be understood. The same goes for happiness and harmony. Best Boy balances out all the emotions that come with change, and channels them into a marvelous statement about resilience and respect.

Much more a movie about aging and family responsibility than a tale of retardation, Best Boy doesn’t really tell a linear story, aside from Philly’s eventual address change. What it really resembles is a sacred scrapbook—a portrait of pain, promise, and persistence presented in animated movie clips. Scenes can and do contradict each other, and the flow is often tossed out of equilibrium by an inserted moment or lengthy shot. But there is a reason for this restlessness, this tone of untapped turmoil. Philly has spent 52 years isolated in a cocoon of smothering care, of “doing the best one can do” to manage an almost unmanageable circumstance. The newfound freedom Philly is feeling is peppered with clashing concerns for Pearl and Max. For them, Philly was everything. Without him, the void is next to impossible to fill. It’s the resolution to this reality that makes Best Boy more than a manifesto for the mentally challenged. At its basic level, it’s just a film about the family struggle over letting go.

Toward the end of Best Boy, Philly’s mother Pearl says that if God really wants to torture someone, He should give them a retarded child. Without blinking an eye, she adds, “You’ll never know the internal pain. Never.” While that may have been true when she said it, it’s hard to imagine that Philly is anything but an inspiration today. This is one special human who really deserves the title Best Boy.

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Friday, Feb 16, 2007

I picked up a copy of Vance Packard’s classic ad-scare polemic, The Hidden Persuaders, in a thrift store recently—a Pocket Book edition that originally cost 35 cents. It’s not even a pocket-size paperback, and the dried, no-longer-adhesive glue cracks every time I open it. I love the cover, which has no illustration, just alarmist announcements of all of marketing’s mind-control-like secrets—whose salaciousness is barely concealed, if at all: “WHY men think of a mistress when they see a convertible in a show window. WHY women in supermarkets are attracted to items wrapped in red. WHY automobiles get longer and longer.” What makes Packard’s book such an effective piece of propaganda about psychologically oriented marketing is that it always suggests that the stupid shopping decisions we make aren’t our doing really but the result of evil advertisers’ manipulation. This twist lets readers pretend they can have the pleasures of shopping without the responsibilities; it puts their consumerism in the passive voice. Reading Packard’s sensationalized accounts of Pierre Martineau (whose Motivation in Advertising is a kind of companion volume to Packard’s book, well-worth reading, if only for its genial cynicism) and Ernest Dichter (a perfectly villainous sounding name for the founder of Motivational Research), we can become incensed at all the ways we have been tricked or gloat to ourselves over all the times we resisted and outsmarted Dichter’s overlords, the devious ad men (always men in this 1950s text). Packard’s outrage that science would ever be employed to exploit people—that scientists might love money more than an abstract notion of humankind and posterity—has a refreshing naiveté to it, and I’m pre-sold on the argument that consumer society needs to invent a new kind of consumer who wants to buy, buy, buy constantly, as if against his own will. In Packard’s account, depth psychology is deployed to “invade the privacy of our minds” and sell personality to people who hadn’t even realized they needed more of one. And consumers must be made to feel constantly discontented and led to think it common sense that buying something more could fix that feeling. (This is sometimes celebrated as a ambitious faith in innovation, a force that keeps the economy growing.) At times he hints at the considerably more interesting thesis that depth psychology may actually invent the notion of personality, the desires that adhere to a lifestyle concocted on some paste-up board on Madison Avenue—that motivational research posits and inculcates the motivation that it originally sought to merely describe. Packard works to make the line between description and inculcation hard to draw, so that once a shared human preference is noted by psychology researchers, it is immediately instrumentalized into something to manipulate people to behave in ways counter to their best interests. Common advertising tropes—the promise of transformation, say—yield irresistible symbols (never mind how these change over time—long cars become big trucks, I guess) that can operate on us against our will; suddenly we become helpless at the subliminal sight of ice cream, we are duped into becoming brand loyalists by the clever way our subconscious desires are toyed with. One chapter describes women being literally hypnotized by products in the supermarket.

It’s easy to mock the alarmist histrionics and complain about the paternalism this analysis seems to invite—the restriction of ads to protect people from things they only seem to want.  (The libertarian would be prompted to argue, If individuals can’t be trusted to know what they’d prefer, why should we then trust a government agency to decide it? From this perspective any desire we might feel is valid by definition, and it’s absurd to argue that we are duped into wanting cosmetics or big, dumb cars or cigarettes or whatever.) Ads become like drugs—people seem to derive pleasure from them, but it is a pleasure that works on a reward system that is out of the individual’s rational control and is therefore dangerous. This interpretation intrigues me because it is sometimes overlooked that ads are not merely reeducation campaigns but do provide pleasure—we enjoy resisting them, enjoy submitting to them, enjoy the way they stock our imagination with fantasies and give us a shape for our aspirations. But they also make us angry at all the other forms of experience they crowd out or cannibalize. Our ambivalence ultimately provides enough of a wedge for ads to slip through and colonize everything; they become an ambient presence, inevitable, about as worthwhile to complain about as smog or litter. The power to do anything about ads is obviously beyond any individual’s control, so we make our own private deals with them, getting what we can.

