The little goldfish that could

Posted in movie reviews on August 24, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

ponyoUnlike most of the rest of the country, rather than Inglourious Basterds I opted to see Ponyo this past weekend.  That’s not to say I have no intention of seeing Inglourious Basterds, quite the contrary I’ve been looking forward to it for months now and will see it on Wednesday, which is great because it means I can be lazy and pass off a movie review as a post here twice in one week.  Score! Nevertheless, I’ve heard good things about Ponyo, not to mention the fact that I have a child who is in that stage where she thinks everything that comes out of Japan is pure gold (I fear I may have a future weeaboo on my hands), so I figured we ought to catch it during its brief run in the theater, if for nothing else than to take away a few bucks from G.I. Joe and G-Force.

Ponyo is the latest from Hayao Miyazaki, best known in the US for Princess Mononoke and the Academy Award winning Spirited Away.  Written for an audience somewhat younger than Miyazaki’s other films, it’s a take on The Little Mermaid (the original fairy tale, as opposed to the Disney version), about a tiny goldfish who yearns to live on land as a human.  It opens with Sosuke (dubbed into English by Frankie Jonas, a younger, non-musical Jonas Brother), a five year-old boy who discovers a goldfish stuck in a jar and seemingly close to death.  He names the goldfish Ponyo, and once she recovers they become fast friends.  Ponyo, as is usually the case in movies like this, is no ordinary fish, however, as she soon develops the ability to speak, in the voice of Noah Cyrus, younger sister of the ubiquitous Miley (thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly, despite it being a Disney release, they wisely chose to not include their favorite money machine on the soundtrack).  After getting a taste of Sosuke’s blood (it’s much less gruesome than it sounds), Ponyo starts resembling humans in other ways as well, including cultivating a great love for ham and a desire to live life on two legs, preferably with Sosuke in his cliffside home, where he lives with his hardworking mother Lisa (Tina Fey).

Ponyo is quickly brought back to her undersea home, where she lives with her siblings, all miniature versions of her, and her father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), a “nautical wizard” who is deeply concerned that Ponyo’s desire to live as a human will upset the balance of nature.  He’s right to be concerned: Sosuke’s town is threatened with a typhoon that may cover the entire area in water.  Ponyo is determined to return to Sosuke, though, and when she does she is fully human, a sweet little girl completely entranced with the world around her, finding joy and wonder in even the smallest things, such as a hot bowl of soup or a cup of tea with honey in it.  Lisa, both mystified and amused by the strange child who seemed to come from nowhere, takes her in, but soon must leave the two children alone when she goes to assist a local nursing home during a huge storm.  When Lisa doesn’t return the next morning, a worried Sosuke and Ponyo take off on a journey by boat to find her.  Meanwhile, Fujimoto is on a frantic search for Ponyo, determined to bring her back and restore things to normal, until he is convinced by Ponyo’s mother (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of the sea, that as long as Sosuke and Ponyo’s love for each other is proven to be strong and true, her decision to remain human won’t affect the natural order.  I could tell you how it ends, but if you’ve ever read a fairy tale or watched a movie in which a character must prove their bravery or love for somone, you can probably guess for yourself.

Describing something as “cute” is relative.  It’s not always a compliment: sometimes when someone shows us a photograph of their unfortunate looking infant, “cute” is the best word we can come up with.  Many people dislike being described as “cute,” because it means they’re not handsome or beautiful.  “Cute” is often applied to things that are fun or nice to look at, but sort of meaningless and without much purpose, like Hello Kitty stationery or a throw pillow shaped like a cupcake.  Not that these things are bad (I for one would love a throw pillow shaped like a cupcake), but they just don’t have much substance.  So I hesitate to describe Ponyo as “cute,” but it really, really is, in the best sense of the word.  I spent most of the movie smiling at its innate sweetness and gentleness, even “awwing” out loud at certain scenes, such as when Ponyo greets everything and everyone she sees with sheer delight.  Despite her own magical powers, the real “magic” for Ponyo seems to come from the affection she feels for Sosuke, as well as the maternal tenderness Lisa shows her, including having her close her eyes for the “surprise” of ham mixed into her soup, at which Ponyo all but gasps in joy.  It’s a film that beautifully captures the wonderment in the seemingly banal things of childhood.

