Sunday, April 27, 2008


Stop-Loss, if nothing else, serves as a supreme acting challenge for its very talented cast. Meaning, if actors like Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Abby Cornish, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt can maintain straight faces while reciting ridiculous, over-the-top, ham-and-cheese dialogue, then they will have obviously proved their worth as great young actors. To that end, the actors succeed...and the movie fails.

The film marks the second directorial effort from the outstanding Kimberly Peirce, whose last film, Boys Don't Cry, was powerful and stunning, a masterpiece of painful subtlety. In the near decade since that film's release, I often wondered when we would hear from Peirce again, and I guess the answer was after she negotiated a mainstream release with MTV Films. If you'll remember, MTV Films was the studio that co-produced Election, but sly brilliance like that can't be captured often, and certainly isn't here.

Most of us are familiar with the term "stop-loss," referring to the military's current practice of extending the tours of duty of soldiers who were supposed to be coming home; or, sending soldiers back out into the field ("field" meaning "Iraq quagmire") after they have already returned home and had expected to stay there. Perhaps the biggest problem with Stop-Loss the film is that the filmmakers are attempting to make a non-documentary that, essentially, centers on a concept--or more specifically, a military practice. There are many stories to be told about soldiers who have fallen victim to this horrid process, but Stop-Loss isn't interested in telling one of them. The film's general goal is to instruct the audience on the practice by telling a ridiculous fictional story that holds little weight because a) the film is written as an exciting soap opera, and b) any film that wants so clearly to teach but tries to tell a story in the process is bound to fail. I would love a documentary about the stop-loss policy. Hell, it could even be co-narrated by Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum. But both the talent and the real-life situation are done a disservice by the filmmaking here, which plays like Melrose Place Goes to the Military.

Time and again, Peirce tries and fails to immerse her film in the "world of the soldiers," or the "world of the Gen-Y Texans," or even the "world of the stop-lossed soldier on the run." These attempts ring false at every turn, serving usually to annoy rather than enlighten, and in certain cases--such as depicting the drunken shoot-em-up exploits of these returning soldiers--could be construed as offensive. It's not as if I don't think things like this actually happen--it's that playing the main characters for buffoons without placing them in a believable context turns them into offensive caricatures. Likewise, playing loud rock music with violent lyrics over what's supposed to be low-quality cell phone video only plays like gimmickry for the MTV crowd when it's not put to the service of something powerful and engaging. Last year, Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah had a side plot involving cell phone imagery that was powerful because it was a commentary on the attitudes and mental states of our brave soldiers as they fight in a bloody, endless, indefinable war that should never have happened in the first place. In Stop-Loss, it comes off as mere scene-setting entertainment.

I am one among many who believe that many films should be made about Iraq, and that a good film can and should be made about the stop-loss practice. I also believe that the effort of Peirce, Phillippe, and Co. comes from a legitimate and heartfelt place. And that is what ultimately makes the end result of Stop-Loss so disheartening--here is a film so well-intentioned and so important that has been ruined by didactic message-peddling, unbelievable ham-fisted plotting, and a failed attempt to translate this material into the Gen-Y language.


What do you get when you marry MTV productions with a brilliant director? What do you get when you try to convey a serious subject to the teeny bopper crowd? Well, you get Stop-Loss.

Young people are going to hate me for this comment, but it's true. Not all of course, but many young people are not interested in films about the horrors of the Iraq war or about our government's disrespect and disregard for truth and honor. No, most young people are too busy playing on Facebook, MySpace, and/or trying to get laid. When they do go to the theater, they find raunchy sex comedies such as Superbad and horror porn such as Hostel and Saw far more appealing. So, the most fatal flaw for Stop-Loss is the filmmakers' attempt to cater the message to a group of people who just don't give a shit. The only way they are going to give a shit is if we institute a draft. A crappy, beat-'em-over-the-head flick is certainly not going to truly drive the message home. The only thing it was able to drive was me...away from the theater.

I will admit that Stop-Loss has good intentions. Everyone should know what our government is doing, and that they literally use and abuse those who were brave and generous enough to fight for them in the first place. However, the message got lost the way waffles get lost when a toddler drowns them in syrup.

No where will one find a more important movie about what war does to men than In the Valley of Elah. That film handled the subject of the horrors of war making monsters of men deftly, beautifully, and probably with the most important word, subtlety. Stop-Loss, unfortunately, does not have the capacity to own any of those key terms. It merely hammers us incessantly with message.

Look, I get it. No one is as baffled (still to this day) that George W. Bush is our president. God, that hurt to write. "President" and "W" in the same sentence; I will feel that for hours. I hate war as much as the next war hater. And I also feel as much animosity for our government for forcing our nation's bravest back into a war zone that they should never have been in the first time, let alone a second time. However, the frenzied, over-the-top manner in which director Kimberley Peirce exploits our contempt and her soldiers' brooding is nauseating.

None of these soldiers look like soldiers. They look like celebrities in camouflage. They look like poster children for the MTV crowd. Oh, look at that hunky Ryan Phillippe emote. Oh, baby, watch Channing Tatum work those abs as he looks for someone to bruise. Again, tailoring the message to teeny boppers shot this movie in the foot.

