Monday, June 29, 2009

Foreign Movies/A Petting Zoo

A month or so ago at a party the movie Chocolat came up.  While some people at the party loved the movie, I was reminded during the conversation of the strange and damaging cinematic subgenre that Chocolat epitomizes, which subgenre is made up of films set in foreign places but produced entirely in English.


While Chocolat is a decent, if flawed, film when evaluated by things like acting, cinematography, or plot, it seems to ignore the basic fact that it’s set in France.   Sure, there are bits and pieces of French culture scattered about the film, yet the means though which culture is conveyed (i.e. language) is disregarded.  The movie seems to be arguing that “culture” is simply a veneer of clothing, food, etc. that can be detached from language.  This attitude is especially bizarre considering the film’s star, Juliette Binoche, is actually French and its leading man, Johnny Depp, lives in France. 


Another example of an English-speaking foreign film is Memoirs of a Geisha.  This film is particularly annoying because the characters all speak with accents.  Anyone who has become fluent in a second language should be able to attest that native speakers of a language don’t have foreign accents in their own language.  In other words, Japanese speakers don’t have a Japanese accent when they’re speaking Japanese; the accent is only evident when they are speaking another language.  In turn, there is no reason that English-language films should portray foreign speakers with accents.  After all, we (the audience) are supposed to be suspending our disbelief.  We’re supposed to accept the fact that though the characters are speaking English, they are actually speaking Japanese.  Yet, if that is the case, why does everyone have an accent?  In the end the filmmakers should have either cast A) native speakers and have them speaking Japanese or B) Japanese-Americans who could speak to an American audience without an accent.  As it is, the film takes a kind of “petting-zoo” approach to different cultures which gawks at the strangeness of others more than trying to understand them.  (Memoirs of a Geisha is particularly annoying because eventually the characters are suddenly able to communicate with English-speaking Americans, despite the fact that they were never shown learning English.  It’s a move reminiscent of the absurdity in Disney’s Pocahontas.)


A petting-zoo approach to different cultures is hardly an appropriate one.  It emphasizes difference and division, while ignoring the complexities and humanity of different people.  There may have been a time in American film when this was the only thing audiences were willing to accept .  However today, with the widespread availability of legitimate foreign films, as well as the globalizing influence of the internet, anyone could easily find a movie that is both about a foreign culture and made by that culture.   


Of course, it’s likely that these petting-zoo movies exist because they are more marketable than straightforward foreign language films.  Yet, while I accept the fact that filmmaking is a business, it also seems dangerous for filmmakers to pander to lazy audience members by glossing over language.  Anyone who has become multilingual should be able to attest to the fact that some things just can’t be translated.  If subtitles are an imperfect compromise, they at least represent an acknowledgement that language is important and that it’s impossible to really understand people without speaking to them in their own tongue.  If we aren’t willing to acknowledge that, let alone do it, maybe we shouldn’t be watching movies about other people anyway.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Living With Family

Ever since the financial meltdown last year I’ve seen a lot of down-on-their-luck stories on various news websites.  Not surprisingly, one of the stories that keeps coming up describes people who have lost their homes and are forced to move in with family members.  While I don’t doubt the difficulty of this situation or the heartbreak of losing a home, I’ve also begun to wonder if concentrating a large, extended family in one location is such a bad thing after all. 


Most people I know in the U.S. eventually strike out on their own.  For example, I left home when I was eighteen and though I didn’t become financially independent for a number of years, I also never moved back.  In fact the idea of moving back home and living with my parents is a little bit disturbing to me.  This pattern and mentality seem fairly typical.  Not only that, they seem to represent the desirable norm; its not hard to think of people (fictional or not) who live with their parents and are thusly looked down on.


Even if this is the standard pattern in the U.S. today, it isn’t as common in other parts of the world or in the past.  My first hand experiences in Brazil and Great Briton, as well as my understanding of history, lead me to believe that a more common worldwide (and historical) pattern is for people to live with or near their parents for generation after generation.  If that fact doesn’t necessarily change what we contemporary Americans want to do, it at least indicates that people can lead happy, fulfilling lives whether they strike out on their own or live close to home.


The question as I see it then, is if adults are better off living in larger family units or only with their partners (and children).  In my case, after having been conditioned all my life to look down on living with my family, I imagine it would be difficult to ever return home.  However, if we as a society began to look more critically at this idea and see its possible advantages I think we might  find that those advantages may outweigh any sacrifices.  Obviously living in larger numbers means less privacy, personal freedom, and personal space.  On the other hand it may also mean less loneliness, greater division of labor, and a stronger family culture.  It may just be possible that the pros of living with family outweigh the cons. 


Ultimately Americans seem to conceive of themselves in highly individualistic terms.  As long as we continue to think that way, any loss of individuality will seem like a disaster.  Having to give up the freedom of financial prosperity (and the homes that prosperity provides) will be a dehumanizing experience that robs people of their identity and makes them a burden on those around them.  (It’s no surprise, then, that many of the stories about the economic crisis have focused on the disruption that adult offspring cause in the lives of their parents, as well as the tendency to revert back to adolescent behavior once at home.)


However, I think that it’s possible to see ourselves not as detached individuals but as members of larger communities and/or families.  This probably won’t make losing a job or a home less painful, but it may mitigate the impact on people’s self-perception and the difficulty of living with family.  In other words, if we conceive of ourselves as members of a family or community first, and homeowners or professionals second, our identity will no longer be based on the caprice of the capitalist economy.  What’s more, if we start to think of ourselves in this way living with our families starts to seem like less of a set back and more of a return to our homelands and our heritage.   

Local Location in Review: State Street in Orem

State Street in Orem is probably one of the ugliest places on Earth.  Or at least in Utah.  Despite recent efforts in many Utah cities to revitalize, Orem seems to be using State Street as a way to actively drive people away. 


