Sunday, August 31, 2008

God rest ye good conservatives....


As Hurricane Gustav bears down on New Orleans to commemorate the third anniversary of its evil cousin, Katrina, we hear that conservative Christian celebrity James Dobson's group, Focus on the Family, was behind a prayerfest request last week asking the Almighty to make it rain — really really hard — on Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in Denver:

Focus on the Family spokespeople said this prayer request was just a joke. The Almighty said, Oh yeah? Let me show you what a joke looks like. And now the rain is coming to trash the Republicans' convention plans instead.


But really: OMGWTF.

And now, as the Gulf Coast prepares for all hell to break loose again, we're gonna run through this one more time: God is not a member of the Republican Party or affiliated with the conservative movement. In His earthly form as Jesus of Nazareth, these were some of the extremely anti-Republican sentiments He expressed:

• "Blessed are the peacemakers.... love your enemies, bless those that curse you, do good to them that hate you." This would refer to Barack Obama's plans, ridiculed by Republicans, to meet with world leaders on the "enemies of the U.S." list, talk with them, and listen to them in the interests of creating peace.

• "In the same way you judge, so will you be judged in equal measure." Those who are obsessed with enforcing select passages from the third book of the Torah while overlooking the third book of the New Testament — "Guard against all kinds of greed; a person's life does not consist of the abundance of possessions" — should be extremely careful here. Somewhere along the line, Republicanism and conservatism became about protecting corporations while condemning everyone and everything else. God doesn't appreciate having His name associated with that. He's going to be one very Annoyed Almighty when judgment comes.

• "Sell what you have and give to the poor.... When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind." Here, the Lord was referring to basic health care for all of His people, which is what the Democrats have been trying to put through for nearly two decades, each time encountering a wall of Republican social Darwinists who paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge in discussing the poor and uninsured: Let them die and decrease the surplus population. That's not Christian, it's Satanic.

• "When you pray, do not pray as the hypocrites do: for they love to pray standing in public, where they may be seen by others.... When you pray, shut your door and do it in private." This one might resonate with the Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson crowds who like to squint their eyes earnestly in front of the TV cameras and entreat the Almighty to smite Democrats for letting homosexuality and abortions cause destruction and desolation like the downing of the World Trade Center and the drowning of New Orleans — both of which were preventable and took place under a Republican watch.

An excellent open letter to conservative Christians by Rev. Gary Vance, written in 2004, bears repeating here. In it, Rev. Vance points out that there is a "long history of liberals who have labored for the betterment of society and the furthering of God’s Kingdom.... No average American would have a fair wage today if it weren’t for liberal Christians and labor activists. Liberal Christians and civil rights activists fought and still fight against conservative America for racial equality. Child labor laws were enacted because liberals fought for them. Medicare and Social Security exist today because of Liberalism. 'Bleeding heart liberals' have long advocated for the homeless, the hungry, the less fortunate, and the disenfranchised. The women of America owe liberals a big thank you for their almost-equal rights. 'Tree hugging liberals' fight for clean air and water standards instead of favoring industrial polluters and short term profiteering that destroy God’s green earth...."

WB senior staff have parochial-school educations in their pasts, and can cite Scripture with the best of them. And we are damned well certain that not a line of it calls for leaving the least of God's children to fend for themselves. As Rev. Vance politely sums up, while Democrats and liberals have been taking on a wide range of highly Christian issues, Republicans and conservatives, like the moron weatherman in the video above, have focused myopically on exactly two: gay rights and abortion. But when the Republican ultra-conservative Vice President of the United States turns out to have a lesbian daughter, that magically becomes a non-issue, and when the unaborted are born, they're left uninsured, untreated, uneducated, underpaid, unemployed — and then condemned for being drains on decent, hard-working society.

As Jesus himself pointed out in that verse about not being able to serve both God and man: You can't have it both ways at once.

Sometimes, when praying (privately and quietly) for deliverance from evil, it's good to realize that the evil might be much closer than a gathering of Christian liberal Democrats in the mountains of Colorado. It could be in the mirror.

Jon Stewart: 21st Century Bricoleur

Before the era of Google, blogs and Wikipedia, an age in which senior WB staff members attended graduate school, we learned a fancy and abstract literary term: bricolage. Because it was a French term, professors presented it in a very abstract and obtuse manner since... well, we never really understood that part. Nonetheless, the term was handy and useful in the study of popular culture but somewhat nebulous — until Jon Stewart's recent video on The Daily Show.

Briefly, the term bricolage can be explained, albeit somewhat oversimplified, as an idea quilt. Bricolage is the concept of borrowing different ideas, theories, and/or practices from different genres, disciplines and cultures and making something new out of those borrowed pieces. The bricoleur (such a pretty word!) is the creator behind all of this.

But this still seems a bit abstract, just as it did years ago sitting in that lit-theory class. What the definition needed, then and now, was a concrete example.

