Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fight Club... Perhaps the Coolest Movie All Semester

Fight Club was a pleasant surprise for me. I had seen only clips of the movie prior to class, so I was under the false impression that the movie was about nothing but fighting. I was glad to be proven wrong in my assumption. There was a much deeper story to the movie, but I’m not sure I quite understood it.

The main character obviously had multiple personalities. When he became Tyler Durden, his life was turned upside down. Tyler burned his apartment and threw him into an entirely new lifestyle full of secrets and mystery by starting the underground “Fight Club.” There were motives behind all of his actions that could be debated for years and never be fully understood. He wanted freedom from all the physical belongings and societal norms that held him back, but in creating his own freedom he bound his soldiers to rules stricter than what you would find in a black ops military regiment. Tyler also wanted equality for everyone, or so it seemed when he said he wanted to destroy the credit companies so that everyone could start at zero again. But once again there was hypocrisy in that desire because he was making himself the supreme ruler of this new world by making everyone else his soldier. I’m sure there was a lot more to his thinking than that, but those were the two aspects of his operation that stood out to me the most and seemed the most contradictory.

The complexity and hypocrisy of the narrator/Tyler was all a part of the satire and humor of this movie though. We were thrown into a world where we saw all of the mundane and mediocre things we love blown away by the Fight Club phenomena. Men who had worked hard their entire lives to climb the corporate ladder were suddenly reverting back to their animalistic tendencies every night when they went to fight in a dirty basement of a club on the wrong side of town. In many ways this movie showed us how trivial all the things we value are and how easily we can live without them if we let nature take over. This movie also shed light and humor on sides of life that people are often afraid to laugh at. Self-help groups aren’t typically a laughing matter, but when a grown man becomes addicted to them because he likes to cry, it’s a whole new story. Suicide is also a serious subject, but when you see Marla using it as a pitiful way to sleep with someone, you are able to laugh and see how irrational people can become when they actually just want attention. We saw all of these issues that people usually don’t discuss blown out of proportion and turned comical by the nutcase characters we were forced to love.

Fight Club
was over-the-top, nasty, action-packed, incredibly sarcastic, and undeniably cool. What a great way to end a semester.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Reservoir Dogs Just Aren't That Cool

Reservoir Dogs was definitely a guy movie. It was full of blood, gore, violence, and nothing but testosterone-driven men wanting to commit the perfect crime. Personally, I have a strong distaste for movies such as that, so I rarely watch them. This was also my first encounter with Quentin Tarantino’s work. I was intrigued by the fractured timeline he used, and I enjoyed the pop culture references and 70s playlist, but his overall obsession with gore was too much for me to handle.

Much like RoboCop, this movie almost made me sick with its senseless massacres. When Mr. Blonde went crazy and cut the policeman’s ear off I almost had to leave the room. Violence with a visible reason doesn’t bother me, but harming someone or something for with no reason other than sick, twisted personal joy is repulsive. That scene with the cop made me think back to when Murphy was gunned down by the drug dealers in RoboCop. The killing was overly brutal and nasty, and neither Mr. Blonde nor those drug dealers had a valid motive for doing what they did. If a character has to die, just get it over with in one quick shot, don’t drag it out and make us watch someone writhe in pain while their ear is cut off. There is nothing cool about that. Characters like Mr. Blonde are just not cool in any sense of the word in my opinion.

What was cool about this movie (other than the awesome 70s music) was the competency shown by a few of the other characters. Mr. Orange was probably my favorite character, not because he was a cop, but because he was so good at his undercover work that no one figured him out until the very end of the movie. Even then Mr. White was still fooled by his act, and Mr. White was one of the most skilled men on the job it seemed. Mr. Orange’s level of proficiency was up to par with the other undercover workers such as Vesper Lynd (She had James Bond falling for her ruse all throughout Casino Royale.) or Al Pacino as “Rooster” in Righteous Kill (Pacino was a serial killer in this movie, but he kept it a successful secret from all of his buddies at the NYPD.) Much like those undercover agents, it is the element of competency that makes people like Mr. Orange cool even if you don’t always agree with their motives. That is also what made Joe so cool even though he was a crooked man running heist operations all over the city. He was smooth, calm, and collected even though his livelihood was based on robberies run by groups of total strangers. So while I thought what these men were doing was repulsive, I must admit that some of them at least were pretty cool when it came to getting the job done.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hip? Square? You be the judge...

