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Monday, Aug 28, 2006

I always thought the anti-irony backlash was a matter of fashion cycles on the one hand and commonplace American anti-intellectualism on the other, but maybe it is just another expression of good-old fashioned sexism and bigotry. At Pandagon.net, Amanda Marcotte makes an interesting point about the anti-irony backlash that has been building since the Bush presidency began: “I would also say the rise in irony has a lot to do with the growing mainstream acceptance of diversity and feminism—now methods of humor that were the province of ‘losers’, aka women, queers, the poor, and people of color—have room to be expressed in the mainstream and that growing power of the disempowered is causing this anti-irony, anti-sarcasm backlash.” This argument is predicated on the idea that irony is disguised rebellion, a way the “disempowered and marginalized” can speak truth to power without being imprisoned. (The nature of Soviet humor bears this out.) This all flies in the face of the assumption typically pedalled by cultural commentators of the David Brooks/Chuck Klosterman ilk, that irony is an expression of smug superiority, not of exclusion. They posit the ironist as an overeducated liberal type who needs to reject what other people do and disdain anything that becomes popular with their snide remarks. Unlike the earnest (the phony opposite of irony), the argument goes that ironic people express nothing “positive” and are too afraid to show any “sincere” interest in anything. Ironists are often depicted as elitist hipsters who think they are better than everyone, better than the rules of mainstream society itself, down to its very syntax and semantics. But this could simply be another instance of the persecution mania cultural conservatives seem to suffer from, in which the behavior of others threatens the putative normality of their own. They long so to be normal, yet the concept of normality is maddeningly in the hands of others, and the median and mean they generate. They sense emerging acceptance for something they find alien, so they ascribe a disproportionate amount of power to its purveyors, imply they are dictatorially imposing these alien ideas (be it irony, or marriage rights, or whatever) on a populace that can’t relate to them. So the free expression of non-mainstream ideas is squelched, producing ironic discourse, which is then taken as further proof of the twisted and abnormal and inauthentic (because not “earnest”) aims such groups who employ irony are harboring. The irony Marcotte suggests is on the rise, creating diversity and threatening that vicious cycle, may in fact be the necessary portion required to keep that cycle going. We need token funny minority characters (be they gay, female, or intellectual) to ensure that such groups remain on the margin. Being funny, then, may be a cultural stigma, and when you’re making people laugh, they are perhaps laughing at you, to keep you down.


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Monday, Aug 28, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Check out new songs by Tanya Stephens, Monsieur Leroc and more.


PopMatters review: Tanya Stephens—Rebelution



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Sunday, Aug 27, 2006

It was, for the most part, a pretty mediocre summer movie season. All the proposed blockbusters were either artistic or critical busts (with one major exception) while smaller films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Descent snuck up on audiences and proved far more inventive and satisfying. Four months ago everyone was talking about the impact The Da Vinci Code would have, as well as the potential domination of Superman Returns over the rest of the popcorn film landscape. Now, as September slowly arrives, we’re questioning New Line’s ‘Net-only strategy regarding Snakes on a Plane and wondering if Monster House would have done better as a Halloween release. Yes, there were a few legitimate lessons to be learned amidst all the hype and hoopla: Will Ferrell showed that if Larry the Cable Guy ever decides to retire, the former SNL-er may have a viable career as a NASCAR comic; M. Night Shyamalan completed the fall from grace every fanboy has been expecting since Unbreakable‘s last five minutes; prestige performer Meryl Streep may be a summer movie’s biggest secret weapon; and CGI continues to cannibalize itself.


