All posts filed under: Current Events

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Beatlefest 2014: And?…

So it came to pass that this weekend is the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in the United States.  It is well established what their coming meant – for music and more importantly, for society – which would impact the following generations.  Certainly, a momentous occasion for me, having loved the band my whole life (yes, we all know that I go for long stretches without listening to them, but no matter what, I always come back). I decided since it is a once-in-a-lifetime event, I would go to the 50th Anniversary celebration at this year’s Beatlefest, held in Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt hotel.  I had always mocked anyone who went to these things as no different than sci-fans who go to the various conventions.  I went with the best intentions that I would hear interesting discussions – perhaps sociological discourses on The Beatles’ impact on society, not just music, etc.  I had hoped it would not be a swarm of “rabid fan” nonsense. I arrived early on Friday night; the first evening.  I just …

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PopSmarts: Two Thumbs Up

The art of film involves many collaborators, the most important of whom — as I’ve written before — is the audience. We are more than passive receivers. It is we, the audience, who bring the movies to life. Writers and directors create scenarios, and actors play them out, in immersive environments created by composers, designers, and cinematographers. But it is inside the viewers’ heads that a film truly lives. In our heads, and in our hearts. Great filmmakers know this, and enlist the audience’s collaboration by crafting films that engage our intellect and emotions. Not-so-great filmmakers grasp the same principle, but engage with it in a different, far more crass way — by monetizing it. Film is unique among the arts in that its mode of presentation has been in constant flux from its inception. While styles of contemporary painting, say, have changed tremendously since the 1890s, the experience of looking at a painting in a museum or gallery is still recognizably the same; but a host of technological advances have fundamentally altered the way …

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PopSmarts: The Politics of Haunting

It’s a holiday tradition; the low murmur of the stereo in the corner of the kitchen, filling the house with the sounds of Yuletide cheer.  And in our house that means that — along with Bing Crosby, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and the ongoing freak parade of Mellowmas — we’ll be hearing the audiobook version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The three-hour-plus performance was released by UK publisher Penguin as a free podcast back in 2006, and quickly became mandatory listening for us. The reader, Geoffrey Palmer, has a vast range of accents and timbres at his disposal, and he’s not afraid to go big. A Christmas Carol is as shameless a crowd-pleaser as Dickens ever wrote, and Palmer utterly sells it all — the gooey sentiment, the broad humor, the flashes of horror — with sobs and cries and peals of laughter, and without ever condescending to the material. Hearing Dickens read aloud is a revelatory experience anyhow. Many modern readers have trouble with his ornate prose — the elaborate syntactical construction …

PopSmarts: It Only Begins With L-O-L

Thanks to the fortunes of History and the inevitable bending of the Universe’s moral arc towards justice, our children, gay and straight, are growing up in a world where it is easier than ever to be queer-positive (though nowhere near as difficult as it ought to be queer-negative; one unintended consequence of “tolerance” as an ideal for diversity is that it tacitly permits even people of good will to let bigotry go unchallenged in the name of tolerance — tolerance of the intolerant). We’ve a long way yet to go before we’re anywhere near full parity — hell, we’re a long way from even basic goals like appropriate and proportional media representation — but the progress even in my lifetime has been remarkable. It’s hard to remember, now, just how prevalent the closet was, and how rare it was for any LGBT individual to be out of it 100%. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was still common for gays and lesbians to be out only to select subgroups within the circles of …

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PopSmarts: Trouble Shooting

I talk about a lot of different iterations of pop culture in these columns — film, literature, music, comics — but even the casual reader will notice that there’s a big video game-shaped hole in the Old Professor’s discourse. I offer no defense. My advancing years constitute no excuse, as there are plenty of guys (and gals) my age and older who learned their way around a joystick while I was highlighting key passages from the Monster Manual. I know, because when I visited their houses I would sometimes play Frogger or Pac-Man on their Atari 2600s, or marvel at the advanced graphics of ColecoVision. But not at home. My folks didn’t have any moral objection to video games, mind you; but I was the late-in-life child of parents who remembered the Great Depression, and their habits of frugality precluded investment in anything whose worth was at all in doubt. My mother, in 1963, famously proclaimed the Beatles to be “a flash in the pan,” so these were not people who were easily impressed by …