Stop-Loss wears all its emotions on its sleeves. There are no layers to dig into; no complexity to decipher. This movie is a 113 minutes barrage of bad manners. Everyone we meet is torn about the war, everyone we meet is harmed by the war, and everyone we meet has no brain cells about how to go about fixing the problem. I get it. This war sucks. And as Phillippe barks in the film, "Fuck him (our President)," but the film does not try tackle its subject matter with heft or with any sort of real moral conflict.

As for me, I am at a loss... why did Kimberly Peirce wait 8 years to follow up her brilliant and important Boys Don't Cry with this garbage? How come we finally get a brilliant female director with her take of war on the screen, and it looks like an adolescent male's vision? With the exception of surprisingly no female flesh exposed, Stop-Loss looks and feels exactly as it would as if it had been directed by a man. 

Ok, time for me to stop... still at a loss.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Talent Pool or Kiddie Pool?

Yeah, that's right, I am an American Idol fan. Sue me, but I can't get enough. It is consistently the only reality show to excite me when it starts every January, and keep me glued to the TV on Tuesday and Wednesday (and occasionally Thursday) nights all the way until the end of May. I always had a theory that it was because A.I. is the only reality show to treat itself like the once-a-year event that it is...every January through May viewers can expect to see American Idol...and it consistently brings in more viewers than any other program. Genius strategy. But that's another blog for another time...

...Watching Idol this season has been both a joy and a frustration. The joy is that this might be the deepest talent pool the show has ever produced--7 or 8 out of the final 12 contestants have all been good-to-great. The frustration comes with the popularity contest that is the weekly nationwide call-in vote. Only 5 of those 8 strong contestants remain, simply because the better candidates got booted before their time. Last week, the Australian import Michael Johns was the latest to get the ax, in probably the most shocking moment of the season thus far.

To update the uninitiated: seven contestants remain, five of which are legitimately good--David Cook, Syesha Mercado, Carly Smithson, Jason Castro, and Brooke White. Cook, incidentally, is a genius and a star...if he does not win, the universe is not in proper alignment (though when has the universe EVER been in proper alignment?). Smithson has the most incredible voice of all the finalists, though she has not found her niche yet. Mercado is another stunning vocalist, who has fallen victim to the racism that America exhibits when confronted with the "boredom" of "another really good black female singer" (also another blog for another time). Castro and White both are unconventional and great, with lilting vocals and unique musical arrangements.

So, who are the other two contestants rounding out the final seven? Kristy Lee Cook and David Archuleta, that's who. Kristy Lee has been a perennial 'bottom three' contestant, and she should have been voted out three different times by now (apart from the fact that she never should have landed a final 12 spot to begin with). She has a weird cross-eyed look when she performs, like a deer in the headlights. She is just not in the same class as the other contestants.

And what of Archuleta? Well, he is a little boy. He's 17 going on 14, a kid who wears polo shirts on elimination nights. He also happens to be a very cute kid, which is what has carried him through the competition thus far. He happens to have a very nice voice, but he cannot and will not be a star...not at his current age. The pre-teens who vote for him barely have the money to buy any CD, and even if they did they would never buy an Archuleta disc, which on the basis of his Idol performances would consist of slow, turgid love ballads. He is the least marketable of all the finalists--even less so than Kristy Lee, who could still sell country albums, even with a sub-par voice and horrid performance anxiety.

So...what is the point of this post? I was thinking this morning over an eye-glazingly boring trip to work that Archuleta needs to leave Idol, simply because he is a kid trying to play during adult swim. Every other contestant is more grown-up and substantial than he. It seems to be the Year of the Adult on A.I., and I personally love that. And by that logic, David A. needs to go.

But then I came to my senses. In actuality, Archuleta is not a kid playing during adult swim. Every other contestant is a grown-up in the kiddie pool. American Idol appeals to me as an adult, and I am not ashamed of that---it appeals to many other adults as well. But the adult appeal is watching the performances. The kid appeal is calling in to vote (that logic seems screwy, but it is true). And with kids, it will always be a popularity contest: who can blow the biggest bubble gum bubble? Answer: people just like David Archuleta.

If the kids weren't controlling the show, Michael Johns, arguably the most adult performer of them all, who took on the most mature (and therefore uninteresting to the kids) song choices, would still be competing. If the kids weren't controlling the show, Amanda Overmyer, A.I.'s first ever female rock star, would not have been voted off during the second week of top 12 competition. If the kids weren't controlling the show, Archuleta would have at least been in the bottom three on a couple different occasions.

But the kids DO control the show. And remember last season? The Idol winner was not the stellar front-runner, the very adult, very intangible Melinda Doolittle. It was Jordin Sparks, who was wonderful, and who actually has a great career now. But the fact remains, she was more appealing to the kids...who run the show. How old was Jordin Sparks when she won? She was 17...the same age as Archuleta.

Am I saying, then, that my not-so-monumental epiphany means I have undergone a change of heart, and that Archuleta deserves to win? No, don't be crazy...that would require a heart transplant. Or at least a brain transplant. But I am saying that he is the odds-on favorite to win.

