7/28/2008 12:48:06 PM
Flipping through channels a while ago, I stopped on an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, revamped with menacing faces and mega muscles. Their newly designed image, devoid of the friendly smiles characteristic of the late-eighties version, made me question why 4Kids Entertainment, the owners of said turtles, felt the urge to modernize these much-loved reptiles with ‘tude.
The Ninja Turtles aren’t the only ones to get a makeover. American Greetings Co. has glammed up Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears. D.A. Kolodenko, writing for San Diego CityBeat, describes the new, slimmed-down, cell phone-toting Strawberry Shortcake as a “ripe and sexy little 21st-century confection.” The Care Bears were redesigned in 2007 with “less belly fat and longer eyelashes.” Sleek and sinister, slim and sexy—are these the characteristics that are emblematic of our modern culture? If anything, I think the eco-conscious Captain Planet deserves a comeback.
So why are companies reinventing old cartoon characters instead of designing new ones? According to Kolodenko, playing off of parents’ nostalgia has proven to be a safer investment than creating unknowns in our poorly functioning economy—Strawberry Shortcake has brought in $2.5 billion since 2003.
In an attempt to get ahead of the game, Kolodenko rounded up some lesser-known characters to see how their modern selves could lend some big bucks to corporations. Among forgotten favorites like the Wuzzles and the Herculoids, the heartrending story of the Biskitts comes to light:
Biskitts—Hanna-Barbera’s “smallest dogs in the world” guarded a treasure in a castle in a swamp on a tiny island. The island was swallowed up by Hurricane Katrina, and most of the Biskitts drowned. The only remaining Biskitt, Mooch, lives on the streets of New Orleans, mooching biscuits and mumbling to himself about the “g*ddamn Smurfs.”
Won't somebody give that sad mutt a makeover?
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7/28/2008 12:21:25 PM
One of my favorite outdoor artists, undercover photographer JR, has posted images from his new project in Cartagena, Spain. JR, best known for his earlier projects Face2Face and Women Are Heroes, “transforms his pictures into posters and makes open space photo galleries out of our streets.” He also posted a video documenting the Cartagena project here.
(Thanks, Wooster Collective.)
UPDATE (8/21/08): JR has posted cool new images from Rio de Janeiro.
7/28/2008 11:38:38 AM
Museum guards spend untold hours gazing at the artwork in their care, so it's unsurprising that an art critics sometimes lurks behind the name tag and the impassive expression.
Or at least that's the assumption underlying Esopus magazine's “Guarded Opinions,” which features an interview with a museum guard in each issue. In its spring 2008 issue, Esopus (article not available online) talks with Corcoran Gallery of Art guard Berhanu Taffa about his work. When Taffa took the Corcoran job four years ago, he dreaded the long days on his feet. Then he started following docent-led tours and reading about various art movements. With new exhibitions opening every three or four months, Taffa has frequent opportunities to study new pieces. “Other than the standing, it’s a really great place,” says Taffa.
Claude Monet’s Willows of Vetheuil is one of Taffa’s favorite pieces in the Corcoran’s permanent collection. “I guess if you had an extensive knowledge of art, you could say, ‘I like the way he uses his brush here,’ or talk about the texture, that kind of thing,” says Taffa. But it doesn’t take a formal art education for Taffa to enjoy Willows. “I can almost picture myself with the artist, sitting next to him as he’s painting. It makes me feel peaceful, independent.”
Taffa can’t lose himself in his reverie too deeply, though, since misbehaving visitors abound. “People always try to touch the art,” says Taffa. “They know the rules, they know they shouldn’t, but they do it anyway.”
Image by Charlotte Claeson, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/25/2008 4:30:55 PM
With its complex moral dilemmas and dystopian vision, The Dark Knight is an unlikely summer blockbuster and unquestionably dour as a superhero movie—but it’s still performing ridiculously well at the box office and with critics.
Some of the commentary is inevitably political, framing the film as an overt 9/11 allegory. Andrew Klavan takes things a step further in the Wall Street Journal, making a favorable comparison between the latest iteration of Batman and the Bush administration’s absolutist approaches to geopolitics, applauding the Caped Crusader for demonstrating the same decisive, nuance-free heroism that Bush supposedly does.
