Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

4 May 2007

In recent posts I’ve been complaining about the difficulties of using pop-music for any purpose other than identity construction and signaling. I realize that I’m being somewhat hyperbolic about it—obviously the uses we make of music are much more diverse and complicated than that. My main concern is that the identity use overwhelms the others, that self-consciousness about cultural consumption obviates the specificity of the culture consumed.

So perhaps I should be encouraged by this study, summarized by BPS Digest here, which identifies three main uses for music: as background to other activity, as a mood regulator (here are seven ways that happens, at least for Finnish teens), and to provide intellectual stimulation in the contemplation of the performance or the substance of what’s heard (this is strongly correlated with high IQ). So that’s good; no mention of identity at all. But that may be a consequence of the study’s method, which seems to be simply asking people how they use music. It’s likely that few people would confess to using music to make people think they are cool, because most people refuse in general to cop to the synthetic nature of their identity, to the various ruses we use to build up the pretense of ourselves.

This study, about using music to meet people, is more in line with my fears. The researchers correlated adolescents’ song preferences with their judgments about personality types.

What some music preferences mean for personality:
  * Likes vocals: extraverted
  * Likes country: emotionally stable. On the face of it, this is bizarre really because country music is all about heartache. Either the emotionally stable are attracted to country music or it has a calming effect on the unstable!
  * Likes jazz: intellectual

But I have to say, I’m rather skeptical about these inferences. I strongly doubt it’s sufficient to match genres to types; more likely it’s entirely driven by context, by where a genre is perceived to fall on a continuum of respectability within a certain community. In fact, the whole gist of my suspicion is that genre has no meaning independent of such interpersonal contexts.

by Rachel Smucker

4 May 2007

Please, don’t be intimidated. I, too, approached Bitch with caution, wary of man-hating columnists and Bush-bashing feminazis. But surprise! My shameful stereotypes were blown to bits after reading this self-proclaimed “feminist response to pop culture,” and so I apologize to Bitch senior editor Rachel Fudge for all of my unprovoked generalizations. Bitch is one heck of a magazine.

The colorful and eye-catching cover was what first struck my interest and, looking back at its previous 34 issues, this seems to be a trend. Every issue has a theme; this season’s is “The Super Issue,” with articles on superheroes, supermoms and super-cool art. Previous themes: “Green,” “Masculinity,” and “Fake.”


by Bill Gibron

3 May 2007

This is the sound of one hand clapping, or a tree falling face first in the woods and no one around to pick up its plop. Let’s be honest – it’s all about the arachnid this weekend as Spider-Man 3 opens to less than enthusiastic reviews. Of course this means the movie will make $469 ka-trillion before all is said and done. But what it also means is that very few film fans will be sitting around at home waiting to see what HBO or Showtime has to offer. So it’s fairly brave of the major cable outlets to present such positive fare. Maybe they believe in the need for counter-programming, or perhaps they’re gambling on word of mouth being as caustic as the critics’ opinions. Whatever the case, the Saturday night selections are all pretty good (one Friend based offering excluded), including SE&L‘s selection for 5 May:

Premiere Pick
Monster House

Starz strikes paydirt for the second week in a row, offering up what was easily 2006’s best CGI flick. Reminiscent of the classic adventure tales from decades past, Executive Producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis gave director Gil Kenan free reign to reinvent the 3D animation genre, and his efforts are outstanding. Concentrating on character first, spectacle second, the first time feature filmmaker delivers a wonderfully moody and mysterious tale, a motion picture overloaded with creative concepts and inventive ideas. Sadly, it wasn’t the massive box office hit the studios look for, and lost the Academy Award to the lesser, if still lovely Happy Feet. If you’re not racing to your local B&M to pick up a copy of this classic after partaking of this weekend’s pay channel premiere, there is something definitely wrong with you. Animation doesn’t get much better than this. (5 May, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Break-Up

We here at SE&L have a strict anti-Jennifer Aniston policy, so it really pains us to mention this mediocre comedy from last year. Apparently, no one sent director Peyton Reed (Down With Love) the popcorn movie manifesto. He tried to turn an awkward A-list vehicle into The War of the Roses in a condo. Audiences didn’t care for either idea.  (5 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

X-Men: The Last Stand

Brett Ratner has nothing to be ashamed of. His installment of the famous comic book franchise was imminently watchable. If anything, he proved once and for all that Bryan Singer is one of the most overrated auteurs in all of cinema. What has he really done to warrant such praise? The geek fiefdoms opinion aside, Ratner’s adaptation of the material results in a solid action flick. (5 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Bad News Bears (2005)

