Mommy Dearest

May 13, 2007 at 5:09 pm (celebrities, movies, politics, stuff)

It’s Mother’s Day, a time we put aside to buy greeting cards for the woman that gave us life. Mother’s Day in the United States became official in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson signed a Joint Resolution making the day an official holiday to celebrate the woman’s role in the family. The creation of Mother’s Day was primarily the work of Anne Jarvis, who sought to celebrate her own mother’s life by handing out white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower. Unfortunately, the holiday was co-opted by the florist and greeting card industries, and became a day of commercialism and exploitation. Jarvis campaigned until her death trying to stop what she had created.

I’m not a mother, but I don’t think I’d like to celebrate Mother’s Day when I become one. Maybe it’s the Catholic in me, but the guilt is frankly overwhelming—one day isn’t enough to celebrate motherhood, but it’s just enough to make us reflect on the lack of time we put into celebrating mothers otherwise.

In the spirit of Mother’s Day, Turner Classic Movies is showing a variety of thoughtful and nostalgic films that commemorate the bittersweet sacrifice of mothers—including such films as Mildred Pierce (1945) and Stella Dallas (1937) (both of which I would hightly recommend). But today, in the hopes that we might have an anti-Mother’s Day celebration, here are some films to remind us that it’s not all flowers and puppies.

 

The Omen (1976)

To spare his wife the sorrow of having lost their child at birth, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) decides to go through with the not-so-legal adoption of a child whose mother died in childbirth. Win-win, right? Well, it just so happens that this child is the antichrist. At least his heart was in the right place. As dad investigates what could be wrong with his “son” the apple-cheeked little Damien (Harvey Stephens) enthusiastically rides his tricycle through the house, taking down everything in his path, including mommy; right over the balcony.

 

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

This film brings new meaning to the phrase ‘a face only a mother could love’. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is happy to learn that she and her husband are expecting—and so are her quirky neighbors. But strange things start to happen—like the horrible pain she feels over the first few months of her pregnancy, or the craving for raw chicken livers—and then there’s that pesky nightmare about being raped by the devil. But still, Rosemary gets past all this—after all, isn’t pregnacy supposed to be an uncomfortable situation? When she finally sees her son for the first time, with his father’s golden serpentine eyes and hooved feet, her motherly instincts kick in—she rocks him slowly to sleep.

 

Aliens (1986)

Biologically speaking, there’s only one mother in this film, and she’s just a bit unconventional—her babies need to gestate in the available human population. After saving Newt (Carrie Henn), the last survivor of a colony purposefully settled on the alien-infested planet (isn’t science great?), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) looks for an escape route, and stumbles on the Queen Mother’s birthing chamber. Bargaining for Newt’s safety, mother to mother, Ripley threatens the Queen’s babies with a blowtorn, and, like any mother protecting her children, the Queen gives in. It’s almost touching.

 

Poltergeist (1982)

Just how far would you go for your children? Give them a kidney? Work three jobs? Transport yourself to an alternate dimension to rescue them from the forces of the evil dead? Little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) plays too close to an inter-dimensional portal (her bedroom closet) and ends up the kidnap victim of poltergeists. What is striking about this film is that her mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams) keeps her cool—in a situation where most people would crumble, she goes about her business—doing laundry, caring for her other children, and trying to bring Carol Anne home.

 

There you go–have some fun with non-conventional mothers, and remember: your relationship with your mother could be a lot more complicated—

Rosemary's maternal instincts.

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Guilty Pleasures

May 10, 2007 at 10:25 pm (celebrities, politics, theory, web 2.0)

Guilty pleasures abound in the recent news that Paris Hilton will be having some quality time to herself. In the cult of celebrity we have created for ourselves, it is not simply enough to bask in the stars twinkling light, as the previously well-planned publicity machine of Hollywood would have us do. Now, when celebrity can be as simple as a YouTube video, we take pleasure in the judgment and even hatred we feel toward no-so-deserved ‘stars’. We have created a commodity in stardom, and the media take advantage of that—we read stories about Paris Hilton because we hate her, not because we admire her; and they profit from fueling that hatred. Though at this point, I’m not sure which behavior is worse—reading the juicy details of her ignorance or the fact that her behavior lends itself to such publicity. I guess that’s where the “guilty” part comes in.

Scandal sells nowadays, but, as opposed to the way it used to be treated, (one may recall Ingrid Bergman’s messy affair and her actual exile from the U.S.) we relish in it—waiting for our young starlets to tumble into rehab once again, wondering who will be next to drive drunk, vomit on themselves, or sell a sex tape. I think that more than the scandal, we value our moral superiority over these people.

