Posts Tagged ‘popular culture’

In my late thirties, I developed an obsession with American cinema of the 1970s that surfaced yearly in the dead of winter.  The obsession would start with me reading a scholarly book about seventies films.  This would be followed by a manic updating of my Netflix queue and then marathon screenings.  I would usually burn out by late March.  I would move on to other interests.  I would forget about seventies films.  But the cycle would start again the next year.  Always like clockwork, yet never planned.

The obsession began in the winter of 2006, when I bought The Films of the Seventies, an annotated filmography of every American, British, and Canadian movie that had come out between 1970 and 1979.  I bought the book on a lark at a used bookstore in Winston Salem.  I was living in North Carolina with a girlfriend, in a relationship that was still a year and a half away from its end but already on the decline.  When I got the book home, I highlighted all of the films I had already seen: Jaws, Star Wars, Breaking Away, Alien, Grease—the stuff of childhood memories.  Then I proceeded to watch classics that, embarrassingly, I hadn’t yet seen: Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, All the President’s Men, The French Connection, Chinatown.  At the time, I saw this as an exercise in self-education.  I had recently finished a Ph.D. in American Studies, and I felt I needed to know about these films.  The project preoccupied me for a few months, and then it ended.  Or so I thought.

In February 2007, the obsession returned.  I read, in quick succession, Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (a book I had been assigned in grad school but never read) and Peter Lev’s American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions.  The reading had nothing to do with my teaching or my academic research.  I just found myself enthralled by these assessments of cinema and the 1970s.  Biskind hooked me when he wrote, “this was a time when film culture permeated American life,” when film was “no less than a secular religion.”  I was intrigued by his claim that “this was to be a directors’ decade if ever there was one.”  Lev similarly captured my imagination when he noted that this was “the most exciting and most experimental period of the American feature film.”  I made lists as I read, and I subsequently watched movies like Shampoo, Scarecrow, The Parallax View, The Conversation, Marathon Man, The Last Detail, and, fittingly enough, Obsession.  This time, my fixation lasted into the spring.  By the summer, I had moved to California to start a new job and my six-year relationship had ended.  I was thirty-seven years old.

A year went by without a relapse.  I was busy teaching at a new school and processing my failed romance.  I spent February and March in a battle with a loud, temperamental neighbor.  In search of a fresh start, I moved into a beachside apartment in April.  I cultivated new friendships.  There was no seventies that year for me.

In the winter of 2009, however, it started again.  I devoured a collection of essays, American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations.  I made more lists.  My viewing included Klute, Nashville, Night Moves, Joe, Phantom of the Paradise, Hardcore, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  But that year, I had a revelation.  I recognized a pattern not in the cycle of what I was doing, but in my experience of it: as it turned out, every time I revisited the ’70s, I liked reading about the films more than I liked watching them.

The books made the movies sound better than they were.  The books put the films in a historical context, explicated their cultural themes, imbued them with political significance—Watergate and Vietnam, the working class, paranoia and conspiracy, generational strife.  But the movies themselves?  They were often plodding, incoherent, indulgent, dull.  Not all of them.  But many of them.  The Last Detail bored me.  Night Moves confused me.  Phantom of the Paradise was whacky.  Joe was improbable.

In retrospect, the books I had read warned me of this. Peter Lev, for example, states bluntly (albeit on the very last page of his book), “one should not overly romanticize the films of the 1970s.  In a period of uncertainty and change, many mediocre films were made.”  In his introduction to Themes and Variations, editor Lester Friedman counsels the reader to beware of “hyperbolic assessments” of the era, for they “belie the fact that terrible movies were made during the 1970s.”  He writes this on page twenty-three, so I suppose I have no excuse there.

The same thing would happen each year. I regularly found myself waiting impatiently for a movie to end just so I could highlight the title in my filmography and be done with it.  Or avoiding watching it altogether.  My ex had noticed this tendency of mine when we still lived together in North Carolina.  Some of the titles that arrived from Netflix would sit next to the television for weeks.  She would threaten to mail them back the next time I was away from the house.  “You don’t have to do this to yourself,” she said at one point, sending us both into a fit of laughter.  And yet I did.  I was stuck in a cycle of pleasure and tedium.