It’s interesting that Ponyo would open nationwide in theaters the same weekend as Shorts, Robert Rodriguez’s latest children’s movie, in the same vein as Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, where so much CGI is employed I’m not sure even the actors are real.  If Shorts and the highly anticipated Avatar are any indicator, CGI is pretty much the future of animation, and yet it becomes ever more apparent that even too much CGI, like candy and booze, can be a bad thing.  For one thing, though it’s neat looking, it also tends to be kind of ugly and garish.  For another, far too often, as the previously reviewed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Speed Racer have shown, often so much focus and attention is expended on the special effects that other important aspects of the film, such as, say, a completed, comprehensible script, are ignored.  It seems obvious that filmmakers who are content to rely on special effects in place of a compelling plot are convinced that their audience will be too dazzled to care, their apres-film conversations going as such: “What was that about again?” “I don’t know, but did you see when the Golden Gate Bridge melted? That was awesome!”  Ponyo was animated in a style that was meant to resemble watercolor and pastels, and while I can’t say for certain that computer effects weren’t used, they sure made an effort to look like they weren’t.  This may be considered a step back in animation for some, but it also gives the film a nice “pages straight from a storybook” look, not to mention it goes with the generally calm, no explosions necessary plot.  It’s nice to see that Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t seem interested in participating in the Hollywood dick waving fight over whose movies are the noisiest and shiniest.

Complaints are minor: the film really is appropriate for a younger audience than the marketing wizards at Disney made it seem; this is likely because Disney really had no idea how to market a movie for young viewers that didn’t have any immediately recognizable, established characters in it.  However, only the most sour old assholes won’t find at least a little something to smile at, even if it’s just the soothing scenes of Ponyo floating around on a jellyfish.  The storyline manages to be both simple and a bit incomprehensible, particularly the scenes involving Ponyo’s father Fujimoto, a character in which the film can’t seem to decide is supposed to be a villain or just a harried, concerned parent.  Then again, find me anime, any anime, that isn’t pretty much incomprehensible.  I’ve seen Akira probably a half-dozen times, and I still couldn’t tell you what the fuck it’s about.  That’s small nitpicking, really, mostly I’m just happy to have seen a children’s movie where the laughs don’t come from kids acting like snotty, know-it-all little shits towards incompetent adults, talking animals dropping pop culture references, fart jokes and slapstick humor.  There’s not a single testicular injury to be found in Ponyo; the closest we get to slapstick is Ponyo occasionally spitting water in people’s faces.  It’s not the most exciting film in the world, but it’s pretty lovable, and lovable kids’ movies, when mostly they’re just tolerable at best, are getting fewer and further between.

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Getting out while the getting’s good

Posted in current events on August 19, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

glennbeckIn the midst of all the madness regarding health care reform and town hall meetings, there are glints of rationality showing here and there, observed in the number of sponsors pulling ads from Glenn Beck’s Fox News program faster than rats escaping from the proverbial sinking ship.  In just a matter of a couple of weeks, everyone from Geico to Proctor & Gamble to Progressive have been disassociating themselves from Beck’s program, undoubtedly no longer wanting it to look as though they endorse his increasingly psychotic, teary-eyed, racist rants about how the America he once knew and loved is being steered straight to Hell on the S.S. Obama.  Even Wal-Mart, long known as the store of choice for the salt of the Earth, working class folks Beck has appointed himself the spokesman for, has packed up its shit and left the party, always a smart move when the host is weeping and babbling about shadow conspiracies against the white man.

According to Gawker, Beck’s remaining advertisers include the Baconwave, Brez anti-snoring aids and Extenze penis enhancement pills.  Somewhere there’s a really brilliant joke to be found there, and if you can find it and send it to me I’ll both credit you and send you a box of Girl Scout cookies in return.  If you’d like to appeal to Extenze, Baconwave, et. al. to pull their spots as well, you can fill out this petition.  I did, though I’m a bit torn over what good it’s going to do.  On one hand, it’s sending a clear message to Fox that big name companies like Proctor & Gamble don’t want to be associated in any way with a raving cuckoo bird like Beck, let alone anything he says.  On the other, it’s not going to help Beck’s persecution complex, his insistence that ever since Obama was elected into office the days where white men have the ability to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of freedom (which includes being racist, hating poor people and women and toting guns everywhere, apparently) are numbered.  Also, it’s not likely to push Fox into firing Beck, or even ordering him to tone down the crazy, because, as terrifying a notion as this might be, his show is the second-highest rated cable program in his time slot.  He’s surpassed equally aggravating but less nutty bloviators Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity as the most popular host on a network that earns its fame by passing off inaccurate, scare tactic “what the liberal media isn’t telling you” horseshit as fact.  Granted, I’m willing to bet that at least half of Beck’s audience is made up of the same people who enjoy watching shows like Flavor of Love and Toddlers & Tiaras, those who love a good trainwreck and are hoping that one of these days Beck will be in the middle of a meltdown and his head will literally explode, like the guy in Scanners.  Even I would watch that on YouTube later, though I still wouldn’t give a minute of ratings to Fox for it.