I just hope those kiddie voters don't pull another Daughtry and vote David Cook off before his time. Because if David A. must survive to the final two, at least David C. would be there to show the boy what it takes to be a star.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Essay 2

Be a Man: The Perpetuating Social Construct of American Masculinity, and How it has Ruined the World

Edna Pontellier did not follow the rules. The controversial lead character of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening lived a life that fit very cleanly into the rigid feminine construct society laid out for her but ultimately was pulled toward a lifestyle that deviated far from that construct. Unable to reconcile her newly-discovered independent self—the true woman behind the societal shackles of conformity—with the indomitably traditional forces of the world she lived in, Edna walked out to sea, removed all her clothes, and let the water carry her away.

Dixon Steele did not follow the rules, either. Like nearly all Nicholas Ray protagonists, the “hero” of In a Lonely Place was a stranger in his own world—a dejected loner prone to physical and psychological violent outbursts who was neither liked nor understood by 90% of humanity. When Dix was targeted as a murder suspect, his lack of remorse did nothing to get the cops off his back. It was not until Dix entered into a relationship with his similarly isolated neighbor, Lauren Gray, that he showed signs of sensitivity and emotion. Dix and Lauren entered into their relationship as a way of escaping their loneliness—perhaps together, they could fit as perfectly into their world as Edna Pontellier once fit into hers. But, Dix was a man who was beaten down by the societal constraints under which he lived. Perhaps he was not very masculine at all, but the rigid constructs of his environment dictated the fierce outbursts and lurid psychological tendencies that ultimately sealed Dix’s fate as an isolated man, trapped in the unforgiving world that created him. So in the end, Dixon Steele could not follow the rules. He tried, but the same forces that pulled Edna into the sea pulled Dixon into an increasingly unraveling psychological state.

Michael Kimmel, in the preface to his book, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, writes, “I do believe that a comprehensive historical account of the American experience can no longer ignore the importance of masculinity—and especially of men’s efforts to prove their manhood—in the making of America” (ix). And indeed, just as Edna Pontellier could no longer go on pretending to prove her worth (or lack thereof) as a woman, Dixon Steele was unable to prove to himself or the world around him that he was a true “man” by any societally-imposed definition of the word. He was neither a raging, dominating brute nor a genial family man, no matter how hard he tried to be both.

“Masculine” and “Feminine” are both societal constructions that dictate from birth—both directly and indirectly, through stimuli as diverse as parental instruction, popular entertainment, news and media outlets, and social interaction—the ways in which each individual, male or female, should act, think, and live. But while that which is labeled “feminine” is considered weak, passive, and powerless, that which is labeled “masculine” is considered strong, forceful, and of great power. As a result, it is the masculine label that has driven the progression (or regression) of America from start to…however close to the finish we are currently. Thus, while women have been suppressed and ignored, men have been given all the glory for building this great nation. Yet does that not mean that men should also bear the brunt of the punishment not only for the psychological toll such a powerful label as “masculine” takes on men who must wear it, but also for the gradual dehumanization of the country today? In manifestations as varied as the unfolding of American history, the films of Nicholas Ray, and the current state of the American political system, the societal construction of masculinity has become a label humankind has been unable to peel off and which has proven to have an increasingly detrimental effect on men, and perhaps more sadly, on the world they inhabit.

Kimmel writes in Manhood in America that the history of masculinity “is less about what boys and men actually did than about what they were told they were supposed to do, feel, and think and what happened in response to those prescriptions” (10). From the very beginnings of civilization, males have been subject to the dominant ideals of what it means “to be a man.” How each individual man (or boy) chooses to respond to this unspoken call of duty is judged in every corner of society, and valued on a scale with a very narrow range. There are “men,” there are “tough guys,” and there are “heroes.” On the negative end of the scale, there are “pussies,” “girly men,” or “gay men.” Not much room to move. But as Kimmel states—and as Nicholas Ray would wholeheartedly agree—men do not act, and therefore are not judged and valued, solely on their nature. Men act according to what they have seen, learned, and experienced. Living in a society that judges every man on the same narrow scale, one that was defined very long before this current generation was born, means that each man’s actions are based predominantly on their environment and influences. As centuries have passed, American men have unwittingly pigeonholed themselves into an only partially natural—and very short-sighted—behavior pattern.

Each successive portion of American history has developed its own set of constructions for the masculine identity. In his book, Kimmel puts names and descriptions to each construction. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the three dominant male conceptions were “the Genteel Patriarch,” the quintessential man of home and family, “the Heroic Artisan,” the hard-working, self-reliant type, and “the Self-Made Man,” which established the importance of wealth and social mobility and which became the dominant masculine identity in the several decades after the American Revolution (16). Later, Kimmel describes a crisis of masculinity that spans through the Civil War (“a gendered war in which the meanings of manhood were bitterly contested”) and into the period of industrialization in the late 19th century (72-85). This crisis, which stemmed from a national “feminization” since boys were increasingly influenced by their mothers and female schoolteachers, is what propelled America’s masculine identity into the 20th century.

A fight to reconcile one’s masculine identity with the perceived erosion of male dominance marked early 20th century male society. Men sought to “prove their masculinity” by engaging in those pursuits deemed “manly”—baseball, exercise, and other such pursuits (120). In addition, many men of the time sought to “rescue their sons” from the feminine influences of their mothers and teachers, an effort which Kimmel dubs, “manufacturing manhood” (157). These rescue missions were clearly brought on by an unspoken paranoia, a mounting societal pressure that men seemed to perpetuate unwittingly. Hence, the constructions set into motion a century earlier so greatly influenced the modern man that these rescue missions would continue on, inevitably, for as long as there remained two dominate genders.