Then I turned forty in 2010 and it all stopped.

I have two related theories about my obsession with American cinema of the 1970s.  The first is that the books I read provided a historical context for a time in my life when I was aware of very little beyond my own childhood.  The books offered a portrait of a cultural milieu that was taking shape outside of my tiny world of family, play, and school.  I could insert the memories and images I had of my own seventies childhood—a quite happy childhood—into a bigger picture of what was going on in America.  This was an exercise in intellectual nostalgia, in historicizing my youth.  That’s why I liked reading about the films more than watching them.  The moving pictures I had in my head, of me then, were much better.

The second theory is that reading about the seventies provided an escape.  In my late thirties I was going through major transitions: a stressful job search, the end of a serious relationship, a move to California.  Rather than deal with the corrosion and change that defined my present, I retreated to a safer past.  It wasn’t really about the seventies at all.  Sometimes we sit through bad movies because we need to.

So was my obsession with seventies films about nostalgia or escape?  I’m not sure they’re so different.  I was certainly obsessed with both at a particular stage of my life.  All I know is that when I finally let her go, when I turned forty and resolved to look forward more than I looked back, that decade also lost its purchase on me.  It’s true that one should not overly romanticize American cinema of the 1970s.  But it’s also true that one not overly romanticize the past.  Those moving pictures may sound good in theory, but sitting through them can just be another way of making the present pass by.


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The most recent data released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (2008) disclosed that 11.7 million persons in the United State experienced at least one attempted or successful incident of identity theft during a two-year period.  The incidences increased 22% from 2007 to 2008.  For the past decade it has been a federal crime to “knowingly transfer, possess, or use, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person.”  A steady stream of news stories reminds us of the dangers of identity theft and identity impersonation—from credit card and social security numbers stolen, to bank accounts hacked into, to child predators trolling social networking sites under false identities.

Our legal system and news media have sent us a clear message about identity theft: it is criminal.  It is unacceptable.  It is a menace to society.  You need to protect yourself, vigilantly, against it.  But in the imaginary world of popular culture, the ethics of identity theft is, well, far less rigid.  In the fictional stories we tell ourselves about identity fraud, the act itself can actually be a justified means to a moral end.  In the past year alone, three films have been released with plots that are propelled by characters who assume false identities, identities inhabited “knowingly” and without permission.  In the sci-fi film Source Code (2011), a soldier is transposed into the body of an everyday man who is riding a train that will blow up in eight minutes; he is occupying the man’s body in order to try to find the bomber on the train.  In Unknown (2011), a doctor awakens after a car accident to find that another man has assumed his identity, is married to his wife, and has his career (the other man’s photograph even shows up when the doctor’s name is searched on the internet).  Finally, the documentary Catfish (2010) explores the world of Facebook and the ways in which users perform their identities for people they’ve never met in real life.  I don’t want to give too much more away from any of the three movies, as each contains various twists and turns, but suffice it to say that identity cloning and identity manipulation is a theme that runs through all of them.

And here’s what strikes me about this cultural content and its broader context: in each case, the ethics of assuming someone else’s identity is not exactly black and white. In fact, in the moral logic of Source Code, posing as another person is wholly justified if it can help save the lives of others.  In Unknown, it turns out that identity fraud is ultimately a redeeming act for one of the characters.  And Catfish challenges the audience to reflect on whether questionable identity performance justifies the good works that can result in the process.  In short, if another person’s identity is assumed for reasons other than criminal purposes and/or economic gain, then it may just be okay.

It’s not just these three movies that explore the ethical gray area of identity theft.  We can go back farther into the decade to find others.  As readers of the Harry Potter series know, the magical “polyjuice” is a potion that will transform the imbiber into another person, at least in outward appearance.  While it is used to evil purposes in one of the books, it is also used by Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron throughout the series to obtain valuable information and pursue dangerous missions.  Their temporary acts of identity theft are deemed morally defensible.  Another example: the hero protagonist of the popular 2002 film Catch Me If You Can is a clever identity imposter—based on a real-life criminal—whom the audience finds itself rooting for.  And in the TV show Mad Men (spoiler warning…), the lead character is not actually the “real” Don Draper, but is a Korean war vet named Dick Whitman who has assumed the identity of an officer killed in the war—named Don Draper.