Indeed, from the mundane machismo of Michael Mann’s reimagined Miami Vice to the feel good fizzle of World Trade Center, the Summer of 2006 continued to illustrate the incredibly sad fact that original ideas are scarce, star power means very little in light of a bad script and sloppy execution, and superheroes in the wrong hands aren’t quite so ‘super’. Still, there were a few releases worth cheering for, movies that managed to not only entertain, but exemplify the new niche oriented approach to motion picture subject and salability. Gone are the days when one film completely dominates the pop culture consciousness (again, with one major exception). In its place are dozens of offerings, each one speaking to a specific individual audience. So, without further ado, SE&L presents its picks for the Top 5 films of Summer 2006:


5. Cars
Say what you want about Pixar’s latest anthropomorphic epic, but no other animation company working today has such a consistent track record in pushing the artistic and emotional limits of CGI. While many felt that this was one of the rare occasions where technology and technical skill got the better of the storytelling, there is still something awe inspiring and adventurous about this tale of an egotistical race car that learns friendship and humility among the automotive residents of a forgotten Route 66 city. Granted, the wistful appeal of the open road contributed a great deal to the film’s considerable scope, but it was the voice acting work of Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Michael Keaton and Bonnie Hunt that gave this film it’s poignancy and heart.



PopMatters Review


4. Monster House
Perhaps the biggest snafu that occurred this summer was the decision to release this brisk fall snap of a picture in the middle of one the muggiest, most humid seasons on record. Using the motion capture technique advanced during the creation of The Polar Express, Executive Producer Robert Zemeckis, along with old pal Steven Spielberg, found the perfect combination of story and filmmaker (first timer Gil Kenan) to realize their vision of real life recreated in a remarkable animated fashion. The result was a Goonies for the post-millennial masses, a smart, intelligent adventure that avoided many of the artforms more obvious clichés (pop culture references, stunt voice casting) to forge a generally exciting, incredibly inventive film.



3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
As a sequel to one of the biggest hits from 2004, this revisit of Pirate’s mainstream mystique had a lot to live up to. Many were concerned that Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow, so memorable in the first film, would grow old and stale the second time around. Some wondered if new villain Davy Jones would match Capt. Barbossa in the all important areas of evil and cunning. From a broader perspective, a few fans questioned why another film needed to be made at all. While the overall critical consensus was mixed, Dead Man’s Chest has become the biggest box office hit of 2006, and continues to bode well for the final installment of this proposed buccaneer trilogy (tentatively entitled At World’s End) to be released NEXT summer.


PopMatters Review


2. Clerks II
Who would have thought that Kevin Smith could revisit his initial success as a filmmaker and make it fresh, ingenious and undeniably hilarious? Of all the movies to arrive at the Cineplex this summer, Clerks II was the most consistently enjoyable. It gave fans a chance to reconnect with their favorite New Jersey slacker duo, introduced a couple of brand new characters that instantly took their place in the pantheon of Smith originals, and proved that nothing is more cinematically fulfilling than great dialogue, expertly delivered. Even more miraculous, a significant amount of emotional resonance was unearthed, giving depth and direction to all the dirty jokes and donkey show antics. What could have been a regular ‘K-Mart’ of a comedy turned out to be one of the season’s most unexpected gems.



PopMatters Review


1. Snakes on a Plane
While it’s easy to argue about the film’s failings as a thriller, a campy cult phenomenon or an Internet marketed misstep, there is one undeniable fact – Snakes on a Plane is a great deal of genre fun. A complete throwback to the blockbusters of the ‘70s (It’s like Airport mixed with a drive-in delight like The Day of the Animals) this unapologetically entertaining film makes no bones about being gratuitous or goofy. With the entire cast in on the joke, and the filmmaking free to explore all the plausible parameters of the title, we end up with a real rollercoaster ride that wraps its anarchic action in a blanket of pure b-movie mania. While it may not have been the perfect summer 2006 film, Snakes did the best job of reminding audiences of just how special the season can be. It was the only film that actually FELT like a blockbuster.


PopMatters Review


In Thursday’s Short Ends & Leader Blog: The Five Worst Films of Summer 2006.