Packard went on to write about planned obsolescence in The Waste Makers, which pushed the notion that society is trained to celebrate wastefulness, usually in the form of fashion, which champions change for its own sake, or for the sake of establishing hierarchy. Written in the margin of that book I had written a note about comparing planned obsolescence to Veblen and Bataille’s “The Notion of Expenditure,” which ridicules the common sense notion of utility. Seeing all utility as confining and disciplinary in its rationality (usefulness implies production, which implies work), Bataille argues for a kind of anti-utility in destructive play, “expenditure,” a pointless waste that society nonetheless relies upon: “luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, art, perverse sexual activity.” Veblen rationalized waste as “conspicuous consumption”—showy displays that attempt to establish one’s wealth incontrovertibly. No one feels richer than the guy lighting $100 bills on fire. Waste, for Veblen, is not waste but a status purchase. But Bataille follows anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who in Essai sur le don links wasteful displays to potlatch rituals, competitive gift exchange which often verges into sacrificial waste. The greatest glory (which Bataille defines as the most absurd and rapacious waste) comes with losing the most; it’s a short leap from there to the masochistic impulse of surrendering all of your will in a perfect potlatch gesture that can’t be topped. This ties back to the manipulative ads that can dictate our will; these ads fulfill this fantasy of surrendering our will but within a safe context, where the repercussions are small and contained—the ads are socially tolerated safe zone for this kind of submissiveness. Ads can make us feel rich in will, so rich that we can give it up rather than exercise it.

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Thursday, Feb 15, 2007
by Harlem Shakes

Harlem Shakes w/ Deerhoof
Diary #3

We’re now four days into tour—four shows, four cities, four venues, and what feels like a thousand hours in Thevandra. A pattern is
developing. First, we drive all day:

Then, we arrive at a venue, load equipment into the club, soundcheck (if time and tattooed men permit), and find food.  Then, we play our set:

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Thursday, Feb 15, 2007

Back when television was the only important cultural game in town, the notorious ratings period known as “Sweeps” actually mattered to the viewing public. They knew that, during this advertising extravaganza when networks and local affiliates pulled out all the scatological stops for that extra speck of viewership, something sensational was typically in the offing. Sadly, it seems that the modern concept of this carnival of creative programming is made up of more episodes of American Idol, extra installments of Dateline‘s “To Catch a Predator” and as many reality style shows as possible. Even the cable channels have pulled up stakes and refused to follow the undeniable hype. The choices for the week beginning 17 February are good, but not the kind of gratuitous grandstanding the concept of Sweeps evokes. Still, you’ll enjoy most of the choices, beginning with a certified SE&L favorite:
Premiere Pick
Hustle and Flow

It may be tough for a pimp, but 2005 was a magical year for filmmaker Craig Brewer. With this look at a world-weary street hustler hoping to break out of his dead end life by becoming a rapper, the novice director delivered a staggering drama with real depth and heart. At the center of this sensational film is the terrific Terrence Howard, offering a star making turn as Djay. He brings real empathy and emotion to what could have been a crude cardboard cut out. Equally effective are the sequences where Brewer shows how hip hop tracks are formed – creativity culled from the bottom up, a combination of inspiration and ingenuity. It all works together wonderfully, melding effortlessly into one of the year’s best films. (17 February, ShowCase, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices

This made for British television biography of the Lord of Longford, a champion for controversial causes in the UK, comes to American cable thanks in large part because of The Queen. Indeed, Peter Morgan who wrote said reimagining of Elizabeth II’s battles with Tony Blair over the death of Princess Diana, also scripted this tale about a celebrated child killer – and Longford’s efforts to free her. (17 February, HBO, 8PM EST)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

After the amazing work Alfonso Cuoran did with Prisoner of Azkaban, many in the Potter fanbase feared that Mike Newell, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral, would be unable to rise to the challenge of this material. Luckily, those qualms were alleviated when Newell delivered what many consider to be the second best installment of the series. (17 February, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

The Wild

Get ready to yawn as Disney delivers yet another subpar cartoon cavalcade relying on the no longer novel element of CG animation to sell its shortcomings. Mimicking Madagascar, this tale of a ‘city’ lion accidentally shipped off to Africa and the group of wisecracking zoo friends who come to his rescue is so routine it grows stale before the middle act arrives. (17 February, Starz, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Lost Highway

David Lynch, hot off his success with Twin Peaks and the debacle that many considered its big screen incarnation, Fire Walk with Me, decided to abandon all pretense of mainstream acceptance, and instead focused on honing his already odd dreamscape style. The result was this amazing motion picture, as much a study in cinema as it is a look at character duality. Bill Pullman plays a man plagued by anonymous videotapes of his household – and a murder he may be responsible for. Before we know it, the story shifts, and Pullman is now Balthazar Getty, a young mechanic caught up in an affair with a mysterious mob moll. In between gorgeously shot sequences, a white faced demon (played by Robert Blake, of all people) haunts the characters, bringing the world of nightmares to Lynch’s illogical lushness. (18 February, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Bomb the System