Still, I’m pretty sure that the other half of Beck’s audience is made up of people like him, those who really have been convinced that he’s speaking for them, that in the dawn of Obama’s presidency, all eight months of it, suddenly they’re an ignored minority perilously close to losing their rights.  These are the people who nod in agreement during Beck’s nightly mouth-frothing, sometimes cleaning their guns with masturbatory fervor, sometimes peering suspiciously out their living room windows, wondering if they should call the cops on that strange black kid walking down the street.  They’re the people who don’t understand the irony of insisting that government should stay out of Medicare, who haven’t the faintest notion of what socialism means other than they think it means their house and car will be given to an unemployed black woman with six children from six different fathers, who aren’t sure if Hawaii really counts as a state, who misspell signs demanding that if one wants to live in America, one should learn how to speak English.  These people are angry, they’re irrational, they’re usually armed and they scare the ever-living fuck out of me.

I don’t really believe that Proctor & Gamble pulled their ads from Glenn Beck’s program because they don’t agree with his politics, I think they’re scared that one of his nutcase fans is going to take his blowhard “we need to rise up and take America back like true patriots” blather to heart and kill someone, quite possibly the President himself, certainly some innocent bystander.  I don’t blame them, because I’m afraid of that too.  The indicators are certainly there: more and more people are showing up at these town meeting debacles carrying guns, because somehow or another they began associating health care reform with the Second Amendment.  These people are driven by anger, fear and ignorance, actually convinced that part of Obama’s plan for health care reform involves a panel of mysterious angels of death who determine whether someone is worthy of living or dying.  Part of the blame needs to be directed towards Democrats, and, as much as it pains me to say it, Obama himself, who stubbornly refuse to explain clearly, concisely and in easy to read type with no big words just how the health care reform is going to work.  There seems to be some misconception that these people, after being mocked on The Daily Show enough times and brushed off as misinformed, hayseed nuisances, will simply go away and wait for everything to be spelled out to them.  As long as Glenn Beck is around to fill their heads with alarmist, tin foil hat nonsense and encouraging them to revolt, all while sitting in the safe confines of a cushy TV studio, they won’t go away.  I don’t blame Proctor & Gamble and Wal-Mart for getting the hell away from them.  We should all be so lucky.

PETA: Nothing but class

Posted in Uncategorized on August 17, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

peta
“Jacksonville, Fla. — A new PETA billboard campaign that was just launched in Jacksonville reminds people who are struggling to lose weight — and who want to have enough energy to chase a beach ball — that going vegetarian can be an effective way to shed those extra pounds that keep them from looking good in a bikini. The ad shows a woman whose “blubber” is spilling over the sides of her swimsuit bottom and features the tagline “Save the Whales. Lose the Blubber: Go Vegetarian. PETA.”

Anyone wishing to achieve a hot “beach bod” is reminded that studies show that vegetarians are, on average, about 10 to 20 pounds lighter than meat-eaters.

“Trying to hide your thunder thighs and balloon belly is no day at the beach,” says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman.”~~PETA press release, earlier this month.

I don’t think this really warrants much comment from me, except to remind readers that PETA has still yet to produce any real scientific evidence that vegans and vegetarians are invariably healthier and thinner than meat eaters. After all, chocolate bars and onion rings don’t have meat in them either. I could stand to lose about fifteen to twenty pounds myself, but it ain’t meat that’s the problem, it’s starches and carbohydrates. Ergo, PETA as always scores a coup in both offering misinformation and being offensive about it at the same time. If they could somehow join forces with Fox News, they could take over the world in a veritable tsunami of fail.

As you walk on by

Posted in pop culture on August 7, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

“What do they do to you?”

“They ignore me.”

“Yeah…yeah.”

It’s interesting that just barely a week after I wrote a review of Nathan Rabin’s The Big Rewind, and how I felt Generation X had already been left behind in the great race to the next big thing in pop culture, John Hughes, one of the most important figures, a scion, if you will, in Gen X pop culture itself, passed away at the age of 59.  Okay, 2009, you can stop making me feel old now, seriously.

