Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Time For Our Tears: Today's Other 50-Year Anniversary

This is neither a political blog nor a "current events" blog.  In fact, I very rarely write about cultural events as they're happening.  But today I was struck by serendipity and felt compelled to write a few words about today's other big fifty year anniversary in American race relations.  THE big anniversary is, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech (available in full here), and it's received the due attention from the news media ... when they took a breather from reporting on Miley Cyrus's ass that is.  The other big anniversary came to my attention as I was shuffling through Bob Dylan songs on my iPod (for no particular reason) and stumbled upon this classic that I hadn't heard in years:

Curious about the veracity of Dylan's lyrics, I googled "Zantzinger" for more background on the factual background behind this song.  As it happens, I learned that the sentencing of William Zantzinger for the killing of Hattie Carroll, the event that inspired this song, occurred exactly fifty years ago today, August 28, 1963.

More below the fold ....

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Batman Isn't James Bond (Or, At Least, He Doesn't Have To Be)

Unlike a lot of people out there on the interwebs, I don't have much to say about the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman for the upcoming Man of Steel sequel.  Personally, I would've been more excited by the prospect of Bryan Cranston trading in his Heisenberg hat for the Dark Knight cowl (as previously rumored before he was apparently cast as Lex Luthor instead), but honestly I found Snyder's Superman reboot to be such an incoherent mess that it's hard to care about the follow-up (whether "vs. Batman" or not).  That said, I find the reaction of the fanbase to the casting news to be excessive, but not for the usual reasons given by the cynics (i.e. "Grow up fanboys, it's just a f*cking movie, and don't you know there are real problems in the world?").  The problem I have with all the nerd-rage has to do with the assumptions we make about comic book franchises, which is sadly encouraged by the way Warner Bros. treats its D.C. properties.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Who Would've Thought Giant Robots Fighting Space Monsters Could Be Subtle?

While I haven't fully given up on this year's crop of summer's blockbusters (not with The Wolverine, Kick-Ass 2 and The World's End still to be seen), I do believe this is the most disappointing summer I can recall -- at least for the major studio flicks.  Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel both disappointed to degrees I just hadn't anticipated beforehand, as I discuss briefly here and here, respectively.  One of the few bright spots, discounting the better of the non-blockbuster movies I've seen, was the non-franchise, non-sequel, non-reboot Pacific Rim.  I'll admit that I had little to no hope in this film going into it, despite having had a good enough time with Guillermo del Toro's films in the past.  But after a year of so many overlong and overwrought (yet simultaneously small-minded) special effects blowouts, Pacific Rim was surprisingly streamlined and effective by comparison.

Superficially a single-premise film (i.e. Space Monsters vs. Giant Robots), the movie also delivered a stealth message that I was surprised to find afterward received almost no attention from film critics. I don't have much to say about the movie's artistic merits here, but I thought the reaction (or lack thereof) from so many critics to the movie's obvious subtext says something interesting about what contemporary moviegoers expect from a "message" movie, as opposed to a fun summer blockbuster.

While Pacific Rim has few spoilable moments, I will give you the standard issue "spoiler warning" regardless and continue this discussion below the fold.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Watching the Pot Boil: Reflections on Breaking Bad and Long-Form Ficton

The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad begin this week, bringing with them the promise of a massive payoff that's been five years in the making.  Series-creator Vince Gilligan has summed up the show as one simple concept, the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface (that is, the transformation of a over-the-hill chemist teacher into a meth-dealing kingpin). While it's true that Gilligan's meth-dealing epic is part of trend of hyper-masculine, antihero character studies that followed in the Sopranos' wake, Breaking Bad's singular focus, cohesion and discipline of storytelling is deserving of special attention.  So much of modern culture seems to play out like a reverse-"Stanford marshmallow experiment", promising maximum for those who refuse to wait.  At the risk of sounding like the kids are on my yard again, I have to give props to TV that fully realizes the potential of the medium -- long-form fiction that breathes, takes its time and pays off only when the time is right.

Of course, quality is quality and any style or genre done right is worth watching.  All that said, when a creative work bucks the trend in all the right ways, it's worth standing up and taking note.  It's a big world and there's room for instant gratification alongside the long, slow payoffs.  But Breaking Bad's narrative successes also say something about the ways so much of modern culture fails to nail the landing.  (Before I say anything more, here's your spoiler warning for Star Wars, the Iron Man movies, Man of SteelLooper, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, True BloodTreme, and - of course - Breaking Bad through the fourth season.)

Monday, August 5, 2013

No, The Seattle Audience Wasn't "Aggressively Displeased" By Big Freedia

I recently moved to Seattle from New York, and my new hometown gave me a great welcoming present -- a well-timed concert by The Postal Service at the KeyArena.  I was surprised to see that they were playing such a large venue, being a one-off side project of Ben Gibbard that had released only a single album a decade ago.  (It made a little more sense to me that they had played the Barclays Center in New York, where even small up-and-coming acts will often play large venues even if they're otherwise playing in dive bars when they tour cross-country.)  Unsurprisingly, much of the arena was empty the night of July 18th, and so the opening act carried the significant burden of trying to fill an 18-thousand capacity space with maybe 18 hundred attendees trickling in.  This is the context in which it seems many Seattlites (myself included, if I may adopt my new home town's moniker) were introduced to one particularly spunky opening act who goes by the drag personae Big Freedia.

For those of you who haven't heard of Big Freedia before either, the Wikipedia summary is that she's "an American musician known for work in New Orleans genre of hip hop called bounce music."  For those of you who haven't heard of "bounce music" before, here was my introduction to "bounce" (and, unbeknownst to me at the time, to the Queen Diva herself) from the HBO not-really-a-hit series Treme:

You might notice that the scene takes place in a loud, crowded bar packed with sweaty people getting their groove on -- i.e. not in a 18k-capacity arena that's 90% empty but for a few stragglers having their first sip of beer after getting off of work.  Some of those stragglers were less enthralled by Big Freedia and her three booty-shaking consorts on stage, and they took to Twitter to make their opinions known.  This sliver of a reaction proved to be the spark that set off a small firestorm of criticism from one Katie Ryder, who's brutal take-down of "the white audiences" that "aggressive[ly]" responded to Big Freedia allegedly because they felt "confront[ed]" by Big Freedia's "transgress[ion] into a physical room of whiteness" was recently published on

I'm here to say "balderdash!" Balderdash, I say! Aside from extrapolating to a ridiculous degree the reaction of a handful of the Twitterati to an entire audience, Ms. Ryder ignores entirely the delicate balance that goes into a successful concert experience, while at the same time sadly reducing Big Freedia to a "tolerance litmus test."  It's hard not to conclude that Ms. Ryder's article is a conclusion in search of an argument.  She clearly has something to say about the appropriation of black culture by white musicians (which may easily be said to summarize much of American music in general from the late 1800s to the present but in this case summarizes Miley Cyrus's foray into "twerking").  And perhaps the opportunity to package that message together with everybody's favorite hobby these days -- hispter-punching -- was just too tempting.  (I can't wait for the third season of Girls to start so that we can read another dozen articles about the blinding whiteness of Lena Dunham, a topic that just can't be explored enough!)

But before we try to unpack just what the hell Miley Cyrus has to do with a dozen or so tweets from KeyArena and whether Big Freedia made sense as an opening act in The Postal Services' stadium tour, let me share a few thoughts on the strange alchemy of finding the perfect concert experience (and the many pitfalls that can turn an amazing show into a forgettable or even uncomfortable one).