Parlaying some of his success after School of Rock into a regular mainstream gig, Indie icon Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) decided to destroy the memory of this ‘70s sports satire. In its original form, the Walter Matthau version was a slam on sports obsessed adults living their lives through their kids. This new version is all PC potty jokes. (5 May, ShowCase, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
My Left Foot

Daniel Day Lewis was a hardworking British actor when he agreed to take on the role of Irish author Christy Brown, a choice which would win him worldwide acclaim (and a well deserved Oscar). But imagine the shock of filmgoers, used to seeing Lewis as prim and proper in your typical Merchant Ivory drama, suddenly shifting into a handicapped scribe stricken with cerebral palsy. In a brave performance that avoided pathos and schmaltz, the star discovered the inner dignity of the man, and never let that feeling go. Director Jim Sheridan surrounded his lead with amazing supporting talent, including Brenda Fricker, Fiona Shaw, and Cyril Cusack. But it’s young Hugh O’Connor that steals the show as an adolescent Christy. Lewis has often said it was the lad’s interpretation of the character that inspired his work. The results speak for themselves. (8 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices

TiVo Alert! TiVo Alert! Fire up those DVRs and get ready to have your minds blown by this notorious adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Featuring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and more misguided counterculture conceits than any one film can fathom. The result is something so bad it’s ridiculous. Right up there with Jackie Gleason’s Skidoo for best camp cult crap. (6 May, Sundance, 5:45AM EST)

The Ground Truth

The debate over the War in Iraq always seems to be missing a certain voice – that of the troops who’ve already served. In this stunning documentary, they finally get a chance to have their say – and what they expose will haunt your dreams for days to come. While most came back in one piece, almost all have had their psyche scarred forever. (7 May, Sundance, 11PM EST)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

John Cameron Mitchell is a genius at capturing both the glamour and the horror of kitsch, and his brilliant rock and roll musical is his perfect presentation of same. As the title character, the filmmaker will have you laughing, clapping and cringing – all at the same time. While some may balk at the transgender elements, the amazing score filled with memorable songs will more than cover such discomfort. (9 May, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

Outsider Option
A Hard Day’s Night

The impact of the Beatles on popular culture can never be diminished. While the ‘90s saw several scholarly attempts to downplay their importance - some even going so far as to suggest that they were nothing more than the ‘60s version of a boy band (yeah…RIGHT!) - they remain a formative fixture in music. If you want proof of their importance, look no further than this amazing motion picture by former UK commercial director Richard Lester. Capturing the youth craze known as Beatlemania at the very height of its hysteria, this movie more than anything else cemented the band’s myth as amiable ambassadors of the emerging counterculture. With songs so timeless they sound fresh and inventive 40 plus years later, and attitudes that exude charm and charisma, it’s no wonder the Fab Four remain the gold standard in sonic significance. (8 May, Flix, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Born Losers

The TCM Underground strikes exploitation gold this week as Tom Laughlin introduces the world to his emotionally wounded Vietnam Vet Billy Jack as part of this standard revenge flick. Featuring a femme fatale who defines ‘asking for it’ and a lot of proselytizing about how good kids can go bad, this is one baffling biker epic. And of course, our viewing would not be complete without a little Laughlin butt-kicking. (4 May, Turner Classic Movies, 11:15PM EST)

The Christine Jorgensen Story

While it can’t compare to Let Me Die a Woman, this supposedly serious take on the world’s first publicized sex-change candidate is sufficiently surreal. Granted, Woman director Doris Wishman gave audiences actual surgical footage to seer into their brains, while this 1970 sudser is happy just to suggest and imply. John Hansen is especially good in the title role. The rest is freakish fun. (8 May, Drive-In Classics/Canada, 10:45PM EST)

The Postman

Talk about your revisionist history. Audiences and critics couldn’t ladle enough hate onto Kevin Costner’s failed follow-up to his Oscar winning turn behind the lens, Dances with Wolves. This post-Apocalyptic Western about rebuilding the US mail service as a means of jumpstarting civilization was long, boring and overrun with artistic arrogance. Now, some find it to be a forgotten masterpiece. Yikes! (10 May, TNT 1AM EST)


by tjmHolden

3 May 2007

Somewhere inbetween the train and the plane, there was this: a display case at the airport with a critter labelled in two languages.

