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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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 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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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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To Twitter or not to Twitter?

March 21, 2007 at 10:44 pm (places, politics, web 2.0)

I can’t decide whether Twitter is the next big thing or the next of the latest and greatest Web 2.0 technologies to bite the proverbial dust. It seems like the natural progression of blogging—a universal blog that everyone can contribute to. But, there’s not necessarily the same amount of thought put into contributing. It’s more like a non-synchronous chat. It reminds me of the game telephone (you start with “President Bush should rethink his foreign policy” and end up with “Messing with tusking shook peering fusion peas”). Is it a conversation? Not really—more like pining something on a bulleting board. But why pin something when you have nothing to say, necessarily?

Then again, it can be entertaining—much in the way reality television is—predictable, but still like watching a car wreck; everyone else is slowing down to look, why not me? It gives us concourse to the world, and, unlike a lot of mainstream media, gives us others we can directly identify with. After all, if we are looking at Twitter, we have been drawn in by the spectacle of it, and reading it, you can see people just like yourself, or who remind you of your own experiences. This comment reminded me of my time at UT Austin (if you’ve spent time in Texas, you’ll understand). Vicarious nostalgia. On the other hand, it can also confirm your schema of the world—someone from San Fran who likes Bikram yoga and chai lattes for example. Nothing wrong with it, just nice to reflect on. And let us not forget the advantage of the virtual-being-there; I couldn’t be at SXSW (more Austin nostalgia), but I knew what was happening there, moment to moment, because of Twitterers.

I suppose it could go either way at this point. Blogging takes a lot of dedication, but Twitter has random charm—I offer no predictions. Except that I don’t think John Edwards will be elected—just a hunch.

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Viacom alienating its citizen marketers

March 13, 2007 at 10:23 pm (politics, theory)

So it looks like Viacom has decided to sue YouTube for showing clips of Comedy Central shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. What’s interesting, however, is that another Viacom property, CBS, has been using YouTube to show clips and drum up interest in its shows. CBS would seem to be ahead of the curve.

Honestly, there’s no stopping the influx of content onto the web now that the tools are in the hands of the people (not to sound Marxist or anything…it’s really a more democratic process). Bottom line, Viacom is waging a costly battle—should they win, they could be loosing out on millions of free advertising revenue—should they loose, they’ve lost close to a million marketers.

I’ve just gotten a hold of the book Citizen Marketers, by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, the minds behind creatingcustomerevangelists.com, the bible on citizen-created content and the 1% rule. Their theory, which I happen to adhere to, is that there’s no such thing as controlling the content that users will put out there—they will do it whether you want them to or not—and the content that they create will influence other potential users/customers.

It’s now become standard practice for me to see what other users are saying about a product before I buy it—and I find these reviews to be more trustworthy in most cases. If 100 people say that a product is worth buying, it influences me more than a possibly biased mainstream media review. With more and more media conglomeration, it’s becoming too difficult to tell where your information is coming from—and citizen marketers are bringing more certainty to the process.

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Coulter and Hilton–BFFs?

March 9, 2007 at 8:49 pm (celebrities, politics)

I’m late to the party here, but a friend just forwarded me an email from the Human Rights Campaign asking Lee Salem, Executive Vice President and Editor, Universal Press Syndicate, to remove Ann Coulter from syndication. For a give and take on this issue of papers choosing to keep and drop Coulter’s column, check out these point and counterpoint articles at Editor & Publisher.

Ann Coulter has always struck me as a strange individual, and not just because she appears to be as bigoted as some of her conservative counterparts (notice, I do say some—America is America because of vibrant, informed protest). It is because she is a woman who appears to be as bigoted as some of her conservative counterparts. Coulter is openly rejecting the typical gender politics that dictate how women should act. Usually, removing oneself from pre-constructed notions of gender would be empowering–unfortunately, Coulter doesn’t empower anyone–she’s courting reactionary attention, and to this point she’s managed to continue with this behavior.

This is the “look at me!” culture that has enabled Paris Hilton to become famous—perhaps Paris Hilton is a remarkably intelligent person (though she has publicly displayed herself otherwise) and perhaps Coulter is as well—but they don’t demonstrate this through any informed discourse—and I’d sure like to see it.

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