State Street is lined with a lethal cocktail of seedy businesses, rundown buildings, and baffling congestion—all of which continue mile after mile.  Things like second-hand car stereo venders, a run down used vacuum store, nameless motels, unfinished construction, and seemingly innumerable used car dealerships would probably be bad enough.  Compounding the problem, however, is a massive seven lane road (including the center turn lane) with lights that have apparently been synchronized to ensure that people hit every red.  It’s almost as if the city was trying to flaunt their lack of interest in beautification. 


I’ve seen many ugly streets before, but what’s most troubling about State Street is the fact that it just keeps getting worse.  For years I’d been surprised at the random mix of dilapidated businesses.  Then, a few years ago two enormous buildings began construction.  At first I was excited by this development; if the buildings were oddly out of place, they at least represented an effort to bring something new and interesting to Orem.  Their mix of residential and commercial space also hinted at an exciting experiment in New Urban-esque development.  Of course, however, construction stalled and nothing has happened for well over a year.  Though there is an excellent pizzeria in one of them, neither of these buildings look finished and there seems to be no sign that they ever will be.  Just when I thought State Street couldn’t get any worse, it became home to two monolithic trash heaps. 


While State Street actually includes a surprising number of excellent businesses (like the nationally recognized Scooter Lounge and the Orem Library) many of these places are hard to find or lost altogether in the mix of nefarious-looking stores and flashing lights.  Seriously, things like huge jumbo-trons look tasteless in most places but in Orem they’re just plain trashy. 


If the recent financial meltdown wasn’t enough to show us the dangers of unregulated business, State Street in Orem should provide conclusive evidence.  Whatever or whoever allowed anyone to do anything they wanted on the street should be subjected to a rapid and relentless referendum (I don’t expect that to happen, but it should and I hope it does).  If Orem wants to live up to its self-declaired title of “Family City U.S.A.” something needs to change.  Otherwise it might be time to consider a more accurate name, like “Meth Lab City U.S.A.” 

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Robots: Subverted/Contained

It shouldn’t be a surprise that robots are everywhere.  At least in the movies.  Obviously, robots serve different roles in different movies; sometimes they’re good (like Data in Star Trek or David in AI) but more often they’re evil (like Colossus in Colossus: The Forbin Project, or HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey).  In any case, what seems like a recent surge in robot movies got me wondering even more than ever why we keep coming back to this idea.  (When I say surge I mean movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Terminator Salvation, and the recent book that I’m looking forward to reading How to Survive a Robot Uprising.)


One of the most obvious reasons that robots appear in movies is to serve as a cautionary tale: humans shouldn’t play god and manufacture beings.  If they do, disaster will ensue.  That’s the basic message behind the robots in Colossus and 2001, as well as countless other sci-fi movies going back to Metropolis.  Indeed, if you watch enough sci-fi you might start to get the impression that the relationship between humanity and God is the genre’s single biggest theme. 


While I think that reading of robot movies is interesting, it doesn’t quite explain why we keep coming back to that theme.  Indeed even though there have been great advances in robot technology, we’re still not very close to having Rosie the Robot cleaning our homes, or having intelligent machines interacting with us as sentient individuals.  Given these circumstances, it seems like intelligent machines wouldn’t come up as often as they do.


To understand why robots appear in so many movies I think it’s useful to look at Stephen Greenblatt’s ideas about subversion and containment.  This theory has been applied in a number of ways but for this blog it might be awkwardly boiled down thusly: some people will want to fight the powers that be (subversion), so society will create ways for them to vent that energy and feel like they’re fighting without actually causing any damage or change (containment).  


In this light we can look at robots in a few different ways.  First, they represent manufactured intelligence and its accompanying danger.  Second, however, they also represent the mechanized individual.  Even if they’re robots, they often look like people and the treatment of artificial intelligence in many movies seems to reveal an underlying fear that people are becoming a little too much like machines.  This too, is a really old theme and is expressed in films like The Matrix as well as straightforward robot movies.  Third, robots represent the apex of technological development and humanity’s dependence on it.    


If we look at robot movies in this context, we might see them as helping us feel comfortable about technology and exorcising our animosity toward it.  Yes we are all dependent on it.  Yes we all kind of act like machines.  Yes robots could someday replace people.  However, instead of  going out and smashing up machines or simply trying to do without them, our collective anxiety is contained by the movies.  In other words, robots often represent human inadequacy and the movies they inhabit help us feel a little less bad about ourselves.  The movies give us strategies to deal with robots that never really change anything but our emotions.


There are a number of interesting implications to this idea.  For example, the pattern of subverting and containing technophobia (or at least “robophobia”) actually leaves the door wide open for future advancement (a good thing in my opinion).  It also allows us to reconcile with all the technology we use on a daily basis.  (So I can use my microwave or laptop without worrying about the fact that I couldn’t do much without them.)  However, this pattern also presents possibilities toward which we might feel greater ambivalence.  For example, because there are no real robots lording over us, we have to ask what social or ideological element the robots represent.  Might it be government?  Business?  Or maybe something larger and more abstract, like capitalism or religion or simply "culture"?  I don’t know (of course), but it does seem likely to me that the anxiety our culture apparently feels about robots isn’t simply fear about some distant future in which robots will rule the earth.  Instead, it seems likely that robots are symbols of something else, and that the cycle of subversion and containment (as experienced through robot movies) has broader, socio-political ramifications. 

Monday, June 22, 2009

Boy Scouts of Where?

The Daily Universe (my college newspaper) recently published a front-page article discussing the relevancy of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).  As an Eagle Scout myself, the article got me thinking about my own involvement with BSA, as well as some of the things that I’ve subsequently come to see as objectionable about the organization.   

One of the most common criticisms leveled at the Boy Scouts is that the organization is outdated.  This seems painfully obvious to me.  Of course ideas like honesty or hard work that scouting tries to instill may always be relevant.   However, scouting’s method for teaching these ideas is simply absurd.  Things like merit badges and the recitation of pledges, oaths, and slogans are completely foreign to most people’s experience.  I’d also argue that they’re useless.  One of the people the Daily Universe quoted made a good point: why do we need an orienteering merit badge if we all have access to a GPS?  Taking this argument one step further, even if our iPhones are missing or out of battery power, are we really going to pull out a compass and map?  For that matter, how many times will we find ourselves lost in a place that has no people, signs, or even roads?  I don’t think I’ve ever been in that situation, and I can’t imagine why I would be. 