The video below provides that example. Jon Stewart's team has essentially taken different ideas, sentiments, and catchphrases currently swirling around in pop culture and turned them into a satirical biography of the 44th POTUS, Barack Obama. In the video, you'll note the use of Disney's The Lion King (a totally unacceptable "Africanized" reference if anyone but the Daily staff had chosen it), which provides the central metaphor of Obama as "the chosen one." You'll glimpse a piece of the 1996 romcom Jerry Maguire in the video's title, Barack Obama: He Completes Us, a play on the famous "You complete me" line said by RenĂ©e Zellweger to Tom Cruise that had millions swooning over that movie — and an echo of how Democrats feel about Obama. You'll also catch shout-outs to What's Happening, It's a Wonderful Life, the Bible, and even continental drift. (What other pop-cult references can you find in the video? Let's play!) In Jon Stewart's able hands, all of these signifiers become another hilarious political commentary imbued with the brand of sarcasm that only The Daily Show can pull off.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Humanitarian crisis and human dignity: it all depends on who owns the camera.

Tropical Storm and soon-to-be-Hurricane Gustav has already killed dozens of people in Haiti, is menacing Jamaica, and will soon be heading up to Houston or — please God make it change course — New Orleans, where WB enjoyed a crawfish boil in the still-battered Ninth Ward just last spring. NOLA holds a precious place in our hearts, especially for WB contributor/Common Ground volunteer 45rpm and her Significant Other, but in a culture that frames the news in a box only the size of the continental U.S., sometimes we all need to remember that high water destroys lives everywhere. Half a world away, the situation looks like this:

And although we'd like to say that the main purpose of this post is to stress solidarity with fellow human beings in suffering, it's not. And that's because, in this CNN report's opening seconds, while a child's half-nakedness is "acceptable nudity" by virtue of the child's innocence, the network has also chosen to show, unedited or blurred, an elderly woman's exposed breast. She is provided no professional or personal courtesy to preserve her modesty; because she's just "a villager in India" and thus an exotic Other, her gaunt exposed body is filmed and then displayed to the world. It's always been this way, as any former grade-school reader of dusty old National Geographic issues knows.

Now, a lot of very "logical" and normalizing explanations could be generated in a flurry: It's filmed how it happened. It shows the suffering even more. It demonstrates the chaos at the scene. It generates pity from viewers who will feel badly for the old woman. But the "it" in all of these rationales is just the last two letters in bullshit. As articulated by Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Laura Mulvey, the Gaze — a dynamic tension between who is looking and who is being looked at — boils down to a basic power relationship: the powerful may gaze at will, and the powerless have no control over what form the Gaze will take.

In other words, if the boat carrying CNN's own reporter, Sara Sidner, were to capsize, or if the villagers rightfully chose to toss her and her camera operator overboard to make room for the actual villagers needing rescue, and she struggled and lost her top in the scuffle, there'd be not half a second of footage shown of the American woman's exposed breasts. Guaranteed.

Humanitarian crises are ugly, raw, and always undignified. But the same standards of undignity need to apply to all victims, all the time, everywhere.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Election Primer

As election season kicks into hyperdrive, WB would like to suggest a few pop cult gems to get you in the mood:

READ: The hilarious and wickedly smart Goodnight Bush, a snarky, spot-on parody of the children's classic Goodnight Moon that bids a not-so-fond and long overdue farewell to the Bush administration. While the writing is clever and entertaining ("Goodnight towers/And goodnight balance of powers/Goodnight Constitution/And goodnight evolution"), the illustrations make the book a brilliant and scathing sociopolitical commentary befitting the past eight years. Pay especially close attention to the colored drawings of the bedroom setting and see how many representations of Bush failures you can spot. Fun!

LOG ON: For political commentary and news around the nation, Slate remains one of the best online magazines. The commentary is fresh and witty, and it is the easiest way to stay current (and truly informed) on the important events happening in our world.

WATCH: The political conventions on CNN. (For all the gripes WB has about network news channels, we do like the fact that the conventions are aired without a commercial break every 90 seconds.) While it's easy to dismiss the conventions as cheesy, rah-rah rhetoric-saturated spectacles that draw attention from the real and depressing issues facing our nation, it's hard to deny the electric atmosphere surrounding both events. It's even harder to ignore the fact that great, moving and historic moments happen at these things, moments that spark an ember of hope in even the hardest and coldest of cynics, Republican and Democrat alike.

MARK THE DATE: November 4, 2008 is election day. If you're one of our American readers, please register in time and VOTE so that the WB staff has something happy to write about on November 5th!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thanks for the shout-out!

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Governor Mark Warner of Virginia asked a simple question at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night: If U.S. companies can send jobs to Bangalore, India, then why can't they send jobs to Danville, Virginia or Flint, Michigan?

Flint is a place close to WB's heart, and we know several thousand people who'd be glad to talk with the bottom-line corporate bean counters about whatever it takes to generate both paychecks and profits. So hey, corporate America: how about being patriotic for a change?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Comfort comes from all kinds of places.

Ted Nugent isn't exactly what WB would call a reasonable or even rational guy most of the time. The hunting promotion is fine, but Ted's rabid mania for slaying wildlife crosses into a personal lunatic fringe. His politics are somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan, and the recent emergence of machine guns as stage props to accompany rants against Democrats as "pieces of shit" shows a different level of psychosis separate from hunting.

Yet for all that, WB would like to take a moment to offer warm and sincere thanks to Uncle Tedly, just for being there.

On Friday of last week, after a frightening month of emergency room visits and an endless parade of doctors, 78rpm's son underwent three hours of surgery to correct a lung problem. Thirty hours later, the boy was curled up in a hospital bed, connected to chest tubes and injected with morphine, sleeping fitfully and hurting bad. Exhaling was easy, but each inhalation generated a whimper of pain. It went like this for a couple of hours — whimper, exhale; whimper, exhale — and then, from nowhere, eyes closed and half-whispering, a question: "Dad, do you have 'Fred Bear' on your laptop?"

