Thursday, July 31, 2008

A paragraph is worth a thousand words.

In a one-paragraph review-of-the-genre titled "I'm Sick of Your Dirty Job," Newsweek writer Joshua Alston, in the July 28 issue, slams the current rash of "tough job" reality shows and wonders why anyone would relax after their own workday by watching other people work. But the heart of the critique comes when Alston asks: "Want to see a really dangerous job? How about a woman working for minimum wage at a big-box retail store who can't afford health insurance? Marvel as she scans groceries, aggravating the carpal tunnel for which she can't go to a doctor. It might not be as visually compelling a show, but it would certainly be more relevant."

WB bows deeply and encourages Newsweek to keep Mr. Alston, whose writing exemplifies what "less is more" means, restricted to one paragraph at all times.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Turning Japanese (We Really Think So)

With the rising popularity of reality TV and the hard times countless Americans face economically, many are looking for that special mix of reality with prizes and money. Enter game shows. Combine them with producers who are tapped out of ideas and America’s natural aesthetic for watching people humiliate and harm themselves, and you’ve got the new fad of Japanese game shows coming to America.

It’s been slowly moving in since the late 1990s when Ninja Warrior first ran on American television. The show is composed of Japanese contestants doing outrageous stunts, and it airs on the cable network G4 weeknights at 9 p.m. (A simulated cartoon game can also be found on the network’s web site.) The winner walks away with the distinguished title of “World’s Greatest Ninja Warrior.”

Next comes Unbeatable Bonzuke, also on G4. This show seems a little tougher, as most challenges are done while the contestants either ride a unicycle or walk on their hands. The show isn’t exactly “unbeatable” since there’s always a winner, but it does make for some interesting “those Japanese people do some crazy stuff” conversations.

Well, the conversations were geared toward the Japanese, until ABC decided to make its own (i.e. American) version of MXC (Most Extreme Elimination Challenge) the Japanese version of ABC's new Wipeout. MXC airs on Spike and, according to, “is a combination of Fear Factor, Jackass and Iron Chef, with a touch of Mystery Science Theater 3000.” (Don't you just love these kinds of helpful descriptions?) The games between the shows are the same (with different names), the hosts mock the contestants as they land in mud and/or disgusting water after falling, and the most painful looking “wipeouts,” of course, are continually replayed. The only difference between the shows is that MXC came first and has only Japanese contestants, while Wipeout is all “American.”

Directly following Wipeout, Tuesdays at 9 p.m., is a show called I Survived a Japanese Game Show. (The title makes it even more obvious that American television is being taken over by Japanese culture, don’t you think?) This show is even more of a mockery than Wipeout as it follows the same group of Americans traveling through Japan, like Chris Farley in the SNL skit above, to compete in the most arbitrary stunts possible. Don’t believe it? Does spinning on a wheel to become dizzy while dressed as a baby, then carrying a bottle of milk to an even bigger bottle and pouring it in, count as weird and mildly disturbing? What about being covered with sticky goo before rolling in feathers, clucking like a chicken, and then sitting on balloons in an effort to pop them like hatching eggs?

So who is responsible for these American versions of Japanese game shows? Well, for that, WB blames… Ellen DeGeneres. Before the “creation” of Wipeout and I Survived a Japanese Game Show, DeGeneres was incorporating Japanese-style games into her talk show. It started with “The Marshmallow Game,” in which audience members put rubber straps around their heads while trying to eat marshmallows hanging from strings... as shown in this mildly — oops, wildly — amusing clip from the Japanese original:

DeGeneres then stepped it up a notch and created her own version of the Japanese game “Human Tetris,” calling it “Through the Wall, Take a Fall.” This game features a Styrofoam wall with cut out shapes that move steadily closer to the contestants. If the contestants don’t shape their bodies the proper way to fit through the wall, they “take a fall” into a pit of balls. Although all contestants win prizes, they’re laughed at throughout the process.

As evident through the laughs, commentary, and ridicule of the contestants on the American shows, and the Japanese ones dubbed in English, Americans take these shows as a joke. We laugh when contestants fall, call them idiots, and swear that people will do anything for money. It’s entertainment for us, but it is serious business for the Japanese, who hold their breath and applaud when a contestant completes a course. Us? We just laugh and hold on to the hope that they’ll fall, just as too many people watched The Crocodile Hunter secretly wishing that Steve Irwin would be attacked by an animal — until it happened, of course.

So, are other cultures watching these shows? Of course they are; American television shows have been in homes all around the world since the technology first came along. If getting the chance to watch Jerry Springer dubbed in Spanish, Japanese, German, or Italian isn’t enough, now people in those countries can watch us dress like chickens and pop balloons with our butts.

God bless J... er, America.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Introducing our newest staff writer

WB is proud and delighted to announce the addition of Pinkmingo to our writing staff. A student of pop culture, a prolific writer, a veteran of newspaper production, and a wicked smart human being who's worked with both 78rpm and Litchik in other contexts, Pink has already donated half a quart of blood to the "cult crit" cause and will see her first post here tomorrow. We look forward to many, many more after that.


