pop culture

Success: Banville and Nietzsche

Posted in pop culture, quotes, writers-poetry on August 27th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Success: Banville and Nietzsche

John Banville, in his Paris Review interview:

“One of my favorite Nietzsche aphorisms is-I always trot this out when people ask about some other writer who’s having a huge sucess for some cheap thing…”

You will never get the crowd to cry hosanna until you ride into town on an ass.

Starlet the Movie on Netflix

Posted in pop culture on August 8th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Starlet the Movie on Netflix

Would you invest in this movie?

A young woman forms an attachment to an older woman who is no bag of charm. The young woman is a porn star and the old woman is depressed, living in a small, oppressive house. The actress who plays the porn star is a fashion model in real life. She has an inexpressive, mask like face, almost anonymous in its prettiness without the voluptuous figure you associate with porn. Anonymity and beauty are close cousins. The old woman is played by an 85 year old who never acted before and was discovered in a YMCA. The young woman has a dog which sleeps through most of the movie. The director has credits such as Warren the Ape and Greg the Bunny.

Sounds like it would be worth dumping a pile of money down that well, right?

But the movie, Starlet, now on Netflix, is an astonishing success at every turn. It works on all levels. The director (and co-writer) doesn’t focus on the porn background, nor the dog, as might be expected. His brilliant editing gives time and room to the characters. He trusts the audience as much as the actors.

The actresses are startling in their naturalness. There are long pauses in speech, leaving room for the resonance of feeling. There are no characters who are dislikable, including the porn crew or the flaky roomate. There is no sentimentalizing. There is no condescension toward the old, those who may have made poor choices, no effort to explain or fill in much background history. The movie is about a relationship in the here and now.

Without a single ingratiating move by the old woman as actress or character, nor a great effort to be likable by either of the two actresses, the audience is allowed to come to them. Dree Hemingway, a model who plays a porn star, is a wonderful actress. Her mother, Mariel Hemingway, was very good herself in Robert Towne’s Personal Best. But Dree Hemingway has a lightness and the aura of invulnerability bestowed by innocence; her character sails through life. Even though a porn star – and sometimes the toughness does show – her character is by nature intelligent and empathic.

Great movie.

Pop Culture As A Value System

Posted in ideas, pop culture on July 26th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Pop Culture As A Value System

Sometimes what is called pop culture seems to be clearly stating what it is: commercial culture. The pop movies, tv shows, best sellers, are the lagniappe, the small gift given by a shop owner when a customer makes a purchase, with the buzz not the substance being the true nature of the purchase. The movie which accompanies the marketing campaign, where the coming attraction is often all the movie really is. It’s well, high concept, after all. Simple ideas designed to be approved in the form of movies.

Pop culture is best viewed as its first word indicates: it is a popularity contest. It is a top ten list, a marker of consensus, which, in circular fashion, is created by the true pop culture, which is advertising. Pop culture is merchandizing by another name.

The biggest problem with this is that this popularity, this media constructed affirmation, is then stated as a value. That is, the value system espoused by pop culture is that of public opinion: convention and consensus and conformity. That isn’t a value system.

Gore Vidal about public opinion:

At any given moment, public opinion is a chaos of superstition, misinformation, and prejudice.

Kramer and Jack Reacher

Posted in pop culture on July 8th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Kramer and Jack Reacher

Have to admit I’m hooked on the the Jack Reacher series. Wikipedia had the following description of my current read – “Worth Dying For”…

And Reacher’s altruistic meddling of course precipitates a series of increasingly violent confrontations during which a local history of unspeakable perversion and torture and murder is revealed. Corpses cover the countryside as the story continues churning out gore as implacably as a meatgrinder all the way up to its final merciless act of retribution.

Does this remind you, in tone, if not subject, of…

…Well it’s a story about love, deception, greed, lust and…unbridled enthusiasm…that’s what led to Billy Mumphrey’s downfall. You see …Billy was a simple country boy. You might say a cockeyed optimist, …who got himself mixed up in the high stakes game of world diplomacy and international intrigue.

[Seinfeld’s Kramer telling Elaine the plot of a book he had just read.]

Janet Malcolm, Truth Telling, Privacy

Posted in pop culture, writers-poetry on June 26th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Janet Malcolm, Truth Telling, Privacy

Janet Malcolm’s clarity and honesty are exceptional in journalism, or any field for that matter. Malcolm writes unafraid, telling the truth about what she sees. For a journalist, this would not seem that unusual. But it is. About the now worldwide gossip-celebrity pop culture, she writes:

The organs of publicity that have proliferated in our time are only an extension and a magnification of society’s fundamental and incorrigible nosiness. Our business is everybody’s business, should anybody wish to make it so. The concept of privacy is a sort of screen to hide the fact that almost none is possible in a social universe. In any struggle between the public’s inviolable right to be diverted and an individual’s wish to be left alone, the public almost always prevails. After we are dead, the pretense that we may somehow be protected against the world’s careless malice is abandoned. The branch of the law that putatively protects our good name against libel and slander withdraws from us indifferently. The dead cannot be libeled or slandered. They are without legal recourse.”