The first and second World Wars provided many men the opportunity to truly prove their masculine identities—albeit only for short periods of time (236). The 1950’s started a trend of discontentment that would only grow larger and more volatile through the 60’s and 70’s, when the gradual liberation of women and people of color only served to make men strive to spark their own liberation (290). Once the 1980’s hit, men seemed more confused over the meaning of masculinity than ever before due to the emergence of feminism and the perceived loss of male power. This “malaise” continued into the 90’s and the closing of the 20th century, where the Self-Made man, the prevailing masculine identity of the past two centuries, “leads more than ever to chronic anxiety and insecurity,” writes Kimmel (330). And so the American man beats on, struggling against a force he was unwittingly nurtured into, essentially helpless to end said struggle before it recruits his sons and grandsons.

Tracing the history of masculinity as constructed by society, it is impossible not to recognize the patterns American males fall into when it comes to defining their own masculine identity. A cycle of masculine perception was set into motion upon the ending of the American Revolution (and most likely, even earlier than that) through which man’s understanding of his masculine identity fluctuated over a lengthy period. This cycle has continued through to present day. The cycle begins with masculinity achieved. As man’s surrounding environment changes, however, so, too, do social norms and patterns of behavior. Thus, man’s achieved masculinity suddenly seems out of step with the rhythms of life. So man then manufactures a campaign to reclaim that which was perceived lost, through whatever means are available to him. And just as he grasps his identity once more, the cycle begins yet again. This cycle, however, is started, finished, and regenerated by men. The world keeps moving according to its own patterns. But the men living in it, taking the cue channeled from prevailing societal influences, refuse to shut up and go along, thus perpetuating their own psychological torment and forcing undue pressure on the generations to come.

Where Michael Kimmel stands at a distance from the American conundrum of masculinity, analyzing and commenting on the issues without stepping into the fray, Nicholas Ray is a filmmaker so deeply embedded in the quest to seize his masculine identity that his work goes beyond analysis and into pure autobiographical observation. His films—and indeed, his own life—personify what Kimmel described as a typical male problem of misplacing “men’s grown-up problems of economic contraction, political competition, social isolation, and interpersonal incompetence onto dominant motherhood and absent fatherhood” (318). Ray saw the world as one big isolation chamber, forever enslaving him in a search to find himself. His body of work represents his only outlet to express the unfortunate truth in Ray’s eyes—that the search is ultimately futile.

Ray’s oeuvre is a rolodex of irreconcilable masculine identities, starting with his first film, 1948’s They Live by Night. In the film, Bowie (Farley Granger) is unable to exit the life of crime he was born into. Since, according to the film’s opening, Bowie was “never properly introduced into the world we live in,” his identity as a man is forever associated with his influences, namely the criminals who have raised him. “Never properly introduced to the world we live in” could be used to describe several subsequent Nicholas Ray protagonists. Nick Romano (John Derek), from Ray’s second film, Knock On Any Door (1949), is on trial for a murder he did commit, but Ray suggests that it’s not Nick’s fault; the product of a poor family and the son of a man wrongly imprisoned, Nick grew up in a world that seemed to hate him. As a result, he shunned the social norms of said hateful world. Similarly, Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) of 1952’s On Dangerous Ground is a cop whose brutal life on the force has led him into a state of psychological isolation and physical cruelty, leaving him virtually incapable of interacting with the ‘real’ world around him. In each of these films, the central struggle of each man is to discover his true masculine self; and in each case, the critical downfall of each man is his lack of a “proper” masculine upbringing.

A simple analysis of Ray’s films reveal their common thread—the lack of a father. Or in some cases, the lack of a truly masculine father. This thread runs through nearly all of Ray’s major characters, either directly or indirectly—Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) of The Lusty Men, certainly Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) of In a Lonely Place, and even Jesus Christ (Jeffrey Hunter) of King of Kings. In other cases, Ray puts aside the angst of those under the influence of masculine crises and simply examines the push-and-pull of dueling masculine identities, such as the conflicting military father figures of Flying Leathernecks. And, in Ray’s most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s iconic Jim Stark is at the heart of Michael Kimmel’s description of 1950’s masculine “rescue missions”—he is the son of an emasculated father and an over-dominant mother. Jim has a rage against society that may well be “without a cause,” but is certainly not without an explanation—the irrevocable damage of growing up with no viable masculine influence has left Jim struggling to find his true self.

As a filmmaker, Nicholas Ray was an auteur of the highest order—in every film, his undying obsessions were on display for all to see. His films must have been used as intense therapy sessions, perhaps cries for help, or maybe simply as a series of waving white flags, giving in to the perception of a tortuous lack of true masculinity so beaten into Ray by the world around him. And while he was more immersed in a masculine struggle of his own, Ray’s view of the world comes across quite similar to that of Michael Kimmel—if, perhaps, the world could have presented less overbearing constructions of masculinity, men through the ages might have been less focused on achieving such a shifting, intangible identity. However, the truth of the matter is that the world’s constructions, such as they evolved, led men to assimilate those constructions as goals to be achieved, battles to be won, and anything in opposition to said constructions as enemies to be defeated. Since the world moves at its own pace and men refuse to follow, the goal is unreachable, the battle unwinnable, the enemy too dominant to be defeated.