Other aspects of scouting seem even more ridiculous.  For example, the uniforms.  I genuinely have no idea why BSA has stuck to what looks like something little boys would use to play army in the 19th century, unless it’s to humiliate the scouts.  Seriously, what’s with the neckerchief?  And (short) shorts with tall green and red socks?  Is this really the best they can do? 

Of course, while there are a bunch of silly outdated aspects of scouting, the real problem is much more insidious.  At best, BSA sees a very narrow, homogenous version of the United States.  That vision doesn’t include, for example, atheists, agnostics, or homosexuals.  At worst, however, BSA combines this flagrant discrimination with hyper-conservative jingoism that uses faux-military structures to indoctrinate young children.  Pledges and oaths aren’t just outdated in a pedagogical sense, but actually require children to submit unthinkingly to powers they likely don’t understand.  When these activities are combined with religion (as is the case in the LDS church, among others), the results amount to coerced spirituality.


While I’m obviously no fan of the Boy Scouts of America, I am also in the paradoxical position of having to admit that sometimes I also had a lot of fun as a scout.  Going to scout camps I had the chance to canoe, shoot rifles and bows and arrows, go climbing, and visit a number of places I wouldn’t otherwise have seen.  When I was a teenager my parents sent me to the National Boy Scout Jamboree, which was fun and educational (during that trip we also visited Washington D.C. and other nearby cities).  Our weekly activities were also memorable.  For example, one time we went to the hospital, where our leader let us touch a human brain. 

The question, then, is if the many negative aspects are enough to outweigh the positive opportunities that the program affords.  This is a hard question to answer.  If I could go back I would not participate in what I see as an offensive institution.  Yet, I’d also be loath to surrender some of the experiences I had.  I also think that some of the activites we did actually accomplished good things.  My Eagle Scout project, for example, probably did benefit someone (even if I did it for all the wrong reasons).  I certainly wouldn’t want to undo that. 

The answer, I think, is that BSA is obsolete, but some of the activities it provides aren’t.  Consequently, those organizations that are currently affiliated with BSA should sever that affiliation and fill the resulting void with other youth programs.  In the LDS church participation in scouting is more or less obligatory, as I assume it is in other organizations.  All that energy that LDS members put into scouting could very easily be diverted into more productive and relevant activities.  If this doesn’t happen organizations like churches run the risk of having their policies and beliefs defined by outside parties.  For example, I’d hate to think that I’m required to believe in the BSA’s particular brand of intolerance, yet if I am all but forced to participate (as LDS young men are) that’s essentially what happens. 


Ultimately, I don’t think that scouting provides any opportunities that can’t be had from church and community involvement instead.  Things like the Eagle Scout award didn’t end up giving me great employment and educational opportunities (as I was led to believe), because most people in the U.S. seem to have written scouting off as an outdated eccentricity.  As I’ve moved beyond my teen years and experienced more of the world, I’ve realized that the narrow vision scouting projects isn’t very realistic or desirable.  Instead, the Boy Scouts don’t represent America, but rather a desperate clinging to objectionable parts of American’s history.  

Fictional Cafe: Menu Pictures

As Laura and I make items from our Fictional Cafe, I'll try to post pictures to entice you to make a fictional visit.  Below is Laura's Strawberry Short Cake.  Notice the cake is not a nasty sponge-like material, but rather a dense and delicious biscuit cake. 
Here are the strawberries being prepared.  Notice the bowl in which they are being juiced.  It is best to leave them for as long as possible in a lot of sugar.  

These are the no-bake cookies.  Notice that they are bars.  Also, they include extra ingredients, like coconut.  I remember when I first had no-bake cookies that weren't made from this recipe and wondered how they could be so plain (and they were from the usually wonderful Provo Bakery, no less).  Anyway, the point is that these are fantastic.  

Movies/Careers Fantasies

Even though I’m well into a career path that should eventually land me a job in academia, I sometimes like to imagine what other careers I’d enjoy.  The funny thing is that I derive most of my information about prospective jobs from the movies. 


One of the best examples of this phenomenon is my consideration of the Foreign Service.  For a long time working for the Foreign Service has seemed like a cool job: living in different countries, doing things that affect world issues, etc.  The problem is that I’ve never really been sure what the Foreign Service does.  If I try to visualize a day in the life of a professor, for example, or a journalist, doctor, lawyer, salesperson, etc., I can easily come up with something that, in most cases, comes from the movies.  With the Foreign Service, on the other hand, I can’t think of anything.  The closest I can come is Julia Stiles’ character in the Bourne movies.  I realize her character doesn’t work for the Foreign Service, but she is a young, government-employed professional working overseas and there aren’t many other films that have anything close to that.  (I know there are many spy movies, but when I try to think of movies depicting U.S. overseas employees with desk jobs almost nothing comes to mind.)


The point here isn’t that I want to do what Julia Stiles’ does in the movies, but that the ability to consider jobs (or any activities for that matter) is based almost entirely on a basic understanding of what those jobs are like.  Because I can’t live a day in the life of every career out there, the media actually provides a “service” by preparing me for certain careers.  Even if a movie like All the President’s Men glamorizes journalism, for example, I still get a general sense of what reporters do when I watch it.  Ultimately I might not be doing exactly what Robert Redford does, but watching it might either interest me in the profession or let me know its not something I’d enjoy. 


If saying that movies (and the media) socialize us and prepare us for future careers is nothing new, what seems even more interesting is the fact that movies also direct our attention away from certain activities.  The Foreign Service seems like a good example; despite the fact that it might be an easily glamorize-able job there’s really not that many films out there about it.  Thus, despite increased popularity in recent years, its still not on a lot of people’s list of things to do.  On the other hand, there are a number of films about professors (Stranger Than Fiction, A Beautiful Mind, Indiana Jones, etc.)  Coincidentally or not, that's the profession that I’ve chosen to go into. 