Déjà Vu: A Dark and Stormy Knight, Redux

It's not often that WB will re-run previous posts, but because it took so long for 78rpm and his son mp3 to coordinate moviegoing schedules and go see the second Batman installment that Litchik had already seen, we're doing that now. This will be an exercise in Bakhtinian dialogic movie reviewing, with Litchik's original post in blue and 78's addenda in orange.

Litchik has been waiting very eagerly for The Dark Knight. While perhaps not as rabidly devoted as the fanboys, Litchik is very much a Batman kind of gal. Superman tends to be the hero du jour for those who view the world in black and white absolutes. Batman is for those who view the world in varying shades of gray, who understand the complexities of the world we live in and know that being human is a blend of light and dark. This film totally nails that philosophy on the head. And nailed 78rpm in the head, too. What a busy script!

The thing about comic book heroes making the leap to the big screen is that they tend to mostly bring their original audience with them. Or at least that's what many directors, screenwriters and producers seem to believe: appease the fanboys and all will be well. Thankfully, the Nolan brothers apparently don't buy into this philosophy as they played with the mythos of several key characters. They also played with the idea of being polished screenwriters, but forgot to bring along editors to tighten up the story. But that's not what this film is about or what sets it apart. This movie has key components that should help propel it to several box office records and perhaps even a little gold bald guy or two. One for most inelegant and abrupt cuts in editing, and another for silliest vocal performance by a lead actor, Christian Bale?

First, the cast truly shines throughout the film. Obviously, much buzz surrounds the performance of Heath Ledger, almost to the point where it became seemingly impossible for him to meet those high expectations. Indeed, the word "overhyped" rides under the whole film like a giant subtitle. He does not disappoint, and he portrays the Joker with a terrifying chaotic glee. But it's really hard to get lost in a character while thinking, "That's Heath, and he's dead, and this is his last performance." Ledger isn't the only star who shines: Eric Roberts (Julia's brother) finally has a movie role of at least minor substance again, Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) provide a certain gravitas to the film and a moral anchor for Batman (often through the device of lengthy, sermonic moralizing speeches that slow the action a crawl), while Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Rachel Dawes) provide strong supporting roles and help show Batman's human side. (Hey, it's that guy from the little art-house movie about cigarettes and the chick from that weird indie SM flick who wore a wedding dress and peed in it! Wow, his makeup is amazing after he gets burned—check how his fake eyeball moves in perfect sync with the real one! Wonder why Katie Holmes didn't come back as Rachel? Did Tom and the Scientologists threaten her if she left the house? Maggie sort of looks like Katie, a little, maybe. Dammit, I think I might have ADHD.)

Finally, Christain Bale's Batman is perhaps the darkest and most complex interpretation to date. Other than his voice, which sounds like an impersonation of Harvey Fierstein after smoking a carton of Camel nonfilters or the lead singer of Dethklok on Adult Swim's Metalocalypse, Bale brings out a tortured version of Batman and shows the real definition of hero. And when he's Bruce Wayne, you can see how in a few years he's going to start looking just like Pierce Brosnan. He seems a lot shorter than Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman, too. Isn't Batman supposed to be tall and imposing? Gary Oldman was excellent in that movie about the cop who buries money in his back yard — and Lena Olin was sooo hot as she kicked his ass. What's happened to her? How come he's still making movies and she's not? There aren't any good roles for older women unless they're Meryl Streep. Should I go see that Abba movie where Meryl sings? I need to rent Sid and Nancy tomorrow; I think it was Gary's first big role. Damned ADHD!

While the cast may be a delicious cake, the special effects and action scenes are the icing that tops it all off. The Bat Cycle will surely appear on your child's and 78rpm's Christmas list, and the fight scenes, especially any with the Joker, will leave many viewers wincing in their seats. He even does an impressive magic trick! (Unfortunately, one that gets a great laugh from the audience, even though it's supposed to be demented and sadistic.) The scenery itself has been better in earlier films, but the special effects (oh look, that truck is flipping straight into the air after Batman wraps cables around its axles! Hasn't that exact setup and payoff been done somewhere before — like maybe in Terminator 3? How blatant can they be?) are so impressive that most moviegoers (unless they're among the millions who've lived in or visited the Windy City for any length of time) won't notice that Gotham looks an awful lot like Chicago — a visual similarity that Nolan chose to leave untouched by CG alterations. And speaking of Terminator 3, what's with the teaser for Terminator: Salvation, coming in summer 2009 — and starring Christian Bale as John Connor? How in the hell are we supposed to think that Edward Furlong became Nick Stahl, who becomes Bruce Wayne? Whatever happened to Edward Furlong, anyway? And is it just a coincidence that the trailer right after the T4 teaser starred Russell Crowe, who starred with Bale in that "train to Yuma" western? An Aussie and a Welshman, in a cowboy movie about the American west. Two of these things are not like the other....