1. Hip Hop
2. Cosmopolitan
3. Going Green
4. Canvas bags
5. Short shorts
6. Flip flops
7. Fitness
8. iPods
9. Natural tan
10. Hookah
11. Working hard
12. MTV
13. Liberal
14. Pot
15. Parties
16. Twilight
17. Spending
18. Excitement
19. Questioning
20. Change
21. Success
22. Stylish hair
23. Texting
24. X-Box 360
25. Facebook
26. Honesty
27. Spirituality
28. Youth
29. Independence
30. Nonconformity

1. Country
2. Science Daily
3. Polluting
4. Plastic bags
5. Pants above the waist
6. Socks with sandals
7. Out of shape
8. CD players
9. Skin cancer
10. Cigarettes
11. Hardly working
13. Conservative
14. Meth
15. Going to class
16. Lord of the Rings
17. Saving
18. Boredom
19. Complaining
20. Predictability
21. Failure
22. Mullets
23. Actually talking
24. Dreamcast (For those of us who still play them…)
25. Email
26. Hypocrisy
27. Religion
28. Aging
29. Dependence
30. Conformity*

*One thing I notice when reading or creating lists such as this one is that in qualifying something such as “Hip” you are contradicting one of the main aspects of what it is to be hip or cool. Coolness comes with uniqueness and nonconformity, but that idea is full of hypocrisy because to be cool or hip you have to conform to the rules of it. It’s often hard to tell the difference among members of the in-crowd because in trying to be hip they’ve merely created clones of the trend-starter. So if nonconformity is a part of being cool, then is it the hip, in-crowd that’s really cool for following one another’s’ leads, or is it the “square” who gets labeled as “lame” for daring to be different?

I would definitely call myself “square,” at least according to popular opinion. I cross into both lists in different ways, but by most social standards I not “hip.” Take video games for example. I listed the X-Box 360 as hip and the Sega Dreamcast as square. Why? Because people are paying hundreds to get their hands on the newest X-Box, and most people under the age of 15 have never even heard of a Dreamcast. It wasn’t even successful enough in it’s day to be remembered as a legend like the old-school Nintendos are. I still love the Dreamcast though because it was a staple of my childhood, and I still enjoy playing games such as “Worms: Armageddon” on it today. Technology is a major factor in being hip, and I don’t have it on my side usually. I don’t own a touch-screen phone or have a GPS system in my car to talk to; in fact, I barely operate outside the limits of my meager 8 gigabyte iPod.

As a rule though, I, like most people am not absolutely hip or square. In fact, with the diversity and constant changing of the world around us, it is hard to definitively call anything cool. Making a list like this one is fruitless because by the time it’s done it will be outdated. Hip and square are best judged by the beholder, not set in stone for all to follow.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Obsession Is Never Cool

The drag queens in the documentary Paris Is Burning were nothing short of obsessed with the balls they so intricately planned. Obsession isn’t always a good thing though. While the balls gave these men hope and something to strive for, the balls also took over their lives and left them with nothing in return— much as other obsessions tend to do. Drugs, sex, alcohol, etc all consume people’s lives and leave them with nothing in the end.

A prime example of this is Charlie Sheen’s character in the CBS comedy Two and a Half Men. Charlie is a middle-aged, fairly successful jingle-writer for commercials, but other than his house he has little to show for his life, no kids, no wife, not even much in the way of happiness. Why? Because he spends his time and effort on having sex with as many women as possible and drinks in his spare time. Charlie is the closest thing to a sex-addict you’ll find on primetime TV. Just like the drag queens though, his obsessive hobby brings him little more than a fun evening. Once the fun is gone though, he wants little to do with the women, and so is left with nothing. He doesn’t get the fulfillment of a serious relationship or anything else of the sort to show for his obsessive efforts. So once again obsession proves to be self-destructive and unfulfilling.