Besides simply influencing the choices people make, there are a number of consequences of this situation.  For example, we could see movies as either rightly preparing people for productive lives, or as teaching them to subjugate themselves to individuals and systems that already have power.  We could also see films as structuring our lives into “genres.”  (Romantic comedies would be a sufficient example of this, though other genres would work as well.)  If these aren’t exactly new observations, they’ve at least taken on greater immediacy in my own life as I’ve considered my career options.  I also don’t know what the long term consequences of this issue are, but for now I wish someone would make a movie about a person who just finished their master’s thesis and blogs all day.  Then maybe I’d know what I’m doing right now.  

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Father’s Day/A Celebration of Virility

Tomorrow is Father’s Day, so I figured it might be a good time to reflect on this day of fatherly celebration.  More specifically, I’d like to take this opportunity to explore the strange fact that Father’s Day (and Mother’s Day) seem to be more a celebration of male-ness (or female-ness on Mother’s Day) than of actual parenting. 


My perception of Father’s Day is inevitably influenced by the way it is celebrated at my church.  For the past few years (both when I was single and now that I'm married), I have received a gift from my ward (aka congregation).  Usually it's something small, like a candy bar or a cinnamon role.  On Mother’s Day I’ve seen women receive similar gifts, as well as things like small plants or home decorations (I’m not going to get into gender stereotyping here, though obviously it goes on).


The odd thing about these events, nice as they are, is that I am not a father.  When Laura has received gifts in the past it has struck me as equally odd, as of course she isn't a mother.  Indeed the typical criteria for who receives a gift is usually just being over 18 years old and of the male gender (for Father’s Day, or female gender for Mother’s Day).  While I always love to get a big candy bar, casting the celebratory net so wide seems to trivialize that actual act of parenting.  After all, if I don’t have kids what am I being congratulated for?


The result of this situation, and the answer to that question, seems to be that I am being honored for my sexual potential to have children.  In this case, Father’s Day becomes a celebration of male virility, while Mother’s Day becomes a celebration of female fertility.  Of course, there may be people receiving these gifts who are not physically capable of having children, but it seems like more of a theoretical celebration, as if to say, “in the ideal world we’d all be sexually potent, so have a Twix.” 


I’m not opposed to this turn of events, but I think we should acknowledge it for what it is.  After all, just because we don’t want people to feel bad or left out doesn’t mean that we should honor them for something they didn’t do.  Instead, lets continue to honor the male and female genders, while also acknowledging parenting and those lucky people who happen to be parents.  Perhaps we can initiate a new kind of day; it could be called Parents Day and the criteria for getting a candy bar is actually having sired a child.  Otherwise, if we do nothing, we make no distinction between parents and non-parents and accordingly suggest that those people who are raising children aren’t really doing anything more than the child-less.    


I don’t know how widespread this issue is.  As I mentioned above, my understanding of these holidays is inevitably informed by my church experience.  (I realize that many people probably have smaller, family celebrations and so none of this really applies.)  However, if we are going to claim to celebrate parenting, lets do that.  If not, maybe its time to change the name from Father’s Day to Male Virility Day.  

Friday, June 19, 2009

Community Identity Crisis

Sometimes cities have identity crises.  I’m sure it happens for a lot of reasons, though a common one might be colliding values exerted through businesses, buildings, and community activities. My current hometown, Provo, seems to be in the midst of just such a crisis.   


Earlier today Laura and I went looking for some drum equipment and decided to check the local pawnshops for deals.  While (surprisingly) there are pawnshops all over Provo, they’re actually concentrated on Center Street between 4th and 5th West (which is even more surprising to me).  Walking from store to store I couldn’t help but notice the kind of environment that prevailed on this block.  While I don’t like to disparage local enterprise, the area seemed dirty, run down, and seedy because of the kinds of businesses that it housed.  Of the three pawnshops, at least one (and maybe all) doubled as a payday loan business (the filthy dregs of capitalism, in my opinion).  The most legitimate businesses on the block were the City Limits bar (an inevitably marginalized place given Provo’s demographics) and a small restaurant that actually looked appealing but suffered from being wedged between two pawnshops that looked like overstuffed garages.  The block also had numerous vacant spaces, as is the case everywhere in town. 


As we walked around this block it occurred to me that the environment was distinctly one of “Old Provo.”  I don’t mean this in the sense of Provo back in its pioneer past.  Instead, the aesthetics and clientele of the area projected an image of Provo as small, not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, and in some cases rural.  I’m not exactly sure how long each individual business has been in operation, but somehow walking into a store and seeing rows and rows of guns and stuffed, dead animals doesn’t scream “big city.”     


Of course, that’s fine if that is the image that Provo collectively wants to project.  Indeed that is the image that the city projects, as this is the first block of “Historic Provo” after the freeway. However, ironically, the south side of this same block is also home to the Covey Center for the Arts.  This attractive new facility hosts plays, musical performances, art exhibits, and is a participant in Provo’s monthly gallery stroll.  By virtue of its newness, as well as its more cosmopolitan aims, I see it as representative of the “New Provo” image.  This New Provo is characterized by an effort to be both more urban and urbane.  It’s also evident both in the rapid expansion of the Provo arts scene, as well as in opening of other businesses like Guru’s or Mode Boutique.  Unlike the places I visited earlier today, these New Provo establishments target relatively affluent clientele, college students and the highly educated, and a younger middle class demographic. 


I don’t think that either one of these versions of Provo is inherently better than the other.  In reality, they reveal that different groups of people, with different values, live in the city. Personally, I’m attracted to (and participate in) New Provo events and businesses, though I’m well aware that the changes these businesses represent displace and inconvenience other people, many of whom have a more legitimate claim on the city than I do.  What I think is interesting however, is that as each half of this split imagines the city they probably don’t include the opposite side in what they envision.  As New Provo groups attempt to revitalize downtown and bring in more widely appealing businesses, for example,  they will inevitably displace those they consider “less desirable.”  On the other hand, as Old Provo businesses exert their right to exist they make themselves an impediment to the completion of New Provo’s image. 