78 replied that the laptop had minimal music on it — the main iTunes library was elsewhere. "Why?" he asked, surprised by the song choice.

"Dunno," the morphine-dreaming boy replied, "Just wanted to hear it." And so, because WB staff strive to always carry an arsenal of technological overkill, 78 cracked open his LG Voyager and went shopping at the V Cast Music Store. Four minutes later, the opening notes of "Fred Bear" burst into the room from the phone's tiny speakers.

A big smile spread across the patient's face. "That's it," he murmured from his narcotic cloud, and then, almost imperceptibly, began to nod his head to the music, softly headbanging as the Motor City Madman sang: Fred Bear, I'm glad to have you at my side, my friend.

Mr. Nugent, you're still a strange and scary human being, but your song just got five stars added to it and we owe you a beer.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Pop Cult Nuggets #2

pop cult nugget, n. - a little tidbit of information from the past week's happenings, followed by an even smaller tidbit of commentary.

The school district in Harrold, Texas has voted to allow teachers and staff to carry concealed weapons because the one and only schoolhouse in the district is near a highway, "which could make it a target," according to the superintendent.

Knowing a few things about teachers sometimes having bad days like everyone else, WB puts on the voice of Chef in South Park and shouts to the district's 110 students: "Hide yourselves, chirdren!"

The Food and Drug Administration, in charge of protecting and defending American consumers, has declared that the compound bisphenol A, found in Nalgene bottles and other plastics, is safe. A hundred other studies have found that it's deadly, but the FDA overlooked those and relied on two studies funded by the plastics industry.

Knowing a few things about industries steering their research toward favorable outcomes and the FDA being run by representatives of industries, WB puts on the voice of Chef in South Park and shouts to 300 million U.S. citizens: "Save yourselves, chirdren!"

Purpose-Driven Life author and megachurch evangelist Rick Warren questioned Barack Obama and John McCain at his faith palace so that U.S. voters could see for themselves the important differences between Obama, who has been a confessed Christian for decades, and McCain, who began attending a Phoenix-area prayer arena last month. Not surprisingly, the fundamentally-faithful vote is still expected to go to McCain, who values their "values" even if he doesn't necessarily believe their beliefs.

Knowing a few things about hypocrisy and wishing that presidential campaigns could be about running a country instead of running scams, WB puts on the voice of Chef in South Park and shouts to all informed, intelligent, and optimistic multi-issue voters: "Show yourselves, chirdren!"


Friday, August 22, 2008

Graceless and clueless: Tragedy for yuks and profit

Stephen King recently wrote an article for Entertainment Weekly bemoaning the fact that corporate greed, via televised broadcasts, has ruined baseball. He makes a strong case. However, an even more disturbing trend is taking place with greed trumping good: tragedy as entertainment.

Of course, this is nothing new in the world of televised news. We've all heard the journalism adage "If it bleeds, it leads." And none of us are strangers to the world of sensational news as instant commodities. We had the "runaway bride," who inspired an action figure and collectible cards. We had the "Don't tase me, bro" college student, who saw his plea for help turned into a tagline slapped on t-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers. We even have trading cards of serial killers.

But the video below crosses a line of taste, tact and decency. Sadly, this is a video from CNN, which is quickly following in the footsteps of the Faux Snooze Network by mixing histrionics, snarky editorial commentary, and dramatic flairs with what is supposed to be objective news. In the case below, bounty hunter Leonard Padilla and show host Pat Lalama discuss the disappearance of a toddler, a case most people would find serious and disturbing. But notice how these two seem more interested in mugging for the camera and tossing out pithy one-liners than they do about actually finding the toddler or punishing those responsible for her disappearance.

The Nancy Grace Show, where the clip first aired, has taken the tragic news story and turned it into a ratings darling by adding a healthy dose of sarcasm, subjective observations, and visible moral indignation. Grace and her cast often pass judgement before all the facts are even in, and they do it with the zeal and fervor of the SNL "Master Thespian" character. How exactly does this inform citizens or rescue a missing child? In fact, Grace and CNN are currently in the middle of a lawsuit that claims, in part, Grace's interviewing tactics led to not only the suicide of the mother of a missing toddler but may have seriously hampered the case.

Perhaps Grace and company should put their energy and efforts towards helping to find these children rather than acting as judge, jury, executioner — and shameless profiteers.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

There's something happening hair...

A steady roar has been coming out of Metallica land, with the new album finally finished, a North American tour announced, backlash to the Mi$$ion Metallica idea survived without much injury, and a thousand forums still screaming about the death of Napster (soooo last century) at the hands of a demonic Danish drummer.

But now it looks like at least half the band could use just a little more noise: the sound of electric barber clippers.

Yes, lads, it's time to take it all off — especially you, Lars. That tuft at the top of your head has slid all the way to the back. And Kirk, although you've sung the praises of Rogaine and joked that you'll still be rocking when you're "sixty and bald," there does come a time when the long curls (what's left of them) need to be retired with honor.

Take it from Kerry King (Slayer), Michael Stipe (REM), and Peter Garrett (Midnight Oil) — rockin' a chrome dome has a certain daring dignity. Go for it.


Monday, August 18, 2008

America just needs some training....

