Monthly Archives: February 2008

No Discussion Allowed

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Yesterday I went to a press screening of the new film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. For those who are unfamiliar with this film, it’s an agit-prop documentary of the Michael Moore variety, with one main difference: it’s conservative. It’s about the evolution debate, and takes the position that Intelligent Design theory (ID) should at least be allowed a place at the table in discussions of biological origins.

The film stars Ben Stein as the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock/Al Gore figure—mounting an “op-ed” type argument that is less about why ID is right or evolution wrong as it is about why there is such a concerted effort by the mainstream science community to squelch any and all debate on the matter. The film begins by recounting about a half dozen cases of highly-qualified PhD professors at various universities who have been fired in recent years for daring to mention that evolution as a theory has some weaknesses. From here the film gives a general narrative of how the scientific and academic powers that be have aggressively sought to silence any dissent—either by ID proponents or anyone else with questions about Darwin’s theory.

I came into this film very, very skeptical, worried that it would be all about trying to disprove evolution and argue for creationism (thereby reinforcing stereotypes of anti-intellectual religious fundamentalists). I was worried that it would further reinforce the (false) binary that says Christianity and science are on two sides of a battle and can never have any common ground. But I was pleasantly surprised with Expelled on a number of levels.

First of all, it’s pretty funny and quite entertaining. Ben Stein’s hyper-dry way of interviewing people is great fun to watch, and his “everyman” persona makes him easy to sympathize with. His “anyone, anyone” Ferris Bueller character also makes him an appropriate choice for a film about the expulsion of dissenting ideas in the classroom.

Secondly, it’s a reasonably effective, well-mounted argument (if a tad on the manipulative side). The filmmakers interviewed many prominent figures from both sides of the debate, including an extended (and deliciously uncomfortable) interview between Stein and Richard Dawkins (atheist extraordinaire and author of The God Delusion). The film is smart to keep its focus on the glaring double standards and contradictions among the evolution advocates—who have built impenetrable walls around the sacrosanct theory of evolution and (in a very un-academic spirit) refused to allow any rational dialogue on the matter.

Indeed, the film hits a nerve in its critique of the contemporary American academy. As a graduate student immersed in academia and all its idiosyncrasies, I can attest to the pervasive and disturbingly hypocritical sense of close-mindedness that stifles the spirit of progressive discourse. It goes beyond the scientific communities in higher education and touches many disciplines. Quite simply: if you are not on the “right” side of the wall (whatever wall it may be), your voice is stifled, your work discredited, and your intelligence questioned. It’s gone beyond political correctness and is now something altogether more militant and sinister. Sadly, the academy today is less about the sharing and discovery of truth as it is about the wielding and protecting of power.

Critics will attack this movie and claim that it is manipulative propaganda, but if Michael Moore can get an Oscar for it, why hate on Ben Stein? Certainly the film has its faults. It is less-than-subtle at times and heavy-handed at others (the sequence on Nazism and Hitler as direct descendent of Darwinist thought is perhaps unnecessary), and overall it is very derivative of other films of this type. Obviously Stein knowingly mimics Michael Moore in his leading-question, “I’m going to make you look stupid” method of interviewing. But there are also direct parallels to Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. Like Gore in that film, Stein gives a speech in a lecture hall, incorporates “deeply personal” elements, and plays on apocalyptic fears (in this case, the fear that free speech is increasingly suppressed, East Germany style).

But Expelled’s lack or originality and copycat style is, in a way, sort of the point. It’s a film that very deliberately presents itself as an alternative type of film—the anti-Michael Moore, perhaps. It is trying to argue that there is (or should be) room at the table for both sides, for multiple arguments on any issue. But more than likely the film will be denied wide distribution or much (if any) press coverage, just as Intelligent Design theory is either ignored or laughed out of most cultural discourse. Whatever you may think of ID or evolution (and I’m not saying either is wrong or right) it’s hard to argue against the injustice of denying the discussion. But unfortunately that’s just what is happening.