As I may have mentioned before, as much of a cliche as self-important navelgazing into what certain songs, movies, books or television shows “mean to you,” particularly those of your childhood or teenage years is, I find myself doing it quite often, even in just my own head.  John Hughes’ death shook me up, not just because celebrities seem to be dropping like flies recently, many of them far too young, but because I had almost forgotten how much of an impact Hughes’ movies, specifically those made from 1983 to 1988 or so, had on me in my youth.  I hadn’t watched many of them recently, and for the most part I classified them in the same category as The Cosby Show and the music of Rick Springfield, stuff that I liked as a kid, but had little use for as an adult.  Also, Hughes hadn’t been around much in the past fifteen years or so to remind me of his talent, choosing to lay low and write films, most of them mediocre at best flops like Drillbit Taylor and Maid in Manhattan under an assumed name.  According to this poignant tribute, Hughes apparently made the decision to keep a lower profile in Hollywood after the massive success of Home Alone, both for the sake of his sons and because he blamed the pressure of working too hard to honor contracts and keep studios happy for the premature death of friend John Candy.  He had the luxury of knowing when he could stop playing the game and being comfortable enough with his success to do so.

Nowadays, teenagers call the shots.  The majority of new music and films, not to mention a considerable portion of books is marketed specifically towards the age 12 to 18 bracket, with adults sheepishly buying Miley Cyrus albums and reading YA literature because, well, there’s just nothing else for us out there right now.  This is a far cry from 25 years ago, when teenagers had little to nothing, other than a few fan or fashion magazines, created and marketed especially for them.  Back in 1985, when Yr. Correspondent was a chunky, sullen middle schooler with a bad perm, teenagers, particularly as portrayed in movies, were little more than either slobbering pussyhounds, as evidenced in such films as Porky’s, or fresh meat for masked serial killers.  They were almost always unconvincingly portrayed by actors in their twenties and even thirties on occasion, and rarely acted as anything more than a sort of symbolic role in the teenage hierarchy–the slut, the nerd, the bad boy, etc.  Then The Breakfast Club came out, and it offered a shocking revelation: teenagers had feelings.  And when I say “feelings,” I don’t mean feeling tight in their pants when the new Swedish exchange student walked past them in the hallway, I meant they were sensitive, they were lonely, they felt lost and rejected.  It seems shocking to say now, but, at least for a very long period in the late 70s and 80s, the suggestion that teenagers may be unhappy and confused about who they are and where they stand in life was almost never touched upon in film, certainly not mainstream films that were created with a teenage audience in mind.  Movies where the main character was a teenage girl, unless that girl was being tormented by a crazed stalker wielding a machete or a meathook were virtually nonexistent, while those with teenage boys as the “hero” dealt primarily with the quest to get laid.  Watching any of these movies now, it’s a little startling how devoid of personality, of anything resembling real people the characters in them are.

Upon watching The Breakfast Club for the first time, I was immediately taken aback by how deeply sad all the characters seemed to be.  At age thirteen, I had already convinced myself that the popular kids had not a care in the world, that as long as you were rich and had all the right clothes and knew all the right people, your life was pretty much free of problems.  Now, of course, it seems a little obvious that being rich doesn’t save you from being insecure, or from having a fucked up relationship with your parents, or from feeling like a phony, but at the time it kind of blew my mind a little.  Not enough that I didn’t continue to think the popular kids still had it better than me, but still, it did humanize them a little more.  I was perhaps a little too cynical to believe that after spending that Saturday together baring their souls to each other, the five members of the Breakfast Club would continue to cross class and status boundaries and remain friends, but now, in retrospect, I don’t think you were supposed to.  I believe that the ending was more ambiguous than it originally seems, that Bender’s triumphant fist pump after kissing the prom queen was poignant not because he “won,” but because who really knew what would happen come Monday morning? Would he and Claire be able to walk proudly through the halls of Shermer High holding hands, symbolically saying “fuck you” to their peers and the class divisions that normally would drive them apart? I kind of doubted it, and I suspect that as much as it pained people to admit it, most everyone else did too.  We knew and still know what high school is like, after all.

When John Hughes wrote shit, like Dutch and Curly Sue, it was appalling, wretched shit.  He very well might have actually written it blindfolded, and that’s why the more richly dimensioned movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off stand out as modern classics, and I really try to avoid using the word “classic” lightly.  In the numerous times I’ve watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off over the years, I keep finding new and interesting sub-plots, beyond the standard “likeable wiseass teen goes on misadventure” main plot.  It’s also about Ed Rooney, a paper tiger of a principal who is genuinely shocked to discover that teenagers are capable of pulling one over on him.  It’s also about Ferris’s sister Jeanie, angry and cynical after clearly spending years overlooked by her parents in favor of the younger, cuter, more charming Ferris, acting out to get attention but flailing around helplessly when it leads to unexpected consequences.  And of course, it’s about Ferris’s best friend Cameron, the character from Hughes’ oeuvre to whom I’ve latched on the most closely.  I used to say that Cameron Frye, other than being filthy rich, was like me with different plumbing, neurotic, anxious, constricted, mostly left to his own devices by parents who are barely mentioned, let alone seen.  Cameron is a born follower, who’d likely go along with Ferris’s plan to drive off the end of the Navy Piers if it meant avoiding an argument.  When faced with a problem, he freezes in panic, then essentially throws a temper tantrum.  The tantrum seems to offer some temporary relief, and he claims that he is now ready to confront his father with various issues, brave and sure of himself, but again, like the ending of The Breakfast Club, it now seems more ambiguous than it once did.  Do we really believe that this is the beginning of a new, stronger Cameron? Is that glint in his eyes the sign that he’s finally growing some stones, or is it merely false hope? Such is the genius of John Hughes: upon second, third, fourth and subsequent looks at his best movies, you see that the loose ends are not tied up nearly as tightly as you once thought.