Remember getting (or just longing for) your first toy train set? Remember your first ride on that magical mini-locomotive at the zoo? Or maybe you bought a child his or her first Thomas the Tank Engine toy, or sat in wonder as you watched The Polar Express roll through your local movie theater. Well, put on your engineer's caps and get out your dusty Lionel sets, kids; today we're gonna talk about the railroad!

With ridership at an all-time high, Amtrak has finally gotten the attention of Congress. And for the first time in decades, it's actually positive attention rather than the yearly "Let's just shut this money pit down" discussion from a group of people who've never been on a train, much less had to live near the railroad tracks (or on the "wrong side" of them).

Some of the routes seeing increased use, like the City of New Orleans run from the Windy City to the Big Easy, are legendary and even musical (Good morning, America, how are you? Don't you know me? I'm your native son....) Some, like the San Francisco to Sacramento and Boston to D.C. commuter lines, are so full that passengers stand in the accordion connectors between compartments. The trains could be even longer and fuller, except that Amtrak already has all 632 of its usable cars on the rails, and there are no more to add.

But while the U.S. government is finally coming to realize what the Am in Amtrak stands for, and is turning its attitude from hostility to support, imagine what kinds of shortage problems the railroad would be encountering if more Americans were to actually use a service that, according to the New York Times, would constitute the eighth largest domestic airline if it had wings.

Why don't we? When did we lose our childhood love of the mighty locomotives blasting those loud whistles into the night?

A lot has to do with misconceptions that are grounded in fact.

For example, factual misconception #1: The train cars are dirty and noisy. True — sort of. The cars themselves are surprisingly quiet, well-insulated, and comfortable, given that most of them are at least thirty years old, and we're talking about steel riding on steel. And when you board a train that's been freshly prepped and gone over, it's clean, too. (The narrow stairway up to the car is a bit grimy, but remember that this is a gigantic industrial machine you're boarding, and those steps are exposed to the elements at all times.)

It's not the passenger cars that are the problem; it's the passengers ourselves who are dirty and noisy. (WB pauses to put on its flame-retardant suit, even though the word our was carefully selected there.) In a car of fifty seats, nearly everyone eats and drinks and reads on board, but maybe three people will bother to walk to the front of the car and put their wrappers and bottles and magazines into the clearly marked, conveniently placed trash bins. The rest of the trash is jammed into the netting on seatbacks or kicked under seats. Why not, the maintenance guys will pick it up later.

Problem is, Amtrak is already running a skeleton crew due to underfunding, so the "guys" are usually just one guy waiting at the final station, and if you're riding a ten-stop train and unboard after the third stop, your trash is waiting for the people who board after you leave. Guess what they'll think about the condition of the train? But Amtrak has nothing to do with it.

As for noise: three words — cell phones, children. When half the adults on board think they need to call home at every stop and report their location at maximum volume — while ignoring the fact that their grade-schoolers are spinning around in circles in the aisle or playing marco/polo from opposite ends of the compartment — then sure, it can be noisy as hell. But Amtrak isn't in charge of common courtesy, common sense, or basic parenting. It runs a train. We run our mouths.

Factual misconception #2: The trains derail. Yep, once in a great while they do — or, in the case of the photo at left, sometimes the locomotives just get really horny and decide to mount a freight car. But here's the thing: First, the number of derailments for trains overall, not just passenger trains, has been steadily decreasing as rail use goes up. Second, Amtrak owns about three percent of the steel rail that it travels on. All the rest belongs to freight lines, and there isn't enough inspection of that track by the companies or a government that proudly records the day that the last spike was driven into the railbed connecting the original Colonies to the western frontier, but also walked away from train culture completely when the last of its soldiers had whistle-stopped home after World War II.

But even in that state of neglect, rail travel is a safe bet: 710 trains have derailed so far in 2008, 14 of them Amtraks, with zero passengers killed. (And 14 isn't the significant number it appears to be; there are 2,200 Amtrak trains per year whistling through WB's neighborhood alone. Multiply that times everywhere else and then do the long division.)

Meanwhile, on the highway, roughly 39,500 people will die this year in car crashes. Makes those iron horses of western lore look mighty attractive after all, doesn't it? Time to sweep the misinformation out of the way, re-find our childhood affections, and become part of a clean, civilized, safe railroad that can proudly be called Amtrak.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

How do they say Zzzzzz in Japanese?

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“After finding success in over 15 countries, the trickiest, fastest and funniest half-hour on the planet is finally coming to America!”

That’s according to Fox for the network’s new show, Hole in the Wall. The show is taken from Ellen DeGeneres — no, wait, make that the Japanese again. DeGeneres created her own version of it called “Through the Wall, Take a Fall” for her show, but the game is originally titled “Human Tetris.” This “entertainment” consists of contestants trying to fit through oddly-shaped cutouts from a Styrofoam wall. As the wall moves toward them, they must fit through the hole or fall into a giant tub of water. Massive mirth ensues. (No elite/snob Jeopardy intellectualism here!)

Hole in the Wall is “created” (we’ll use that word lightly since we all know it’s only been translated) by FremantleMedia, the same company responsible for American Idol, America’s got Talent, and The Price is Right. It's scheduled to air Thursdays at 8 p.m. starting September 11 and will take over the time slot originally used for The Moment of Truth (a show actually not stolen from the Japanese, but still managing to embarrass contestants as its main form of entertainment).