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Thoughts on the Academy Awards

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Some random thoughts on tonight’s 80th Academy Awards ceremony:
  • Did anyone see the E! red carpet moment when Gary Busey kept accosting Ryan Seacrest as he was trying to interview Jennifer Garner? That was probably my favorite moment of the night. Seacrest had no idea who Busey was (a producer later informed him via earpiece) and tried awkwardly to ignore the D-list actor’s intrusions. It was a classic moment that pointed out the absurdity of “anything goes” red carpet interviews.
  • Surprise #1 of the night: Tilda Swinton winning best supporting actress. She was by far the best part of Michael Clayton and is a great actress who totally deserves an Oscar. Her fire-red hair and “I’ve never seen an Oscar ceremony in my life” outsider attitude is also nice to see. Cate Blanchett also deserved it for her “androgynous Bob Dylan” turn in I’m Not There, but she already has a few Oscars, so I don’t feel so bad.
  • The Bourne Ultimatum won three Oscars! This makes up (a little bit) for Paul Greengrass’ United 93 getting shut out last year.
  • Why was Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) at the Oscars? Why is she presenting an award?
  • Happiest moment of the night: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s performance and subsequent win for “Falling Slowly.” The acceptance speech cut-off and Jon Stewart’s later special-invitation for Irglova to speak was brilliant and beautiful. And the “isn’t that sweet” reaction shot on Laura Linney was classic.
  • Surprise #2: Marion Cotillard winning best actress! Not predicted by many, but not shocking if you’ve seen her insanely good performance in La Vie En Rose. I loved her acceptance speech too: “Thank you life, thank you love… It is true that there are some angels in this city.”
  • General observation: none of the acting winners are Americans. Spain, Scotland, France, and England are represented, but no Yanks–even in a year designated as a “landmark year in American cinema.”
  • No Country for Old Men winning best picture was what I expected and suited me just fine. I think There Will Be Blood was perhaps a tad more daring, but both were among the best American films of the last decade. I like to think that my No Country essay (which Miramax linked to in their Oscar campaign) helped secure at least a few Academy votes!
  • Overall take on the show: relatively quick (3 hours and 17 minutes!), clean, and classy. Jon Stewart was tamer than anyone thought he’d be–especially in an election year. One joke I could have done without, though: Jack Nicholson getting people pregnant (really bad mental image). At least we had Helen “The Queen” Mirren to raise the class level a few bars.


White People Like: Making Fun of Their Whiteness

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If you have never been to this blog, you must check it out. It’s all the rage. And it’s very, very funny.

The blog, entitled “Stuff White People Like,” simply consists of an ongoing list of things that white folks like (or, more specifically, things yuppie/hipster white folks under 40 like). Some inclusions on the list: Difficult breakups (#70), Asian fusion food (#45), Knowing what’s best for poor people (#62), Arrested Development (#38), Japan (#58), “Gifted” Children (#16), The Sunday New York Times (#46), Wrigley Field (#30), Writer’s Workshops (#21), and Farmers Markets (#5).

It’s a hilarious blog, with aggressively ironic writing (after all, “irony” is #50 on the list!) and humorous pictures throughout. The whole endeavor is blindingly white in nature (i.e. spending so much time ironically skewering whiteness in a non-standupcomedy sort of way).

If you look over the list on the blog, one of the major recurring themes is the idea that above all, white people like being the best or superior (but not in a self-deprecating sort of way) at whatever they do or whatever situation they are in. They’re constantly trying to one-up one another and prove themselves better than the next white guy. It’s funny and ironic, then, that “Stuff White People Like” screams of this sort of “look how smart and witty and self-deprecating we are” attitude. But then maybe the people behind the blog are trying to make some meta critique of the whole process of reflexive self-stereotyping (wouldn’t that be white of them!). In any case, the sort of half-hearted deconstruction with which I’m concluding this post is certainly stereotypically white. We love taking things–even (perhaps especially) amusing and entertaining things–apart and analyzing them. There’s no fun in that. But then again, white people are very prone to becoming wet blankets.

Oscar Oversights

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So on the whole, I actually think Oscar got it mostly right this year (in terms of nominations at least). The best picture nominees are all great films, and it looks like the film that will win the top prize (either No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood) will actually deserve it this year.

That said, there are a few glaring omissions that I feel must be acknowledged and given some due props. Here are a few that I think got a bit of the shaft:

Into the Wild for almost every category
This film was stunning on so many levels. It gave me a “punch in the gut” emotional feeling that I hadn’t felt in the theater since United 93. Visually and technically brilliant, Into the Wild also featured one of the best casts of any film last year, with several standout performances that Oscar should have recognized. Most notably, Catherine Keener’s supporting role was snubbed by the Academy (who opted, wisely, to at least reward the veteran Hal Holbrook with a nomination for his supporting role). The young Emile Hirsch—an actor who also stood out in last year’s underrated Alpha Dog—definitely deserved a best actor nomination for his role as the ill-fated wanderer Chris McCandless, and the script certainly deserved an adapted screenplay nod. But perhaps the biggest snub for Into the Wild was that Eddie Vedder did not get a best original song nomination for “Guaranteed.” Instead, three schmaltzy (albeit fun!) songs from Enchanted got nominated!