Of course, the theme and plot device of false identity is not a new preoccupation of literature and cinema.  Mark Twain explored it in Pudd’nhead Wilson, Herman Melville in “Benito Cereno,” Vladimir Nabokov in his dark novel Despair.  Older movies, like Day of the Jackal, the film version of the play Six Degrees of Separation, and the science fiction story Gattaca all revolve around identity fraud.  But in the world we live in today, where online identity theft is a rapidly growing criminal phenomenon, I find these contemporary iterations of the theme even more noteworthy.  As the performance of our identity becomes more fluid, unstable—indeed more uncomfirmable—in this online age of social networking, it seems that our sense of the morality of identity performance has become more muddied and culturally contested.  The law and the news media are telling us one story about the ethics of identity theft and manipulation; our popular culture is telling us another; and, I daresay, what we post on our own Facebook and Twitter accounts is telling us a third.

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Photo Credit: Associated Press

The teacher protests currently taking place in Wisconsin are clearly significant for a variety of political and educational reasons. The events unfolding in Madison have amplified ongoing debates about unionism, the crisis in U.S. education, and the politics of state budgeting. The protests arrive after several years of escalating public criticism of teachers. And the outcome will potentially impact the contours of our national debate about education policy. What is happening in Wisconsin is also significant for cultural reasons. It is important to remember just how rare it is for Americans to see photographs and television footage of tens of thousands of teachers gathered together in one place. The uncommon images coming out of Madison are profoundly disruptive to our common sense about teachers and schooling. From a cultural perspective, the portraits of teacher protest now circulating in the mass media are especially striking for the ways in which they challenge traditional representations of the teacher in American society.

Historically, the teacher has been depicted in American culture as one of three types: the schoolmarm, the bumbling pedagogue, or the lone hero. The schoolmarm is typically an older, unmarried, rural woman who dedicates her entire life to her pupils. She is the Miss Dove character, or the prairie schoolteacher, or the imagined head of the classroom in the little red schoolhouse of yore. The bumbling pedagogue is usually male, often effeminate, and either clownish, pedantic, or otherwise socially awkward.  He is the Ichabod Crane of our popular memory, the Mr. Kotter, the Scott Guber of Boston Public. Finally, the lone hero is the renegade who operates in isolation. He or she employs a nontraditional pedagogy—often in opposition to an unsupportive administrator—in an effort to educate the students everyone else has given up on. From Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver to Dangerous Minds, the lone hero is a staple of many Hollywood films.

Throughout the years, these stock images have mostly served to denigrate the profession of teaching, depicting it as a lonely, all-consuming, non-specialized career.  These fictional teachers rarely if ever complain about wages, benefits, or the excessive demands placed on them. They seem to willingly sacrifice their personal lives for the sake of their students. And they are almost never imagined as members of a teacher union. Such popular depictions also tend to suggest that teaching requires little if any formal training; in fact, many of these iconic pedagogues become teachers because they can’t do anything else. Most importantly, these images have worked to normalize the idea that public schools are crisis-ridden environments in which teachers must act in solitude, as outsiders, if they hope to accomplish anything.

Interestingly enough, these three dominant representations of teachers have subsided from view in recent years, supplanted in the media by images of tough, pragmatic, business-minded reformers.  I am thinking in particular of Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C. For a while, Rhee became a media darling who was profiled in Newsweek and Time (where she was photographed holding a broom) and was featured in the pro-charter school documentary Waiting for Superman.  In a similar vein, business luminaries Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have been spotlighted as the new philanthropic saviors of U.S. education (the Facebook CEO recently donated $100 million to Newark public schools).  The media celebration of these corporate reformers has conveniently dovetailed with broader calls to privatize public schooling and introduce more business-inspired models of incentive pay and accountability into school systems.