Mine started simply enough—every so often I’d find a slideshow of terribly dressed celebrities and revel in the fact that though their outfits cost more than my car, and also despite the fact that they had armies of stylists, they still managed to leave the house and be photographed looking like they’d had a nasty tumble down Everest before they reached the red carpet. However, my obsession began to grow—and I now find myself overly concerned with what Nicole Richie is (or rather, isn’t) eating. We like to think we have better sense than them—we value this feeling—so, in a way, Paris Hilton is our fault. She has made herself a caricature for our amusement, and we sit back and think to ourselves, ‘dance, monkey, dance!’

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Barbie 2.0

May 1, 2007 at 6:26 pm (politics, theory, web 2.0)

Mattel announced recently that they will be launching a new product that will allow young girls to connect to a web portal, BarbieGirls.com, a site that will combine a myspace-type community where (according to an article on MSN) girls can “create a character they can name, dress and customize by skin tone, hairstyle and expression [and] shop for clothes and furniture in a virtual mall, using “B-bucks” earned by playing games and watching product promotion videos” It’s Barbie 2.0.

The goal, Mattel says, is to capture girls 6-11 years old, who tend to think that the dolls are too childish for them. This seems to conflict with the space that Barbie has occupied for so long: marketing the idea of being ‘grown up’ to young girls. When girls are young, it generally seems that we are being trained for the future, rather than our current existence. We have an instinct to play with baby dolls and be mothers, and we emulate the fashionable (and recently, career-oriented) Barbie.

However, Barbie is often criticized for creating a false ideal that no young girl can live up to—it’s cited that were she a real person, she would need to be “7 feet 2 inches tall, weigh 115-130 pounds, have 30 to 36 inch hips, an 18 to 23 inch waist and a 38 to 48 inch bust”. But lately, we have to ask ourselves whether Barbie is really that bad compared to other franchises, such as the Bratz dolls, who at their best seem to be either gold diggers or prostitutes. Ah, the joys of post-feminism.

The Barbie doll brings up the age-old nature vs. nurture argument—do we play with Barbie because it’s in our nature as women to desire beauty and fashion, or is it because of Barbie that we are stereotyped this way? I take refuge in a book I once read, called Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession that captures what many young girls do with Barbie: annihilate her. My Barbies were painted, decapitated, mutilated, burned and buried. I don’t know if this was a reaction against Barbie, or what she seems to now represent, but it still comforts me to think of her tufts of golden plastic hair scattered on the brown shag carpet.

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Calm and Assertive

April 30, 2007 at 11:30 pm (celebrities, organization)

My latest obsession is Cesar Milan, The Dog Whisperer. I’ve been trying to examine the fascination I find with watching this guy come in and essentially fix peoples’ problems with their dogs, whether they’re hyperactive, afraid, or even vicious; and this applies to both the dogs and their owners. Milan says that he “rehabilitates dogs and trains people” and that we should all be “calm and assertive” with our pets.

Lately, as I’ve been trying to get organized and find time to do my work, have a personal life, keeping up hobbies, and maintain that oh-so-fragile sanity, I find Cesar making a lot of sense. Dogs don’t reflect on the past—they only live in the present. Dogs absorb the enviroment around them, particularly the people (and other animals) they encounter. I think a lot of us, myself included, tend to let past performance and fears hold us back. Dogs don’t think that way—they take the mentality of the pack and they go with it.

I know that pack mentality is typically poorly regarded as the refuge of the obtuse, for people who can’t think for themselves. But the pack mentality can actually free us from the stress of daily life. Why concern ourselves with the actions of others, when we are not accountable for them? Why take on responsibilities that aren’t ours? I’ve been trying to be the alpha dog, and the amount of energy this takes is enormous—both to obtain that spot, and keep it. There will always be someone better at something than I am, and there will always be another ‘dog’ trying to grab the top spot. However, if I go with the flow, I can relax, bury bones, sniff things, and generally lead a healthy and relatively stress-free life. I may even learn stuff about the neighborhood and the local trees.

So, my new goal is to be calm and assertive with myself, and train myself to let go of the little things. I know that traveling with the pack is generally regarded as the kryptonite of the ambitious, and working in the corporate world, the concept is a bit frightening. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Sex and Mr. Valenti

April 27, 2007 at 10:35 pm (celebrities, movies, politics)

Jack Valenti, the man who will forever be remembered as the man who started the Motion Picture Association of America’s film ratings system, died yesterday at the age of 85. Valenti took over as president of the MPAA in 1966, and two years later the original ratings system, G, PG, R and X came to be, as a reaction to the rapidly increasing violence in films—Bonnie and Clyde (1967), with its striking and extremely graphic closing death scene, is said to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Hollywood ratings system has always been fascinating to me—from the beginning, when it emerged as the Production Code of 1930 (at that time produced by the MPAA’s precursor, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) the code and ratings system has been a form of self-censorship, a way to prevent the government from interfering with Hollywood’s cash flow