Ads for the new show are all over Fox and the network is currently accepting applications. (Wanna play? Check this link.) Word is, the team that makes it through the most holes wins $25,000 with a chance for $100,000 in a bonus round.

It was only a matter of time until yet another network got the “turn Japanese” game show memo, but based on the video above, WB gives the new show about 35 seconds before it's cancelled. That's how long we lasted before our microscopic LOL turned into a large WTF and we resumed our search for videos of scary insects.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A bargain at one-fifth the price

WB has just received word from a highly skilled online shopper that the Tuesday Morning eTreasures site is offering the talking and singing Elvis robot — regular price $300 — for only $60 starting today! This thing is so utterly creepy that it would've made a great Halloween special, but hey, for $240 off, it'll make a nicely demented iPod player in the meantime (just as soon as our iPod is finished with its manual-backup restoration process, now entering its fifth day).

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Wide awake and fully revived

Litchik has a confession to make: concerts often make her tired and grumpy, hence she avoids them most of the time. But an opportunity recently presented itself that was too good (and difficult) to turn down: Melissa Etheridge: The Revival Tour at the Chicago Theater. Litchik and her partner, Funderwoman, were going to be there this particular weekend visiting friends anyway, so why not fill their entire dance cards?

Of course, the usual doubts that many concert-haters have started creeping in as soon as tickets were purchased. First and foremost: why the hell are concerts so expensive? $140 for two tickets in the upper balcony seemed excessive, but say this aloud to any friends or family and you automatically earn the moniker of Mildred and the reputation of a penny-pinching 90-year-old tightwad who likes to remind everyone that a loaf of bread once cost $0.79, fifty cents more than a gallon of gas.

Then came the angst and anxiety over the venue: could the seats be found easily? Would Melissa actually be visible from them? Would the bathrooms be conveniently nearby? Would any exes suddenly appear, given that this appeared to be the Lesbian Event of the Year? Finally, fear about the show itself always produces nearly impossible expectations. For $140, the music better be live, the performer entertaining, the band tight, and the experience unforgettable.

Happily, the Chicago Theater is a great venue, the balcony seats were close enough to see the performers' faces, the bathrooms were close by, and the Melissa Etheridge Revival Tour did not disappoint.

Etheridge is out promoting her latest album, The Awakening, but she also mixed in plenty of classic tunes throughout the night. In fact, most of the concert was held together by a narrative thread Etheridge wove between songs. Unfortunately, much of what she said between songs was pretty hard to understand thanks to a not-so-great sound engineer and a muddy mix, but a terrific band, featuring Philip Sayce on blistering lead guitar and Fritz Lewak keeping flawlessly energetic time on the drums, gave a best-of performance to be proud of, not to mention some impressive guitar gymnastics (see 1:11 and 2:14 in the video):

Etheridge's narrative began with her early years in Levenworth, Kansas ("All There Is," "Nowhere to Go") and followed with an explanation of wanting to leave the small town behind for a place that could hold bigger dreams. Like so many American free spirits before her, she went west ("California"), and here, she had her share of fun and trouble, especially in the area of relationships ("No Souvenirs," "An Unexpected Rain," "Bring Me Some Water"). Realizing it was time to settle down at 30, she thought she found the one ("I Want To Come Over"). But the relationship was doomed from the start ("Enough of Me," "If I Wanted To"). This provided one of the biggest thrills of the night: Etheridge laid all of the dirt out on the line and totally rocked it out on what is arguably her biggest hit, "I'm The Only One."

Fortunately, Etheridge's tale does not end there. After her first marriage ended, Etheridge found a true and healthy love ("Kiss Me,""All the Way To Heaven"). She finally got it together, but the universe dropped a bomb on her: breast cancer. The rest of the set list really was the heart of the show, from her ode to all who have been touched by cancer ("I Run For Life") to her philosophy of religion ("Kingdom of Heaven"), from her hope for clarity and spirituality ("Message to Myself") to her wish for change for all ("Imagine That"), Etheridge gave a show that went beyond a mere performance: it was her laying bare her soul so that everyone there could take some insight and even comfort from her own trials and tribulations.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Paris 1, Old Guy 0

In a rare feat of topic crossover, WB is importing a post from one of the staff's other blogs here:

John McCain has dug into the slime bucket of Repuglicant campaign tactics and compared "celebrity" Barack Obama with Paris Hilton, but while he was busy planning his eighth consecutive missed Senate vote for approving a renewable energy policy, Paris has come back with an ad — and an energy plan — of her own:

VH1 loves... well, just about everything.

In December 2002, VH1 proved it was no longer just a music channel by airing the first installment in its I Love The series, titled I Love the ‘80s. The show was made up of ten episodes (one for each year in the decade) consisting of B-list celebrity commentary regarding the people, music, movies, TV shows, fashion, and events that made up popular culture that year.

The show became the guilty pleasure of many pop culture lovers, most of whom were born in or after the 1980s. But it wasn’t until the following year when it became clear that the I Love The series might be getting a little extreme.

In August 2003, VH1 aired I Love The ‘70s. The show was exactly the same, except that the focus was now one decade earlier. Unfortunately, the 1970s weren’t quite as tubular for viewers, and the show didn’t do as well in the ratings. So, possibly out of desperation, VH1 quickly aired I Love The ‘80s Strikes Back, which was pretty much part two of I Love The ‘80s. In July 2004, I Love The ‘90s premiered, followed by I Love The ‘90s Part Deux in January 2005. Then, thinking viewers hadn't gotten enough 80s trivia, I Love The ‘80s 3-D premiered in October of ’05. (Luckily, special glasses were not required.)