Now, of course, we’ve come full circle, back to where teenagers in movies are a little too sure of themselves, with the sensibilities, vocabularies and sex lives of thirty year-olds.  Even the “real” teenagers, such as the title character in Juno, seem awfully self-assured, quick with a quip rather than a snotty-nosed crying spell when faced with a pressing issue, such as an accidental pregnancy or family problems.  It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but I’m inclined to believe that, in spite of the internet, “sexting” and everything else the media is claiming forces young people to grow up too fast, they really haven’t changed that much.  If there’s one thing positive that come out of John Hughes’ premature death, is that his movies won’t just be rewatched by his original audience, but by new members, those who are looking for movies about people who really are just like them.

Well, that solves everything

Posted in current events on August 3, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Jezebel reports on a bill before the House of Representatives that includes funding to encourage women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

The bill in question is called the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion, and Supporting Parents Act. It provides funding for sex ed that teaches teens about both contraception and “delaying” sex, as well as increased financial support for pregnant women and new mothers, and money for “a national information campaign on adoption.” The goal is both to prevent unintended pregnancies and, in the words of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, “foster an environment that encourages pregnancies to be carried to term.”

Funding for contraception-based sex education, I can definitely get behind that.  More support for pregnant women and new mothers, particularly if they’re unmarried and on their own, absolutely.  Promoting adoption, not so much, because “Well, you could always give it up for adoption” has long been a pat solution for an unwanted pregnancy, as if it’s an easy, pain-free process for all parties involved, even if the baby is a minority or has special needs.  Other than that, except for the fact that its main purpose seems to be more to reduce abortion as opposed to genuinely helping mothers in need, it seems like a sound idea, except if it works, and a woman decides to have the baby, what about afterward?  There is an unshakable misconception that once a woman has given birth and is settled in with the basic necessities for caring for a newborn–diapers, formula or the accouterments necessary for breastfeeding, clothing, etc.–that’s all the help she needs and everything else will eventually work itself out.  Except the needs for taking care of a child increase as the child gets bigger, not to mention more expensive, and by the time he or she gets to be school age, suddenly the government isn’t so interested in his or her well-being anymore.

One of the reasons I am reluctant to engage in a real dialogue with conservative pro-life supporters is that most of them tend to be rather blatantly hypocritical, in that they insist that all pregnancies should be brought to term, regardless of whatever difficulties the mother may be facing (financial, emotional, physical, etc.), yet also support a reduction in welfare and government supported assistance for families in need.  It’s extremely important to them that these babies are born, yet once they are they don’t want their taxes to go towards making sure that they’re fed and receive proper medical care.  An infant’s needs don’t end with a package of diapers and a coupon for Enfamil, and very rarely for low-income families do the issues of daycare and affordable health care just work themselves out on their own.  Many times even just finding a decent place to live is, to put it mildly, a challenge.  However, conservatives tend to be curiously unsympathetic, claiming that if a single mother of three who can’t go to work because she can’t find affordable daycare had just kept her legs closed she wouldn’t have been in this situation in the first place.  Well, she didn’t, and you browbeat her into having children she knew she couldn’t afford to raise, so now what? Like it or not, now it is your problem, so deal with it.  Part of being an American taxpayer is having to kick in towards helping other people when they’re in trouble.  If you’re so hell-bent on unwanted pregnancies being carried to term that you support the idea of essentially lying to women by telling them that everything will be okay and it will all work out, it’s up to you to support them when it doesn’t.  Your responsibility doesn’t end when you get what you want.

Pop culture: it can save lives!