While those two examples make obsession seem like a bad thing, is that always the case? I would argue “yes.” Right now I’m reading the Twilight saga because I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about. (Once again, the obsessive nature of most Twilight fans is a bad thing, if not for it consuming their time and money, then for the rest of the world that has to see thousands of pre-teen girls running around with Richard Pattinson’s face on their shirts.) The plot of Twilight is a great example of obsession as well. Bella Swan is 200%, over-the-top, infatuated with Edward Cullen. Sure, he brings her happiness and love and all of those wonderful things, but he is also self-destructive for her. Bella becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming a vampire so she can spend eternity with Edward, and in most people’s opinions that is not a healthy desire. Her life becomes centered on Edward and her desire, so when he leaves town she becomes a zombie, almost lifeless without him around. That’s the point where I’d say the mania has gone a bit too far.

I tired my best to think of a single example of a healthy obsession, and I think I failed. Anything when taken to an extreme becomes unhealthy because it consumes you and leaves you with nothing when it’s gone. Dedication to something is good, it’s “cool,” but over-the-top obsession is not.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What a Sad, Sad Life

I’ve never been one to watch documentaries for fun unless they pertain to something I’m quite obsessed with such as Metallica (Some Kind of Monster) or large flightless birds (March of the Penguins). Going in to this movie I didn’t know what to expect. From the reading we did before class, “The Slap of Love” by Michael Cunningham, I knew what Paris is Burning was going to be about, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I watched.

Like most documentaries, this one was gritty and to the point but with a subject like transsexual life in the midst of the AIDS crisis, that grittiness is heightened a lot. While a lot of the ball scenes were lighthearted and entertaining, the underlying message was almost depressing. All of these men and women were working night and day to become the best models, dancers, trend setters, etc, in hopes of one day escaping the poverty most of them were born into. That might not seem like an outrageous dream in today’s society, but in the 80s and 90s it was near impossible for a drag queen or transsexual, especially and African American or Mexican one, to be recognized by the white majority. That’s what made this documentary so depressing for me to watch. I heard all of these people talking about their hopes and dreams of being wealthy and famous, but I already knew from the reading and just from their situation that it wouldn’t happen. Many of them in fact ended up sick and dying only a few years after the film was made.

Just because it made me sad didn’t mean I didn’t like it though. This was actually quite an inspiring movie in many ways. I loved the determination these guys/girls showed for what they did. I think many of them knew their dreams would never be fruitful, but they tried their best anyway and never settled for less than perfect performances. The amazing thing was that most of them didn’t even have homes or real families, but they rose above that strife to become the people they dreamed of being at the balls. So in a way, many of them achieved their dreams without even realizing it I think. They all dreamed about being the people they saw walking the streets of Manhattan, and while they may never reach that goal, they could at least experience for short whiles by mimicking it on the runway. So there was hope for them in a way I guess, but it was still sad knowing what coming for so many of the young guys we watched— AIDS, beatings on the streets for being “faggots,” and the misery of never making it out of the poverty they hated so much.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Oh, the Satire

This week we saw how political and social satire can be cool when we watched Paul Verhoeven’s action/sci-fi movie RoboCop. To most viewers (like myself most likey) the beauty of such satire would be lost without prior warning that it’s there. Most people watch movies just for the fun of it, not expecting to get a deeper message from the film, especially when it’s something as outrageous as RoboCop. However, once you know to expect a satire, the point the director’s shooting for is obvious. After watching it I found myself looking back trying to see if I had missed the satirical commentary of any other movies.

