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Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006

This op-ed by Sebastian Mallaby, in which he criticizes Democrats for abandoning their DLC-style, pro-big-business tack and criticizing Wal-Mart, garnered some hostile responses, and deservedly so. Mallaby seems to think that by criticizing Wal-Mart, the business, those who shop there will be affronted, as if it’s their local sports team and not just a store where it is convenient and cheap to shop. Mallaby reminds us that Wal-Mart has been able, through its ruthless cost-cutting, to “boost the buying power of ordinary Americans,” but at what cost? If it takes away good jobs, benefits, political power, and high wages in order to give us back cheap fleece sweatshirts and bargains on diapers, who profits? What good is the purchasing power if you are too economically insecure to actually exercise it? And autonomy within Wal-Mart, while you are shopping,  is no substitute for autonomy outside—having meaningful choices about where to work and shop, and about whose interests will be represented in government. Mallaby’s crude argument that if Wal-Mart was such a bad place to work, no one would work there, is a bit simplistic—Wal-Mart has the leverage to curtail other choices and force other employers to adopt its methods. As Kevin Drum points out, Wal-Mart is not “evil” for doing this—consumers short-sightedly prioritized paying low prices over the long-term significance of protecting labor. Now the long-term effects are coming into focus, and it makes sense to use th epolitical system to try to correct our course.


So it’s not “dumb economic populism” to express concern about falling wages, eviscerated unions, the widening gap between rich and poor, vanishing small businesses, outsourcing, and disappearing benefits, all of which Wal-Mart’s business model contributes to.  As Ezra Klein writes, “Wal-Mart is setting the norms and standards for the coming service economy. Where GM and Ford played this role for the manufacturing sector—and the unions forced them to use their power to create the American middle class—Wal-Mart is assuming primacy for manufacturing’s successor, and doing so without the union involvement or commitment to high wages that their predecessors exhibited.” And because of the company’s market dominance, it can dictate the terms of the service economy of the future: “In the producer’s case, the prices Wal-Mart demands have forced them to not only cut labor costs, but have often forced them offshore. Used to be that producers could pay their workers decently and keep production domestic by passing higher costs down the line. Wal-Mart’s size and market share keeps them from doing so, and it’s thrown the whole relationship out of balance—at least where the workers are concerned. So when I worry over Wal-Mart , I’m fretting over the shift to a low-wage, low-benefit service economy. Wal-Mart’s size and power makes the two indistinguishable.”


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Tuesday, Aug 29, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


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 5: Sholay (“Flames”)
1975, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Ramesh Sippy
The best masala movie ever made. A masala movie is a subgenre of Indian cinema created by enterprising producers to cater to all the diverse tastes of an audience in a single film. Masala is Hindi for “spice,” and refers to a blend of multiple flavors (as in “curry” powder). In movie terms, this translates to a musical romantic-comedy/action-adventure that offers everything - fights, laughs, love scenes, dance numbers, and family melodrama - all in the course of three-and-a-half hours.  Warning: First-time viewers may find the masala movie slightly indigestible—a cinematic sensory overload. But if you want to get a taste of the most popular type of movie in Indian commercial cinema, start here: two conmen on the run are recruited by a village landowner to hunt down and capture the ruthless bandit that murdered his sons. In essence it’s a musical spaghetti western set in rural India. The movie made a star out of its hero, Amitabh Bachan, who is so beloved even today, that when he was hospitalized a few months ago, hundreds of Indians flocked to the temples to pray and light candles. Watching Sholay, you can’t help but wallow in its elemental pleasures: the joyous chemistry between the two male leads, Bachan and 70s matinee-idol, Dharmendra and their uproariously bad-ass behavior (like the scene where they help the village-belle gather mangos by flippantly shooting them off a tree with their pistols), the sassy, Jean Harlow slapstick of Hema Malini’s village-belle, and the delicious satisfaction we feel at the demise of the bloodthirsty villain, Gabbar Singh (played with sadistic panache by character actor Amjad Khan). Sholay is an unpretentious classic. It reminds us of why we go to the movies in the first place: to be entertained.


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Tuesday, Aug 29, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


Tara Jane O’Neil“Blue Light Room”
From In Circles on Quarterstick Records
Portland, OR based artist Tara Jane O’Neil is a multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, engineer, and painter. In Circles, her fourth solo album on Quarterstick Records, is an acoustic gem blessed with her unique brand of sonic trickery. She’s created an album where a subtle but sure-handed mastery of sounds and experimentation with her craft share time equally with gentle acoustics and deeply personal lyrics.