The conundrum presented in Ray’s films and dissected in Kimmel’s book is true. It is not only true, but it is thriving in the world today. The cycle perpetuated by the men of every successive century is revolving in this current century, and there is no sign of a stoppage, or a reversal, or any such barrier that would block the momentum of the societally-constructed male. For evidence of this undeniable fact, look no further than the current state of American politics. Every last bone of the current political body is aching with masculine angst. Our president is so desperate to claim his masculine identity that he has occupied a country that presented no immediate threat to America and waged a war that has now lasted longer than World War II. The 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls debate weekly over who is more qualified to wage the next war against the next small country that poses no threat to our security—Iran. And on the Democratic side, all presidential candidates fear the “evil,” dominating woman named Hillary, much in the same way Republicans have for the past decade. Why do they rush to such judgments? Simply because she does not fit the roles society prescribed to her as a woman and instead seems to have more balls than many of the men who oppose her. She certainly possesses more natural masculinity than the current powers-that-be, who are so desperate to prove themselves that they bully foreign nations.

But is this not what men have set up for themselves from the beginning? To present themselves as the dominant gender and then to become so paranoid about that self-proclamation that they end up fighting to maintain it? It started during the American Revolution—in fact, it started well before that—and it will continue on until man becomes so paranoid over self-perceived threats to his masculine power that he pushes a wrong button and destroys civilization as we know it. Masculinity as developed and prescribed by America himself has taken control of American culture and history. Nicholas Ray lived a life that was plagued by it, Michael Kimmel has spent a great deal of his life researching and analyzing it, and every day we see blatant examples of how its stranglehold gradually diminishes the strength, intelligence, and reputation of our nation. Man may never win the endlessly uphill battle to prove his ultimate masculine identity, but his anxiety over losing power, his fear of that which is considered “other,” and his continued fixation with the disastrously contagious but ultimately simple perception of male supremacy, built up over several decades, ensures that the fascination with this societal construction will dominate the cultural zeitgeist until kingdom come.

So, in that regard, man has won…and the real world has lost.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Essay 1

Staking Claims: Pioneering the Frontier of American Consumer Culture

In his seminal 19th century essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner wrote of a “return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line.” Further clarifying his point, Turner goes on to write, “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”

In his ‘seminal’ opening address at a Microsoft Software Conference in 2006—where the overriding theme of the event was, “The Next Web Now”—Bill Gates spoke about “evolutionary new technologies” and “pioneering new approaches to network interfacing and software usability.” Further clarifying his point, Gates’ bottom line was this: “We are using software to reach out and mine new territory in terms of the customer experience—new territory that is valuable for the organization.” In essence, Gates’ words imply that the ‘customer experience’ is nothing more than an easily settled consumer landscape upon which the pioneers of Microsoft can systematically expand their business model and eviscerate competing corporations. The meeting point between savagery and civilization, indeed.

There are several ways in which the basic tenets of Turner’s essay are manifest today. The frontier is alive and well on our nation’s freeways, where my Ford Focus cruises along in the middle lane, while to my left is a Nissan Frontier, to my right is a Chevy Trailblazer, and barreling towards us all from behind is a Hummer H3, the ultimate civilian bastion of modern military/traditional cowboy pioneering. It is also actively expanding on the catwalks of successful fashion designers the world over, where the label of what is ‘hot’ or ‘fashionable’ dies and is reborn every 15 minutes. And of course, there is likely no greater current American pioneer than George W. Bush, he who blazes decidedly old-fashioned trails while completely oblivious to relentlessly modern ideals such as common sense, goodwill, and consideration for other people/nations.

Indeed, there are countless ways in which Turner’s 100+ year-old essay still holds true today. There is, however, one specific aspect of contemporary American culture that is almost identically recreating the traditional Western ideal of ‘pioneering the frontier,’ one that is just as supported by a speech from Bill Gates as it is by the immortal words of Frederick Jackson Turner. From the iPod to HD-DVD to the vastly settled frontier of the Internet, the endlessly evolving nature of American technology and its widespread blanketing over modern consumer culture is the single-most insidious pioneer of the ever-growing frontier that is today’s consumer America.

Early in Turner’s essay, the author makes mention of America’s continual rebirth, of “a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion” (60). There is no frontier as ripe for incessant evolution as America’s growing technology, where in the course of six months flat-panel plasma screens go from the exception to the standard, and where the latest advances can be purchased not exclusively at Best Buy or Circuit City, but also at Hallmark. Gone are the days of opening a birthday card to a five-dollar-bill from your grandparents. Now you can open a card and hear your favorite song playing from the microchip embedded in between the layers of cardboard. And not only that, but each card also comes with a free song download from iTunes, a gift that keeps on giving—at least for the three-and-a-half minutes it takes the song to play.