The first one I came up with was a movie I really wish I had never watched: Team America: World Police. While watching this movie I clearly saw the point the South Park creators were going for, I just never thought to classify it as satire. I must say I wasn’t a huge fan of Team America, but not because it didn’t have a decent message. The movie overdramatized and poked fun at the way America tries to control the world’s terrorist problems by having a group of American global cops and a Broadway actor take of the evil dictator of North Korea. While the movie is funny, ridiculous, and over-the-top, it does make a lot serious comments about American politics and our style of international relations. And while it may not be what we would normally consider cool, I will always find puppet animation cool just because of the effort it takes to make such a movie. I don’t think I got nearly as much from Team America as I did RoboCop, but both movies certainly qualify as political satires in their own special ways.

The other example of satire that immediately came to mind was a website/newspaper that my brother and I are very fond of reading. The Onion never fails to make me laugh with its absolutely ridiculous headlines and stories that poke fun at absolutely everything. At first glance the stories have no literary merit of any kind, but occasionally you can find some very useful social or political commentary. The best example I can think of would be a semi-recent news video they released on the website entitled “Survivors of Gas Station Explosion Mourn Tragic Loss of Gas.” I was laughing ridiculously when I first watched this clip, but afterwards I actually found myself thinking of how true it is because gas prices had gotten so high that people were keeping track of where every drop went. The video really showed how ridiculously frugal some people could be when it came to gasoline. Hopefully the worst of that problem is behind us now, but the video is still really funny (and somewhat disturbing) if you like The Onion’s style of satirical comedy.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Funny Movie, Bad Reality

RoboCop was a movie unlike many others I've ever seen. I had no prior knowledge about it at all and have never seen anything else from this director, Paul Verhoeven. Until the company name Orion appeared on the screen I had no idea what to expect. Based on other Orion films though, such as Maximum Overdrive, I instantly knew I was in for quite a ride. I usually love low-budget science fiction movies for some odd reason, maybe because I get some small amount of joy when I can the strings that are making the spaceships "fly" or because the acting is just so classy.

On top of all those joys though, RoboCop had other things to offer soceity. It was anything but the action-packed, futuistic film it appears to be on the surface- it was a satire commenting on the evils of privatization. The company OPC was trying to take over Detroit from its hospitals to its drug rings to its police force... All so that it would be top dog when Detroit was flattened and rebuilt as the all new Delta City. What it came down to was a situation very akin to Big Brother in 1984. OPC had its ahnd in everything to the point where people had no choices at all and humanity wasn't a part of the equation anymore.

The inhumanity of the story is what really got to me. I could look at all the farce throughout the rest of the movie an laugh. The commercials, news breaks, and even the prospect of privatizing this "unprofitable businesses" such as hospitals and prisons were all easy to find humor in, but the idea of a "RoboCop" creeped me out. When Murphy died one of the most grotesque deaths I've seen in a while, I thought it couldn't get any worse. I was wrong. When he woke up to find himself part of a science experiment I got chills imagining myself in his shoes. I think that would honsetly be the worst possible situation to live with- having human feelings and knowledge of your past life, but knowing that you are incapable of being human at all. It'd be hard to go back to your wife and kids when only your face is still made of flesh and blood. None of the blood, guts, and murder got to me as much as thinking about the reality Murphy now had to face everyday.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Escapism in the '80s

The cool escapism we saw in Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta is something that shows up a lot in movies and books about young men that feel down on their luck. I had never seen the movie before, but I felt like I had seen Travolta’s character many times before. Many of these other characters showed up in movies not long after Travolta hit it big as Tony Manero in 1977.

The first of these characters I’m referring to is Ponyboy Curtis from S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders. The book came out in ’67, and it was adapted to film in 1983. The film was an early work for many famous actors: C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, and even Tom Cruise. Ponyboy (Howell) was the youngest of three brothers who were central members of a gang called “the Greasers.” Ponyboy seemed to live with his head in the clouds, not really fitting in, until he and his best friend Johnny accidentally kill a rival gang member and have to spend a week in hiding. After a long string of events that takes the lives of Johnny and another friend, Ponyboy’s world is shattered. That’s the point when he realizes he has to get out and find a better life. Like Travolta’s character, he knows he has to escape or else he’ll waste his life away on the poor side of town with the rest of his gang. He has no idea what he wants out of life, but he knows there has to be something other than the crime and the poverty. Much like Travolta’s escape into dancing, Ponyboy used books and writing as an escape from the world, hoping it would take him away from the misery his family lived with every day.