Right now there is more than enough space for everyone in Provo’s financial district. (“Financial district” is of course a moniker used by New Provo.)  Indeed, I imagine that the city would be happy to fill their many vacant spaces with anything, New or Old.  However, in the long-run this issue will likely become more important.  If the population continues to increase and New Provo businesses are able to expand, different people will obviously have different ideas about how downtown should be used.  This may happen in five years, or in fifty, but there are clearly conflicting values on display in the city today and they will only become more apparent as they come into greater contact.  I have no idea what will happen, but maybe that’s what it means for a town to become a city. 

Grown-Up Movies

Have you seen The Soloist? I haven’t. And I don’t plan to. And, based on the box office , most of America apparently feels similarly.

I recently read an article on about how “grown-up movies” are an endangered species. Basically, it argued that kids movies, teen genre movies, raunchy R-rated comedies, etc. were replacing more serious fare like The Soloist. While some of the other films that the article cited were actually good (like State of Play) I was surprised that the author of the article would lament the supremacy of genre movies over something that seemed as piddling as The Soloist.

First, let me say that I’m a fan of “serious” grown-up movies. In recent months I’ve seen Doubt, Nothing But the Truth, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, and many others. For the most part these films were profound and entertaining. Second, I generally agree with the article’s main point that more mature films are struggling to compete in the movie marketplace. However, I think the real problem is that a genre of serious films (a genre that apparently includes both The Soloist and State of Play) has emerged and that the defining feature of this genre is medicrity.

So lets look at The Soloist. From the moment its trailers were released the movie seemed like a disaster. It struck me as a cross between Mr. Holland’s Opus, Rain Man, and Stand and Deliever, only if all of those movies had starred Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey. What’s more, every word seemed like a cliché: guy afraid of commitment? Check. Brilliant but troubled artist? Check. Down-on-their-luck characters overcoming great odds? Check. These aren’t necessarily bad ideas by themselves, but they came off as bafflingly superficial.

The Soloist did have some things going for it. Robert Downey Jr., for example, is a capable actor and has had several of popular films recently. Jamie Foxx has also had some success and popularity (though he apparently has no idea how to choose films. Following up Ray with Stealth? Seriously?) On the other hand, this movie seems to show these actors at their worst. I’d rather watch Iron Man any day and wasn’t The Soloist the kind of movie that Robert Downey Jr. actually made fun of in Tropic Thunder? In the end, then, I think its clear that The Soloist wasn’t compelling (its release date suggests the studios also knew that).

The problem then is that if The Soloist is one of the definitive movies of the “grown-up” genre, who is going to want to see anything else from that genre? When I go to the theater (or to get a DVD) and I can either watch The Fast and Furious or Jamie Foxx running out in traffic in some movie that seems really boring, its only obvious that I’m going to choose the former. This problem is compounded by release patterns (serious movies in the fall, critically panned but commercially successful blockbusters in the summer), and the Academy Awards (which shaft movies like Wall-E or The Dark Knight seemingly because they are popular). What happens then is that good “grown-up” movies end up in the company of bad ones and none of them make money. All the while The Fast and the Furious is releasing sequel after sequel and raking in the dough.

Of course, this is a simplistic assessment of the situation. Other things, like the global financial meltdown, have also certainly contributed to Americans’ movie viewing patterns. But grouping serious movies together regardless of quality will only result in the gradual disappearance of serious movies.

Electron Deception Show Review

Electron Deception has received two show reviews.  One of these was positive and one negative.  After having been reviewed, however, I started thinking that it might be useful for us to review our shows.  After all, who knows us better than we do?   


Summary: So, on Monday, June 15th we played a show at Mo’s Bar and Grill in Salt Lake City.  We were opening for Nate Baldwin and touring band Windsor Drive.  We were fairly excited because it was only our second show in Salt Lake.  Unfortunately, things quickly went downhill.  First we almost immediately had problems with the PA.  There was no one to mix the sound and since we run all our instruments through the sound system (as opposed to using amps), this was a big problem.  Not surprisingly, this problem resulted in others; since we couldn’t hear that well we didn’t play that well, which meant we had poor stage presence, which meant that the audience wasn’t that into it.   

The audience wasn’t huge (it was a Monday night after all), but they were surprisingly positive, given how off I felt we were.  The highlight of the night was probably finding out that we sold one of our new t-shirts (a yellow girl’s tank-top).  So either someone like our music, or at least liked our silk screening design.  Also, we got invited to play again, which seems like a relatively good sign.  The other highlight of the night for me was seeing Ryan’s stage presence.  I was at an unusual angle and was pointing more or less at the keyboards.  Ryan told me he didn’t think his stage presence was all that great, but at least while I was looking at him he was rocking.  


Conclusions: I am beginning to feel that we need to revamp our sound.  Only about half our shows sound really good (usually they are at Muse Music).  Our biggest problem is that we use a fairly non-traditional set up (digital drums and keyboard, as opposed to guitar, bass, and acoustic drums), which means that not many people know how to do a proper stage mix.  This makes it hard to improve because we can’t really control the mix.  So, I’m thinking of switching to a mixed acoustic-digital drum set.  Also, I think we’re going to try to use amps for the keyboards.  These changes will probably alter our sound considerably, but they should also make for more consistently good shows.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More Coming Soon

No new post today, but check back soon for a review of Electron Deception's recent show in Salt Lake City, an exploration of the pros and cons of commuting, and other entries.  Also, if you can't stand a day or two without some Jim/Blog, checkout the blog for Slowtrain Records.  The review of Nico Vega's album is up there.  

Monday, June 15, 2009

New Music

Last night I realized how long it had been since I’d bought a new album.  I love music and I try to listen to a fair amount of it, but for one reason or another I just hadn’t been buying anything lately. (Probably because I have no money.)  Sometimes got burned CDs from friends, or I’d listen to things online, or whatever.  Then this weekend I decided to by Nico Vega’s self-titled debut full-length (I’ll put the review I wrote of it up soon). 