The King of Kong or Into Great Silence for Best Documentary
These were not only the best documentaries of the year, but also some of the best films period. It’s a shame that in a documentary market crowded by what seems like 90% Iraq films, something as fresh and new and wonderful as The King of Kong can’t get any Academy love—or something as visceral and minimalist and original as Into Great Silence. Instead we get Michael Moore and “the best of the anti-Bush” docs. Academy: expand your non-fictional horizons.

Ryan Gosling for Best Actor
It was great to see a young, dynamic actor like Ryan Gosling get a nomination last year for Half Nelson. But his performance in Lars and the Real Girl this year was in my opinion even stronger. Certainly it was better than George Clooney’s ho-hum performance in Michael Clayton (in which he was far outshone by Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, and a handful of other actors).

I’m Not There for all artistic categories
Okay, so this is not exactly the Atonement-style yuppie film that Oscar likes to reward. But come on! Only one nomination? (Cate Blanchett for supporting actress). As strange and unconventional as it is, I’m Not There is certainly one of 2007’s most artistic achievements in cinema. Sound, cinematography, art direction, costumes, makeup? If anyone in the Academy has seen this film (and not just read about Cate Blanchett’s performance) they would have voted for it in these categories. Something is fundamentally wrong when Norbit gets nominated for best makeup instead of something like I’m Not There. I mean… Norbit??

Does Jesse James Know Who He Is?

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a film I did not get a chance to write about when it came out last autumn, though I did put it #8 on my “best of 2007” list. I recently saw it on DVD again, however, and have been struck anew by the film’s surprising beauty, mystery, and psychological resonances.

Beyond its artistic excellence (including some really interesting photographic effects, beautiful music, etc), Assassination is a film that captures some pretty complicated truths about humanity and identity.

The “larger-than-life” title hints that this film is less about a real event (though it is a true story) than it is about a mythology about a larger-than-life man and his untimely demise. This is not a biopic of Jesse James, and as such we never really get close to understanding him as a person as much as a symbolic icon. The brilliantly cast Brad Pitt (himself a larger-than-life icon) recognizes this, providing his character scant few moments of intelligible humanity. What we do see of Jesse James the man is someone who is very much intrigued by his own cultural mystique. He’s acting the part that has been written by pop-culture and legend; he’s both an observer and the main attraction in the abstracted spectacle that is “Jesse James.”

Fittingly, much of Pitt’s performance consists of iconic poses and postures: standing gallantly amid the windswept plains; sitting throne-like in an Edenic yard with snakes writhing around his forearms; enshrouded in mystical steam and darkness as a train approaches (to be robbed). He’s the consummate rebel hero—an unbeatable bandit who, in the end, seems to orchestrate even the circumstances of his own assassination.

Indeed, the scene in which Robert Ford (heartbreakingly portrayed by Casey Affleck) shoots Jesse James is so thoroughly blocked and theatrical that we can’t help but wonder if James had this moment planned out his whole life. Without giving too much away (it’s a brilliant scene), I’ll just say that the sequence feels like the ultimate convergence between the “real story” and the “mythology”—in which James and Ford fully transition from people to characters, from humans living to actors performing. And this is not a knock on the verisimilitude of the film; on the contrary, I suspect that this climactic sense of artifice/performed mythology was just what writer/director Andrew Dominik intended.

The point is further made in the subsequent “one year later” sequence, in which Robert Ford is now a widely-known actor in New York, “performing” his legendary assassination on stage every night for star struck audiences. Here, in ghostly makeup and stage light, Ford shoots blanks and “Jesse” is just an actor who dramatically “dies” for a gasping audience. It’s a simulation of an event that, in reality, was a simulation in it’s own right.

Among other things, Assassination is a film that understands the performative aspects of identity. In a sense, we are all actors—performing and projecting versions of our selves to fit whatever circumstance, stage, or audience we are in. Like Jesse James we all have images and public “selves” to live up to (though to a less grandiose extent for most of us). It is an exhausting and seemingly unavoidable practice of everyday social interaction—the performance of a suitable self in social context.