The truly strange evolution of this observation is the development of a class of people who feed off self-revelation as a career, or see public self-disclosure (absorption) as a useful avenue for career advancement. And the media, at the ready, laps it up. Famous for being famous.

The other oddity is that the government itself is, without circumspection, joining in with alacrity, insinuating itself into public discourse as a looming unseen presence, adding itself to the crowd of commercial interests that see the public as a predator sees its prey. Collecting information they call it.

About journalism Malcolm writes:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

There is truly a courageous spirit inhabiting Janet Malcolm.

Netflix: Longmire, Jack Taylor; A-ha video and Flat Spin

Posted in music, pop culture, writers-poetry on May 24th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Netflix: Longmire, Jack Taylor; A-ha video and Flat Spin

This music video is considered by many the best of all time:

It’s interesting that it is more graphic in feel, than slick; hand-drawn in appearance, and traditional / romantic in its story telling; rather than the many highly produced, angry, hard, robo-attitude vids served up as cool in what followed. Well directed, it won all sorts of awards. This was back in the mid-80s.

I’ve heard the song, but knew nothing about this Norwegian band, A-ha, until reading this thread at ask.metafilter.



Of note on Netflix: Longmire

We stumbled on this ten episode drama at Netflix and it turned out to be just great.

A Wyoming sheriff and his big city homicide tough grrrl sidekick sort out the dark corners of the small town they police. The Native American “res”, reservation, abutting the town, provides a natural abrasive quality to the drama. A lot of anger just below the surface.

In particular the editing, directing and cinematography was fluid and exciting. The acting, and casting, were so well done. Right down to the secretary in the sheriff’s office. Even Lou Diamond Phillips, who has not been one of our favorites, has found a great part, which he runs with joyously. Phillips loves the part and it shows.



Also of note an excellent Irish cop drama on Netflix, Jack Taylor. The lead actor, Iain Glen, said he wanted the part because it reminded him of Nicholson in Chinatown, a part he wished he could have played. Glen does himself proud. Very gritty and dark, Jack Taylor gets bounced around in this hardscrabble drama.



And finally, a book to recommend, although we are not quite finished: Flat Spin by David Freed. Freed was a reporter and has achieved the goal of many journalists, writing an entertaining novel. The aeronautical expertise and witty dialog are great enhancements. The lead character is cranky, like Rockford, and finds himself, again, like Rockford, pursuing a case he really doesn’t want any part of.

A characteristic of contemporary media culture is witty, sarcastic dialog, with many pop culture references.

Adam Grant on Charlie Rose

Posted in ideas, pop culture on May 9th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Adam Grant on Charlie Rose

Adam Grant was on Charlie Rose recently talking about his new social science idea book, “Give and Take”; the takeaway, so to speak, is give and you shall receive. Win-win.

As he presented on Charlie Rose, Grant reminded me of a local critic’s remark about the performer Michael Feinstein, “you shouldn’t sing and smile at the same time”. But, smiles or no, Grant is upbeat and it is pleasant to listen to such people, if sometimes slightly mind-numbing. Grant is, after all, affirming the received notions of decent behavior, which are as usual, more violated than adhered to. But can it hurt to affirm virtue again?

Grant’s advising giving (helpfulness really) rather than taking, flies in the face of capitalism’s / politics’ winning (getting rich, victory in elections) at any cost – it has a social utility. You approve of Grant’s social science idea, because, why not? Grant does affirm that his acceptance by the business community is predicated on his ideas earning more money for the company store. And Grant accepts those standards…hmmm.

Too often though, niceness is something worn on the sleeve, an extension of ego, and generates cynicism when it is announced – often self-righteously. Remember Larry David’s character on his cable show outraged that Ted Danson ran around telling everyone that he had contributed to the building of a hospital wing anonymously, while Larry gave anonymously as well, but told no one?

If Gordon Gecko was a villain for saying, “greed is good,” Adam Grant must be the guru of what used to be called niceness; lately, like “liberal”, the word “nice” has become vitiated with…other things, most painfully instantiated by condescending media / journalist types, who want us to know they are nice but don’t much care if they are objective – they are above all that.

These days niceness more often than not refers to giving special favor and understanding to one group perceived as a victim group and pretty much ignoring other groups that might be the direct bill payers; and the niceness does not extend to an expectation of the recipients – no generosity is expected of them. So you have bigots who deplore bigotry. And nice folk who denigrate with virulence, and what they feel is impunity, because they are nice.