M Ward“To Go Home”
From Post-War on Merge Records
Post War is the fourth M. Ward album and his most absorbing to date. Its songs unravel their world wearied tales of life, love and human kindness with an innate and special grace, helped in part by the very talented friends who join him on this record, including Neko Case and Mike Mogis as well as old “Monsters Of Folk” touring buddy Jim James (of My Morning Jacket).



Kunek“Coma”
From Flight of the Flynns on Playtyme Entertainment
Kunek’s debut album, Flight of the Flynns, offers 12 songs that reflect the theory that music is a delicate intersection of science and emotion. The band gracefully moves through the music, seamlessly blending layer upon layer of complex harmonies propelled by Tabish, Jon Mooney (keyboards and guitar), Eric Kiner (lead guitar, lap steel, keys) and Jenny Hsu on cello as well as the spellbinding rhythms of bassist Josh Onstott and drummer Colby Owens.



My Brightest Diamond“Disappear”
From Bring Me the Workhorse on Asthmatic Kitty
My Brightest Diamond is Shara Worden, granddaughter of an Epiphone-playing traveling evangelist, fathered by a National Accordion Champion, and mothered by a church organist. Spanish tangos, Sunday morning gospel, classical and jazz were the accompaniment to her home life. Her first song was recorded at age three and by age eight she was studying piano, performing in community musical productions and singing in her Pentecostal church choir, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she spent most of her childhood.


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Tuesday, Aug 29, 2006

I found this passage from Steven Metcalf’s Slate review of the new Rohmer DVD boxed set interesting:


The most pleasant surprise of the set is La Collectionneuse, which Rohmer filmed on the cheap in the Côte d’Azure while waiting for Jean-Louis Trintignant to free up his schedule. The film is Rohmer’s sun-kissed flip-off to all the Roger Vadim clichés: a young unattainable goddess pursued by a tormented man, and all the Which is worse, capturing her or not capturing her? blah blah that accompanies the genre. Instead, Rohmer gives us Haydée, a terrifically sexy gamine who is rather too easily had. What irritates her would-be pursuers, two art-world poseurs, to the point of outright contempt is that she hasn’t cultivated herself as a mysterious object of enchantment. Having deprived them of this story line, they turn on her and call her a “collector”—that is, they project onto her their own worst qualities as dandies.


The passage suggests something of the difference between a woman whose sexuality is active, for itself, and a woman for whom the project of becoming sexy is a means to another end, a useful distinction to remember when considering controversies about pro-sex feminism and the nature of sex work. The power to be had in exploiting one’s own sexuality is different than the power that comes from becoming a sexual subject (from desire enriching one’s subjectivity and impelling one to act rather than wait).


Also, it hints at a pervasive anomaly of male sexuality: I think many men have a collecting attitude toward women, which is one of the reasons they appreciate their overt objectification—why they will collect and save every issue of Playboy, for instance, which pins down a carefully selected specimen like a butterfly each month for the reader’s bemused inspection. I wonder about the direction of causation though—whether the collecting fever comes from being accustomed to a culture in which women are objectified, or whether women are objectified to suit an inherent male passion for mastery over objects. Is it even a fair assumption to make that women are less likely to be collectors? Is the woman in Rohmer’s film actually a collectionneuse or is that merely a male misunderstanding of female jouissance? (Where are my Lacan books when I need them?)


Perhaps it is this: Collecting allows men to exempt themselves from the objectification that sex seems automatically to enact—the regression into the anonymity of physical pleasure. Integral to the passion for collecting women, I would argue, is the man’s certainty of a monetary exchange mediating the collecting. If the women in the magazine were volunteers—if they were freely pursuing their own sexual aims—the attraction of collecting them would diminish, possession of them (or their image, a proxy) would lose its value. By transforming sex from an activity into an acquisitive hobby, from a matter of doing to a matter of owning, men protect themselves from dissolving their identity in passion and instead ground it more concretely in an array of women-turned-positional goods.


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Monday, Aug 28, 2006

Believe it or not, there are only 90 days before Thanksgiving, and start of the holiday gift giving season. It’s important to remember this when considering the upcoming DVD releases for the week of 29, August. Many distributors are purposefully holding back on key titles, waiting for the arrival of the pomp and commercialized circumstance associated with Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. Others are opting to save certain discs to coincide with anniversaries, fall theatrical films, or the proper consumer-oriented environment. Whatever the rationale, we have another mixed bag at the brick and mortar, examples of Independent excellence sitting snuggly between innocuous major studio fare. There’s even another version of Peter Jackson’s Oscar winning triumph up for grabs. The discs that have caught SE&L’s eye for this installment of Who’s Minding the Store are:


Akeelah and the Bee*
Following hot on the heels of 2005’s similarly styled Bee Season, this uplifting story of a young spelling savant and her many personal travails continued the curious trend of films based on the new found novelty of an old fashioned educational competition. With quality performances from Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett, and some smart things to say about how racial and class divisions impact intelligence and/or the perception of same, the unbridled underdog formula gets a fresh coat of social significance here. While it may be a bit maudlin, this is still a solid feel-good effort.