The Production Code, created by the first president of the MPPDA William H. Hays, had three guiding principles:

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. (Production Code, wikipedia)

Hence, even in the darkest of films in the Classical Hollywood era, the bad guy is always either redeemed or killed, making some otherwise excellent films just a bit forced—take The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), for example. Because Lana Turner’s daughter had recently been on trial for murdering Johnny Stompanato, Lana’s abusive mobster boyfriend, the filmmakers dressed her in gleaming white, to enhance her virginal image in the film. Before Lana’s character Cora can announce her pregnancy (notice, without ever using the word “pregnant”) she has to awkwardly marry her lover Frank (John Garfield)—no children out of wedlock in Classical Hollywood! And, of course, in the end both Cora and Frank are punished for murdering Cora’s first husband: Cora dies in a car wreck, and Frank is put on death row.

The production code and the ratings system have been praised as protecting our morality and our children, and criticized for crushing the creativity of film. Independent filmmakers notoriously lock horns with the MPAA to avoid the so-called ‘kiss of death’ for films, the NC-17 rating (which replaced the X rating—because the ratings were not originally copyrighted, the pornographic industry latched onto the X as free advertising—leading to its replacement). The NC-17 rating is a cliff for films—covering everything from Showgirls (1995) to Debbie Does Dallas (1978), keeping audiences away, and keeping theaters from exhibiting them. The ratings system is uniquely rooted in puritanical American values—where else can you see someone’s brain explode at an R rating, but never, ever, a man’s penis? Sex is dirty, violence is profitable.

So, let’s tip a hat to the legacy of Jack Valenti—he may be a polarizing figure, but his affect on the film industry has been powerful and long lasting. Where we go from here will follow what has come before.

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The Joys of Procrastination

April 26, 2007 at 11:37 pm (stuff, web 2.0)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see Jorge Cham, author of the grad student comic “Piled Higher and Deeper,” at the University of Arizona. Cham gave a great talk about procrastination, something I’ve been doing a lot lately. To procrastinate, he argues, is not necessarily a bad thing (separate from its close cousin, laziness)—you’re simply deferring a task, but still thinking about doing it; whereas laziness is simply a complete lack of desire to do anything. When we procrastinate, we let our minds wander from the tasks at hand, we can end up being even more creative, removing the mental blocks that occur when we concentrate too long on something. If you have the opportunity to see Cham speak, I highly recommend it—especially if you are or ever were a grad student–he really, really understands.

Procrastination is actually going to end up saving me a lot of time—the other day I was wandering around my del.icio.us bookmarks (I was supposed to be cleaning, but the computer was so enticing…) and I found one I had saved a while back: todoist. This seems to me like one of those fantastic applications developed by a software engineer while work was being avoided; procrastination brings us the most wonderful things.

Today at work when I needed to find a way to organize my (entire) life, todoist popped right back into my head again. You can create projects, add tasks, assign due dates, create color-coding and, best of all, there is a satisfying check box for when you complete something. It works like my brain, but with a bit more clarity—and you can access it from anywhere. With this tool, I can see myself becoming exponentially more productive than I am now…leaving me with oodles of valuable procrastination time. Life is good.

I was in humanities.  This is true.

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Ye shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free

April 19, 2007 at 11:10 pm (places, stuff)

This is the inscription on the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, darkened in mourning.

The Clock Tower at Austin, darkened.

I haven’t blogged in a while, though goodness knows there was plenty to blog about—Imus was good for at least a couple of entries—but we’ll come back to that later. Today I’m blogging about something wholly disturbing, the Virginia Tech shootings. The event in itself is heartbreaking, and has no logic—it was a sad act by a sad person. But what is just as disturbing is the treatment of the event by the media. A sick person quickly becomes a monster as we rip his life apart, and that makes it easier for us to grasp. The event becomes mythology—good versus evil; an event to be learned from and made better by for having survived it.

Our fascination with tragedy is remarkable—the tragic occurrences are the ones that shape us; I couldn’t tell you a great deal about the history of the University of Texas at Austin, but I know who Charles Whitman was. I was there when they decided to re-open the clock tower to visitors, (for the second time—a string of suicides in the 1970s closed the observation deck for a second time in 1974) and I heard stories about how he’d hit people almost a mile away, how bore marks in the marble of buildings were actually ricochets, and how he had scratched marks in the limestone of the clock tower to keep count of his kills. He was a regular person, capable, in a twisted way, of something remarkable. We still remember that day, as we remember 9/11 or Columbine. We examine killers with the same fervor as the great minds of our time. They fascinate us—just as we perhaps can’t see ourselves achieving greatness, we can’t see ourselves causing such suffering.

