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Wednesday, Aug 2, 2006

Indians come together over one thing: movies. It seems sensible that a country of over a billion people, divided by religion and language, can unify under the neutral banner of entertainment. If a communal riot breaks out over say, a pig let loose in a mosque or a statue of Shiva is desecrated, people who were living and working side by side for years as friends suddenly are pitted against one another and caught amidst the animosity. Riots are commonplace occurrences in Indis - a vicious reminder of colonial partitions. But the film industry is the only secular medium in India that brings people of warring factions together in a temporary lapse of peace. It does what politics is supposed to do.  It’s not unusual to find an Indian movie with a Muslim star playing the holiest of Hindi gods, Ram. Oddly enough, no one seems to mind. They’re just happy to escape the heat for a few hours in a dark cinema hall and to watch the hypnotic scenery and song sequences unfold onscreen.

The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.

Week 1: Shree 420 (“The Gentleman Cheat, Mr. 420”)
1955, B&W, Hindi.
Dir: Raj Kapoor

Director-star Raj Kapoor’s greatest work is the first modern movie of Indian commercial cinema. “Bollywood,” the transposition of successful Hollywood characters and plots onto Indian culture, as a concept and as a way of filmmaking, begins here.  Raj Kapoor, unarguably India’s most consummate star (writer, director, producer, matinee-idol), uses Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) as a springboard for his jaunty parable of urban corruption.  Kapoor casts himself as the rakish title character (“Shree” is the Hindu honorific prefix for “sir,” while 420 refers to the penal code for fraud, and is Hindi slang for “crook”), who blithely abandons the restrictive mores and traditions of the village for the glitter and promise of the big city of all cities, Bombay. Shree 420 epitomizes the optimism of Industrial, post-Independence India, poised for international trade and profit—the catchiest song in the film, “Mera joota hai japani…mera dil hai hindustani (My shoes are Japanese…but my heart is Indian)” is played so often that it has become India’s answer to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Part Sullivan’s Travels, part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Shree 420 is both a glorious paean and a scathing indictment of Bombay, its skyscrapers smacked alongside its slums, its modernity, its backwardness, its wealth, and its sleaze.

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Tuesday, Aug 1, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Towers of London
TVT Records
Download “Air Guitar” (MP3, 192kbps)


Bishop Perry Tillis
Birdman Records
Download “God don’t like it” (MP3, 192kbps)


Mark Mallman
Badman Recording Co
Download “Turn On Of The Century” (MP3, 192kbps)


Grand Mal
New York Night Train
Download “The Best Con In Town” (MP3, 192kbps)

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Tuesday, Aug 1, 2006

As MTV reaches its 25th anniversary, the stories about it break down into two types: celebrations of its culture-shaking milestones and damning of its irrelevance today in a Myspace/YouTube world.  A select few try to glean what’s signifant about how the channel has changed and what this means for pop culture in general.  As it turns out, even most detractors will have to admit, it means a lot.

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Tuesday, Aug 1, 2006

Ever since I first encountered a self-checkout line, at a deeply dysfunctional Pathmark on Greys Ferry Avenue in Philadelphia, I’ve despised them with an intensity that even I’ll admit is entirely unfounded. So I was cheered by this Consumerist item airing one of my fundamental complaints about them—rather than getting service you pay for, you do the company’s job for them, for nothing. I don’t think it makes sense to discount the prices for those who check themselves out, though, to answer the Consumerist’s poll. I just think the self-checkout lines are like those panic buttons mounted on stoplights at busy intersections that have no effect other than to mollify the impatient pedestrian. The self-checkout is basically a giant pacifier for people who can’t stand the enfeebling passivity waiting in line forces on them—standing in line, after all, is what the Commies made you do. Of course, the intolerant who hate lines are probably the same people who when driving execute pointless lane changes that only exacerbate traffic congestion while heightening the danger for everyone on the road. Self checkout is basically about self-aggrandizement; it’s about having a moment where you get to seize illusory control over your situation and triumph over others—the fools too lazy to get out of the line. With the self checkouts the company stages a little farcical drama in which you get to be the hard-working hero, pulling up bootstraps and rolling up sleeves and making the system work to your own benefit through your own effort—“Get out of my way, I’ll show you how to run a register.” It’s a petty sham display of self-reliance, but a little of that goes a long way for most Americans. It’s not like we’re going to go back to nature and self-sufficiency for real: consumerism—a fragile, collective process implicating all of society collectively—is how we get what’s necessary for our lives, so we’d like to dress it up with as much of the trappings of rugged individualism as possible.

Anyway, it’s not just the egocentricity involved but the logic behind these self-checkout lines that infuriates me. The company seems to be saying this: “We can’t hire employees who can operate a cash register efficiently, but we are willing to let you do their work for them and subsidize their paycheck with your labor.” So unless you refuse to shop at such places, the time you spend in their lines becomes a kind of indentured servitude that you are “allowed’ to work off in the self-checkout area. Meanwhile, the cost of the labor you are replacing is already priced into the goods you are buying, so you are purchasing a service that you don’t receive and helping build the disincentives from it ever improving. The cashiers certainly know that if they work slower, they’ll be able to do less work for the same pay while driving the most unpleasant customers to deal with—the impatient ones—away. They are already staging a permanent slowdown (at least at Duane Reade they are); this only sweetens their rewards.