But we need to talk more about Litchik's point about Chicago. In Batman Begins, the Gotham backdrop was a digital amalgam of New York and Chicago exteriors with all kinds of CGI thrown into the mix so that viewers saw a city — indefinite article — that was slightly futuristic, slightly industrial, while also being dense and dark and teeming with movement. In the Dark Knight sequel, all of that is gone, replaced by the city — definite article — of Chicago. It's extremely distracting to be thinking: "Wayne Enterprises HQ is actually the IBM Building. Harvey's office is by the train station. Bruce's penthouse is in the Hotel 71. The gangsters are having dinner at Miller's. The flaming fire engine (ha ha, good joke, Joker) is on Wabash. The 3D fight scene is happening in the under-construction Trump Tower. (Wonder how much The Donald charged them for that?) The hospital is the Opera House. The ferry boats are leaving Navy Pier. I think I might be turning into Rain Man...."

This is Gotham.

This is not Gotham. This is Chicago.

What really sets this movie apart is the theme. This isn't the traditional good vs. evil of so many other comic book movies (or other movies, for that matter). Instead, this film lets chaos and chance play a central role, wreaking havoc on both sides of the morality fence. In all seriousness, Litchik is right: the movie definitely does give viewers a lot to think about. This also makes the latest installment the darkest Batman to date. No hopeful message or morality tale emerges in the end except for a body-slamming critique of the Bush administration's illegal wiretapping of citizens, and its willingness to shred the Constitution if that will bring in Osama Bin Laden. When Morgan Free... er, Lucius Fox tells Bruce Wayne that "it's not right to spy on 30 million people just to find one man," 78 wanted to stand and applaud... but realized that the allegory had probably just done a fly-by for most others in the theater who were busy with nachos and popcorn. In fact, this movie challenges the good-versus-evil motif by simply pointing out that none of it may matter at all. Our stand on the morality spectrum is something each of us will have to decide on our own.

Why... so... serious?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Hi, Tech(nology)

The following is an open letter to the rich and/or (in)famous. Think of it as some helpful advice from the WB staff (because surely someone in our reading audience must be rich and/or (in)famous).

Dear Mr./Ms. Celebrityandorpoliticalpublicfigure -

Recently, as you can see in a previous post, Rev. Jesse Jackson made what appears now to be not one but several unfortunate comments regarding Barack Obama. Of course, the remark about removing key components of Senator Obama's genitalia has become the crotch shot heard 'round the world, but now reports have surfaced that the N-word was also uttered during the Faux Snooze segment. The situation has reached such a critical head that Elizabeth Hasselbeck broke down in tears during a discussion with Whoopi Goldberg on The View.



And yet another installment of Why can't white people use the N-word too?, part 32,671. (Thanks, Jesse and Whoopi.)

The madness must end!

To avoid heart-wrenching tragedies like the one above, we implore all celebrities, politicians, public figures and anyone who speaks in public to heed a few simple technology rules. First, when wearing a microphone, keep your internal censors and filters on. Do not say the first thing that comes to mind, no matter how angry you feel. Those little electronic devices can pick up the sound of a scandal starting, so don't give them any help! There really can't be any more waterworks from Elizabeth Hassleback in the future.

Then there is the issue of cell phones. If you're not paying the bill, you probably shouldn't try to make clandestine deals with, say, rival teams for a position as, say, starting quarterback, because your old team really thought you were retiring (the tears really were convincing, Mr. Favre) and gave your spot to someone else. Cellular devices log all calls, which can easily be looked up by anyone who has access to the bill. Maintaining your status as the patron saint of Wisconsin can be seriously jeopardized if those records are uncovered. And they usually are, especially when we have serious events going on, like a war and a recession. (FYI - hard times usually bring an onslaught of soft news. As important as you think you are, this does mean you.)

Finally, not only are calls logged, but so are text messages. So, Mayor Kilpatrick: using a city phone, presumably meant for city business, is not the best way to take care of your personal matters. Business calls, yes; booty calls, no. As pious as you think you seem, Detroit doesn't need any more tarnishing, and national exposés like the following are richly deserved on your part because you clearly thought you were above the law.

This is a wired world, where every word and action is readily accessible if you utter or type it anywhere within the public sphere. And the line between public and private dissolves a little more every day. So as the general public continues to look for soft-news distractions from rising fuel and food costs and plummeting property values, they'll anxiously await your next misadventure, Mr./Ms. Celebripolipubfig, ready to scrutinize and comment upon every bullet you shoot into your own foot.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

WB Blues Review: Wrightin' a serious wrong.

Ain't gonna stop until the twenty-fifth hour
'Cause now I'm livin' on blues power
........ - L. Russell & E. Clapton, "Blues Power"

The Rusty Wright Band, Chelsea, MI, July 26

WB had the great fortune this weekend to see and hear one of the premier bands on the contemporary music scene, led by a man with fingers of fire and rocking the most impressive ponytail in all of music history. The Rusty Wright Band, like the Rolling Stones, defines the word "tight" as Rusty's scorching lead and slide work, accompanied by soaring B3 organ riffs, weaves through Laurie LaCross-Wright's rock-solid rhythm guitar, all with a bass-and-drum engine chugging along as reliably as the Charlie Watts/Bill Wyman machine in its heyday.