Sociologist Erving Goffman touched on these issues in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he wrote:

“The impression of reality fostered by a performance is a delicate, fragile thing that can be shattered by very minor mishaps. The expressive coherence that is required in performances points out a crucial discrepancy between our all-too-human-selves and our socialized selves. As human beings we are presumably creatures of variable impulse with moods and energies that change from one moment to the next. As characters for an audience, however, we must not be subject to ups and downs”

This is the burden of identity—the weight of having to maintain a “front,” manage impressions, and live up to perceptions and standards and (in Jesse James’ case) legends that we ourselves foster—even while we are humans with far more complexities and contradictions than one sellable “self” could assume.

But that is the very justification for why we must perform. We are far too complex to be understood by others (let alone ourselves) if not by way of crafting a character for every given context. Of course we can only take the theater metaphor so far, but I think Goffman is perceptive when he says that “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.”

Top Down Populism

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I’ve been intrigued of late by a seemingly obvious and pervasive contradiction within American culture—the notion of “grassroots” or “populist” activity as something that can be not only leveraged but orchestrated from above by powerful groups seeking the “consensus” approval or authentic legitimacy that comes when something is done “by the people.” Politicians recognize the importance of tapping into populism (see how many times each of the presidential candidates’ websites name-drop the word “grassroots”), as do media moguls (who pay bloggers to start a buzz on the web to create “bottom up marketing”) and television executives (who, in reality shows like American Idol, cede “control” to the audience to portray themselves as “America’s show”).

Indeed, populism has always been a hallmark of America, a nation birthed out of a direct opposition to the elitism, stratified wealth, and top-down imperialism of 18th century Europe. But the very point of populism was that it not be coopted by the elites who—from their perches of power in Washington or Madison Avenue—sought to use “the people’s voice” as just another way to sell their products, their messages, their agendas.

So how can we take top-down populism seriously? After all, a “grassroots” movement is, by definition and necessarily, bottom-up. This is not to say it doesn’t take leadership on the grassroots level to get the ball rolling with any momentous movement or change. Of course it does. But something ceases to be authentically grassroots when the ideas or origins of a movement come not from the “people” or “populace” but are fed from above by campaign strategists, teachers, or other institutional arms of the hegemony.

Briefly, here are two examples I’ve encountered recently that illustrate my point:

1) I sit on a board at UCLA that oversees all student media (newspapers, magazines, yearbook, etc) and at our last meeting a few board members proposed a revitalization plan for several of the floundering niche magazines on campus. These magazines (for groups like African American students, Muslims, Latinos, Asian-Americans, etc) were quite popular in the mid to late 90s at UCLA, but for whatever reason have recently fallen on apathetic ears. Students are simply not as interested in this sort of community-based “progressive” journalism anymore. The proposed “revitalization” plan calls for the formation of an “alternative/underground journalism training program” wherein students are taught how to organize on the street level and produce community-specific journalism that is hopefully oppositional, subversive, muckraking and important. Sounds good, but we can easily see the contradiction here. How do we teach community-level, grassroots activist journalism? If the students are inclined to do it, they will on their own. If not, why should we (and how can we) force it?

2) I went to a conference at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts this weekend on the topic of DIY Video (i.e. kids with cameras and editing equipment who make their own films that wind up on YouTube). A panel of ridiculously utopian media theorists (Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, Joi Ito, Yochai Benkler, John Seely Brown) went on and on about the “revolutionary” effects on culture that this sort of democratized video production might hold. They kept repeating that we (read: educated, old, and liberal) should create programs of “visual media literary” wherein young, poor, minority students would be given the tools (cameras, computers, etc) and training to visually express and distribute (via YouTube or elsewhere) the opinions they are otherwise never given platform to convey. The idea is that these muted voices will be enabled to speak and speak out against the forces that control and oppress them. The goal of the old rich benefactors who finance these “media literacy” initiatives is, of course, that some brilliant high schooler with a laptop will create the next great anti-establishment “stick it to the man” expose. But what happens if all the kids want to do is film Jackass stunts?

Ultimately, the problem both of these groups must solve is the problem of caring. How do we get young people (or anyone, really) to care enough about an issue to organize and build grassroots momentum for change? It’s a serious problem. But it can’t be solved by cloying, force-fed, top-down manipulation.