The following month, the network aired a “special” in the I Love The series titled I Love The Holidays. This was the first episode that did not deal with a decade, but still covered pop culture. Obviously enjoying the addition to the series, VH1 then followed with I Love Toys, in which the same old stable of celebrities commented on their favorite child and, um… adult toys.

Just when the “decade” episodes seemed to be over, another one, this time I Love The ‘70s Volume 2, aired in June 2006. While a 3-D version was also expected, viewers got slapped instead with a brand new batch of decade shows. This time, in June 2008, VH1 aired I Love The New Millennium.

This is where WB draws the line.

It’s one thing to go back 30, or even just 10 years, but it’s a whole different story when you go back only seven. VH1 jumped the gun (or maybe the shark) by bringing out the “millennium edition” of these shows before the decade is even complete. The series only covered pop culture through 2007, which made for some pretty unfulfilling television. Yes, the shows are amusing, but when the “memories” that the celebrities are discussing happened last year, it’s just plain strange. What makes these shows so entertaining is that most viewers have forgotten just how “cool” people looked sporting jellies and legwarmers. But when the discussion is about Britney Spears shaving her head and what happened on The Bachelor, it’s pretty much like watching Entertainment Tonight — for a review of what happened just yesterday.

We’d like to say the new millennium is the last thing VH1 will love, but, not surprisingly, their show Best Week Ever is just another name for I Love Last Week. So what does VH1 have to say about this series gone out of control? The network’s only words are, “No decade is off limits!”

Yeah, no kidding.

The day the music (could have) died.

"There's nothing we can do," said the Genius at the Apple Store, "except to restore the iPod to —"

"Yeah, we know about that," we told her. "That's what the error message said on the MacBook, too. But the iPod still knows that it's got over 90 gig of music and movies on its drive. The files just don't show up in the directory."

The Genius smiled pleasantly. "There's nothing we can do," she began, "except to —"

We had a train to catch, so we thanked her and left. And herewith, WB's first (and probably last) hi-tech how-to guide for
not letting the Geniuses at your local Apple Store destroy your music by restoring your iPod.

When the iPod says "No Music" on the Music menu and "No Movies" on the Movies menu, but it also shows that a huge amount of its storage space has been used up, then it's basically full of crap. So, don't panic. Instead, do this:

1. Back up your iPod files weekly. Then you won't even have to read beyond this sentence.

1. Okay, since you forgot to do that, you need your computer to show invisible files. For the Mac,
a freeware application like MainMenu or TinkerTool will do the job nicely. For the PC... well, we can't help you. But we're sure that Google (or the new and impressive Cuil) will turn something up for your computer, too.

2. With the app (or PC option) set to show invisible (or 'hidden') files, double-click the iPod icon on the desktop. Magically, the "Music" folder that you couldn't see before in standard view is now in plain sight.

3. Copy all of the files in that folder to another folder on your desktop. Then go see a show. In our case, 13,279 songs and 60+ movies and videos took about six hours to transfer. Don't forget Photos and Games, if you have any. Copy them, too. (Movies are in the Music folder, labeled as ".m4a" and ".m4v" files. They may need to be re-converted for iPod use.)

4. NOW you can go ahead and click that nasty little Restore button. When the iPod is all scrubbed and happy, drag and drop your copied files (which are still technically invisible) onto the iTunes window. All of the labels and even the album artwork will be preserved, but each subfolder will have to be copied over by hand, with a loooooong wait for processing between each subfolder. (Good move, Apple, getting rid of blazing-quick FireWire for the iPod!) Be ready to set aside a day or two for that tedious process, depending on the number of files being re-installed.

The question then becomes, why would Apple hide people's media files from them and want customers to simply erase the songs and movies they've purchased from the iTunes Store and start the collection all over again? That ju$t doe$n't make any $en$e to u$....

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

When death imitates life imitating art....

Two-thirds of the main cast for Dimension Films' upcoming Soul Men are gone, within the same week. Originally scheduled for a November 14 opening, the film focuses on three musicians coming back to the legendary Apollo Theater to pay tribute to a band leader and friend who has, you guessed it, recently died.

No lame jokes here about death coming in threes or Samuel L. Jackson needing a thorough physical. Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes will both be missed, and Dimension now has one hell of a dilemma to figure out for a movie about death starring two dead actors. Given the similar Heath Ledger/Dark Knight situation earlier in 2008, WB just hopes this new trend will stop soon.

D is for Damage

Hold the "big pimpin' mack daddy" jokes. Forget the audio-altered YouTube vids where his televised apology becomes him singing Sir Mix-A-Lot. Ditch the "gangsta maya" labels.

If this man were the white mayor of Lincoln, Nebraska, and he got caught text-messaging his illicit lover with evidence that the two of them conspired to fire a high-ranking police investigator, it'd be a story about that. And only that.

No hip-hop vernacular. No booty-shakin' videos. No discussion boards dedicated to molotov comments about "those people" deserving a corrupt mayor because they lacked the intelligence to vote for someone better.

Kwame Kilpatrick was barely out of his 20s when he got put in charge of the largest city in the eighth most populous state in the U.S., with the eleventh largest land mass. We're not talking about Rhode Island here. We're talking about The D, representing The Mitten.