The 90-minute set brought an awed crowd to its feet after the last two songs, which were thumping tributes to Robin Trower and Stevie Ray Vaughan. (Admit it: any band willing to wear Robin Trower roots on its sleeve is truly special.) And did we mention the jaw-dropping rendition of a George Gershwin tune, "Summertime," from the 1935 American opera, Porgy and Bess? Laurie wraps magnificent vocals around the song here:

As an added bonus, Rusty Wright, a physically imposing mountain of a guitar god on stage, is an extraordinarily nice and completely unassuming man in person who, as Laurie did too, was more than happy to chat with WB staff after the show.

And afterwards, we reflected back on a show by another band — one that will remain nameless here — that we'd caught in Chicago earlier in the month, when we were completely underwhelmed by muted and lifeless guitar, nonexistent bass, mildly entertaining drumming, and... maybe some keyboards buried under the mix? The frontman was admittedly a gifted blues harp (aka harmonica) blower, but as a singer, he, um, talked. A lot. Mostly about how he was feeling "horny as a motherfucker," which had no context the first time and was totally annoying by the last. Songs stretched on for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, and because the soundman at the mixing board somehow didn't notice that none of the vocal mics were working for the first half hour of the show, we wondered if this might be a pantomime act rather than one of the alleged cornerstones of the Chicago blues scene, led by a supposed protégé of both Otis Rush and Buddy Guy.

You might have noticed that WB never bothered to review that performance here, and we're leaving that group unnamed (and unlinked) now because it could one day be the opener for the the Rusty Wright Band when the latter, and far superior, band gets its well-deserved national recognition. But the fact that "one day" should have happened long before now is what's really puzzling us, since the Rusty Wright Band's first CD featured session work by Godsmack's (now former) drummer Tommy Stewart, and members of Lynyrd Skynyrd have posted glowing praise for RWB's ability to tear it up. Yet it's Mister Horny and the Underwhelmers who were booked at a national-level blues venue in one of the nation's premier music cities.

To which we can only say, Hey! Booking agents! A&R people! You guys have no idea what you're sleeping through — and that's a damned shame. So here, let WB help you out a little:


Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Rapper and the Rattlesnakes

As Stephen Colbert's show the other night pointed out, rapper Nas delivered over 600,000 petitions to the Faux Snooze Channel asking the GOP's propaganda arm to end its racist attacks on... basically, anyone not white, but especially Barack and Michelle Obama and black Americans in general.

Nas gave a speech outside Faux HQ:

Faux refused to accept the petitions, or to discuss the matter, other than to let its excitable lion in winter, Bill O'Reilly, respond with an ad hominem attack against Nas, claiming that the rapper brought the petitions purely for publicity to generate sales for his "poor selling" latest CD.:

Just three little problems there, Bill. First, the CD you call "a bomb, a disaster, a catastrophe" was the #1-selling album on the Billboard charts on the day you weighed in, having just bumped Lil Wayne out of the top spot. Second, you defend your network from Nas's charges of racism by saying that he uses the N-word and has violent lyrics. But what about your network's racism? That was the issue. Rather than address it, you simply avoid it and toss a red herring onto the trail, and you know who does that?

Fox hunters. To test their hounds.

Finally, if Nas is fighting the mighty No-Spin Network only for personal gain, then what was in it for the 620,000 people who signed petitions because they shared in his disgust for the anti-Obama attacks?


WB out. Nas can finish the post better than we can:


Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Perversity: A WB Treatise

I am doll eyes, doll mouth, doll legs
I am doll arms, big veins, dog bait.

---Hole, "Doll Parts"

I just want to feel you in my arms

Share a little of that human touch

Feel a little of that human touch.

---Bruce Springsteen, "Human Touch"

They are so lifelike, they're hideous. Or, they're amazingly realistic stand-ins for an authentic physical experience. They're gross, wrong, disgusting, perverse. Or, they're gut-wrenching examples of loneliness and despair creating a need for simulated contact.

Or maybe, as with so many other dynamics of the human experience, they are both, neither, all, none. Steven Covey, the Seven Habits guru, tells a story (most likely apocryphal) about being on a train with loud, annoying children running around undisciplined by their father. Covey finally challenged the father, only to learn that the children's mother had just died, and they were acting out their confusion and loss. Covey's anger turned instantly to embarrassment and empathy.

Paradigms are difficult to cast in stone when the cases are complex ones.

Which brings us to Reborn Babies, a line of expensive, custom-crafted dolls made ultra-realistic in size, weight, features, skin tones, and skin texture. Their tiny chests move up and down with every "breath," and their "hearts" have a discernible rhythm.

The customers buying them aren't children. They're adults, who "adopt" them and use them as replacements for children. Stepford babies, in other words. Replicants. Simulated beings. More human than human, and they never, ever cry. Never soil a diaper. Never die in their cribs. I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always; as long as I'm living, my baby you'll be — words from a heartbreaking children's book inspired by two dead babies.