What Klavan seems to be missing is that The Dark Knight portrays Batman as a deeply conflicted and flawed antihero; the film excels at illustrating the moral ambiguities inherent in fighting crime or governing a populace.
On his blog, Andrew Sullivan provides an articulate rebuttal to Klavan, ultimately focusing on the failures of Bush’s cowboy swagger, use of torture, and with-us-or-against-us version of diplomacy. Sullivan concludes that those who can’t or won’t do nuance are missing the point—perhaps deliberately.
Image adapted from a photo by Yosi:), licensed by Creative Commons.
7/24/2008 11:19:03 AM
Moneyland, the new album by bluegrass legend Del McCoury, is a scathing indictment of the rampant corruption and greed in America today. The album features both classic bluegrass standards and newly recorded songs, with guest appearances by Merle Haggard, Tim O’Brien, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Bruce Hornsby, and Gillian Welch.
Having grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania, McCoury has witnessed the decline of traditional rural life in America, but as the consummate gentleman, he isn’t trying to influence people’s politics. He’s just calling attention to the fact that “many working folks all across America are in a tough spot.” For the latest episode of the UtneCast I spoke with McCoury about Moneyland, politics, and rural life.
You can listen to the interview below, or to subscribe to the UtneCast for free through iTunes, click here.
Interview with Del McCoury: Play Now
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7/18/2008 5:36:18 PM
The 8th annual international Bicycle Film Festival (BFF) concluded its Minneapolis leg this past weekend with a hefty roster of screenings at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. For Twin Cities residents, Saturday served as a bittersweet goodbye to the venue, which officially shuttered operations at the end of June.
The BFF screens its first films tonight in Los Angeles, and gets rolling this Wednesday in San Francisco, before moving on to Chicago and Boston during the month of August. After that, the jet-setting festival will travel to Toyko, Austin, London, Vienna, Zurich, Paris, Sydney, Melbourne, and Milano—before finishing its run this December back in Portland, Oregon. Here are some of this past weekend’s cinematic highlights—many of which citizens of next-up cities can partake in:
Road to Roubaix
, a 2008 documentary directed by a pair of Davids (Deal and Cooper), tells the story of one of the world’s most brutal road races: the 160-mile Paris-Roubaix, which, as the name suggests, winds north from the City of Lights toward the industrial town of Roubaix, traveling along unforgiving cobblestone roads. Not all riders finish the historic race, but those who do complete the course in a single, grueling day. (The bikes take so much abuse, the filmmakers note, they’ll never again be ridden professionally.) Road to Roubaix relies on the triumph-of-human-spirit trope, but fairly so—one look at the hefty chunk of stone bequeathed to the victor, and it’s clear that riding in the Paris-Roubaix at all is a Herculean feat. Watch it for: the holy crap factor.
See the Road to Roubaix trailer here:
The Six-Day Bicycle Races
, directed by Mark Tyson, is a jaunty romp through the origins of track racing, the jaw-dropping endurance cycling races that drew sell-out crowds to Madison Square Garden in the1920s. This sport phenomenon of the American Jazz Age required pairs of (handsomely paid) riders, one of whom was always on the track, to zoom about in a brutal, non-stop, no-holds-barred contest to accrue the most mileage. Hollywood and gangster glitterati would sweeten the pot for impromptu sprints by offering extra cash premiums—known as “prems”—to the winners, but the real cash was in the big race, where superstar cyclists earned enormous purses and ageless glory. Watch it for: geezers’ recollections of the sort of glamorous heyday you and I will likely never know.
The Urban Bike Shorts program offers a variety of views of cycling in the city. King of Skitch ought to be mentioned if only for the awesome, unexpected ending. (Watching bike messenger Felipe Robayo hang onto the back of a sports car and fly through New York City traffic isn’t bad either.) Pterodactyl “Polio” begins with a well-worn concept—the lone bicycle wheel, bouncing down the road—but rises to deliver a creative spin on the idea. The Trunk Boiz entertain in their music video Scraper Bikes, which is pronounced scrape-er not scrap-er, and explained here. Raven and the Bicycle Angel tracks a new biker’s determination to win the heart of (or just even a minute of conversation with) his bike-riding crush. And Fast Friday—at 27 minutes the “feature” of the bunch—does a respectable job documenting the rise of Seattle’s youth bike culture. Watch the program for: more track stands than you can shake a stick at.