 


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Sunday, Aug 27, 2006

Everyone else in the op-ed racket seems to be writing about some rainstorm or other that happened almost a year ago, but David Brooks comes through in today’s NYT with a gripping and timely piece about this breaking new trend: tattoos. Believe it or not, people are marking their skin, with ink! What deep insight, what keen powers of observation for Brooks to notice this. And these people seem to think it marks them in some unique way despite the fact that all these other people are doing it! How silly, they don’t even realize how comformist they are in their non-conformity. As Brooks so wisely sums up in his majestic closing statement: “Another generation of hipsters laid low by the ironies of consumerism.” Wow. By highlighting this 15-year-old “trend,” he has torn the mask off “hipster” culture at last with this column and proven once and for all that all supposed acts of subversion are phony and resistance to the happy progress of American consumerism is futile.


Now, I’m no fan of tattoos myself, but something about hearing Brooks make a similar case as me makes me want to rethink it a bit. Brooks is essentially denaturing the argument made in Heath and Potter’s Nation of Rebels and before in Thomas Frank’s Conquest of Cool to seize yet another opportunity to mock people for signaling self-awareness, a tendency he conflates with elitism and selfishness. He makes out people with tattoos to be a shallow bunch of short-sighted simpletons who are blinkered by their worship of empty gestures of individualism (the only individualist gesture that matters, of course, is entrepreneurship). The stories tattoos tell are far more complex than Brooks is willing to admit; they have long ceased to be expressions of how dangerous or different a person thinks she is. Also, having a tattoo is not “an alienated look” as Brooks suggests—by his very logic, tattoos are an expression of belonging to the zeitgeist, not rejecting it. He seems trapped in preconceptions about tattooing that ceased to apply sometime around the Stone Temple Pilots’ debut album. Some people may tattoo as a form as self-harm, as an elaborate form of cutting, but probably the majority do so not to express anger but pride. Brooks is quick to sneer at youth culture as conformist, but when has youth culture ever been about anything but pseudo-rebellion? To call it “conservative” as he does is to distort the terminology—seeking to belong isn’t the same as espousing a political ideology. Or is Brooks admitting that to be conservative is to be conformist and cowardly?


It seems much more likely that there’s nothing insincere or aberrent in one’s getting a tattoo—the conformity inherent in the practice at this point seems to confirm that. A person’s not simply erroneously calculating how rebellious or subversive they will become. Instead I would imagine one gets a satisying feeling of having followed through with a serious committment (something you’d expect Brooks to cheer) and displayed some courage (it’s not joining the Army, but tattoos do hurt). And the ownership over one’s own body one asserts by marking it in some conscious way is a private matter, ultimately, which is why most tattoos, I’m guessing, are not usually immediately visible to stangers—they are often in a more intimate place and can serve as a way of showing you trust someone. You show the tattoo, you tell the story behind it, which Brooks dismisses as some self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing narrrative about shopping, since he sees tattoos as nothing more than “perfect consumer items”, but which can often be more a way for a person to organize and articulate a long-developing self-awareness and share it with a privileged few. Brooks won’t admit that these people may not care about how “mainstream” they are, that their minds are on something wholly different, that they could be concerned with any kind of issue larger than themselves (like, say, how their government could fail to plan for a major disaster they knew was coming and allow one of its cities to be ruined, perhaps permanently). If tattoos are consumer goods, they are mundane ones, no more deserving of contemptuous treatment than any of the other goods—T-shirts, cars, housewares, etc.—we use to communicate ideas about ourselves to others. I agree that there are probably better ways to communicate, and certainly more important messages to communicate than the ones goods limit a person to, but why single out tattoos? Why not condemn the entire consumer economy, or all consumers?  After all the only thing separating a hipster from a redneck (or country club suburbanite or any of the other demographics Brooks has fetishized) is irony, and in the end that doesn’t show up anywhere on the balance sheet.


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Sunday, Aug 27, 2006

Classical publication Fanfare has sparked a brouhaha over revelations about a policy that gives advantage to advertisers to have their product reviewed.  Sad to say, this issue isn’t going away, not only because this isn’t the first time a publication has come out and admitted this (i.e. New York Rocker) but also that in the age of the Net, this is the kind of trial and error that’s going to keep happening.


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