But that's where the paradigm starts to fog up, and the snap judgments and normalizing narratives we prefer to render start to crumble. Who are these adults? According to Reuters, many of them are, like the author of Love You Forever, the parents of stillborn, recently deceased, or missing children. Some are the parents of grown children who've left the adults facing an abyss of despair instead of an enjoyably empty nest. Some are grandparents who watch the former darlings of their hearts become unrecognizable mutants, and want to revisit a happier past. Some are Alzheimer's patients, confused and regressing steadily toward an interior childhood themselves. And some are just very old, preparing to leave this world and to set off on the next journey, alone and frightened. The "Reborns" are friends and comforts.

This paradigm seems an easy one to adjust — a normalizing label of "perversity" quickly becomes cruel, harsh, thoughtless, unfounded as the details start to come in. The essential facts don't change; at bottom we're still talking about synthetic baby replacements that are cuddled, loved, and collected by adults. So what makes the paradigm shift possible? Which factors are more responsible for a quick and voluntary softening of our judgment? Babies? Alzheimer's? Loneliness? Loss? Death? The dolls "repel and attract," the Reuters headline determines. So creepy they're adorable. So adorable they're creepy. Both. Neither. The whole thing is just... complicated.

Much less adjustable is a polite society's way of viewing another kind of costly and specialized doll, one who recently appeared in the not-widely-seen Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling. Like Reborns, this doll is also made ultra-realistic in size, features, skin tones, skin texture, and... er, anatomical detail. Made by Real Doll™ (link in photo) and a competitor, Silicone Works, these, again like Reborns, are purchased by adults (although admittedly a different demographic) who "love" them and use them as replacements for women.

Stepford women, in other words. Replicants. Simulated beings. More human than human, and they never, ever argue. Never ask for help around the house. And most importantly, never refuse sex, and never impose sexual boundaries. He has no intention of embarrassing the women whose bodies he undresses. He would certainly never undress a woman he did not think he could put back together so precisely that even she will not notice — words from Booklist's review of Nicholson Baker's Fermata, a 1995 novel about a man who can freeze time and have sex with any woman he wants. "Mainly he masturbates," Kirkus Reviews helpfully clarifies, "often with, near, or onto women whom he's disrobed, or followed home."

Whether the women want this kind of attention is irrelevant. And Booklist, the American Library Association's official review journal, has little trouble making paradigmatic space for the storyline to have social merit. The novel's main character is clearly a sympathetic and entertaining protagonist, described as "playful, kind, [and] in his own way... also very moral."

Okay, but what are we to make of Silicone Works' sales pitch boasting that its products are "not RealDolls™! They are realistic silicone mannequin dolls which we call Petite Personal Companions, that weigh half the weight of RealDolls™ and stand only five feet tall! At 50 pounds they are much easier to carry around than a 100 pound doll from other manufacturers." And if 50 pounds is too burdensome, customers can opt for a "torso with attached head only, no bulky arms or legs."

Boxing Helena, anyone? Quadruple-amputee objects of desire to meet every man's most primal need? Just tuck her chin under your forearm and sling her around like a bag of dog food.

Don't want the whole woman? Buy only the breasts, in medium or large. Or the head (wig not included). Or just the torso, without the head. Or a handy, travel-ready, strategic part of the torso.

The fetishization process here is blatant, but the manufacturer has no more qualms about that than about the whole purpose of the product line, which "let[s] you explore those realms of your mind and body, when and where you want it.... Let’s face it, finding a woman with this [kind of] body and face who will actually go home and have sex with you, right when you want it, is pretty slim, right?"

Ask Nicholson Baker.

They are so lifelike, they're hideous. Or, they're amazingly realistic stand-ins for an authentic physical experience. They're gross, wrong, disgusting, perverse. Or, they're gut-wrenching examples of loneliness and despair creating a need for simulated contact. As with Reborns, it's possible to feel deep empathy for creatures so profoundly lonely and so thoroughly rejected that a $6,000 blob of silicone can offer them comfort. The emptiness must be painful beyond words; a British documentary, Guys and Dolls, seems to confirm that pretty conclusively. (Warning: video contains brief but graphic silicone nudity and some coarse language.)

A yearning to connect, or a total social disconnect?

Yet the sympathy still feels somehow forced; an ideology-infused pathos play to assist in a difficult paradigm adjustment. And the challenge of a mainly objective, if not fully sympathetic, analysis only intensifies when watching a documentary that shows decapitated "women" hanging from chains in a warehouse, "women" boxed up and secured to packaging for shipment, "women" dropped, pushed, pulled, lifted, and propped into poses, and "women" always, always, staring off-focus with cold, dead, synthetic eyes.

No less challenging is trying to maintain an objective, cultural-studies science view when reviewing the "features list" of RealDolls:

Elastic—flesh can withstand over 300% elongation... heat resistant—can withstand over 300 degrees heat... stain resistant—nothing sticks to silicone flesh....

(Why don't they just say it? "Go ahead, torture her. She won't break.")

Convenient—always ready and available... relaxing and comforting—provides stress-free companionship... affordable—cheaper than most alternatives.