On the subject of music downloads, one of the clearest pioneers of the technological consumerism frontier is the Apple corporation and its most beloved product, the iPod. Portable music players have been used in many different forms for years—the most notable being Sony’s Walkman. Likewise, the downloading and sharing of music files online has been a popular pastime since the early days of widespread consumer Internet capability over a decade ago. So in direct correlation to Turner’s essay, the growth has been continual for many years. But it was not until Apple unleashed the first iPod in 2001 that portable music players became portable media players, capable of playing an ever-growing array of entertainment, and the ‘popular pastime’ of downloading music became an outright craze. The iPod not only expanded the possibilities of what a portable media player could do, but it also fashioned itself as the standard of ‘cool’ with its sleek style and wide range of available colors. In one moment of technological innovation, Apple took occupancy of a major consumer settlement.

In his essay, Turner makes a point to underline a peculiar contradiction within his model of the frontier as an evolutionary pattern. He notes that within the structure of continued rebirth is “a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier” (60). This dichotomy of innovation through regression is clearly manifest in America’s consumer culture, and very specifically manifest in the iPod. In the six years since its inception, the iPod has been reintroduced time and again in various new and expanded formats. First came the integration of picture storage. Then came the ability to play video. After that it was Podcasts, audio and visual programming made exclusively for those carrying iPods in their pockets. With each new evolution of the iPod—each new size, each new shape, each new capability—previous incarnations have been rendered primitive. Newer versions of the product broke new ground—a ‘new development’ on the area of the consumer landscape which iPod settled.

In terms of American social development beginning over again, the iPod has broken tremendous ground towards rendering American social development entirely obsolete. The newest version of the iPod comes wrapped up in the iPhone, which is a cell phone, Internet browser, and television in addition to all of the standard iPod features. What this new technology means is that with the exception of food and shelter, owners of the iPhone have possession of everything they need to live an entirely inward existence, not ever directly communicating with anyone, but having total access to the world. Thus, American social development is reborn—or arrested, depending on your perspective. And that, in a nutshell, is the influence of the iPod on the American consumer frontier—never has technology so greatly amassed such a vast consumer settlement and simultaneously made entertainment such an internal, pocket-sized venue.

Later in his essay, Turner discusses the succession of ‘fall lines’ used to mark the ‘natural boundary lines’ that shaped the characteristics of each successive frontier. “The fall line marked the frontier of the seventeenth century” (64), Turner writes, which was followed later by the Alleghany Mountains, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and the Rocky Mountains. “Each was won,” Turner states, “by a series of Indian Wars (65).” Therefore, each frontier is settled by some conflict, and each conflict ultimately has a winner—thereby supporting Turner’s earlier notion of the meeting point between savagery and civilization that has been at the heart of every frontier, including the technological frontier that exists today.

For evidence of these technological frontier wars, look once again to the iPod itself, which has buried a barrage of MP3 player competition. But, there are far more significant wars than that. Think back to when DVD obliterated laserdiscs, or when Dell and Gateway battled to dominate the custom-built computer landscape (heard much from Gateway lately?). Windows and Macintosh seem to have found a way to simultaneously wage a war and co-exist all at once, a sort-of peace that has emerged due to the fact that differing strengths (i.e. Windows’ word processing versus Mac’s media capability) lead many to either only need one system, or need both. However, such a peaceful war is not possible among many other technological battles, including the most hotly contested consumer Indian War of the moment: Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD.

As is the case in any frontier war, there is a settlement that needs to move forward, territory that is waiting to be claimed. In the case of the HD Format Wars, that settlement lies on the frontier line of American consumerism, where human beings are reduced to wallets in need of emptying; and that territory is quite literally the land that encompasses every home in America. Because like any form of technology, what starts as a scarcely seen, envied item very quickly becomes commonplace and run-of-the-mill. In the war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, the format that becomes run-of-the-mill first wins. And in the quest to become the standard, each sophisticated, innovative company must engage in a primitive war fought with contemporary methods. To clarify, each company must overtake the other by appearing most advanced, and therefore, most appealing.

To that end, Blu-Ray (developed by Sony) struck first against HD-DVD (developed by Toshiba) by forming the most unified front. Not only has Sony integrated Blu-Ray capability into every Playstation 3 video game console on the market, they have also been first out of the gate with Blu-Ray disc-burning drives for computers. So it appears Blu-Ray has a leg-up in this technological Indian War by most completely pushing the settlement forward; the Blu-Ray format is more readily available and is also more flexible for users. Turner wrote that humankind on the frontier “must accept the conditions which (their environment) furnishes, or perish” (61). Therefore, Blu-Ray is doing the most successful job of making consumers want to conform to their technology. In the dichotomy that is settling on the frontier, Sony is prevailing in the primitive task of bludgeoning the life out of the opposing force by prevailing in the evolutionary task of settling the greatest portion of the consumer frontier.

“Each frontier leaves its traces behind it,” wrote Turner, “and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics” (61-62). If ever there was a settled area in the technology-fueled consumer frontier that so completely embodies frontier characteristics, it is the perpetually settling frontier that is the Internet. In fact, it seems that as the World Wide Web becomes more and more settled, it becomes more and more primitive in its output. Consider MySpace and Facebook, two incredible innovations where millions of people nationwide stake their claim on several megabytes of territory in order to document their lives and connect with people. Yet how crude and immature are ventures designed to promote oneself and spy on other people? Even aside from those rather damning criticisms, how does one qualify the legitimacy of an operation that, like many open forums on the web, ultimately becomes a venue by which to sell and promote any idea or concept without a check? “The democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism… pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as benefits” (Turner 83). To be sure, the Internet gives voice to the once voiceless, but many of these voices are full of hatred of every sort—racial, religious, and sexual.