Image courtesy of Kelly Riordan.
7/18/2008 4:24:11 PM
The famous collage of Barack Obama looking pensively over the word “hope” is on the auction block today with a current bid of $80,000. The piece is by artist Shepard Fairey, the man behind the “André the Giant Has a Posse” stickers that later evolved into the “Obey” street art.
The money from the action won’t go to Barack Obama’s campaign. Instead, it'll be routed to hip hop mogul Russell Simmons’ Rush Philanthropic “Art for Life” charity event. The organization is dedicated to bringing art to disadvantaged urban youth, but the auction seems to have tapped into a cultural trend that isn’t necessarily altruistic.
“It's a nice crossover between fine art and propaganda,” Alex W. Smith, an art specialist for the Phillips de Pury & Co. auction house told the Wall Street Journal. Clearly the excitement behind the Obama campaign is inflating the price. And there’s no doubt that most of the people in the Wall Street Journal article are looking at the collage as an investment, rather than art for art’s sake. But I think there’s something else that makes the collage more valuable.
I think that photo perfectly captures what the Onion calls Obama's “Looking-Off-Into-Future Pose.” According to the Onion, “advisers say this creates the illusion that Obama is looking forward to a bright future, while the downturned corners of his lips indicate that he acknowledges the problems of the present.” And that can translate into big money.
(Thanks, Kanye West.)
UPDATE: There’s about 2 days left on the auction and the bidding is up to $108,000.
7/18/2008 11:10:35 AM
We need more sing-alongs. Before you start picturing barbershop quartets or the Utne Reader staff kumbaya-ing around a campfire, know that the idea comes from musician and producer Brian Eno writing for Resurgence. And he's not writing about office bonding or spangled matching outfits. He wants a capella groups, like the one he started a few years ago, to spring up among friends, without the goal of reaching the stage or recording studio. Giving up the expectation of performing, writes Eno, “gives us the freedom to get it all wrong.” But the activity still has all the benefits of song, including happy old age, according a Scandinavian study, healthy lungs, and an immediate “sense of levity and contentment.”
To help readers start a capella groups of their own, Eno offers a few tips. First, choose songs with chords common to blues, rock, or country, “the same chords you hear at the beginning of ‘Louie Louie’ or ‘Wild Thing.’” Since the chord sequences are familiar, singers can improvise “without the risk of a catastrophic harmonic train-crash.”
Other important considerations include finding “vowel-rich” songs that are “rhythmically interesting,” and matching tones among singers. And on the practical level, Eno suggests providing drinks and snacks and warming up before singing.
“If I were asked to redesign the British educational system,” writes Eno, “I would start by insisting that group singing become a central part of the daily routine.” Just as Eno’s group never performs, neither would students be forced to. “You will do this every day, and you will never be examined on it.”
Image by Superbomba, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/11/2008 5:27:47 PM
Waffle Bike is a “fully weaponized, mobile, waffle-making machine.” It’s also the name of a short film—documenting the bike’s maiden voyage in search of chickens, naturally, to lay the eggs for the batter—that played last night as part of the Minneapolis leg of the Bicycle Film Festival. The “Fun Bike Shorts” program offered 15 films in all, most clocking in well under 10 minutes.
In Waffle Bike, a perfectly clipped narrator chirps out Waffle Bike’s features, which include a Honda Harmony en2500 generator, a 9-inch Norweigan waffle maker, a small refrigerator up front, a tape deck (which plays through three 8-inch, 25-watt, all-weather trumpet horn speakers made in China), and two 12-gauge homemade shotguns. The film is charming and disturbing and funny—and the bike is the work of Tom Sachs, an artist who is also credited as the film’s director along with the Neistat Brothers.
While I was watching the film—maybe the sight of a lingonberry-topped waffle made me hungry?—I couldn’t help but think that short film programs are like tasting menus, except better, because instead of plowing through a dozen courses all prepared by a single chef, you get an erratic and wild tour, each course crafted by a different individual. Waffle Bike was an obvious crowd pleaser, but there were other gems in the batch, such as Balorda, from directors Luca Bedini and Marco Brandoli, which chronicles a three-day, wildly costumed, bacchanal bike ride that takes place annually in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. “We only have Lambrusco. No Gatorade. We only have pork. No energy bars,” a caped commentator declares, as the camera cuts to a gigantic cauldron of shredded meat.