(Well, now we've arrived at the core, haven't we?)

But... on the other hand, isn't there something refreshingly candid about those last three points? When much of politics, business, education, economics, religion, and general civic life can be filled with hollow promises and deceptive claims, doesn't a product that puts the truth right out there seem like a pinnacle of virtue? Sex on demand, no negotiations, no need for dinner and a movie first. We might be tempted to say that the "appeals" here only call out to half the population, but that would discount the fact that women, too, can find waiting, dating, and talking ponderous if not loathsome.

Some women. Just like some men. In fact, the number of men who'd be willing to risk falling over dead with a life-sized silicone "Personal Companion" in their closets or beds, waiting to be discovered by family members or friends post mortem, has to be nearly infinitesimal. The dolls, then, are fringe, underground, taboo — and perverse.

Or are they, as products invented and manufactured in the United States, just another manifestation of a culture that has yet to ratify an Equal Rights Amendment for women, that enforces a 'glass ceiling' for women, that underpays women in proportion to men's wages for identical jobs, that backlashes in full sexist, misogynistic glory when a woman runs for high office (heard any good Hillary jokes lately?), and that, in its darkest heart, wouldn't really mind all that much if women were somehow put under the charge of an American form of Taliban and wrapped in burkas, only to be stripped bare under a fundamentalist Sharia and whipped publicly for daring to mutter beneath the mask?

Voiceless and without agency, the ideal woman (or doll; at this point the two are conflated) is one who, although silent, always says yes; one who, although powerless, always concedes choice; and one who, although incapable of possessing, always wants nothing.

When this fantasy is projected onto real women, it comes at a damaging price for them, although we could perhaps make the same argument about Reborns if the customer is, say, a teenager who wants to see what it's like to have a child, only to be shockingly disappointed when the real thing comes along and is nothing like the simulacra. Regrets only? Too late. And babies, like women, can also be robbed of agency if they're reduced to fashion accessories and no-condom "side effects" of recreational procreation. 80 years of life, no vote.

So the central question remains: what defines perversity? What role do lingering, foundational puritanical attitudes about sex play in all of this? The Silicone Works site says that the company's "Companions" are a man's equivalent of a vibrator for women, and no more than that. But in making this claim, it compares a full system to a single part, and it admits, along with RealDolls, that these products are made for men who want the convenience of an entire female body without the inconvenience of a complete female soul. The body is merely a device; the soul, a complicating annoyance.

And that is ultimately where the definition lies, in the distinction between perversity of the physical sex, which is no big deal when conducted in privacy, and the perversity of demeaning, depersonalizing, reducing, and fetishizing women, a process both unacceptably public and infinitely destructive.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cruising toward box-office disaster?

This may be one of the worst ideas for a sequel since Rocky Balboa: apparently some Hollywood suits have been drinking the bongwater and tripping back to the Ronald Reagan/Gordon Gekko era, when Top Gun reflected the cultural zeitgeist. According to IMDb, Tom Cruise "has been asked to reprise his role as cocky fighter-pilot Maverick, 22 years after the first film. A source tells British newspaper The Sun, 'The idea is [that] Maverick is at the Top Gun school as an instructor - and this time it is he who has to deal with a cocky new female pilot.'"

The key word in all that would appear to be "cocky" — as in, a lot of really stupid men think that a lot of really stupid men will want to watch a movie about some really stupid men. But wait: they seem to understand that the culture has changed around them, because this time it'll be a female pilot who'll "feel the need... the need for speed!"

(Excuse us while WB throws up a little.)

Okay, we're back. Now let's think: a Top Gun sequel could actually go in one of two ways. It could tap into the strong Support-Our-Troops sentiment that — rightly so — has been nourished since the first Desert Storm, the basic "hate the sin but love the sinner" ideology that even the most strident out-of-Iraq-now protesters have no problem subscribing to. In this scenario, viewers young and old would flock to the TG sequel because it'd present them with the same feel-good "your United States Military kicks ass" message that got imprinted on mulleted, synth-pop-listening audiences in the mid-1980s.* Not to mention that Tom Cruise is still a huge star whose recruiting efforts for Scientology have been treated with deep respect and reverence on the interwebs.

In an alternate scenario, unless the filmmakers somehow find a way to wrangle the script so that the "cocky female pilot" is Jessica Alba, and that she must be completely nude in every scene, a TG sequel will crash and burn as spectacularly as the enemy fighter jets did in the original. The late 2010s are not 1986, George W. is not Ronald Reagan, Iraq is not Grenada, forced redeployments to the scorching desert are not voluntary deployments to sunny California, and Tom Cuise the couch-jumping, cackling, anti-medication, mystical mumbo-jumbo sputtering fool is not Tom Cruise the hot young actor from Risky Business.

But other than those minor differences, WB is highly confident that a Top Gun sequel could do boffo box office. After all, nearly 20% of Americans still admire the real-life Maverick:

* (Sing along now: Highway to the danger zone....)


Saturday, July 19, 2008


And on the topic of taverns...