Picking up where hatred leaves off, consider the archaic nature of violence. Certainly a predominant force that permeated any frontier, the Internet is a key example of inflicting brutality through a sophisticated channel—again harkening back to Turner’s “meeting point between savagery and civilization” (60). The forerunners of the American frontier had nothing other than the clearest intentions of starting a new society when they set out to pioneer the ‘western wilderness.’ However, it is undeniable that on the road to a new society those same forerunners raped, pillaged, and plundered their way to their destination. Today’s American consumers who set out on the frontier of the World Wide Web are subject to a virtual raping and pillaging—an incessant barrage of violent pornography, ignorant prejudice, and crudities clearly of the most primitive sort clutter the interface at every turn. For every peacefully settled web site on this vast technological frontier, there are three more that completely disparage the overall landscape. For every Google there is a, or affording men the opportunity to stake their claim on women’s bodies and what’s more, their legitimacy. In what may be the greatest irony of all, the Internet appears to be the complete reversal of Turner’s conception of the frontier—a settlement that was designed peacefully and with good intentions that then turned rotten from the inside out.

Yet for better or for worse, the Internet is the bridge that connects the world together. It is the grandest settlement on the frontier of technological consumerism, and the greatest inhibitor of maturity and true civilization. Without it life would not be so sophisticated, yet if it did not exist so many primitive notions would not be so easily disseminated. So, therein, once again lies the dichotomy of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier, the contradictory nature of an ever-evolving society. Where there is civilization there is savagery—never once can one exist without the other. There will continue to be more problems, but with them will come more solutions. As Turner theorized, “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character” (60). For better, for worse, or for somewhere in between, Turner was right.

“It appears then that the universal disposition of Americans to emigrate to the western wilderness, in order to enlarge their dominion over inanimate nature, is the actual result of an expansive power which is inherent in them” (63). So Turner wrote, and so it truly is. Humankind has continually strived to expand its dominance in every aspect of life. In so doing, humankind has developed methods of business, communication, and entertainment that have become so evolved that a new frontier has been formed out of those methods—that frontier is technology. Over the years, the frontier of technology has expanded its dominion over humankind, as a result of the expansive power provided them by the same humankind that created it. In so doing, technology developed a new frontier that is consumer culture. And so the cycle continues—we develop the machines, the machines enslave our psyches, yet we still run the machines, all the while paying money to fuel the machines, though without the machines we would not have near as much money…on and on it goes.

This vicious cycle of man and machine speaks very provocatively to the most telling sentence of Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay, written only four pages into the thirty-page document: “Hardly is a new state or territory formed before the same principle manifests itself again and gives rise to a further emigration; and so it is destined to go on until a physical barrier must finally obstruct its progress” (63). And so the question is this: what will obstruct this technology-driven consumer progress? What physical barrier is powerful enough to stop this frontier of technology and consumerism? What, ultimately, will be the force that brings down this frontier and triggers the next period of rebirth and evolution?

Your guess is as good as my iPod’s.

(In a very timely, though ultimately inevitable turn of events, in the months since I wrote this piece, the frontier mentality paid off big for Sony. As you may or may not have heard, Blu-Ray effectively won the HD Format Wars over a month ago. Netflix stopped acquiring new HD-DVD titles. Best Buy and began selling HD-DVDs at exponentially lower prices. And more and more companies are now jumping on the Blu-Ray bandwagon. Congratulations, Sony, on settling a new technological frontier.)

The Masculinity Conundrum: From The Silver Screen to the Deadening Earth

I have been sitting on two essays for the past six months--essays that certainly discuss seminal films and filmmakers, but that basically only use them as small examples in the much larger context of masculinity in American society. I wondered if they should be shared on a film website, since they are really not much about film at all.

But a recent discussion over at Utah Savage prompted me to post them.

The first is an analysis of America's continuing fascination with the "Frontier," that which describes a territory claimed by men to pioneer their own way of life.

The second is a dissection of the "masculine struggle" as a social construct, which traces the masculine myth from the American Revolution through to today.

In the newly-packaged edition, I am labeling them, "The Masculinity Conundrum: From The Silver Screen to the Deadening Earth."

More soon...

Happy K Day

Happy Birthday, Love...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

She Said: Everything so far...

Let me play catch up. Ok, I admit it. I am swamped with a husband, 3 children, Spring quarter teaching upon me (one of the classes a Gender and Film Honors Composition class, the other two are Sex and Culture composition courses), so all this excuse making is leading me to an apology for not keeping up with my hubby, who would stay up until 5 am every single night and ignore me naked waiting for sex (ok, so I exaggerate) to write film reviews.

Although I adore films and want to be the estrogen side of the conversation here on this blog, I find myself straying and visiting the sites of others and posting long sexually political diatribes. So, very soon, look for (or beware of) my very own gender and sexual politic blog.

But until then, may I please write a quick catch-up... even though it will oh, so pale in comparison to J's diligent effort to denote each feeling about each film we have seen. Sigh and yawn...