The album is pretty good, but what stands out to me more is the odd and strangely nostalgic experience of listening to it.  As Laura and I drove up to my parents’ house for dinner we rode in silence except for the stereo.  We didn’t talk.  We didn’t make phone calls.  We just listened.  It was during this time that I realized how long it had been since I’d done that.  Usually when I listen to music it’s on my iPod, or in the car by myself.  Sometimes I’m at home surfing the Internet and have music playing in the background.  Yet, by listening to it they way we did last night it seemed to make it more important, as if we didn’t dare speak because we didn’t want to miss anything. 


The experience was nostalgic because, though I’d never listened to the album before, this was an attitude I haven’t really had for awhile.  In some ways it took me all the way back to being a teenager.   In other ways, however, the experience seemed to sum up all those times that music matter so much for reasons I could never have articulated.  It also helped me remember how certain activities are evocative of certain times, places, and feelings, even when we’re not aware of it.  

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Shopping Cart Theft

This post is about Provo, UT, though I imagine these issues apply in other places as well.  


One of the things that always surprises me about Provo is the number of stray shopping carts strewn about the streets.  What surprises me even more is that I most often see these carts outside BYU student housing.  It’s puzzling to me why someone (especially a student) would steal a shopping cart.  Of course, the obvious excuse is that they don’t have any other way to get their groceries home.  Fair enough.  Yet, I know plenty of people who don’t have cars or bikes and who don’t steal shopping carts, so I have to consider other reasons.  Like maybe students south of BYU campus want their homes to look like a slum.  Perhaps they think grocery prices are too low and are trying to get them raised by stealing from stores.  Maybe they take some sort of pride in that oh so classy I’m-pushing-a-shopping-cart-down-the-street aesthetic.  In any case, stealing a shopping cart is inconsiderate, trashy, and negatively impacts the entire community. 


First, having shopping carts discarded all over the city looks terrible.  It surprises me that BYU students, the majority of whom come from suburban neighborhoods that have never seen a shopping cart, would be so cavalier about letting their homes look like a slum.  I don’t want to get into class issues here, but having stolen shopping carts (or anything stolen, for that matter) all over the place looks decidedly low-class, which I didn’t think was anyone’s desired image.  What’s more, if a problem like this persists long enough it can actually contribute to lowered property values, which in turn will do nothing to improve the conditions of already dilapidated student housing.    


Besides the trashy appearance of discarded shopping carts, this problem can also translate into higher grocery prices for everyone.  For example, if a grocery store loses too many shopping carts they may start requiring a deposit to use them, installing theft prevention technology, or doing any number of things to safeguard their property.  The money for these measures will almost certainly be raised through price increases, and nobody wants that.


One of the biggest problems is that this appears to largely be a student issue in Provo.  I’m willing to entertain the idea that it’s not students doing this, but the highest concentration of stolen carts is conspicuously in the student residential areas between 9th East and University Ave.  Ironically, many BYU students love to complain about Provo city policies.  However, how do we expect the city to treat us decently when “we” are actively trashing up the town?  Of course the city is antagonistic to students and wants to impose parking fees and the like; students aren’t just failing to contribute, they actively appear to be bringing the community down. 


I’m not entirely sure how to solve this problem, other than to raise awareness and outrage over it.  If more people realize it’s bothering others, hopefully whoever is taking the carts will stop.  We could also try returning the carts when we see them.  Ultimately, I know it’s not the majority of BYU students that do this, but it does reflect poorly on us all and frankly, I don’t want to be implicated in something that I find objectionable anyway.  

Friday, June 12, 2009

Sensuous Sandwich

For several years after I moved to Provo I’d see the wooden façade of Sensuous Sandwich on Center Street and wonder just what went on inside.  I liked the alliteration in the name, but I also wasn’t sure if I’d feel comfortable going inside, or that I wouldn’t need to take a shower afterward.  Fortunately I eventually got curious (and hungry) enough to try it out.  Since then, and after many visits, it has slowly become my favorite sandwich shop in all of Utah. 


Entering Sensuous Sandwich the first thing you notice is that the décor is sort of tacky-chic.  On my first visit I was actually surprised at the lack of visual cohesion.  The walls and tables are covered in random old comic strips, 1980s anti-drug posters (this is your brain on drugs…), and Polaroid’s of people who have eaten 24-inch sandwiches.  Combined with the florescent lighting, none of these things seemed to set the mood for a particularly comfortable meal.  On the other hand, the more times I visit the more I’m impressed with how much I like the ambiance.  It gives you enough to look at while not trying to use nostalgia to make up for mediocre food.  While lesser restaurants would suffer from doing the same, Sensuous Sandwich can afford it.  The décor also stands in stark contrast to the generic, market-researched trappings of larger chains.  When you go in, you feel like you’re a local in a local business.  You also get the feeling that an actual person put up all the posters and comics, and that they did so because they liked them, not because they thought it would sell more product. 


While the atmosphere of Sensuous Sandwich makes you feel like a local, the venue’s greatest asset is its food.  Like any small restaurant, the quality of eating experience depends significantly on what you get.  Obviously some sandwiches, while good, aren’t far-and-away better than what you can find elsewhere.  On the other hand, I’ve never had a sub even remotely as delicious as the “Spicy Enticer.”  With pastrami, pepperoni, Italian sausage, and your choice of trappings (just get everything and choose cream cheese), this sandwich may well give you coronary heart disease, but if it does you’ll never be happier about it.  I usually get the four or six inch sandwich, though it’s so good I routinely wish I could pack away more.  My other favorite is “The Tantalizer,” but with each sandwich there are numerous customizing options; order what you think you’ll like but don’t be afraid to experiment.  For example, I don’t usually like cream cheese, but I love it on the Spicy Enticer.  Like the décor the sandwiches aren’t fancy, but they’ll fill you up and, more importantly, they taste delicious.  Also, one of the best things about Sensuous Sandwich is that you pay by the inch.  Sandwiches start at $2.69 four inches and go up from there.  Generally, with those prices Sensuous Sandwich is also one of the most economic places you can eat. 