For those unaware of the phrase, “bombing” is old school ghetto lingo for graffiti. Back in the day, when urban youth had little to celebrate, spreading your name all over the city via spray paint and talent was a metaphysical escape. This fiction film does a good job of capturing the culture, and while Style Wars is the definitive documentary statement, this movie manages a close second. (20 February, Sundance, 11:30PM EST)


Alex Cox went from punk to politics when he followed up his sensational Sid and Nancy with this incredibly odd period piece. Ed Harris is the American mercenary fighting for the Nicaraguans in the 19th century, but it’s clear that Cox had more on his mind than this specific situation. Using a mixture of modern and antiquated imagery, it was really an attack on Reagan and his problematic El Salvador stratagem. (21 February, IFC, 10PM EST)

Short Cuts

The late, great Robert Altman took the short stories of Raymond Carver and turned them into a stunning portrait of LA at the start of the ‘90s. Using his standard interlocking narrative structure, and amazing performances from an all star cast, the director delivered what many consider to be his final major masterwork. As dense as any work of fiction and just as symbolic in its statements. (22 February, Sundance, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
All That Jazz

After a massive heart attack and more than his fair share of Broadway flops, director/choreographer Bob Fosse was looking for a way to battle his all consuming inner demons. His decision – make a thinly veiled autobiographical musical that exposed all his flaws and foibles, no matter how painful that might be to friends and family. The result was this stunning example of cinematic hubris, a classic song and dance fest deconstructed to focus on ideas like adultery, betrayal and death. Drawing on previous collaborators including Ann Reinking and Ben Vereen, and using real figures from his life (renamed and reimagined, of course) Fosse found the proper balance between backstage drama and esoteric experimentalism. It’s a brilliantly insular work of wounded genius. (22 February, Fox Movie Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Good Son

After years of playing the bratling hero, Macaulay Culkin (or more importantly, his dictatorial dad/manager) wanted to expand his thespian range. Too bad then that the producers went and hired Elijah Wood to steal every scene alongside Master Home Alone. What wanted to be a boys’ Bad Seed ended up being merely a bad career move on the part of a fading family film star. (19 February, Encore Mystery, 3:35AM EST)

The Serpent and the Rainbow

Zombies are real – at least they are in the veiled world of voodoo that is Haiti. Horror maestro Wes Craven, taking a break from the supernatural, used the non-fiction book by Wade Davis to discuss the ancient African religion, and the real possibility of creating “the living dead”. Light on flesh eating and heavy on authentic atmosphere, the results are creepy indeed. (20 February, ThrilllerMax, 6:35PM EST)


By now, it’s randy reputation precedes it. It’s the film that started Kevin Smith’s career. It was awarded an NC-17 rating by the MPAA for filthy language only. It became a crazy cult unto itself, and spanned one of 2006’s best films. Now drink in the heady humor of this slacker celebration, a terrifically talky look at life and its failed personal promise. (21 February, Showtime, 12AM EST)


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Thursday, Feb 15, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Two Minutes to Midnight  Black Belt—"Road Crew" from Two Minutes to Midnight on Novoton

Preview the whole album

What if you kidnapped Pete Townshend, Iggy Pop and Otis Redding, put them in a small cabin, force fed them cheap beer and greasy food, and—under the supervision of Josh Homme—made them solve the great rock’n’roll riddle? You might come up with something similar to the diverse, yet straight-forward, soundscapes of Swedish power trio Black Belt—big fuzzy guitars, fat ass bass, rolling drums, dirty denim, sweet soul and tons of swagger. With one foot running the working class meanstreets of the ‘60s, the other foot placed firmly in the black soil of the south, Black Belt proove that it’s still possible to create a stir by rolling that old rock in yet another direction. With their largest production to date, the band both roars and crumbles, whispers and cuddles—although they never lose trace of the chorus-driven nerve that made them a name in the first place. From—"Fall on Me"—a PopMatters exclusive

Sure, From is a four-letter F-word. It suits the band just fine. No song is precious. Nothing aims for utter seriousness. And it’s not a bad thing to infuse some rawness into arty abstraction. In the fall of 2004, designer Roni Brunn launched From in Los Angeles, and the lineup has been fluid since. Brunn sings and writes all the music; production and performance duties are shared. From’s sound began with the unexpecedly fecund pairing of the Stone Roses and early Madonna. Ride, Oasis, Primal Scream, and, of course, the Beatles have also influenced both the feel and the song writing. The lyrics reflect Brunn’s multinational displacement, playful sobriety, and boy-crazy attachments: very specific yet simultaneously intutitive. Dustin O’Halloran—"Opus 63" from the Marie Antoinette soundtrack, and "Opus 23" from Piano Solos Vol. 2

Piano Solos Vol. 2 is the beautiful new instrumental work from Dustin O’ Halloran. Dustin recently attracted the attention of renowned music supervisor Brian Reitzell, who asked O’Halloran to assist in the score of Sofia Coppola’s epic historical drama, Marie Antoinette. Two of the compositions on this new release, as well as Opus 17 from Dustin’s first Piano Solos album, appear on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack.

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