Put a young man in that position, and he's going to feel powerful. Give a young man power, and he can start to feel invincible. Give a powerful young man the delusion of invincibility, and all bets are off.

Kwame Kilpatrick is a former football offensive lineman. He knows what it's like to go into the middle of a vast empty field and have the shit kicked out of him. But he also knows how to tear a few heads off before he's knocked into the dirt. And that's how things are right now: a foolish, embattled, once-powerful and still vital young man sees the defensive team taking their stances and ready to rip him to shreds when he falls into their hands, and he's getting into his offensive position to charge that line anyway, and even though his own teammates and all of their fans have left the stadium, he believes that he will conquer the defensive territory alone.

Even on tether.

As one of his lawyers put it: "Let's get it on." As a circuit court judge replied: "Go to jail."

It's not about Detroit. It's not about getting some on the side. And it's not about being black. It's about honesty, and ethos, and hubris, and about the tragedy of a bright, eager, promising young man climbing quickly to a height that guaranteed him maximum damage if he should one day fall from grace.

As he falls, our hopeful eyes turn toward the next in line.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Trouble with Hechebians

Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson have been stirring up quite a few headlines lately. While not many media outlets are using the L-word to describe the pair just yet, many of these news agencies seem to relish the titillation of suggesting that the two are romantically involved. Hmm... why would an actress whose reputation is in the toilet and a relatively unknown DJ put up with such invasive and provocative storylines?

WB can't help but recall a similar relationship about a decade ago between Ellen DeGeneres and Ann Heche. DeGeneres was moving quickly up the celebrity status ladder when suddenly Heche suddenly joined her on the third or fourth rung. Of course, the lesbian ladder was never very sturdy; a strong backlash from the public quickly sent DeGeneres crashing to the ground. And of course, Heche quickly stepped off the ladder and settled down with a guy, had a baby and enjoyed a brief surge in her career. And thus the term "hechebian" came to be. (Actually, Cassie Pappas at beat us to the punch in publishing the word in her blog.)

Now hechebians everywhere have a new hero and a new theme song: Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" has become this summer's faux-lesbian anthem. Hooray! Katy Perry breaks into the mainstream by writing a big alleged F-you to her religious and conservative parents. She sure is showing that religious right a thing or two about tolerance, isn't she? Especially if you just ignore a few lines in the song (e.g., "I kissed a girl/And I liked it/I hope my boyfriend don't mind it" and "It felt so wrong/It felt so right"), ignore the statement Perry made in an interview regarding her sexuality ("I’m not up there for a free-for-all, there is no Tila Tequila in me, thank the Lord"), and also ignore the fact that Perry's parents actually support her and she loves them dearly? All of this must be a big help to lesbians everywhere, right?

Uh, no.

Here's the problem: Perry's song is a subtle but still problematic reminder that lesbians don't really matter. They are experiments, something to be toyed with briefly in an effort to retool one's own image and then casually tossed aside when playtime is over. Lesbians thus become disposable commodities and as such, they can't have actual human value or status. Obviously, a little pop ditty by Katy Perry is not the root cause of this, but rather another acceptable mechanism to keep the status quo. Whether Perry did this intentionally or not is irrelevant, since the ideology of the invisible and/or disposable lesbian has been firmly implanted into our culture's subconscious. Even the lesbian magazine Curve praised the song in a recent issue!

Still not seeing the big deal? Perhaps a recent article in Newsweek can clarify the problem. The article examines the tragic death of 15 year old Larry King, a California gay teen. King was shot by a male classmate who was allegedly the object of King's desire. The article tries hard to make neither victim nor killer appear at fault, by painting a complex and complicated picture of King as someone who pushed boundaries. Several times, the article even states that this was no excuse for his murder (although it does start to sound that way) but is just as quick to point out that the case was not as clear-cut as it may first appear. Can you guess where all the blame is starting to drift? If you guessed the LESBIAN vice principal whom King confided in, you are correct! Apparently, the family of both boys are demonizing Joy Epstein for pushing her "gay agenda" onto King instead of punishing him for his antics in class and the hallways.

It's an extreme example of lesbian bashing, but certainly not unthinkable in a culture that wants all men and women to adhere to strict gender norms. And while great strides have been made in advancing the rights of the LGBT community, any backlash always stings. So good for you, Katy Perry, for kissing a woman just one time and enjoying it — if you even did it. For those who do it every day, though, the world isn't always sunshine and roses; and your song isn't doing anything to help.

Friday, August 8, 2008

On Pornography: A WB Treatise

Third in a series of WB treatises with "On Obscenity" and "On Perversity," posted earlier.

Eyes Wide Shut. Requiem for a Dream. Showgirls. Team America.

The Devil's Rejects. Hostel. The Hills Have Eyes. Funny Games.

What do all of these have in common? Not much, actually. The first four received NC-17 ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America because they showed excessive nudity and sexuality. The last four received R ratings because they only showed torture, sadism, rape, and murder.

In the case of Team America, the "nudity" is naked wooden puppets, and the "sex" consists of visible strings crashing the puppets' parts against each other in outrageously unrealistic pantomime. In the case of The Devil's Rejects, a woman is molested with a large handgun inserted into her vagina, then brutally murdered. Another woman is forced to wear a mask made from the flayed face of her murdered husband before she, too, is killed.