In the end Sensuous Sandwich is one of those places that make me sad I won’t always live in Provo.  For now however, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it’s one of Utah County’s best culinary treasures.  It’s small, local, and gritty enough to be unique, while also offering some of the best food you can find. 


Thursday, June 11, 2009

(Female) School Mascots?

My youngest brother attends Deerfield Elementary.  The funny thing is that the mascot for his school isn’t a deer.  It’s an eagle.  As I recently considered this fact I had to assume that deer weren’t considered adequately aggressive to be the mascot.  On the other hand, I thought, they could have chosen a buck.  A majestic male deer seems like a suitable school symbol.  Yet, as I thought more about this I wondered why they also couldn’t choose a doe.  Aren’t stereotypically “female” attributes, things like nurturing, also desirable?  Regardless, the more I thought about this question the more I realized I couldn’t think of a single female mascot.   


It appears that most mascots fall into two categories: men and animals.  Where Laura teaches, for example, the mascot is “the cavemen.”  Of course, this name might just be a throwback to a time when gender neutrality didn’t matter and in fact mean “cave-people.”  However, ignoring that obviously flimsy excuse, the actual picture the school uses is of a brutish male.  This is not dissimilar to the mascot at my own elementary school: Vikings.  Surely there were Viking women, but they weren’t on the t-shirts we got.  Another, more famous example, might be the Notre Dame Leprechaun, which is depicted as an angry male in a fighting stance.  The point is that some of the most common, as well as most prominent, mascots in the U.S. are males, and violent males at that.


The second mascot category, animals, is less obviously gendered.  My brother’s school, for instance, isn’t represented specifically by male eagles.  However, what seems to stand out about animal mascots is that they are all predators.  Though I would be reluctant to say that males are inherently predatory, I would be comfortable saying that our society conceives of them as being so.  And though I lament the cultural entrenchment of gender stereotypes, I bet I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at Provo High School, for example, who thinks their mascot, a bulldog, is a female.  If the predatory nature of mascot animals isn’t enough to indicate male-ness or typically male qualities, take the fact that many actually look like men.  This is certainly the case with Provo High’s mascot and while male and female bulldogs probably look similar, people’s tendency to anthropomorphize leads me to believe that there is a stronger resemblance between the bulldog and the human male than the human female.  If this wasn’t enough, some animal mascots are overtly male.  Take Yale’s, for example.  They also use a bulldog, but one named “Handsome Dan.”  In any case, it seems that most animal mascots are chosen either because they symbolize accepted male behavior, or because they bear some sort resemblance to males. 


The predominance of male mascots seems immensely problematic to me.  Why is that socially perceived “female” behaviors are not acceptable in symbols of our educational institutions?  How can we expect those institutions to impart both traditionally male and traditionally female attributes when the images we choose to represent those institutions are of hyper-masculine men?  What’s more, why do we have to accept social constructions of gender?  I’d be willing to bet that female cave-people were pretty aggressive.  For that matter, I can think of plenty of female animals that perform roles that many (western) humans associate with men (for example, lionesses, which do most of the hunting).  Why I haven’t I ever heard of a high school that uses the Amazons, Valkyries, or any other strong women from myth or history as mascots?  If its about getting people riled up at a football game an Amazon woman seems quite a bit better than a bulldog or an eagle.  In the end, our mascots seem to reveal both that we are not comfortable giving up violent symbols and that we are still fully invested in outmoded gender stereotypes.  If we are going to use symbols, lets choose ones that convey assertiveness and nurturing.  If we need to have aggressive images surrounding us, lets acknowledge that men don’t have a monopoly on strength.   


Ultimately, I don’t mean to suggest that mascots have more meaning than they do.  My own high school mascot, after all, was a tartan, which as I understand it is a piece of Scottish fabric. (This is also possibly the most gender-neutral mascot I can think of, as a tartan represents a family.  Surely it still has a violent undercurrent, but it at least isn’t as overtly aggressive.)  However, mascots do have some meaning; if they didn’t we wouldn’t use them, remember them, or erect images of them.  That meaning may not be the most potent symbol of an institution, but it still inflects the atmosphere and actions of a given setting.  So whatever kind of mascots we choose, maybe its time to consider a cavewoman, Bellona, Vesta or even a doe.       


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Moon (Film Review)

When I had the opportunity to see Duncan Jones’ feature directorial debut Moon at this year’s Sundance Film Festival I was pleasantly surprised.  Though an indie sci-fi flick, it stands apart from both other science fiction films and more general independent fare for its exploration of the human psyche in the near-total isolation of space. 


Moon tells the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), an employee of the mining company Lunar.  As the film opens Sam is nearing the end of a three-year stint to mine helium-3 for energy use back on earth.  Aside from a sentient computer named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), Sam is both alone and lonely, which loneliness becomes the dominant theme of the film’s first act.  As we see the station littered with Sam’s pastimes and watch him receive a message from his wife it becomes clear that his isolation has taken a toll on him.  Fortunately, his tenure is set to end and Sam anxiously counts down the days until his return to Earth.


As the film progresses, however, Sam becomes aware that things are not quite right.  He notices there are contradictions in his memory, for example, and that he can’t account for everything he sees.  In true sci-fi form Gerty also starts to act a little weird.  Though it would spoil the plot to say much more, it’s worth noting acts two and three follow an oddly externalized conflict of internal, psychological issues.  The results pack some entertaining surprises that affectionately play with typical sci-fi themes.


While the creativity with which the film addresses these issues is laudable, Moon also makes the unfortunate move of edging toward a heavy-handed diatribe against big corporations.  Of course, sci-fi has been used effectively for such an end before (Silent Running or even Alien are a good examples), but in the case of Moon that theme seems so much less interesting than earlier ideas about coming face-to-face with one’s own isolation.  Thankfully, Rockwell’s performance makes up much of the difference as the film treads more thematically murky waters, though I couldn’t help but wonder if there were just one too many ideas distracting from an otherwise remarkable story. 