Reuters reports that a group of French researchers, publishing in the science journal Alcoholism, have determined a correlation: Loud music in bars = faster drinking in fewer gulps. Turn down the volume, and drinking slows. Why? Loud music "might make conversation more difficult, forcing people to drink more and talk less."

Those scientists are so wicked smart! No wonder Bar Louie, another simulation of a "neighborhood" bar, always has the music playing at full blast. What? We said, NO WONDER BAR L—

Oh, never mind. Drink up.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Norm and Cliffy walk into a bar....

A few days ago WB stopped at Ruby Tuesday's for some miniburgers and a cold beverage. Looking around the place, we commented that it would be really nice if it were an actual neighborhood bar instead of a corporate chain simulation of one.

Then we realized that Ruby Tuesday's is part of a whole batch of "neighborhood tavern" simulacra that include Chili's, Applebee's, Bennigan's (August update: what's left of it), and TGI Friday's, corporate chain simulations that have crept into the strip malls and foodservice pads on the outskirts of major malls across the country while the real neighborhood bars and bistros in downtown areas have died slowly.

The phenomenon of RubeeChiliganFriday's being accepted as a substitute for actual neighborhood bars seems to hinge on decoration schemes. Originally these places just put up collections of assorted, random stuff, but now, they've replaced the randomness with deliberate "local" trinkets like headlines, photos, car parts, and watersport gizmos, along with sponsoring local sports teams so that advertising slogans like "Eatin' Good in the Neighborhood" can seem even more genuine. Applebee's has even run a TV ad campaign showing a local sports team, hungry after a big game, stopping by for a meal right at closing time — and because the owner knows them (as good local tavern owners always know their customers), he opens the doors again and turns the lights back on. Local service for the local boys on the local team. Small-town America still lives.

It's no accident that every RubeeChiliganFriday's looks like a clone of the bar owned by Sam Mallone on Cheers. Sam was the local boy turned pro-baseball pitching star, who went on to buy a local bar after retirement from sports, and the bar was a place "where everybody knows your name." Simulate the Cheers bar, which was itself a Hollywood simulation of a local bar, and you end up with a "bar" that customers accept as part of their "neighborhood."

(Ironically, the actual Cheers chain only builds its corporate "bars" inside airports in major cities. Not exactly a neighborhood anyone can live in, and pretty good odds that no one will ever know your name.)

When there are no real alternatives, the simulation is as close to a "neighborhood" experience as it gets. In cities where the downtown cores are shells of their former selves, customers prefer the safety and familiarity of brightly lit corporate chains on main 4-lane arteries to independent bars tucked back onto side streets where we might have to park a couple of blocks away and (horror!) walk.

RubeeChiliganFriday's has fetishized the familiar decor of actual neighborhoods to play on community nostalgia for an "authentic" neighborhood-tavern experience by offering a simulation of that authenticity. With its decor trinkets and "local" setting alluding to neighborhood participation and symbolizing "roots" in the community, customers don't perceive the irony when these chains simply close up and vacate the building if a particular store doesn't make enough profit. Actual "neighborhood" connections are shallow to nonexistent.

Damn, those miniburger ingredients are suddenly a lot less tasty.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

One of these things is not like the other.

All right, this is easy: one of these people is young and stunning, and the other is... Hugh Hefner. No, wait — it's Bill Maher, 52, former comedian and current lecturing, overbearing, pompous deliverer of holier-than-thou screeds and polemics on HBO.

It'd be easy to "critique" this photo with shorthand, just-common-sense explanations: she's hot, he's not; she's had work done, he needs a lot of work; she's a gold-digging bubblehead, he's an old lech who deserves to lose everything she takes from him. And both of them are poachers in the racial forbidden zone.

Not so fast. Really, the "problem" with the photo is a lot deeper than the non-relationship it depicts. (Maher has an established track record of draping young, voluptuous black women over his arm for photo-ops and then disposing of them before the digital ink has dried.) Rather than snap to instant judgments like the ones above, WB asks questions: Is there a scenario where the man is neither desperate nor pathetic — or where other men don't bow down and worship Bill for his conquests? It seems that with very few exceptions, the woman is nearly always playing May to a male December. But why is it so shocking and "weird" when the roles are reversed? (Demi Moore, Cher, and Linda Hogan immediately spring to mind.)

What drives old(er) men to go hunting for younger trophies? What attracts the trophies to the hunters? If we say that the man is "using" the woman, doesn't that take away all of her agency to choose for herself? If we say that she's only in it for the money and/or fleeting fame, doesn't that just reduce her to a one-dimensional non-person, a mere stock caricature? What roles do motivation and self-awareness play in all of this?

Snap judgments and shallow multiple-choice rote answers don't come close to determining why this elderly man, for instance, has three younger women as arm candy:

They say, on E!'s Girls Next Door, that they love him. And Hef, in turn, says that he loves them. Viewers know that he's slipping steadily into the final twilight of mental clarity and physical stability, both of which are pretty sad to see in the process of fading. And we know that when he's bedridden and no longer able to recognize his three loves, they might still stay by his side, but E!'s cameras will be nowhere around to document it.