But I would ask that in this situation, as in others, we try to remember that there are never only two sides. We should have pity and not hatred, and we should try to understand why—and understand that there is no simple answer.

 

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The Media and Monkeys

March 26, 2007 at 10:26 pm (movies, politics)

Hello All—just a short reflection today on the potential media has to influence our thoughts and feelings. Flipping through channels, I caught the end of Inherit the Wind (1960), an excellent film that dramatizes the events surrounding the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. The trial ultimately struck down the Butler Act, which made the teaching of evolution illegal in Tennessee. It seems like déjà vu with the recent arguments over the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in schools.

Honestly, it seems like both sides could ease up a bit—my biology teacher handled it well, I thought. She explained Darwin’s theory, and carbon dating, and then some students offered that these methods might be incorrect, following Biblical text. Our teacher agreed that we could believe what we wanted and consider all sides in the argument—and that was it. Everyone was satisfied, no trials necessary.

Watching Inherit the Wind reminded me that it’s been a while since a film really tried to present a social argument—in the film, two fundamentally opposing sides clash, but ultimately respect each other. Sometimes creating antagonism where there was perhaps none seems to be the purpose of the media—in the news we fight wars against evil to save others from oblivion; in film we are given no reason for the crafty villain’s deeds, but cheer his inevitable death. This film doesn’t oversimplify, and I’d like to see that again.

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Juicy Joost

March 25, 2007 at 8:52 pm (stuff, web 2.0)

There’s been a lot of buzz about Joost lately, the new software from the creators of Kazaa and Skype, which allows users to watch television over the internet. My first thought was, “yeah…and?” It seems counterintuitive to take a technology as old as television and simply give it a new form. But it does seem to have a few added bells and whistles—rewind and pause (though with television’s instinctive paranoia against pirating, “record” is not a likely feature)—it also includes a ratings system and chat windows, so you can discuss programs as they happen. Joost will be presented in a channel format, rather than the click-to-play per program or clip like most of the video currently on the internet. And, spurned by YouTube, Viacom has signed up to broadcast its programs on Joost (any relation to the lawsuit, I wonder?).

Joost is P2P, so it will make its money through advertising, again, much like traditional television, and this may really be the advancement that Joost can provide. Current television ratings are a generally agreed-upon falsehood. Advertising dollars are based on Nielsen ratings, meaning that what 1% of the population watches determines how much television networks can charge for airtime. This is why there are such things as sweeps—the periods when viewers are creating diaries that detail one week of their personal viewing—so they often save the exciting plot twists and guest stars for February, May, July and November. If internet television becomes the norm, it will give programmers even more opportunity to track viewer patterns through fuzzy logic, much like Amazon.com does. Not only will the content providers know what you are watching, but they’ll know how long you are watching it, when you are watching it, how you choose to rate it, whether you chat during it, and then they can take that information to create personalized recommendations, for content and products. So, even though the ads will be select and shorter, they may be more effective.

I can’t imagine that Joost will be around for very long before the advertising starts to become imposing. Given that television is an established technology, and content will need to come from the traditional television networks, the technologies will likely share the space for a while to come.

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Network Execs: Stuart Smalley can help you

March 22, 2007 at 9:59 pm (politics, web 2.0)

So, it seems that while Viacom has decided that to get its piece of the pie it has to sue YouTube, NBC and Fox have taken a slightly different route to make money off of the technology, by attempting to make their own YouTube, which will include full-length episodes of their programs, and some user-created content—how they will deal with the copyright troubles isn’t yet clear (though I have a mental image of hundreds of desk-chained interns developing carpal tunnel as they review each video late into the night).

I think what NBC and Fox fail to realize is that their behemoth size is not an advantage in this case. Google expanded from a search engine to an empire (a googlesphere, if you will) in the blink of an eye. The aging media companies simply can’t compete with that kind of speed, especially as they will no doubt stop to consider each legal ramification possible with every step they take…and that way of thinking is not the way things are anymore. Kind of like when your parents want to be cool, and fail miserably (or, how you try to be cool to your nieces and nephews and fail miserably). It really comes down to acceptance, which is why I think the major media corporations should have a bit of grief counseling 101:

 

Denial – This isn’t happening! It’s more popular than our shows!

Anger – You can’t do this to us! We’ve been doing this for years! We’ll sue!

Bargaining – Seriously, just deal with us—give us a little piece of the pie, and there won’t be any problems…

Depression – It’s over. We can’t compete. All we’ve got left is American Idol.

Acceptance – Hey, it’s ok—let’s just keep on truckin’—after all, we’ve still got American Idol!

 

It’s OK mass media—just keep repeating: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”

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