The best thing about Grant’s emphasis on helpfulness is that it breaks the paradigm of the status obsessed hierarchy, where those who have received conventional status markers disdain anyone they determine as being on a lower rung – status for such people is seen as a value marker for another human being; Grant’s ideas firmly reject those who are only interested in colleagues they feel are equal in rank. Grant says: help everyone and stop sniffing for social position before you extend your generosity.

I remember reading about a small town in France which saved more Jews during WWII than any other, in that anti-Semitic country. It was because the religious leader in the town led the group to their courage, at existential risk of the whole town’s lives, to do the right thing. They themselves were immigrants, from, I believe, Belgium; they had known great suffering and discrimination. They learned from their experience. It is the character of those who lead groups which finally most influences the behaviour of their fellows.

Mad Men Season 5 on Netflix

Posted in pop culture on March 28th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Mad Men Season 5 on Netflix

We just finished viewing Mad Men Season 5, which we came close to bingeing on, as Netflix only posted it recently. It is such an engrossing, well done series. The acting, directing, writing, are all done by people who care about their “product”.

Nearly every scene carries emotional weight. The interactions are often emotionally, effectively disturbing, as good movies can sometimes disturb you. Weiner understands you don’t need special effects or fashionable distortions of story to keep the audience rapt.

With all that said the hollowness of the enterprise still bothers me. The characters are cardboard representations of societal stereotypes.

Another issue is “authenticity”. It is as though Weiner thinks if every detail were not correct about the era it would not be as good a show. He did not have to define the show as a Classic Comics journey through the recent pop culture past in America. But Mad Men is so obsessed with being surface authentic that it loses depth and human truth. You can hear the distracting ping of obsessive accuracy way too often.

Weiner and crew tell stories so well, and write character interactions so well, that they really did not need the prop of “surface correctness” to achieve authenticity. Given the chosen predicate of Mad Men though, with thin characters walking through a Disneyland of the horrible past, Mad Men is forced to resolve serious issues without applying serious weight to the issues – a default of pop media. Characters don’t reveal their essential humanity in the dialectic of drama, they, in soap opera fashion, go from crisis to crisis.

The real problem though is that the show ingratiates itself to contemporary audiences, making them feel superior to those bad old times. We have come so far and aren’t we great – look at how dumb people were before we came along. Mad Men expresses a sickly solicitousness, a winking flattery to the audience, assuming pre-approval for shared superiority. In the art world, there are some artists who do this, thinking they are insulated from scrutiny by the contemporary correctness of their views – assured of their seriousness by choice of attitude or subject matter.

(One funny outcome is that though the show is heavy handed in its condemnation of the past, Mad Men has created contemporary fashions based on what they supposedly condemn; watching a World War 11 movie and running out to buy a Hitler costume would be the paradoxical analogy. Mad Men has lines of goods milking those terrible times.)

When you like a show you feel more strongly about its disappointments. One is often moved by Mad Men, but we are being condescended to as well.

Downton Abbey: Season 3 Finale

Posted in ideas, pop culture on February 17th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Downton Abbey: Season 3 Finale

The Downton Abbey episode last week left us questioning what we had done with two hours of our life. It seemed to be rolling to a full halt before it was over.

Tonight’s Season 3 finale stirred the pot sufficiently to make it an interesting show again; a phenomenon of sorts. I wondered after it was over if PBS saw this as ingratiating itself with conservatives with money. If it was an outlier meant to generate funding.

From what I’ve read, ideologues don’t approve the show as it could be seen to affirm traditional values and a class system. It humanizes people stuck in a social structure that appears oppressive.

Can’t really argue with that completely. But are corporate employees really not in a forced servitude themselves, if not as outwardly apparent? Economics is a harsh taskmaster.

At any rate, this last two hours of Season 3 was almost transgressive in its rejection of irony, its affirmation of sentimentality. Downton’s romanticism reminds us of another time and its worth. They do a good job of affirming the values of honor, of personal consideration, of social structure and enduring relationships. For a contemporary, their lives would feel stultifying and false. But that would always be true of people looking at another time. It’s an archaeology of another realm; a sociology that is as unavailable to the contemporary imagination as dark matter.

What more harmonizes with Downton Abbey than the prissiness of political correctness and the herd mind of our own so very superior age?

House of Cards: Brit and US

Posted in politics, pop culture on February 10th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on House of Cards: Brit and US

You’ve got to give it to Netflix. Their going full bore, with an independent production of House of Cards; their offering it, at least the first 13 episodes, all at once. Impressive, in conception and execution. You go Netflix.