For those lacking short sight or else familiarity with the exotic, the words in English and Japanese spelled out “Armadillo”; but what the sign was really saying was: “Traveler beware: it’s illegal to buy stuff outfitted with the skin of this precious beast.”

Of course, given that the stuff on display was stuffed, it is hard to ignore the fact that this is one of those cases in which the message has been killed by the messenger.

Irony incarnate.

You know, when that happens there’s always a little egg to be toweled off of someone’s face, but on the other hand, whose? Whoever came up with this caveat is nowhere to be fingered and, their surrogate—the display case? Well, you are never really going to win an argument with a box of glass, are you?

So while I riff on the fantasy of marshalling all my logic, employing my considerable rhetorical skills, and arguing till I’m blue in my normally pinkish face, well . . . at the end of that tirade, this armadillo is still going to be stuffed and boxed and served up under glass.

Making matters infernally, consternatorily worse, lodged within this ironic display is our modern condition: society’s annoying penchant for failing to satisfy our sense of justice; its refusal to conform to most everyone’s inherent morality. Despite the fact that that is one of the functions it was designed to address.

Geez, ironies abound. Will they ever cease?

Imagine my disappointment at getting hipped to the true nature of life as I trudged from passport control, past duty free, and along the electronic conveyor toward the plane. But one takes life’s lessons where one can find them.

by Rob Horning

3 May 2007

In discussing Marilee Jones, the former dean of admissions at MIT who resigned after it was discovered that she had doctored her own résumé more than 25 years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich offers this cynical interpretation of college education:

My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as mark of one’s ability to obey and conform. Whatever else you learn in college, you learn to sit still for long periods while appearing to be awake. And whatever else you do in a white-collar job, most of the time you’ll be sitting and feigning attention. Sitting still for hours on end—whether in library carrels or office cubicles—does not come naturally to humans. It must be learned—although no college has yet been honest enough to offer a degree in seat-warming.

As Christopher Hayes notes in linking to the piece, this is “credentialism run amok.”

Credentialism is when employers require things like college degrees (from preferred schools) for their own sake, not for any skills they guarantee. This prerequisite serves a filtering function to weed out superfluous people—those who can’t game the admissions system, or haven’t been docile enough to be trained from an early age to prepare for it, or lack the money or the know-how to get it out of the existing aid systems—and allows meritocracy to be undermined by the very act of trying to institutionalize it. Certainly, credentialism explains why so many college students pointedly lack the love of learning one might idealistically expect from those electing for more education; they just want the degree the system requires. To them, college is just an especially obscure bureaucratic apparatus. Learning is so insignificant to students that it doesn’t even reach the point where it can be debased by being instrumentalized. (The need for diplomas for their own sake has opened up the lucrative business of online colleges, which streamline the process and strip it to its essentials, the fulfillment of the essential paper shuffling and the rather arbitrary requirements to spend so many hours exposed to so much standardized material. The rare spontaneous moment you’ll encounter in classrooms is perfectly suppressed, making th credentialing process much more businesslike.) Instead college education functions like cultural taste; the things one claims to know, just like the things one claims to appreciate, are a bit beside the point of being able to plausibly and convincingly state to someone else that you know or appreciate them. The object of the learning or the appreciating disappears, becomes a mere algebraic variable in an equation computing one’s social capital.

Because credentialism is so widespread, employers don’t seem to expect anybody to know how to do anything; they merely expect new employees to attend orientation meetings and follow pre-established procedures. This makes an employee’s willingness to defy established procedures and at the same time articulate why they needed to be defied—a capability of thinking about the process while making sure it is carried out—all the more valuable. Jumping through hoops gets you credentialed, but it won’t get you promoted; ambition seems to be a matter of ignoring the procedures or testing them for cracks that you can slip through, since if the procedure was airtight, everyone who serviced it would be fixed in place; the whole system would be static. Anyway, this is to say aspirants are wise to learn how to think about processes rather than results and to consider how they can profitably do more than what they are told to do. I felt I could generally tell the best students by how far they were willing to go without explicit instructions, and I often was aware of the paradox of teaching “critical thinking” as I often pretended to do—it basically means teaching disobedience, preparing students to ultimately recognize the limits of what you say.  It was more important that they learn something other than what I would spend my time talking about and they would take down in their notebooks. If they only learned what I tried to teach, I would see that as a mark of our mutual failure. No wonder I had to quit teaching.

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