(An aside for any students who happen to read this blog): Study J for an example when writing your evaluations. Mine are sadly, just retorts).

Semi-Pro: Ok. J is right on the money about Semi-Pro.  What a fart-fest. Geesh.  I will, however, admit I laughed here and there, but really even though its hard for Ferrell to drop the ball (er, sorry, had to), he certainly did in this basketball dud of a movie.

Be Kind, Rewind: Um, skip it. If you are really bored and  you have a free coupon at your local blockbuster, then go ahead and get it. There are a few original moments and the community spirit at the end lightened the heavy load the film had begun to feel like. I think if you are limited on time, try to catch Son of Rambow when it hits theaters in a few months. It looks more genuine and sweet.

College Road Trip: This was all about our kids, my friends. And after all the critics were savage, I was so mad for us to have to spend $35 for our family to see it. But, hello, for a kid flick, it was not at all that bad. Sure, I had to roll my eyes in the cinematic darkness and wait for the same from J, but really, if you are looking at a film to take the pre-teen crowd to, it could be way, way worse. Um, Alvin and the Chipmunks for example.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Now, this movie was a treat. Impeccable acting and touching complexity. Sure, this movie will give some men fodder to discuss gold digging wenches, but for anyone with more discerning eyes, the film provides layers of female angst and pain. I cannot remember a film where a villainess was created and then with a single tear we understand (not condone) her actions. You mean women are not all conniving bitches with no motive besides evildoing? You don't say!

Bravo to Miss P and all the females (isn't Amy Adams one of the best comedic actresses working today? Answer: Yes) who round out this entertaining and touching film.

Now, there are two more films I need to do. But, ha, J has not done them yet either, so it buys me some time. And, they are way too important for me to play "catch up" with, so give me some time, and in the meantime, go to our older posts and read our Top 10 of 2007. 

Respond back, people!


K always had a theory...well, not really a theory, but more of a steadfast statement...that the lead character of The 40-Year-Old Virgin was such a nice guy that the filmmakers felt compelled to make all the other men in the film absolutely terrible--sort of like, "we can't make men ALL seem so feminine, so we will over-masculinize the rest of the guys in the movie." And one must give a brilliant woman credit where credit is due...have you seen 40-Year-Old Virgin lately? Steve Carell is an absolute bastion of beautific manhood...and all his friends are macho monsters.

Sitting in a theater watching Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I felt at times like it was Virgin's female equivalent. Frances McDormand plays the titular character, a 40's-era spinster and notoriously unreliable housekeeper who has a tendency to lose every low-paying job she acquires. But Miss Pettigrew is such a kind woman...she has been around the block and knows what life is about. She is kind, unassuming, honest, and many ways, she is completely infallible by the film's standards. But damn is she surrounded by some high-society bitches!

Pettigrew's one flaw is the act that sets the film into motion--flat broke and terribly hungry, she concocts a scam to get a job after being thrown out of the unemployment office. She picks up the name a high-profile client and shows up posing as an assistant sent by the agency. On the other side of the door is Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), the first of many snobbish, money-grubbing high-society women Miss Pettigrew encounters during the film. Delysia is central among them, an aspiring actress who accumulates all of her social power by courting three different men at once--one because she loves him, and the other two because they further her cause of stardom.

Over the course of this one long day (and yes, the one-day structure of the film does, surprisingly, hold itself together from beginning to end), Delysia guides Miss Pettigrew through the glossy world of 1940s high-society London, where the wealthy female twits appear to control their men. Delysia also guides Pettigrew through the tarnished social circles beneath that glossy world, in which those wealthy twits reveal their hidden fears and inner torments.

Clearly the overtly bitchy portrayals serve to elevate Miss Pettigrew's saintly portrayal all the higher--not unlike the Carell character in Virgin. But what separates this film from the likes of Judd Apatow's comedy is how the film slowly, subtly reveals the depths of even its most superficially elitist characters. The central conceit of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is to allow Miss Pettigrew to experience a day in the life of the people she has spent her life envying, but what gradually becomes clear as the film progresses is that the structure of social classes and the creation of the "rich bitch" persona are just as concocted out of thin air as the ruse Miss Pettigrew creates for herself. Every character, from Miss Pettigrew to Delysia to the other women in their circle, has unexpected depths that reveal who they are...and why they are.

The film, directed by former television director Bharat Nalluri, packs in boatloads of plot--so much that Miss Pettigrew's "day" feels like a month, but the characters are interesting, their interplay hits a rhythm that is wonderful to behold, and the tension surrounding Miss Pettigrew's rapid ascent into London's upper class ratchets to a fascinating level. Nalluri brings a delicate touch to the film that allows the visuals to be sumptuous-yet-unassuming, and allows the story to take flight when it otherwise would stay firmly grounded. And the performances are sterling, from the always-brilliant McDormand to the pitch-perfect Adams, who toiled in small roles for years and has now, in a triad of films (Junebug, Enchanted, and now this), revealed herself to be one of the great acting geniuses currently working.

I would bet large sums of money that mine is the only review to compare Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day to The 40-Year-Old Virgin. And yes, thanks to my wife, a connection does exist. But as much as I always loved Virgin, Miss Pettigrew exists in a realm far different...and a realm far more--pleasantly, delightfully--complex.