Pop culture doesn't go into those dark corners. It prefers fast equations: old money plus young breasts equals... what, exactly? Eternal youth for Hef, and for Bill? Clearly not. Lasting happiness for the bearers of the breasts? Not a chance. Yet the illusions drive the "reality" of the images we consume, and the reality succeeds because we ourselves are part of the illusion. Death will never come knocking; age will never do to us what it's doing to Bill and has done to Hef. The three Girls Next Door will remain forever young and blond and buxom.

This is Brigitte Bardot, and she is us:

And this is Brigitte Bardot, but we will never be:

We need shorthand explanations and snap critiques. Because the longer, more complex ones lead to realities we'd prefer would stay unreal.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Blog left, apply liberally

Earlier, WB cited the fictional Senator Jay Bulworth (D-California), whose honesty and candor caused major cinematic controversy before propelling him into massive popularity. In the spirit of that forthright courage, we present Michigan's lieutenant governor, John Cherry—aka "jcherry" who boldly blogs on the transparently-named to chronicle his travels and speeches in the cause of preserving Great Lakes water.

It's extremely refreshing (no pun intended; well, okay, a little bit) to see a politician who's not afraid to become a magnet for criticism from the ultra-conservative minions of Rush Limbaugh and Sean whatshisname, much less one who'll blog at a site that has an in-progress section for "Lefty Links" and already connects to left-leaning sites like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post.

Of course, if the Limbaugh legions or the Faux Snooze faithful get hold of this, the story won't be about water at all, but about the LtGov's liberal "bias" (he probably doesn't even wear a flag pin on his lapel!) and therefore his unpatriotic, treehugging, environmentalist wacko delusion about keeping the Great Lakes in... er, the Great Lakes, and not in Lake Tahoe or Lake Mead or anywhere in parched California or Arizona or Nevada.

Such irony! A liberal unwilling to share "his" water with other liberals in Hollywood and Vegas, where everyone is liberal and they hold liberal fundraisers to put liberals into office to enact liberal earth-first policies that keep left-coast liberals from having more than a two-minute shower and make them grow cactus gardens instead of golf courses. Commie bastards! Radicals! Marxists! New York Times readers! CNN watchers!

Oops. Sorry. WB has absorbed way too much Limbaugh looniness and Fox foolishness, and now we can hear the tirades before they're even launched.

As we were calmly saying, there's this very cool politician in Michigan who's not afraid to show his politics....

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Satire Is DOA in the Fox/Springer Age

See this? It's the July 21 edition of The New Yorker. Look closely: Barack Obama is drawn as a Muslim, his wife Michelle as a terrorist (complete with 1960s Black Panther 'fro), and they've appointed the Oval Office with a portrait of Osama Bin Laden. They're giving each other a fist bump. For warmth, they're burning an American flag in the fireplace.

Subtle, it ain't. So the New Yorker staff thought they were safe running it, since everyone would clearly recognize that each of these visual cues represents one of the many grotesque depictions thrown at the Obamas by the conservative right.

You know, the attempts by Faux Snooze to construct the senator as a Muslim by running photos of him in African (not Middle Eastern) tribal costume, and by calling him "Barack Hussein Obama" in order to emphasize his middle name, shared by a deceased Iraqi dictator. The attempts by right-wing interwebbers, through utterly fabricated and groundless lies, to paint Mrs. Obama as an America-hater whose giving of congratulatory dap to her husband was, as the Hyena Network put it, "a terrorist fist jab?" Sean whatshisname, on the same network, playing up a refusal (!!!) by Senator Obama to play the ridiculous and meaningless whose-lapel-flag-is-bigger game by simply not wearing one. And the absolutely terrifying coincidence of the last name, Obama, rhyming with the first name, Osama.

These, of course, are the things that matter when an economy is tanking, a financial system is teetering on collapse, a water supply is drying up, a fuel crisis is worsening, a health care system is out of control, and poisoned food is becoming epidemic. You revert to kindergarten tactics and try to make the other kid cry so he'll quit and go to a different school.

The New Yorker was counting on cover-viewers being able to put their bullshit detectors on High Alert mode and recognize the cover as mocking those tactics. Unfortunately, as a post-literate society we're no longer very capable of a level of intelligence that can distinguish satire in semiotic allusion. In the Fox/Springer Age when everyone talks over each other at full volume and calls it "intellectual debate," satire will always be in danger of backfiring and being taken literally.

And it has. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns have condemned the cover as "tasteless and offensive." And the National Organization of Women laments that it "promote[s] racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, [and] bigotry."

WB thinks the cover is actually brilliant, but there's a problem in the social stratification of media literacy that we need to be concerned about. Regular readers of The New Yorker will most likely "get" what's going on with the cover, and most will understand the points it's making. The other 99.8% of the population, including Obama's own campaign and NOW? Not so much.

If you play only to the elite few in your core audience, you're elitist. If you play to the "groundlings" in the general public, as Shakespeare well knew, you've got to make the jokes obvious.

Sadly, obviousness is what The New Yorker was aiming for all along.