Much more similar to Travolta’s world, two other 80s movies had characters that were oddly analogous to Tony Manero. In 1984 Kevin Bacon introduced the world to Ren McCormack’s crazy dancing skills in Footloose. Ren’s family moves from the urban landscape of Chicago to a one-horse town out west where dancing is forbidden. The teen feels oppressed and controlled by the town’s crazy ordinances against his music and dance, and has to rebel. Much like Tony, he doesn’t fit in with the people around him unless he’s showing his stuff on the dance floor, so that’s what he does. For Ren dancing was an escape from the world, and it was the one thing that got him attention and respect.

The other 80s classic I’m thinking of, I’m sure you’ve already realized by now… Dirty Dancing. I don’t see how anyone could watch Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and not think of Johnny’s and Penny’s roles 10 years later. The two were dance instructors at a lodge in the Catskills, and for both of them it seemed to be their only option to escape their horrible pasts. They grew up on the streets more or less, and saw dancing as a way to get out and hopefully find a better life. They perfected their dance skills not just because they enjoyed it, but also because they knew they would never get out if they didn’t. Neither saw potential for themselves otherwise, so they used the one thing they knew they were good at to get off the streets and into a new crowd where they could be seen and respected for their talents. Their stories are all to similar to the problems Tony faced when he left the club every weekend— by the rest of the world’s standards they were all good for nothing, but when they started dancing the rest of the world stood by to watch.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In Defense of Country

Over the decades there have countless movements in the music industry that are later degraded by the follow-up generation—disco, funk, 80s glam rock, the 90s pop, etc. One music genre that really stands out in my mind, though, is one that has been around longer than most and is still criticized for its existence to this day: country. Country is considered to be perhaps the least cool of all musical categories, and let’s face it, most of today’s younger generation would hardly admit to listening to it.

I’ve listened to country music all my life; it was an integral part of my childhood from the moment I first saw artists Steve Warner and Diamond Rio at the White County fair at the age of 3 or 4. All through school I was ridiculed for my like of such “redneck” and “talentless” music, even by my own brother. Many people will admit the value of country classics such as Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn, but they don’t see that same value in today’s country artists. Others stereotype the whole genre based on “outcasts” of country like Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, and even their recent honky tonk counterparts like Brooks and Dunn. No matter how you look at it and no matter how little you like it, you have to realize that country music defines a large part of America. From its southern folk roots to its attempts to cross over into modern pop, country music has a dedicated following in this country and it’s probably not going away anytime soon.

Country music has gone through lot of changes over time, but at its heart it is really about storytelling and love. When it first arose in the 20s with names like The Carters and Gene Autry, and on into the days of Johnny Cash, country was all simple tunes with powerful words. Songs like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “I Walk the Line” told stories about people that listeners could identify with because that’s what most country is about. Country music has never been high-tech; it’s just down-to-earth, simple music that tries to make people feel good and let them identify with the lyrics.

In the 80s and 90s county music moved more towards the way we see it today. The music picked up pace and became more mainstream. Artists such as the recently deceased Dan Seals as well as others such as Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Shania Twain, and Alabama defined this time and made country more popular. It still might not have been cool, but it certainly became more widely acceptable outside of the southern, NASCAR clientele that it is so often associated with. Even today country is still impacting the country. It has began to cross over and become more in sync with modern pop, and it thus reaching further out into the world because of groups like Rascal Flatts and female artists such as Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Through these efforts country has become more acceptable in many people’s eyes, but there is still the group who hears a country song and immediately turns off the radio because they claim it all sounds a like or it requires no thought. It may not require synthesizers or have the political, literary lyrics of groups like Tool, but country has its own place in the world, and when you just want a pick-me-up or a simple break from the day, you should give it a try.