Also not to be missed: My First Time, by S.C. Durkin, which splices interview footage of people recalling, well, their first time, to great comedic effect. Faster from Jeff Stark is a slick, two-minute glimpse of a biker racing against a New York City subway train, and in Jim’s Lines, Patrick Trefz documents a rider who drags a rake behind his bicycle and constructs elaborate, transient art in the sand of a beach. The only real disappointment of the bunch was the closer: Standing Start, 12 minutes of footage of Olympian track sprinter Craig MacLean, over which a narrator dramatically recounts some sort of Odysseus-based tale. It was a stunning misfire at the end of a series of films that otherwise served to surprised and delight.
The Bicycle Film Festival continues tonight and tomorrow in Minneapolis, before heading westward to Los Angeles, next up in a roster of 14 more U.S. and international locations. If you can make it to one of the festival stops, do so. Otherwise, you’ll have to be satisfied watching Waffle Bike on the not-so-silver screen:
7/10/2008 3:59:55 PM
This Sunday, HBO airs the first episode of Generation Kill, a darkly funny and hyper-realistic miniseries about American soldiers on the eve of the Iraq invasion. The show was produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, the acclaimed creators of the police drama The Wire. For the latest UtneCast, I spoke with Susanna White, who directed four of the seven episodes of Generation Kill, about capturing the chaos and banality of the Iraq war and why being a British woman helped her depict testosterone-filled world of U.S. Marines.
To subscribe to the UtneCast through iTunes, click here, or just listen to the interview below.
Interview with Generation Kill Director Susan White: Hide Player | Play in Popup | Download
And to watch a preview from Generation Kill, click on the YouTube video below.
7/9/2008 12:54:31 PM
Because the Internet inspires encyclopedic research and archiving, it’s no surprise that online repositories like Wikipedia and Usenet have rendered no nugget of knowledge too arcane to be exhaustively catalogued by geeks in every field. This is especially true of music, where mp3s and file-sharing networks have allowed songs and albums to be stored and traded by collectors and connoisseurs.
Now some enterprising music archivists have created the Whitburn Project, an astoundingly ambitious endeavor 10 years in the making whose aim is nothing less than the total documentation of every popular song since the 1890s. It’s more than just a listing of pop charts—release date, label, chart position, duration, etc.—all arrayed in a huge 22-megabyte Excel spreadsheet. It’s also a Usenet-based audio archive collecting audio files of every song. That’s several illegal terabytes of more than 37,000 mp3s.
The value of this information to music critics and scholars is limited only by their imaginations. Andy Baio, who wrote about the Whitburn Project on his blog, published a fun analysis of one-hit wonders and chart longevity based on the data, and made a graph showing how the average length of a pop song has fluctuated over the decades. Meanwhile, the video blog Grabb.it has performed the valuable service of reminding those of us in the MTV Generation what videos we were watching instead of the news when, for example, the Challenger exploded.
This isn’t the first project of its kind (though it's far and away the most audacious). There’s the fun little site that tells you what song was No. 1 on the day you were born. (I’m not sure what cosmic significance there is to mine, which happens to be “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band.) Incomplete release data is available on Wikipedia’s Year in Music pages. And Billboard, which owns the rights to chart data, makes it available to the public on a very limited basis, with full charts accessible for a fee.
Which raises the question of legality: The Whitburn Project is breaking copyright laws by making proprietary Billboard chart data available without permission. (This is why the aforementioned blogs, and now this one, won’t post actual links to the project.) But it’s all easily available via Usenet (the pertinent newsgroups are listed in WFMU’s blog entry), so music geeks—and I mean that in the most flattering sense possible, being one myself—should check out this staggering mass of data while it’s still available.
Image by stevecadman, licensed by Creative Commons.
7/9/2008 12:51:04 PM
Cinema’s response to war has changed since Vietnam, Michael Bronski postulates in Z Magazine. For instance, the war in Iraq has been immediately made into documentaries (No End in Sight and Standard Operating Procedure), independent films (Redacted and Battle for Haditha), and even Hollywood productions (In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss), while it took years for many films to be made about Vietnam. Mainstream movies like Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now weren’t released until the late 1970s, almost a decade after the war ended.