PopMatters Review


Brother Bear 2
Never one to miss an opportunity at pilfering their previous efforts, Disney delivers an unnecessary sequel to a film no one really cared about in the first place. It remains a media mystery why a company that, until recently, turned its back on traditional animation would continue to forward pointless pen and ink revamps of their past catalog. About the only recommendable element in this Native American nature retread is the return of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as moose versions of their Bob and Doug MacKenzie characters. Otherwise, it’s just more callous cartooning.



Friends with Money*
With previous Indie gems Walking and Talking and Lovely & Amazing under her belt, writer/director Nicole Holofcener explores the day-to-day dilemmas of the well to do and privileged. Using Jennifer Aniston as her poor, problem-plagued guide, and the by now accepted theory that money only adds to issues, Holofcener creates a character study that’s as insightful as it is inspired. Thanks to stellar turns by Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusak, we really don’t mind that nothing gets solved in the end. Yet the feeling of understanding and empathy between this collection of companions seems stronger than ever.



PopMatters Review


Let’s Scare Jessica to Death*
It looks like standard scare fodder – a recently released mental patient named Jessica (Zohra Lampert) moves into a spooky old house with her husband and friend. She wants to turn her failed life around and become stronger. Sadly, someone also wants to put the film’s title tenet to the test. This longtime MIA release from Paramount promises to be nothing more than a bare bones DVD presentation (meaning no significant bonus features whatsoever), but when you’ve got an inventive, nightmare vision of horror as sound as that created by co-writer/director John D. Hancock, who needs a bunch of digital bells and whistles.



Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World
In a perfect world, a new Albert Brooks comedy would be a cause for humor hurrahs. Even more anticipated would be this surreal stand-up’s second attempt at the imaginative mockumentary format (the first being 1979’s Real Life). Sadly, this ineffectual effort seems forced, failing to fully tap into Brooks’ breakneck brazenness. While the idea holds a great deal of promise – Brooks is sent by the US Government to gain a better understanding of the Muslim people via their sense of humor – almost nothing here works. This could be the reason why his most recent efforts were met with caution, not celebration. Consistency may not be Brooks’ strong point.


 


PopMatters Review


The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Limited Edition*
Okay – this is somewhat of a cheat. There have already been two separate releases for each film in this spectacular series, including stand-alone theatrical packages and mammoth, four disc extended edition extravaganzas. So why put this latest triple dip on the weekly SE&L update? Well, quite frankly, no filmmaker has successfully fulfilled his promise as a vital new visionary better than Peter Jackson. With both versions of each film available on these two disc sets, and new documentaries to boot, there is no longer any excuse to avoid owning what is arguably the definitive cinematic trilogy.



Seduced and Abandoned: Criterion Collection
After the success of his cultural comedy Divorce, Italian Style Italian auteur Pietro Germi presented this second savvy marital satire. Dealing directly with subjects significant to the Mediterranean maverick, including duty, honor, tradition and male machismo, the result was a mirror on the confounding contradictions inside Sicilian society. Utilizing a brash, almost cartoonish approach to his narrative, this fine forgotten film finally gets the lavish treatment from Criterion that it genuinely deserves. With a magnificent monochrome transfer and a wealth of added content, this DVD, and the movie it contains, definitely deserve a second chance to shine.



And Now for Something Completely Different

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 29, August:


Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 10*
Granted, this is a four disc collection of one of the greatest TV shows ever created, but since the central premise involves a test subject and his robot friends making fun of bad movies, we at SE&L feel it easily fits into the “film only” dictates of the Blog. Included here for the first time are a sensational slice of Toho goodness (Godzilla vs. Megalon), an example of Bill Rebane’s addled approach to film (The Giant Spider Invasion), a Roger Corman release he’d probably rather forget (Swamp Diamonds) and a mangled murder mystery (Teen-Age Strangler). Together they present an outstanding overview of the MST3K universe, and how weirdly, wickedly funny it is. Anyone who wonders why this series is so beloved need only look here for the obvious answer.


 


*=PopMatters Picks


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