Perhaps the increased proliferation of top-down, taught populism is simply a sign that the populace doesn’t know what or who it is (or should be). Perhaps grassroots activity today—even with the ultimate grassroots tool (or, perhaps, hindrance) of the Internet—cannot exist without the orchestration and steering of someone who actually has a message or idea we can get excited about. In lieu of having little we are organically excited about (or perhaps in lieu of the overwhelming glut of potential things to get excited about), we need direction.

I’d like to think that a “mass” or “populace” exists outside the realm of top-down influence. I’d like to think that the people are capable of banding together and revolutionizing systems and societies, Marx style. But I think that Marx underestimated the extent to which—as we see today—the “people” are quietly (and perhaps unknowingly) going about the business of the powers that be, rather than overthrowing them. Indeed, I think Gramsci’s view of the world is more practical—the notion that control is wielded not through coercion but ideology, that subjugation can be framed as a positive, that we willingly participate in the subtle reinforcement of dominant values.

Of course this is all very pessimistic, and any Gramscian must hold on to the hope that little moments of personal rebellion are possible—that hegemonic forces can be thwarted by means of grassroots revolution. But it is definitely, and increasingly, an uphill battle.

Sideloading Success Stories

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One of the newest and biggest buzzwords of the new digital economy is “viral.” It’s the word used by marketers hoping to leverage the massive force that is the web, and it’s what makes Lost so popular, Cloverfield so buzzed about, and YouTube the youngest $2 billion company ever. It’s the peer-to-peer, grassroots, collective-curator usurping of the top-down “gatekeeper” model of culture. And, unsurprisingly, it’s where the big money is these days.

But “viral” is an odd word for the phenomenon. Viral sounds like it’s a disease being spread and infecting the masses who can only submit to and be overtaken by the powerful and infectious force of the airborne piece of pop culture. It leaves out the audience’s power to choose what to forward, what to click on, or what to tell others to come watch on the computer during lunch. “Viral” assumes passivity. But what is going on here is nothing if not active.

The term I’ve come to like as an alternative is sideloading. I first used the term in a paper I wrote last year on the economics of user-generated-content, and I’m presenting the idea at a conference in Philadelphia in a few weeks. Essentially sideloading is the third (and, arguably, defining) mode of web activity by users. Users can upload (create content, videos, songs, blog entries), download (consume content, collect, gather, etc), or sideload (send something out across vast networked distances… to friends, colleagues, entire email address books…). To sideload is to make the uploaded “exist” beyond some limited circle… but it is more participatory than mere downloading. To download something is to take personal ownership over it. To sideload is to share in a broader community of cultural engagement. If culture is defined as “shared meaning,” then the sideloaded is the bread and butter of any culture. It’s the culture that breaks out of esoteric strata and reaches a tipping point of common, mass interest.

And this is where the clearest convergence of user-generated content’s value for the user and for the economy occurs. Sideloading: forwarding, linking, buzz-building, etc. People want to share things laterally that they create or view to be subversive, unique, or outside the mainstream. It’s a means of creating common culture, and yet sideloading—linking, broadening the system—also benefits the structure itself. As John Perry Barlow prophetically argued in Wired magazine seven years ago, the noncommercial distribution of information actually increases the sale of commercial information:

Abundance breeds abundance… This is precisely contrary to what happens in a physical economy. When you’re selling nouns, there is an undeniable relationship between scarcity and value. But in an economy of verbs, the inverse applies. There is a relationship between familiarity and value. For ideas, fame IS fortune.

In an environment as flooded, gluttonous, and unmanageable as the Internet, it is very true that fame (read: massively sideloaded) equals fortune. Not only in terms of exposure (i.e. getting some artist’s name and work out to the masses) but also in terms of advertising profits. The more click-throughs on any given site, video, blog, etc, the more money that can be made. Links are the currency of the Internet economy. Just ask any upstart e-company, MySpace indie band, or wannabe YouTube star.

The question remains, however: what makes something a sideloading success? Take a minute to revisit the hits as chronicled in this entertaining video:

So, are there any common threads? I’m not sure I can really spot anything. But we are painfully early in this age of sideloading culture, so what is “must see” Internet content today might be laughed off in years to come. In any case, you can bet that the media companies are desperately seeking to analyze this phenomenon and come to some conclusion about “sideloading” formulas. And in the meantime we’ll keep going about our linkage business in our own unpredictable ways.