Posted in pop culture with tags on July 31, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

bigrewindThe Big Rewind: a Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture, by Nathan Rabin, Scribner, 2009

Pop culture as filtered through the eyes of Generation X can be a difficult subject to navigate, even if it’s the one thing, other than ourselves, we like to talk about more than anything else.  For one thing, other than the Baby Boomers, no other generation more than us has had a harder time admitting that we’re rapidly becoming irrelevant.  Hell, we barely got a chance to be relevant before the new Ice Age of the internet came, freezing out our Jurassic asses before we even left footprints behind.  The face of pop culture is changing so fast that stuff we enjoyed doing just twenty years ago, such as making mix tapes and going to the library to use an encyclopedia are now considered twee at best, but mostly archaic.  So when we of a certain age, that age being 30 to 40, talk about stuff we liked during our childhood and teenage years, it tends to be with a rather self-important reverence that is usually unwarranted, mainly because we’re trying desperately to prove that today’s young folks, with their sparkling vampires and their Miley Whateverhernameis, just don’t know what real entertainment is.

Because of this, I’ve heard, or at least read, people my age trying to argue the merits of such plagues upon society as Saved by the Bell, insisting that it was an underrated comic gem with a subversive anti-authority message.  I’ve heard Jem and the Holograms touted as feminist icons.  Howard the Duck has been described as “ahead of its time.”  I’m not sure if any of these people genuinely believed what they were saying, or just said it to get a rise out of someone.  As much as the 70s and 80s were a neon-lit, light rock FM, Jean Nate-scented wonderland for me, I hold no illusions about the TV programs and movies I watched and the music I listened to as a kid.  Most of it sucked.  The only ones that didn’t suck were those that were long ago established as being good: Star Wars, Jaws, Bugs Bunny, the Clash, Night Court, WKRP in Cincinnati, David Bowie, etc.  The rest of it? Crap, generally speaking.  In fact, much of it is worse than I remembered.  How did I sit through nearly ten years of Happy Days? What in my eight year-old pea brain convinced me that The Love Boat was something that I needed to watch every week without fail? I wouldn’t try to seriously convince someone that these programs were good anymore than I would try to convince someone that eating an entire pound of bacon in one sitting is a wise idea.  They weren’t good, they were dreck, but we’ve made ourselves believe they were good because we want our generation to be better than yours, goddamn whippersnappers.

But here I go, being all self-absorbed and Gen X-y again.  When I picked up Nathan Rabin’s The Big Rewind, a book in which he discusses notable songs, movies and books and how they relate to certain events in his past, I was somewhat more enthusiastic than I normally would be about such an endeavor.  This was mainly because Rabin is the head writer for A.V. Club, which to my perception appears to be the only major entertainment website that does not yet appear to be in the pocket of a film studio, although I say that and on the front page there are three ads for Judd Apatow’s latest Funny People, plus a review of the film itself, plus a separate discussion about it, plus interviews with Apatow and co-star Eric Bana.  All that aside, it’s still a website maintained by writers who aren’t afraid to criticize what another writer on the same site may be shilling, and I respect that (and if you need another writer, call me!).  I’m particularly a fan of Rabin’s column My Year of Flops, in which he watches such notorious stinkers as Bonfire of the Vanities and Cutthroat Island to determine if they really are that bad or if they’re merely underappreciated diamonds in the rough.  Enjoying what I like to think of as bad movie endurance tests myself, I’ve seen many of the movies Rabin discusses, and though he tends to be a bit more charitable than I am (as exhibited in the fact that he never once used the phrase “unforgivable crime against society” in his review of Speed Racer), I like to think we’re on the same page with a lot of things.  Still, part of me went into reading The Big Rewind convinced that it was going to be yet more “get off my lawn” flailing about how mp3s will never have the same sonic quality as a scratched up 45 of ‘Rock Me Amadeus,’ and how he stood outside of a theater for three hours to see Return of the Jedi, which pretty much, oh, everyone did back in 1983, because we didn’t have this computer ticketing nonsense, and it’s just not the same.

Let me say first that I was wrong.  The Big Rewind is not a typical “let me tell you, for the 745th time, how important Generation X was” memoir.  It’s an intelligent but unpretentious read, it’s surprisingly touching and it is probably one of the funniest damn books I’ve read in a long time.  And let me tell you, when I say that I’m on the same page as Nathan Rabin on a lot of things, I mean I’m on the same page.  I don’t often read books that mirror my thoughts and opinions on something so closely it was like I could have written it myself, but there were parts in The Big Rewind, particularly those dealing with Rabin’s complicated relationship with his mother, his experiences growing up poor and his thoughts on polyamory, that I had to stop and wonder if I wasn’t having some sort of Chuck Palahniuk moment, where I had just discovered that I was a construct in the imagination of a film critic named “Nathan Rabin.”  And perhaps only Chuck Palahniuk existed in my imagination, which means that Fight Club never existed, which means that pretentious hipsters wouldn’t sneer at someone anytime they talk about buying something at IKEA.  Or did I just blow your fucking mind?