The BBC House of Cards was wicked. At least, that was how we remembered it. So we’ve begun watching it again after binge watching the newly released Netflix version.

Thirteen episodes (and more to come) of Kevin Spacey being an American Old FU. That was the character’s name, a political whip as well, in the English version: Francis Urquhart.

We were prepared not to like the American version, but it turned out, after several doubts were quelled, to be very good. The writing is sharp, the characterizations darker in a way very different from the Brit version; in general, more frankly seamy, less surrealistic. The directing and production values of current high quality.

This is a different time, more is allowed and expected on TV dramas, and the American political stage is so much larger and more disturbing. The writer of the novels, Michael Dobbs, an advisor to Thatcher, is now a member of the House of Lords. Baron Mike is a very clever fellow. He understands the Machiavellian lurking just beneath the surface in politics and is devilish in taking it one step further.

Spacey would not have been my choice for the part, although the producers said he was their first choice, as was the rest of the cast. Spacey has an amorphous presence and a purring, voice-over quality to his speech that lacks Ian Richardson’s flintiness. But Spacey finally managed to slither satisfyingly, adopting the reptilian stink eye.

Kate Mara, the 24 geek grrrl, is very good as the at-least-as-ambitious-as-everybody-else blogger / reporter. Everybody is a careerist zealot, everybody ruthless, no good guys. Just what you like in pop entertainment. House of Cards satisfies that cynicism we have about politics, politicans and the “media power elite.”

But that is the real problem in updating the story and resetting it in America – they left out the obvious references to Obama, to the American media. The pathological symbiosis between those two players in real life produced a brain-dead journalism in the last two elections; a celebrity press without honor and a self-absorbed individual, with no leadership skills, winning the presidency, a second time no less, in one of the dirtiest campaigns on record.

As an example: Did you see Steve Kroft’s Obama interview on Sixty Minutes? This interview was paradigmatic of the current political mess, where ideas are not challenged nor discussed; a spectacle of journalistic self-immolation. The whole circumstance begs for parody.

Mara’s character should have been a very young NYT “reporter,” acting instrumentally as a campaign propaganda minister. Just like in real life. There could then have been an old style Ben Bradlee type appalled at what his newsroom had become; appalled at the support higher-ups offered the superficiality. The hardly virtuous past meets the poisonous present.

I don’t think those Ben Bradlee types exist anymore in the American media, which is really a celebrity press, good at erecting media personality constructs, not good at critical thinking.

Eugene’s Gogol Bordello: Ecstatic Trance

Posted in music, pop culture on January 4th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Eugene’s Gogol Bordello: Ecstatic Trance

We’ve been listening a lot to Gogol Bordello. A Netflix movie, “Gogol Bordello: Non Stop,” offers a great glimpse into the band and its spirit.

We first heard GB on Kimmel. Either you immediately take to them, or not. I can’t understand not. A mixture of innocence and artworld jadedness, ecstatic trance energy and pagan formlessness, the band is an original. Eugene Hütz, in finding form in all this, is some kind of genius.

Gogol Bordello’s smart, manic energy, mixes many influences into something genuinely new – you sort of give up looking for individual threads and just smile. They are called a Gypsy band, but there are many folk, traditional and punk influences. One member of the band came from the Klezmatics. Oren Kaplan, no longer with the band, looks like he is related to Mel Brooks and plays the accordion and guitar.

In the documentary, Kaplan called up band leader Eugene and said, “Hello you M@#$F@#$ bastard, Jew wannabe…” Another older man who plays violin is from the island currently under dispute between Japan and Russia, and has a classical background (Oren Kaplan plays classical guitar as well); the mix of musicians has the unifying intelligence of Eugene Hütz, turning it into one joyous matzo ball of Romany energy.

One good decision was made after another in the formation of the band. After Hütz’s birthday party on the lower east side the canny bar owner asked Hütz if he wanted a once a week gig. A smash. Eugene realized that the kids who came to his concerts saw it as a chance to be part of the show. He gives those kids credit, saying that they set the precedent for the fun-bordering-mania that signifies this transformational, influential band. But it was Hütz who had the brains to see what worked and encourage it.

Hütz calls himself a cultural refugee. The overflowing joy he feels in his freedom in America, to perform and rejoice on stage, reminds me of Chaim Soutine’s overwhelming rapturous swirls as he broke the stricture against image making in his orthodox household. Freedom releases energy.

Toward the end of the documentary Hütz says that people ask him if he is going to make it. He said the media swallows the connection popular artists have to the public and turns them into celebrities, separated from their mother lode: the energy of pop culture. He said that he had made it; he is doing something he loves.

“Hello America, love you like somebody’s wife…”, says Eugene Hütz.