At the same time that our iconography of school reform has been crowded with the likes of Michelle Rhee for the past few years, U.S. popular culture has propagated a more deviant image of the classroom teacher. Television shows in particular have featured teacher protagonists who presumably mean well but who must of necessity supplement their educator salaries with illegal activities.  Take, for example, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who cooks and sells methamphetamine on Breaking Bad, or the history-teacher-turned-male-escort on Hung.  Just this past week, the trailer for the forthcoming film Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz as an apathetic, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed schoolteacher, went viral (curious timing, to say the least). Teachers like these reinforce the perception that we need no-nonsense leaders like Michelle Rhee to sweep schools clean of them.

All of this explains why the images coming out of Madison are so culturally significant. First, these images show thousands of teachers united together in solidarity.  Here we see not one teacher working alone, but a mass of teachers, a community, working together toward a common end.  Second, these depictions of non-elite, everyday people taking to the streets in the name of public education contrast sharply with the lone power suit administrator or the billionaire philanthropist imposing top-down reforms on supposedly inept teachers.  To best illustrate this second point, I can’t help but compare the pictures of thousands of teachers protesting in Madison with the Time magazine cover of Rhee standing alone with a broom back in 2008.  The new imagery overwhelms the old, draining the Rhee photograph of its symbolic power.

Finally, these many iconic images of Wisconsin teachers project strength—not bumbling hesitancy, or shoulder shrugging resignation, but conviction and fortitude.

Without question, these cultural representations matter. As the editors of the 1994 book Schooling in the Light of Popular Culture remind us, education in the United States is “likely to be understood in ways that are at least in part beholden to popular images and ideas embodied in widely disseminated texts.”  The cultural stories we tell ourselves about schooling can shape how we discuss education, debate policy, and perceive teachers. Today, at least, the quaint faces of Ichabod Crane and the frontier schoolmarm have been replaced by a bold faculty of thousands. Long after the impasse in Wisconsin is resolved, the images emanating from there are sure to resonate in our popular imagination.

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The great irony of the The Social Network, of course, is that its central theme is not connectivity but disconnection.  A film about the genesis of a technology designed to bring people closer together features a main character who experiences the painful dissolution of social bonds. The plot is driven by protagonist Mark Zuckerberg’s exclusion from social groups, the end of his romantic relationship, and the collapse of his close friendship.  This sense of disconnection is pervasive despite the fact that The Social Network is a crowded movie: characters are almost never seen alone (only when they are individually “wired in” to their computer screens), and certainly never seen enjoying a moment of quiet solitude. Instead, the characters are regularly packed together in small places—a legal office, a dorm room—or in big, loud impersonal places—a nightclub, a drunken party. But these spaces, despite their capacities, are repeatedly portrayed as lonely and alienating.

While the characters may inhabit a decidedly unsocial non-network beneath a façade of constant social interaction, the film itself serves as a remarkably vibrant cultural network. For the student of American culture, The Social Network is a fountainhead of intertextuality.  Perhaps appropriate for a film about Facebook, The Social Network functions as a busy crossroads of cultural referents, many readily recognizable, others unstated but nevertheless present.  The movie obviously plays on our familiarity with Facebook, but it is also features appearances by Bill Gates and the creator of Napster (both portrayed by actors), a musical score by industrial rock luminary Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and a Harvard setting (even though campus scenes were mostly filmed at The Johns Hopkins University).  It is also directed by David “Fight Club” Fincher and written by Aaron “West Wing” Sorkin.  One of the students on Zuckerberg’s Facebook team is played by Joseph Mazzello, the actor who starred as the little boy Tim Murphy in Jurassic Park.  In other words, what is really “social” about The Social Network is the way in which it serves as a pulsating intersection for a range of icons, myths, and expressive forms that circulate in the audience’s collective imagination.  It is populated by cultural detritus and ephemera with which we are friendly, if you will.

I imagine these multiple and varied cultural associations may in part explain the source of the film’s pleasure for viewers. The experience of viewing The Social Network is akin to data-mining.  It rewards a 21st century audience accustomed to scanning mounds of digital information and quickly categorizing that information into familiar frames of reference. For example, the brief appearance of Bill Gates evokes our Horatio Alger myth of success and the American dream.  The presence of Sean Parker of Napster infamy conjures associations with the lone rebel, hacking the system and sticking it to the man.  And Zuckerberg himself comes across as a nerd pulling one over on the Olympic jocks.