Bronski credits Vietnam with influencing other film genres as well: The slasher film, beginning with Halloween in 1978, was created as an avatar for the senseless killing of American youth during the Vietnam War, and testosterone-swelling action hero films like Rocky (1976), Terminator (1974), and Die Hard (1988) were used to reassert our postwar nation’s masculinity, as if to say, “We could have won in Vietnam!”
Further, Bronski claims that the stoner buddy movie genre, with a new understanding of masculinity, was invented in response to the absurd man-movies emblematic of the “unholy three” (Willis, Schwarzenegger, and Stallone). Films like Dumb and Dumber, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Dude, Where’s My Car? exhibit an apolitical, peace-and-love sense of masculinity that is a direct backlash to action hero archetypes.
Bronski’s argument is interesting, but I believe he is ignoring some important, much earlier incarnations of this same sensitive masculinity—the two most prevalent examples being Harold Ramis’ Animal House and Stripes. Both of these films, released in 1978 and 1981, respectively, put goofball, slacker men in positions where they are confronted by archetypal masculinity. Further, in both of these films this masculinity is represented by military figures (ROTC Cadet Officer Niedermeyer in Animal House and Sergeant Hulka in Stripes). The characters use disarming and nonthreatening humor to combat aggression, much like modern-day stoner comedies. But, instead of remaining apolitical, the heroes in Ramis’ films are forced to face the warlike masculinity emblematic of Vietnam militarism, proving that nonviolence can be an answer.
Reading his article made me think of how we view masculinity in our modern time of war. If cinema is any refection, then our current perceptions equate masculinity with naïveté. Films like Jarhead and Stop-Loss present characters anxious to go to war, blinded by masculinity and a sense of duty, then humbled by the true nature of the conflict. Even stoner buddy movies like Harold and Kumar have ignorant über-masculine villains blinded by testosterone. The current trend seems to be that of peace and intelligence, which is itself a critique on war in general.
It’s impossible to say what, if any, genres will come in response to the current Iraq War, but it seems safe to say that glorified violent masculinity is no longer something to be admired; rather it is a manifestation of ignorance and last resorts.
(Image by Jurek Durczak, licensed under Creative Commons.)
7/3/2008 12:32:39 PM
Iranian documentaries are startlingly candid, coming from "an essentially totalitarian society," writes the documentary film magazine Point of View (article not available online). The trade-off: not all Iranian films at international festivals come with official approval, nor are they all allowed to be screened in Iran.
That tension doesn’t mean Iran’s government doesn’t applaud its filmmakers. On the contrary—At the opening of Tehran’s Cinema Verité documentary festival last October, reports Point of View, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance praised documentary filmmaking as “a method of uprising against a world in which the truth is denied.” He also called it “a readily understood language which can be used in the struggle against evil.”
The Iranian documentaries discussed are more modest and less cryptic than the minister’s statement, not to mention more revealing about Iranian society than the cultural minister might like. They give less-than-lofty glimpses into “individual experience” like incarcerated youth dealing with the effects of drug abuse (It’s Always Late for Freedom) and Iranian male-to-female transsexuals (the Sundance-screened Be Like Others). The films reminders viewers of Iranian citizens’ humanity and individuality, writes Point of View, “at a time when our everyday knowledge of Iran is predicated on cultural generalizations.”
Image by Hamed Saber, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/2/2008 5:18:05 PM
The phone sex world thrives on anonymity, on the ability of strangers to confess their innermost desires to a person both real and of their own creation. Phillip Toledano’s Phonesex project, featured in Mother Jones, lifts the veil on this interior world with a series of elegant, respectful portraits paired with text written by the subjects themselves.
The phone sex operators’ stories are quirky, amusing, insightful, and disturbing, but all of them reveal the complex personalities that are obscured by ads of airbrushed beauties entreating us to dash off into the bedroom and pick up the phone. They also reveal a great deal about their customers on the other end of the line and about the repressive cultural mores that make this industry so successful.
Toledano’s book is due out in September from Twin Palms. You can find more portraits on the project’s website, along with the full subjects’ complete writings.
Image courtesy of Phillip Toledano.
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