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PopSmarts: Yellow Perils

We’re well into Movember now, the month-long event wherein thousands of men worldwide grow mustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues. Count your humble Old Professor among that number. I usually keep a trim beard, but every November 1st I scrape my big dopey mug down to a shiny pink, and with the canvas thus made blank, I start workin’ on a sweet Fu Manchu. I first encountered this ornamentation — the King of All ‘Staches, and as far as I know still the only one to be named for a fictional character — on the face of the eponymous Devil Doctor himself, in the pages of a Marvel comic called Master of Kung Fu. Not a title to inspire confidence, I know; it seems to promise the newsprint equivalent of the shoddy chopsockey programmers that lit up many a ‘70s grindhouse. But among the cognoscenti, MoKF — which made its debut in 1973, forty years ago this month — is legendary. At its peak, the book delivered high adventure with unabashedly arty leanings, …

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PopSmarts: A Reputation For Difficulty

We who take it as a vocation to criticize the efforts of others must take great care to keep our own behavior above reproach. It is particularly bad form to take a fellow critic to task when he or she makes a judgment that seems eccentric or even outright mistaken. Judge not, lest ye be judged; because we all do it — oh, boy, do we ever — and what goes around comes around, and karma’s a bitch, and I would rather not have the razor-sharp critical mind of a Laura Miller or a Matt Zoller Seitz turned to the task of enumerating my failings, thankewverymuch. Which presented me with a bit of a dilemma recently while I was catching up on recent (-ish) films. I had occasion to watch the 2011 adaptation of John LeCarré’s thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I was immensely impressed, so much so that I did something that I hardly ever do; I immediately rewatched it. Three times in the space of twelve hours, in fact. It’s a remarkable piece …

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Popdose Politicks: Debt Ceiling! Shutdown! Fight, Fight, Fight! (Again)

Dw DUNPHY: Well, now that Syria has vanished from the front pages, Big Tea has refocused on the fight they really wanted: Running the government into a brick wall. Praise the lord and pass the ammo. JON CUMMINGS: Unfortunately, the polls show that Republicans have attained one of the key goals of their “governance”-by-crisis shenanigans of the last three years: Large numbers of Americans now believe that government is incapable of playing a healthy or positive role in dealing with the big issues, such as job creation, health care and rising income inequality. Operating on Chaos Theory since 2011 – since 2007, really – the GOP has convinced the public that chaos is all that’s possible. The flipside of that is that senior and/or sane Republicans (and when we’re calling Mitch McConnell “sane,” we’re really off the reservation) recognize that a government shutdown or a credit default would be too much chaos for the public to bear. If the GOP were simply to make no waves between now and November 2014, the midterm election of …

PopSmarts: Heavy Elements

So this week the geek world (Doctor Who division) is abuzz over the announcement that cussy Caledonian Peter Capaldi has been cast as the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor. Capaldi will surely bring a new energy to the venerable British sci-fi institution — the show is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — and at 55 years of age, with a portfolio of morally ambiguous characters on his résumé, promises a hard-edged take on a property that has, under the direction of showrunner Steven Moffat, trended increasingly warm and fuzzy. Now, geeks are a contentious lot, and any possible casting choice was bound to be a disappointment to someone — especially to people (your own Old Professor among them) who feel that if the immortal Doctor can regenerate into any form, then there is no reason why he cannot incarnate as a woman, or a person of color. Science fiction is a literature of infinite possibilities, and to celebrate the casting of a white man in his 50s to take over the role from a …

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PopSmarts: The Cautionary Tale of Vitorino and Macarena

It’s high summer, and we’re in the midst of wedding season. And if you’re going to a wedding this summer, then there’s a chance you’re going to find yourself doing the Macarena. This is especially true if you’re attending that wedding in flyover country. The coasts, of course, are generally far too cool for this line dance-cum-hand jive, beloved of white people because it does not require them to move their feet. But in Middle America, the Macarena has carved out its place in the wedding DJ canon alongside the Hokey Pokey, the Chicken Dance, and the Electric Slide. The Macarena has been around for such a long time now (the first Spanish recording of the song, recorded by Spanish lounge act Los Del Rio with a more traditional Latin feel, was released twenty years ago), and was once so ubiquitous and now such old hat, that it can be hard to remember that it was once a new, kinda-hip thing — even a little underground. Its Continental origins gave it an air of sophistication, …