Perhaps if the self-checkouts replaced cashiers altogether, it would be different. But it is not as though this would improve efficiency. If there is anyone likely to be mroe befuddled by a cash register than a cashier, it’s the average customer. Everytime I’ve been in Home Depot, I’ve watched customers sudddenly lose all intuitive grasp of how this thing called commerce works and be reduced to having to follow directions on how to scan an item with a barcode reader. And then they founder helplessly, trying to crack the credit-card-swiping puzzle. Hmm. Maybe if I lay it flat on the touch screen it will work. Maybe if I jam it in like it’s a hotel door key. Inevitably they have to ask an employee how to do it anyway, only now you’ve turned the cashier who was too incompetent to do the job in the first place into a teacher (proving the old adage) whose communication skills now will determine how fast you can get home with your wet vac or your bag of nails.

If RFID technology fulfills its promises, affluent shoppers most likely won’t have to worry about any of this anymore. They’ll register a credit card with a store, which will be detected by an EZ-Pass-like sensor along with all the goods they are taking out of the store on any given visit. This will fulfil the retailer’s most ambitious dream of loss prevention, making shoplifting virtually impossible while eliminating the primary source of loss, the clerk running the register. At this point the line between shopping and surveillance will have virtually disappeared, and the activities will be understood to suit each other perfectly, to be natural conseqeunces of each other. Of course you want the retailers to know all your preferences and predilections, otherwise how else could they tailor their messages to you and save you time and energy? Of course its good that all your belongings are tagged and trackable—it’s what made shopping so convenient and hassle free, no more of those annoying checkout lines.

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Tuesday, Aug 1, 2006

Another Tuesday. Another influx of new releases eager to drain away your hard earned dollars. Summer is usually slow for major DVD titles, since local theaters are still delivering the popcorn fodder that ordinarily defines the season. Still, along with the myriad of typical fare being offered, including the original Yours, Mine and Ours (with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball doing the Brady Bunch mixed family thing), the 2006 revamp of The Shaggy Dog (leave it to Disney to remake even its lamest live action titles) and yet another digital dip for the mythic Magnificent Seven (making it a fifth release for this Seven Samurai remake) there are some celebrated discs worth considering. Earning the S.E.A.L. Seal of Approval for 1, August 2006 are the following DVDs that PopMatters readers might be interested in. In alphabetical order, they are:

Beavis and Butthead: The Mike Judge Collection Volume 3

– the final 40 episodes in creator Judge’s juggling of the Beavis and Butthead legacy, these music video-less vignettes are just not as effective without their pop culture commentaries. Still, for fans who’ve longed to see these delinquent dorks take “Woodshop”, battle “Head Lice” and consistently fail in their efforts to ‘score’, this last installment of the DVD series is well worth a look.

The Mr. Moto Collection: Volume 1

– as odd as it sounds to our current cultural sensitivity, Golden Age Hollywood had no problem letting a Hungarian character actor play a Japanese detective in a series of racially dubious mysteries. When the performer in question is the captivating Peter Lorre, however, some minor ethnic stereotyping can be tolerated. While never quite as popular as their cinematic cousins featuring Charlie Chan, the Moto movies remain fascinating curios to Tinsel Towns treatment of Asian culture, and one of its more intriguing artists.

Olivier’s Shakespeare (Criterion Collection)

– though his versions of the Bard’s classics may no longer be definitive (a certain Mr. Branagh could challenge his claim to such a statement) Laurence Olivier was definitely instrumental in bringing Shakespeare’s plays to a wider mainstream audience. Included here are his Oscar winning turns as Hamlet (1948), along with his nominated work in Henry V (1944) and Richard III (1955). As with all titles bearing the Criterion tag, the prints are perfect and the supplemental material divine.

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert

– the unquestioned king of comedy delivers the definitive standup experience in this 1979 live performance. If you believe Dave Chappelle is the unwitting master of race-based humor, or deem that no one can out curse Chris Rock, here’s your chance to see the true titan of scandalous social criticism master his definitive domain. Forget his occasionally sloppy acting performances. This is the Pryor that built the legend.

Rude Boy

– the Clash, in all their slapdash DIY glory, costar in the quasi-fictional film about a roadie who takes up with the seminal punk band as they tour a socially strapped 1980s England. Though much of the drama is hackneyed and forced, there is no denying the group’s power as a live act. It may not be as effective as 2000’s masterful documentary Westway to the World, this is still a must see souvenir for anyone with found memories of the ‘only band that mattered’.

PopMatters DVD Review: Click HERE

V for Vendetta

– it seems like now, more than ever, we need a movie that advocates a people’s power to infiltrate and influence their government. Creator Alan Moore may be mad at the less than successful adaptation of his comic – sorry, GRAPHIC novel - and whine over how his ‘80s allegory has no significance in a post-2000 world, but with a script by those weird Wachowski Brothers and direction by Matrix alum James McTeigue, there is as much visual as political spectacle here.

PopMatters Film Review: Click HERE

What the ‘Bleep’ Do We Know: Down the Rabbit Hole Quantum Edition

– promising a more complex and interaction approach to the polarizing docu-drama-mentary, this three DVD set offers brand new material meant to further supplement (and complicate) an already contentious presentation. Many still find this film’s mixing of metaphysics and science more nonsensically New Age than educationally enlightening, but any film that tries to address some of the big picture issues that the cultural conversation seems to neglect is definitely worth consideration.

PopMatters Film Review:Click HERE

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