Team America: NC-17.

Devil's Rejects
: R.

Team America: the puppet sex is "strongly suggestive" of actual sex. And not just actual sex, but actual "kinky" sex that deviates far from the MPAA-approved missionary position that conveniently hides those pesky naughty parts people have. Even if puppets don't have any.

Devil's Rejects: the violence is so realistic that actor Bill Moseley broke down several times, unwilling to continue filming the rape/torture/murder scene required of him. Director Rob Zombie gave him a quick rah-rah speech assuring him that "art is not safe" and sent him back into the game to make that art.

Eyes Wide Shut: an artfully staged and totally simulated orgy at a sex club. Stanley Kubrick was forced to paste awkward CG "silhouettes" into the scenes to hide the offensive simulations. Requiem for a Dream: two women share a sex toy for the amusement of their male audience in the room. Nothing graphic was shown, but the scene went on too long. (That "suggestive" thing again.) Showgirls: simulated sex in a swimming pool, with everything hidden underwater, but explicit (and comical — one of the reasons this film is now a cult classic) thrashing and moaning.

NC-17 for the lot of them.

Why is tearing a fellow human being's flesh off with razors considered R-rated entertainment, while displaying physical desire and admiration for a fellow human being's flesh is considered NC-17 pornography?

"MPAA members] understand that if it's a horror film and there is blood, there are certain expectations that have to be met by the fans," says Eli Roth, director of the two Hostel torture-porn movies, in an interview. "[And] with a war going on, they are like, 'It's just a movie. We're at war and people are dying every day... Americans are getting killed, bodies are being burned, and no one knows when it's going to end. It's incredible, but the sex is what [the MPAA] is really tense about. I guess if there was like a giant orgy going on they would freak, but...they are a little less concerned with violence."

But what happens when sex is violence — and degradation, and psychological torture — as in this scene from Michael Haneke's late-2007 Funny Games?

Why does American culture value this kind of physical humiliation over physical affection? Why does it favor acts of hatred over acts of love? Why does it prefer destruction of bodies over desire for them?

Here's a theory. Ideologies form the substrata for a culture's whole way of being, believing, and behaving. U.S. culture happens to come from deeply fundamentalist (i.e. Puritan) roots that have been preserved for 400 years. We're torn between freedom and rights on one hand, and subservience to moral codes based on "the Good Book" on the other. In that Book, the flesh is sinful, feared, and punished... Leviticus alone condemns sex, nudity, menstruation, lust/desire; elsewhere come the verses about cutting off offending hands and plucking out offending eyes. The result has been surreal at times: in the early Puritan days, women found guilty of wearing "revealing" clothing were punished by being stripped to the waist and flogged publicly. A mixed message, to say the least.

So we have the remnants of these ideological foundations surviving in our attitudes toward what's shown in cinema. Flesh itself is still taboo if the context is a sexual one, but is okay for viewing if the context is its punishment — look at the ascetic monk, Silas, in The DaVinci Code, who wears a garter of pincers around his thigh to remind himself 24/7 of Christ's suffering, and who whips himself in the grand Jesuit tradition while chanting "Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa." The flesh is weak and therefore reviled in a continuing cultural adherence to Puritanism. Banning displays of flesh in sexual contexts is a way of denying that it can or should ever be celebrated and enjoyed; allowing displays of it in torture contexts is a way of reinforcing that it should be reviled and punished. The messages are actually the same, just in opposite directions.

Below is the European poster for Hostel 2. Because it is the European version, it can obviously show what could never be shown in the lobby of an American theater: a naked female body. (What, you thought we were going to say a decapitated woman? No problem showing that.)

At left is the American poster for Hostel 1. See that tool there? It's called a breast ripper, a medieval torture device created exclusively for punishing or extracting confessions from women, whose breasts were literally shredded in the process.

Breasts are definitely not okay for display in public theaters.

But breast rippers are just dandy.

Have we made our point yet?

The Bush Junior administration, the most fundamentalist the U.S. has ever had, tried for eight years to enforce an "abstinence only" policy around the world, even connecting that condition to AIDS research funding. Abstaining equals not sex, and therefore, sex never needs to be addressed. Or as a University of Florida professor, Jerome Stern, once put it: "In the schools they want to tell kids about drugs because then they won't use drugs, but they don't want to tell kids about sex because then they will have sex."

Run that one around your head five times fast.

And remember the tried-and-true formula for who dies first, and who survives, in a teen slasher film. The most promiscuous woman, or couple, are the first dispatched: punishment for their sin. The virtuous woman, or couple — who may have had sex one time, but are deeply in love and planning to marry — will survive, and maybe even punish the punisher/slasher. Likewise, look at the "D.C. Madam" prostitution case, in which the woman who ran the service committed suicide rather than face prison, while her male customers, including politicians, got no punishment and will face no charges. The woman tempted; the men were powerless victims of her beguilement; she was punished.

Sounds like Adam and Eve in the Garden, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, in the secularized cultures of Europe, sex and the body are celebrated and permitted and licensed, and torture films are restricted. ("A Clockwork Orange" was famously banned in the U.K., for example, due to its gratuitous violence and the "copycat crimes" it allegedly inspired.) And our friends on The Continent continue to look over at the U.S. and shake their heads in total bewilderment over the bizarre moral contradictions created by the lingering Puritanism in our laws and policies.