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PopSmarts: The Theory of Aesthetic Stasis

I’ve been catching up on the Entertainment Geekly podcast this week (which is my own damned problem, I suppose), and I was struck by an odd conversational turn during a discussion of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. The book’s author, Sean Howe, was talking about how he came to comics as a teenager via The Uncanny X-Men, specifically writer Chris Claremont’s long tenure on the title. That sounds familiar. Since its début in the early 1960s, the X-Men franchise has been the gateway drug for generations of adolescent readers. Indeed, it might just be the platonic ideal of teen-friendly serial fiction, especially when written by Claremont. Not only did he serve up a devil’s brew of soap-opera turns and reversals, dysfunctional family dynamics, sci-fi trippiness, and old-fashioned melodrama — in his stories of superhuman mutants, hated and rejected by a world that fears them, there lurked an all-purpose metaphor for adolescent alienation: What teenager, gazing at his own acne-riddled face in the mirror, has not felt like a misunderstood freak? Chris Claremont worked with a …

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PopSmarts: Sting’s Library

Like a lot of people, I have trouble taking Sting seriously — as seriously as he takes himself, anyway. But I must admit that I greeted the news of his upcoming album and theater piece The Last Ship — his first original pop material in ten years — with unalloyed glee. Regardless of whether the music is any good — and after detours into Renaissance lute music and a Police reunion tour, that’s very much an open question — every Sting record promises an impressive reading list. Songwriters draw inspiration from all kinds of places, of course, from films and plays and paintings, from poems and novels and the daily news. But few songwriters have been so ostentatiously literary as Der Stinglehoffer. And it’s hard to overstate how revolutionary that was. These days, Lana Del Rey can straight-up drop lines from Lolita into her manicured dance-pop, and nobody raises an eyebrow. But in 1980, when the Stingmeister namechecked “that book by Nabokov” on “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” you’d have thought the sky was …

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PopSmarts: Let Nothing Come Between Us

One of the most anticipated television events of the summer is Under the Dome, a 13-week summer series adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name. Under the Dome, which premieres June 24 on CBS, has a high-concept sci-fi hook; an entire town is unexpectedly encased in a semi-permeable force field, cutting the whole place off from the rest of the world. While a small group of citizens look for a way to escape their confinement, life inside quickly degenerates into a reign of terror as a nefarious local wheeler-dealer seizes power in the absence of any outside authority. In short, Under the Dome looks like the kind of small-town-under-siege thriller you’d expect from Stephen King. If the premise sounds vaguely familiar, well, it’s probably because you’ve seen it in another Stephen King story. It’s a dependable formula that’s worked well in Salem’s Lot, It, and Needful Things, among other works. The transparent dome, as the characters themselves note, functions like a terrarium or a fishbowl — and the characters are specimens under …

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PopSmarts: This Summer I Hear the Drumming

Last week saw the anniversary of one of the most horrific events in American history, the shootings of four unarmed college students by National Guardsmen on the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University. Four casualties may not sound like much of a body count, in a world where collapsing factories kill 900 workers and suicide bombers can wreak havoc in crowded public spaces. Hell, as I write this article, at least 35 people are dead in India after their bus crashed through a guard rail and into a gorge along the Beas River. Thirty-five lives snuffed out, and each of them precious; 35 people, each of whom had hopes and dreams for the future, hopes just as valid as those of Sandy Scheur, or Allison Krause, or Jeff Miller, or Bill Schroeder. But the Kent State massacre was a uniquely traumatizing incident in the social history of the United States. Three days of ugly antiwar demonstrations had escalated into full-scale rioting, with wholesale property damage culminating the torching of the University’s ROTC building. Some student …

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PopSmarts: Looking for God in “Toy Story”