Reznor’s musical score triggers memories of his earlier work on such Nine Inch Nails albums as Pretty Hate Machine (1989).  That record opens with the line, “god money I’ll do anything for you/god money just tell me what you want me to,” and builds to the chorus, “head like a hole/black as your soul/I’d rather die/than give you control.” Pretty Hate Machine, with its loud synthesizers, drum machines, and vocal wails, is not unlike The Social Network: an expression of male adolescent angst and rage confined inside an electronic world.

And there are still other resonances: Fincher’s directorship reminds us of his previous explorations of masculinity and antisocial behavior in Fight Club, The Game, and Zodiac.  Sorkin’s dialogue echoes the brainy loquaciousness of the political characters he developed for the television show The West Wing. Nearly twenty years ago, in Jurassic Park, actor Mazzello played a child victimized by a technology abused and gone awry.

As I watched The Social Network, I even found correspondences with The Lonely Crowd (1950), the sociological study of “other-directed” social character that became a bestseller in postwar America.  Co-authored by David Riesman and his team, the book argues that Americans are increasingly motivated by the need for peer acceptance.  More and more, our “inner gyroscope” is set in motion not by individualistic self-reliance, but by the drive to win approval and fit in.  Consequently, our time is spent trying to decode what is popular and adjust our personalities accordingly: “The other-directed person acquires an intense interest in the ephemeral tastes of ‘the others’… the other-directed child is concerned with learning from these interchanges whether his radar equipment is in proper order” (74). What is The Social Network if not a depiction of a lonely crowd?  Indeed, isn’t Facebook itself a kind of lonely crowd?

I can’t help but wonder if this way of reading the movie—this pleasurable scanning of its cultural allusions—in some way works to conceal its underlying critique of 21st century connectivity. The film’s central theme of social dissolution is undercut by its teeming network of familiar, friendly signifiers.  Its “ephemeral tastes.”  Yet we are “friends” with these signifiers in as much as we are “friends” with hundreds of people on Facebook—another text, by the way, that we scan with the same data-mining mindset.  As portrayed in The Social Network, Facebook doesn’t really bring people closer together in any meaningful way; it facilitates casual hook-ups in bar bathrooms, or it breeds addiction, as one character confesses, or it quickly delivers trivial information like the results of a crew boat race. You would think The Social Network, with its depiction of Zuckerberg and his creation, would compel a mass exodus from Facebook, or at least spark critical public reflection on our complicity with this technology of the lonely crowd. But instead it rewards and reinforces our ways of reading: our ingrained habits of consuming images, scanning information, reducing human experience to pannable nuggets of gold.

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I was traveling abroad this week. I was at a conference in Jerusalem, which is a place that I’ve spent some significant time earlier in my life, but I had not been there for about 10 years. I know my way around that city as well as any other city in which I’ve ever lived and I speak Hebrew well enough to get around. and while now there are roads and tunnels and buildings that weren’t there when I was last there, and there’s a cement wall snaking it’s way across the eastern horizon, the basic landmarks of the city that I know remain, mostly, in place.

But I don’t really feel “at home” here, and I found myself pawing through my bag at various points, in search of my iPod. I wasnt trying to block out the Language or the ubiquitous sounds of construction that comprise the crowded city’s soundtrack. I was trying to find my own aural bearings, and they – for better and for worse – live in the little iPod that lives in my iphone. And this week, “home” came in the sounds of the Modern Lovers, Aimee Mann, and the Clash, whose songs helped me hear my way through this city.

I realize that I’m not the first to comment on the confluence of travel and mobile music, but for the first time, I think, the precise irony of this situation weighed upon me: I am more at home i my ears, and in songs that I have not known for all that long, than I am in a city in which I’ve lived.

I can’t tell if this is a sign of the apocalypse, or if I should just settle in to the unsettling intersection of technology, place, and identity. But while it’s not quite dancing about architecture, wandering around jerusalem this time is closest I’ve ever come to doing so.

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