But I digress.  I titled this review “Pop Culture: It Can Save Lives” because much of Rabin’s book, funny as it is, hinges on his miserable childhood, growing up motherless and poor, spending time in a psychiatric hospital and living out his teenage years at a group home for problem boys, being made just slightly more bearable by such things as reading The Catcher in the Rye and watching Reservoir Dogs.  It seems like such a simplified notion, that the mere act of listening to an album or watching a movie can make you feel better about your shitty existence, but the fact is that it’s true.  I listened to the Cure’s Disintegration every day my senior year of high school.  Every day without fail, on my way to school in the morning on that rattletrap bus, I’d put on my headphones and listen to Robert Smith groan his way through ‘Pictures of You,’ ‘Lovesong, ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Fascination Street’ until I knew that album forwards and backwards.  If you’re in the right (0r wrong) frame of mind that album will make you want to blow your fucking brains out, and yet it never failed to make me feel better somehow.  It drowned everything out for a little while, it made me feel removed from my unhappiness, absorbed in the swell and the drama of whatever it was that was bothering Robert Smith, which seemed to be everything.  A couple of hours of escape into a book or a movie theater or through a pair of headphones can sometimes make the difference between getting through another day and just giving up entirely.

Some of the chapters also deal not so much with how a certain nugget of pop culture helped Rabin through a hard time, but bore some relevance to his own life, such as discovering for himself after reading The Great Gatsby that it’s impossible to try to change who you are entirely without disastrous results.  Rabin’s great love for movies, books and music comes through on every page, and it’s not a distant, hipsterish, ironic love, which is refreshing.  Despite the hard knocks life has given him, and despite his profane, hilarious cynicism and self-denigration, there is still a bit of a charming idealist in Rabin, which must be difficult considering the sheer number of godawful movies he must see every year for his job.  I watched the remake of The Wicker Man once and I was ready to give it up and wander into the woods until I dropped dead of starvation, because clearly if such a movie was allowed to exist that meant there was nothing right and beautiful left in the world.  Having related so much to Rabin’s personal experiences, even despite having different plumbing, reading The Big Rewind made me glad I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money on movies, books and music over the years, glad that I’m reluctant to get rid of most of it, glad that I’ve not yet given up on the idea that a lot of it might suck right now, both life and pop culture, but it will always get better.

With fans like these…

Posted in politics, pop culture on July 29, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

anniewilkesTed Casablanca of E! reports on just one of what must have surely been dozens of squicky, inappropriate moments at last week’s San Diego Comic-Con, this one during a panel for Twilight fan fiction writers.

So the head of a fanfic site was asked if she was bothered by stories posted that are violent or that border on sexual assault. The answer, offered loudly by a fan in the room?

“If it’s Rob, it’s OK.”

The crowd then erupted with laughter.

Um, that’s so not funny.

Now, the erotic-themed pieces are called deep genre, and one audience member asked about where to draw the line between harmless role playing and scary sexual stuff. One mom-author-fan responded that it’s all kosher when Rob is involved and emphasized that, “Twilight [fanfic] is a place where fans can speak freely.”

Somewhere, my high school creative writing teacher is weeping helplessly into his hands over the fact that people who are committing what only just twenty years ago was called plagiarism are now getting widespread acclaim, even their own panel at a convention where they’re interviewed like any other author.  I’m sorry, Mr. B., I don’t understand it either.  Now, I don’t usually use gossip sites as a source of reliable information, but I judged this story plausible enough to discuss, mainly because there is recorded footage of it available and also because I don’t put anything past Twilight fans.  I haven’t read any of the Twilight books, nor have I seen the first movie.  Romantic vampire sagas are not my cup of blood, and even if I did have some interest in giving the series a try, I wouldn’t now because it’s been tainted for me by its fandom.  You see, Twilight fans are fucking crazy, and the mere mention of them at this point makes me recoil in fear.  Every time I offer proof that its fans are cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, such as physically attacking not only critics of the series but each other over who’s the more devoted fan or, I don’t know, writing stories in which the characters are violently raped, someone pipes up that that’s not representative of typical fan behavior, they merely just draw attention to themselves.  You’ll pardon me if that’s not exactly reassuring.