It’s not a revelation to anyone, anymore, to point out that Hollywood is no longer in the business of original ideas. It takes a great deal of money to make and market a movie — any movie. And the Powers That Be have long ago figured out that the best way to ensure a return on their investment is to make films that are pre-sold, inasmuch as such a thing is possible — that is, movies with built-in name recognition: adaptations, sequels, reboots, reimaginings. Movies where name recognition alone will be enough to put butts in seats. Everybody does it, simply because it minimizes the colossal risks of filmmaking. It’s just smart business sense. So it is not unexpected — but still disappointing — to see Pixar fall into line behind this conventional wisdom. From its 1995 debut feature Toy Story onward, the computer-animation studio has mostly concentrated on making original films. Of the ten movies put out by Pixar between 1995 and 2009, only one was a sequel; and yet all were immensely profitable. …

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PopSmarts: Going Clear with William Burroughs

The works of William S. Burroughs are often lumped in with the Beat school; but although he was friendly with leading figures in the movement, his works were far more dark and paranoid than those of his compatriots. While Jack Kerouac tasted freedom in the blissed-out travelogue of On the Road, Burroughs brooded over the systems of control encoded into our very thoughts. Employing the imagery of pulp sci-fi, he characterized language itself as “a virus from outer space,” an intangible invader engineered to keep human minds enslaved. His distrust of language led him to the “cut-up” method, literally taking a scissors to his texts and reassembling them at random. Only by breaking the ingrained patterns of language, he argued, could we break the programmed patterns of our thoughts. From his youth, Burroughs despised all institutions of control — which makes it rather surprising to find that he spent almost a decade enthralled by the Church of Scientology. During the 1960s, while living in England, Burroughs took many courses at the church’s UK headquarters, and …

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Keep It To Yourself: The Writing On The Wall

So I’m standing on the 7th Avenue subway platform in lower Manhattan, circa 1983.  Two knuckleheads are discussing a picture of a baby in a circle.  The primitive image is drawn in white chalk on the black paper pasted over an advertising billboard mounted to the tiled wall.  “I think it means: No Babies On The Tracks,” says the dumber of the two.  After considering that for a moment, the other fool says, “Uh…it looks like a wristwatch.”  All the while your humble narrator was thinking, “Would you chumps mind stepping aside so I can try to get that Keith Haring original off the wall before my train comes?”  They didn’t so I couldn’t. I’m wondering, had I been able to remove the drawing, if I’d be able to do anything with it besides hang it in the private galleries at stately Keepit Manor.  And I’m wondering about that now because, thirty years later, the question has come up in connection with a mural by street art superstar Banksy.  Check it: ‘Slave Labour’ shows a poor urchin sewing Union …

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PopSmarts: The Judas Gospels

 And so we come, by the turning of the year, to the end of Shrovetide and the beginning of the Christian liturgical calendar. When I was a choir director, these three days of Easter were my favorite time of year. This is the time when Christendom enters its annual long dark night of the soul, and the rites of the Triduum still play out like a ritual drama. When programming music for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, I favored stark, direct songs — old folk hymns like “When Jesus Wept, the Falling Tear” (sung here by Waterson Carthy) and “What Wondrous Love Is This.” The Passion narrative packs quite enough punch without slathering on the cheap pathos, and those rough old English tunes are sturdy things — tragic without shading into melodrama. If you’re thinking that it would be a tall order for any rock ‘n’ roll song to capture that mingled mood of heartbreak and solemn awe, you’d be right. And if you’re thinking that Irish bombast-mongers U2 are unlikely candidates to pull …

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PopSmarts: Damned By Dawn!