Like any good sci-fi film, Moon has a fair dose of impressive visuals.  If the images are perhaps less stunning than recent films like Sunshine or The Fountain, they also seem appropriate for a story more concerned with interior landscapes than outer space.  The expansively dark lunarscapes, as well as the austere interior of the mining station, are sufficient for the genre but don’t call attention to themselves as visuals in those earlier films do.  In any case, the imagery is particularly impressive considering the film was made on a limited five million dollar budget. 


Ultimately, Moon isn’t a perfect film and audiences shouldn’t expect the same big themes and sense of awe that often characterize sci-fi.  On the other hand Jones’ direction demonstrates an innovative use of sci-fi conventions.  The filmmakers know their cinematic lineage well enough to embrace it while still saying something interesting.  Though Moon may not go down in the history books with predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it certainly provides a thought-provoking hour and a half.  

Gift Giving

I’m no fan of giving gifts.  In fact, in my ideal world there would probably be no gift giving at all.  Why?  Because, more often than not, both the recipient and the giver end up feeling guilty, inadequate, or just plain bad. 


Don’t get me wrong, I like to receive great gifts as much as the next person.  The problem is that if I need something, I usually go out and buy it before anyone has a chance to give it to me.  On those occasions when I don’t, it’s also rare that anyone knows I need the item, or the item is just too expensive.  For example, the thing I probably most need at the moment is a new computer.  However, I’m not going to spend the money on that right now, so it’d be a wonderful gift to get, except that it would be too expensive for anyone to give me.  If someone did give me a computer I’d probably feel really guilty and uncomfortable that they spent so much, so in the end I wouldn’t want it anyway.  The point is that I either have the things I need (and want), or I don’t really want them as presents.   


This works the other way too.  If I’m going to give someone something the whole process of preparing the present creates a build-up that almost inevitably ends in let-down.  Usually, one of several things will happen but the worst case (and all-to-common) scenario is that the recipient will not guess what it is because they think its something different and/or better than it really is.  This situation usually causes the recipient to be disappointed (because it wasn’t the desired item) and the giver to be embarrassed (because they didn’t know what to give, couldn’t afford it, etc.).  And lets also not forget that what you give someone reveals your perception of that person.  This is a disheartening prospect: who hasn’t either received a present or given one where the ultimate question seems to be “so this is how you think of me?” 


Another problem with gift giving is that the act of revealing the gift requires a performance from everyone involved.  The recipient has to seem genuinely excited, but not too excited because that could look fake, and the giver has to act pleased regardless of what they feel.  I think that this is a particularly difficult aspect of exchanging presents.  Who hasn’t seen a person that seemed visibly disappointed after opening a present?  I see this all the time and the only person who looks more pathetic is the giver, whose hopes of giving a nice gift have just been dashed.   


Ultimately giving gifts seems to be one of the biggest sources of unnecessary guilt and embarrassment out there.  I’ve seen gift cards work (at least the pretense of personalization and pricelessness is dropped), but many people find them impersonal, especially for close family members.  Of course, every group of people work this out differently, but in the end I wonder why we continue to put ourselves through something that is supposed to be fun, but usually just makes everyone feel bad.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ice Road Truckers!

The other night I decided to watch some TV on Hulu.  I’d already watched Hulu’s first suggestion, Conan O’Brian’s debut on The Tonight Show, so I clicked on the second show that scrolled by: “Ice Road Truckers.”


The beginning of the show shocked me.  It started out by saying something like “last season these truckers drove their rigs across the thin ice of a frozen river.  This season they’ll be driving across… THE OCEAN!!!”  My immediate thought was “do they need to be driving across the ocean?  Are they doing this solely for the purpose of the show, or for some commercial endeavor?  Is this some sort of to-the-death contest, because I thought it was a documentary-type reality show?”  Maybe if I had watched season one I’d have known the answers to these questions, but for a first time viewer it seemed odd that a bunch of truckers would suddenly need to drive across the frozen Artic Ocean and that that need would conveniently correspond with the schedule of a TV show. 


The next few minutes provided more surprises, as well as some answers.  Apparently, the truckers were taking gear to a natural gas exploration post.  They were also veteran drivers who seemed to have been featured in season one, and who had decided to seek employment with this new company.  So it wasn’t some sort of daredevil contest.  The show also had some really cool visuals, like shots from beneath the ice and footage of lonely trucks completely isolated in the desolation and perpetual twilight of the Artic.  I can only imagine the difficulty of filming video like that.  It was also interesting to learn about how ice roads are built, which information was inter-cut with human-interest vignettes about worried family members.  The show was overly dramatic to the point of sensationalism, but the profession itself came across as authentically dangerous; apparently the ice cracks and changes all the time as plows and trucks drive over it. 


One thing that surprised me, however, was the absurdly simplistic premise that the show sets up: “brave men” fighting the elements in their effort accomplish a heroic task.  As I watched I couldn’t help but be flooded with a number of questions about what was really going on.  I don’t know much about natural gas mining, but I was left to wonder if “global energy exploration” is a hands-down positive thing?  The show certainly didn’t address that issue.  I also wondered what sort of impact this type of profession had on their families.  The show dealt with that briefly, but only as a method of raising the suspense later on.  (The producers asked family members if they were scared the truckers would fall through the ice, which they were, which then made me scared when I later watched them driving.)


What surprised me even more was that despite the show’s premise, many of the characters didn’t come off as ordinary working-class heroes.  While some were amiable enough, others were petulant or downright annoying.  In this way there was constant tension between the show’s writing, which tried to show brave men in dangerous places, and the reality of the situation, which included real people and complex relationships. 


In the end “Ice Road Truckers” is an interesting show with visuals that can’t help but raise questions about isolation and solitude.  Unfortunately, that aspect is often lost in the muck of mediocre producing and an unrealistically (an uninteresting) positive attitude.  In being purely focused on the drama of the profession the show ignored larger (more interesting) questions about the community, professional, and environmental impact of the job.