Robert Pattinson, who of course plays romantic lead Edward Cullen in the movie version of the series, seems to be the unlucky recipient of most of the fan devotion.  Pattinson, who’s often criticized the quality of the books and clearly didn’t know what he was getting into when he signed his contract with Summit Entertainment, now seems alternately baffled, angry and terrified of the attention he gets from fans, even nearly getting hit by a car while trying to run away from a mob of them in New York City last month.  The majority of his more rabid fans, even the forty year-olds who should know better if only they weren’t powered by pure fucking insanity, seem incapable of separating him from his character in the movie, so he’s often approached by grown women asking him to turn them into vampires, stalked in airports and manhandled by those who consider him public domain and don’t know how to keep their hands to themselves.  Then, of course, there’s the fan fiction.

Fan fiction, if you have one of these things called a “life” and don’t spend much time on the internet, is when fans of a certain book series, movie or TV show, usually sci-fi, fantasy or horror, write their own stories involving characters from it.  More often than not the stories are pornographic, sometimes quite hardcore, and don’t always shy away from activities that are currently illegal, such as pedophilia and rape.  I know that fanfic isn’t a new concept; undoubtedly 25 years ago there were thousands of fevered masturbation fantasies starring Princess Leia in her slave costume written on notebook paper and then hidden under a mattress.  Now fanfic is a cottage industry, with many of its writers who don’t recognize the terms “copyright” and “intellectual property” developing fan bases of their own and even taking money for their work.  It’s not clear why fan fiction has been allowed to flourish to the point that some purveyors are profiting from it, my only guesses are that a.) it’s so widespread it’s impossible to monitor it, b.) most of the original creators of the work shrug it off as harmless fun for the fans or c.) when writers do complain about fan fiction they’re often met with a backlash, as though it’s a slap in the face to fans to ask them to stop stealing your shit.

Thanks to the internet, pretty much anything goes when it comes to fanfic, because everything is normal on the internet.  You could write a story about Severus Snape sodomizing Ron Weasley with a spiked dildo the size of a Hickory Farms summer sausage while applying jumper cables to his nipples, and for every person who tells you “Hey, that’s kind of messed up,” there’ll be an equal amount encouraging you to write more.  Such seems to be the case with Twilight fanfic, a disturbingly large amount of which appears to involve not just Edward Cullen, but Robert Pattinson specifically (though as mentioned previously many of his fans believe him to be one and the same) being violently raped.

Now, before I go on, let me say that I’m not judging anyone who’s into rape fantasy.  Whether you fancy yourself the assailant or the victim, as long as you know that it’s not an appropriate urge to act on in real life, that’s your business.  I also don’t believe in thoughtcrime, the notion that writing gruesome stories about violence and rape means that you’re going to act on any of it in real life.  My issue is the hypocrisy.  Let’s put it this way: what if it was a male audience member at the Comic-Con panel who made that “joke” about Kristen Stewart, who plays heroine Bella Swan in the Twilight movies? He would have gotten his ass handed to him, and rightfully so.  Women don’t get a pass on making rape jokes, and they definitely don’t get a pass on claiming that it’s “okay” to write stories involving an actual person being sexually assaulted, just because of who he is and because psycho fans believe they claim some sort of ownership on him.

Undoubtedly, most of the “real person fic” involving the rape of Robert Pattinson, particularly if the assailant is a woman, probably ends with his enjoying it, perhaps even falling for his victimizer, rendering the story not so bad in the eyes of the author.  However, isn’t that the most offensive stereotype of all when it comes to rape and sexual assault, that secretly the victim digs it? It is of course the basis for the relationship of Luke and Laura Spencer from General Hospital, probably the most popular couple in soap opera history, as well as a million trashy romance novels in which a virginal princess is kidnapped by a pirate or a sheik who tames her with his penis.  If it was a man writing this kind of garbage, he’d be labeled a misogynist and told to get his head examined.  Women, on the other hand, get to slide most of the time, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, especially if the rape scenes they envision involve a man being assaulted by a woman.  I can only guess it’s because the majority of society still believes that a man simply cannot be raped by a woman, so it’s less insidious.

I realize I’m making a big deal out of what was basically a joke made in poor taste by a member of a subgroup that probably isn’t nearly as prevalent as the internet makes it seem, but again, it’s the hypocrisy that bothers me.  Let’s be honest enough to admit that, despite the First Amendment allowing them to do so,  there’s something deeply twisted about writing fantasies in which real people are sexually assaulted, and it’s not any less twisted when it’s a woman writing them.  It’s not a fun, entertaining way to show your favorite actor how much you love him.  It’s just messed up, and for Robert Pattinson’s sake I hope he never crosses paths with any of these people.

Check out some other examples of “Rape is OK When It’s a Woman Doing It to a Man,” though be warned that once you enter the rabbit hole of TV Tropes, you may never return.