It’s coming on St. Patrick’s Day now. That’s when all the amateur Irishmen come out for a night on the piss and an annual flirtation with Celtic folk music. In particular, the Pogues will come out for their yearly spin in the CD player, and it is to them that we turn our attention this time — and to an odd bit of trivia to both enhance your listening pleasure, and to give you an air of sophistication as you spend the evening getting schnockered with your cronies. One of the first pieces I wrote for Popdose was this guide to the Pogues, and what I strove to emphasize — what still strikes me now — is the band’s vast, omnivorous musical reach. It’s an injustice to think of them as “only” an Irish folk group. Oh, they had a greater command of (and reverence for) the Irish folk tradition than their detractors — or even some of their fans — would care to admit. But the Pogues were always chameleons at heart. At the …

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PopSmarts: The Camera Always Lies

I’ve always been a know-it-all. I was the kid who actually did read the encyclopedia for fun, and I carried my reputation as a fount of useless knowledge into adulthood and into the workplace. Break-room conversations would wind into arcane corners, until someone would say, “Ask Jack — I’ll bet he knows.” And I’d find myself grappling with questions like why Easter moves around so much in the calendar, or why riders of show-horses wear those puffy trousers, or how a faulty car came to be called a “lemon.” I’ve been asked to end arguments, to settle wagers, or simply to satisfy someone’s curiosity. And I’ve always done it — sometimes willingly, sometimes not. For one glorious week, I found a way to make it pay, parlaying my mastery of trivia into a winning stint on Jeopardy! But my true calling has always been as the Office Explainer, telling you everything you could possibly need to know about the ephemera of art, science, and history — and slightly more than you might need, in fact, …

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Book Review: “Profiles in Courageousness” by Rep. Jack Kimble

Political satire is usually pretty lead-footed. It’s hard to do well, with the result usually falling into the realm of smug, obvious, and overwhelmingly direct (Capitol Steps), or fear-mongering and overwrought (Bob Roberts). It also has a limited shelf life, because politics also have an innate sense of urgency. (If I’m even three days late on an SNL episode, I’ll skip the political cold open because it’s no longer relevant and/or the jokes are so obvious.) This is why Rep. Jack Kimble, R-California, 54th District is so wonderful. He’s a self-made Internet star with a YouTube channel and Twitter account, both of which he uses to parody the medium-specific ephemera of the 24-hour/online news-cycle and political ramblings of self-proclaimed political crusaders and moronic idealists with too much power. And now he’s released the e-book Profiles in Courageousness, a fake political memoir. It’s the kind of flag-waving, values-praising, extremely carefully worded, praising-a-past-that-never-was, written-by-committee “autobiography” ever candidate has ghostwritten for them 11 months before the first primary. (Kimble, of course, isn’t real. California doesn’t have 54 districts; he’s a …

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An Open Letter to Manti Te’o, from Jan Brady

Hi, Manti Te’o. It’s me, Jan Brady! I’m a sophomore at Westdale High School in California. I live with my three brothers, two sisters, and parents. Oh, and Alice! Don’t forget Alice! (She’s our maid, but she’s more like one of the family.) We’re a real bunch. A “Brady bunch!” Ha-ha-ha-ha! I think it’s really neato that you play sports. My favorite sports people are Don Drysdale and Joe Namath, and it’s too bad that you didn’t win the big championship game, but I bet you’ll still be the Big Man on Campus until you graduate. But that doesn’t mean that you can go around and tell people that you have a girlfriend who isn’t real, and that she died. Lying is wrong, Manti. And you shouldn’t lie to people to try to get them to like you. If you have to pretend for them, do you really want them to be your friends? But we Bradys don’t judge, Manti. Also, I understand. Even me, the great Jan Brady, lied about having a boyfriend! I …

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Keep It To Yourself: My Precious

In a hole in the ground there lived a lawsuit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet lawsuit, filled with the ends of contracts and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy lawsuit with nothing interesting in it to read: it was a Hobbit copyright lawsuit, and that means…money. Actually, there are a couple of recent infringement suits involving the new J.R.R. Tolkien-based flick and we’ll take a look at both.  Right, off we go to Ye Magickal Lande of District Court! In the first suit, Tolkien’s estate sued Warner Brothers for copyright infringement of the super popular Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit books.  The complaint – for $80,000,000 – was filed just before the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, first in a trilogy of films Warner Bros. will somehow wring out of JRR’s original Middle Earth novel.   Also named in the suit are Warners’ New Line subsidiary as well as the Saul Zaentz Co., which owns certain LOTR/Hobbit film and merchandising rights.  (But that’s not really news because everybody likes to …